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.
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
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
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.