The next time you pick up a can opener to open soup, take a moment to consider the colors of the can, its machined shape, the uniformity of the print. Is this art? Andy Warhol asked this question during a period we call Mid-Century Modern, loosely the mid-1940s to late 1960s.
Warhol and his fellow (although dramatically different in style) artist Jackson Pollock, may be the most prominent figures of the period, but Mid-Century Modern is as diverse in style as it is in form. The movement sprang from the Modernist period of the early twentieth century and the subsequent movements that it spawned, such as the Bauhaus School of Germany.
Modernism Shapes a New Vision
If you’ve ever found yourself staring at a Picasso (not the drawn faces of his Blue Period or the pinks of his Rose Period) but Cubism, say Guernica, that strange array of floating heads, of misshapen body parts and animal heads in grays and blacks.
If you ever stood there contemplating it and thought to yourself, I’m not sure what’s going on here, you’re not alone. Or maybe you’ve flipped through a book of Georgia O’Keeffe prints and wondered if there’s more there than flowers.
These are just two famous figures of the movement we’ve labeled Modernism, and your reaction is not unintended. Modernism rose out of the chaos and destruction of World War I. And while there was a new spirit to remake the world driven by technology, there was also a sense of dislocation and distrust in the societies that had caused war.
A sense of a broken world broken where the individual couldn’t rely on the outside brought Modernists to react against realistic art that had dominated for centuries. Radical experimentation represented a new aesthetic, but also suggested a subjective view.
Abstraction denied an objective/collective vision of the world. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution and technology offered new materials as mediums for art and innovative ways for the artist to consider the world. The bold use of colors, the incorporation of geometric shapes and straight lines, and the repetition of patterns all became hallmarks of Modernist art.
Experimentation Meets Utility
As the mid-century approached, abstraction still dominated art and geometric shapes still captivated artistic attention, but new schools of thought, such as the Bauhaus School, embraced the unity between function and form. Mid-century artists began to create work that was sculptural and functional. Perhaps this is why the work of Charles Eames is so closely associated with mid-century art.
Eames produced furniture made of bent plywood and plastic shaped to fit the body’s curves. His materials reflected the new products of technology and his combinations of reds, creams, and blacks hinted at the synthetic rather than the natural. Another furniture maker, Paul Evans, used his training in cabinetry and metalwork to create sculpted furniture out of pewter, copper, steel, and bronze.
Harry Bertoia, who also made furniture, created sculpture from welded metal that accented geometric shapes and lines and united the natural with the industrial in his series of metallic bushes. In fact, sculpted wall hangings became popular period pieces.
Wood, glass, and metal formed curves and waves out of geometric shapes or were shaped into blocky rugged forms. Even dining became a medium for art when Russel Wright decided the table was central to the American home. Some of his most notable pieces are clean-shaped, pastel china vessels that model the unity between beauty and function.
A Contained Wildness
Henri Matisse, whose work spanned the Modernist Period and continued into the mid-twentieth century until his death in 1954, created a movement known as Fauvism. In its daring and unnatural use of colors to create landscapes you will find the embodiment of mid-century art.
Fauvism translates from French to “wild ones” and yet there is a contained wildness at work. The functional nature of the buildings, the quiet natural surroundings of trees and rivers are transformed by deep reds, blues, and gold. In Matisse’s modern world synthesized color truly finds harmony with functional landscape in which we live.