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Avant Gardes (Living the Twenties #AtoZChallenge 2020)

We call them Avant Gardes of the 1900s, but they were actually born in the 1800s and then exploded after the end of WWI.

Many and varied as they were, all of these artistic movements refused tradition to seek a new language, a new way to describe the world around them and often did so in an impetuous, alternative, sometimes shocking way.

The Salon des Refusés

On May 17, 1863, the Salon des Refusés opened in Paris. It collected artworks that were rejected by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which held the prestigious Paris Salon every year. 

Salon des Refusés 1863
Salon des Refusés 1863

These rebellious artists sought a new way of expression by breaking away from the classic mode of fine arts. Most of them were activists involved in the attempt to shake and possibly change society using their arts as a tool for a social change.

The very name these artistic movements chose for themselves reveal their activism. The French term Avant-garde means vanguard or advance guard, and it’s a military term that designates the part of an army that goes forward ahead of the rest. It was probably first used by the influential thinker Henri de Saint-Simon, one of the forerunners of socialism, who saw arts as a powerful force of social change and innovation already in 1825. In his view, afterwards embraced by all the Avant Garde movements, artists should be the explorers who would show a new way to the rest of their people. 

The Avant Garde of the 1900s

Hannah Höch. Cut with the Kitchen Knife
Cut with the Kitchen Knife by Hannah Höch

The experience of WWI had been traumatic. Many historians point out as that experience was ‘inexpressible’ for the ones who suffered it. Many veterans, both men and women, chose silence because they thought nobody would understand what they felt. 

But among these young people, many were artists, and they did choose to try and express the epochal change. The new world that had emerged from WWI was also, in many respects, ‘inexpressible’ because nobody owned the language to express it. The old words, the old mediums, the old ways, all felt inadequate to express the new feeling, but also the new fears and insecurities that the earthquake of the Great War had created. 

Avant Garde artists chose to walk away from a naturalistic representation of reality, a faithful and tidy representation of the surface, to sink deep into the human soul and try to represent what was there. The feeling, more than the looks. 

All the Avant Garde movements used aggressive forms of representations to shock the public into thinking. Their violent colours and deformed shapes were designed to push the public to go beyond what they knew, explore a new dimension, try and find a new language. 

Avant Garde artists chose to walk away from a naturalistic representation of reality to sink deep into the human soul and try to represent what was there #AvantGarde Click To Tweet
Shock Troops Advance Under Gas by Otto Dix
Shock Troops Advance Under Gas by Otto Dix

Avant Gardes also chose unusual subjects. They started to represent what had been taboo in arts as well as society at large: sex (including homosexual relationships), illness, deformity. All that the public was unaccustomed and unwilling to see. Movements like Expressionism and Modernism produces artwork which subjects were the veterans with their ruined bodies or the effect of illness.

Art wasn’t just what was good and beautiful, but what was real, what people experienced every day and sometimes didn’t want to see. 

Because of this activism, this social involvement of so many Avant Garde artists, the Vanguards of the 1900s often influenced and involved themselves in politics and social movements. And because of their innovative language, they mostly stood against any conservative thinking. 

Their rebelliousness was ultimately their undoing. Born from the destruction and possible rebirth of the post-WWI years, none of them survived the repression of the pre-WWII era. At the outbreak of WWII, they had mostly died out.


WideWalls – Understanding the Significance of Avant-garde
Tate – Avant Garde

WideWalls – DADA Movement in Practice – From Collage to Readymade
Kdoutsiderart – Otto Dix: The ‘Madness? of Modern Warfare


  • Birgit
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 04:12

    Welcome to the start of The A to Z. The Avant- Garde was something I don’t think could truly have been what it is without the horrors of the First World War.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 1, 2020 at 09:04

      I agree. It existed even before, but it was only after the war the it really came into itself.

  • Tasha
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 09:29

    I have heard the term Avant Garde so many times, but never understood it’s history properly. Now it makes so much more sense. Thank you for enlightening me. Here’s to a great AtoZ
    Virginia’s Parlour – The Manor (Adult concepts – nothing explicit on blog)
    Tasha’s Thinkings – Vampire Drabbles

    • Post Author
      Posted April 1, 2020 at 11:44

      True eh? It was the same for me. I’ve always thought that this kind of art is not really for me, but after starting to research it in its own historical context, it makes a lot more sense.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 10:02

    Happy A to Z! I have been looking forward to this theme! 🙂
    We had Art class in high school for 6 years, proceeding chronologically, and yet we never made it to the avant garde… Such a pity.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 1, 2020 at 11:39

      I did attend art school for a year, but the Avant Gardes were never touched. And truly, I’m not sure I’d appreciate them as much as I do without the necessary historical knowledge. This is a movement that really makes sense in its own historical environment.

  • Raesquiggles
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 10:50

    Great start. I have feeling that there will be a new wave of Avante Garde art following this current global crisis. Countries are going to be traumatised and people will need a way to heal. My grandfather remained silent about his experiences after WW2, and to this day, his sons have little concrete knowledge of what he experienced because he was steadfast in his refusal to express it.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 1, 2020 at 11:42

      I understand that was a very common event. Same as for the survivors of the holocaust camps. I think it’s healing when we start to share, though, which is why I think you might be right about a possible resurgence of the Avant Garde.

  • Anagha Yatin
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 16:47

    Avante Garde is such a young phenomenon, no matter what century it belongs to. I could associate a lot with those artists for they wished to delve deeper into the skin and not just portray what meets the eye. The real story always lies beneath and in imperfections. And such stories must be told without any language barrier.
    Great start to my learning of the world a century before.

  • April Moore
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 16:58

    How fascinating. I’ve always liked 1920s Avant Garde, so it’s great to learn more about the origins of the movement!

  • Frédérique
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 18:30

    Very interesting post, and theme! Twenties is not an era I know well.
    Feel free to link your A post here at the A to Z Challengers Linky Party

    • Post Author
      Posted April 1, 2020 at 18:41

      Thanks, I’ve added my link.
      And, oh my goodness!!! I love all I’ve seen on your post! Hey, you started with the 1920s too 😉

  • Kristin
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 18:47

    I especially enjoyed the little video. I really like the way you twine the history of the times with your various topics.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 1, 2020 at 23:51

      I fell in love with the video too. It has kind of a 1920s vibe.

  • Jade Li
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 21:33

    Your post today is informative and very interesting. I didn’t realize their time to shine was between the wars. Makes me want to learn more. I wonder what art will spring from our current pandemic? Looking forward to tomorrow’s post!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 1, 2020 at 23:52

      Avant Garde is such an interesting topic. And there is so much to explore.

  • Nilanjana Bose
    Posted April 1, 2020 at 22:10

    I like the video too, very interesting. Without the WWI the twenties would not have produced the angsty and angry art it did. I’m wondering what kind of art will the global pandemic end up producing?

    Brilliant start to your A-Z series!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 1, 2020 at 23:53

      One can’t help but wonder what these times will bring. It will affect us deeply, that’s for sure.

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 2, 2020 at 05:09

    I love avant garde art and film, though I know it can be an acquired taste for some. It’s interesting to note one of the invented names so popular in the early decades of the USSR was Avangard. Its influence was felt in so many countries.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2020 at 08:37

      Noooo! I didn’t know that Avangard was a name in the USSR! But really, I think that, together with Germany, the USSR is probably where the Avant Gardes were more influential.

  • Rebekah Loper
    Posted April 2, 2020 at 05:32

    I honestly had not researched much at all about the origins of the term ‘avant-garde’. Wonderfully informative post, Sarah!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2020 at 08:38

      Thanks, Rebekah 🙂
      Researching history is a continuous discovery.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 2, 2020 at 15:00

    I wonder if this century will see a resurgence of the last century’s life in the 20’s — especially in regards to art… Great post!

    An A-Z of Faerie: Ankou

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2020 at 22:14

      I’m certainly seeing a lot of similarities already. In good and bad.

  • Nimi
    Posted April 2, 2020 at 15:01

    I was not aware of this interesting history of ‘avant gardes’. I just knew it as a noun and an adjective.
    This passion to create beauty despite all the destruction… there’s hope yet.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 2, 2020 at 22:15

      That’s maybe the most valuable lesson Avant Garde gives us.

  • Ninu Nair
    Posted April 2, 2020 at 15:43

    This was so informative for me…looking forward to more posts!

  • NotesinaBook
    Posted April 5, 2020 at 11:48

    Interesting post. Looking forward to reading more.

  • Namratha Varadharajan
    Posted April 11, 2020 at 20:07

    That was an interesting post! Their artistic expressions where particularly intriguing.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 12, 2020 at 15:16

      It’s takes a bit of getting to know them, but little by little, they have conquered me!
      Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂

  • alix
    Posted February 2, 2021 at 19:32

    Very interesting writing .. thanks for sharing and keep on going!

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