A Guide to Early 20th Century Art


The Evolution of Modern Art

The close of 19th century marked the end of The Golden Age in Britain.

The Industrial Revolution that brought radical changes to manufacturing, social conditions and communications in Britain, Europe and America.

This rapidly developing industrial landscape fostered revolutionary changes in the early 20th century. New technologies demanded new products and processes to support them and a new vocabulary to describe them; as the technologies of the digital age would a century later.

The telephone revolutionised communication; conversations were conducted remotely and international communication became a reality, although it was first thought that the telephone would simply be used as a business tool. This is paralleled by the impact of the World Wide Web in the 1990’s.

Intended as a means for universities to communicate, the internet rapidly became universally popular; email became another tool for social interaction. As mobile telephone technology developed, people increasingly use hand held devices not only to communicate through speech, text and email but as a source of information and entertainment.

New methods of communication, manufacture and transport in the early 20th century changed the way people produced and transported goods, did business and interacted with the work environment.

The electrification factories enabled the increase in efficiency and productivity, and effectively lengthened the working day; seasonality no longer limited working hours.

At the start of the 21st century, digitalisation means business is increasingly conducted electronically; by email, Skype and conference calls and data previously sent by surface or airmail is transferred in seconds. Digitalisation means an increasing number of businesses employ remote workers. The digital world does not recognise time zones and the working week has become a 24 hour, 7 days a week environment.

The reach enabled by digitalisation has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including our leisure time in much the same way as the working practices dictated by factory life in the early 20th century affected the whole community. Music, television and film can be downloaded instantly, family and friends contacted throughout the world and vast amounts of information accessed freely.

Innovation in the early 20th century changed the way we lived by moulding society around progress. The same can be said of our 21st century lives.

There are many examples of innovative products, materials and processes from the early 20th century which have has a profound and far reaching affect on our 20th century lives, of which these are examples:

The Aeroplane

The first aeroplane capable of powered flight was invented by the Wright brothers in 1903.

1905; the Wright brothers fly a distance of 25 miles in 38 minutes.
1905; the Wright brothers fly a distance of 25 miles in 38 minutes.

The Assembly Line

The first assembly line production process was pioneered by Ransome Eli Olds, a car manufacturer, in 1901and later developed by Henry Ford for the production of the Model T Ford in 1913. This form of mass production was enhanced by the electrification of factories in 1910.

Ford assembly line, 1913
Ford assembly line 1913


The process of electrification started in America in 1900 and by 1930, approximately 80% of factories used electricity for power making the manufacturing process more efficient, cheaper and cleaner.

Lenin brings electrification to the Soviet Union, photograph by Gustav Gustavovich Klutis 1920
Lenin brings electrification to the Soviet Union, photograph by Gustav Gustavovich Klutis 1920

New materials

Belgian chemist Leo Hendrik Baekland invented Bakelite in 1907, an inexpensive, non flammable, versatile form of plastic which quickly became popular in the manufacture of a wide range of products from the telephone to false teeth.

A new material for a new age: “Bakelite, the material for a thousand uses”

In 1916, the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo created the first work of art from the plastic material, “Rhodoid”.

“Tete No. 2” by Naum Gabo 1916


The rise of the modern, urban city began in many parts of the world including America at the start of the 20th century. The new technologies in communications and transport did much to shape the pattern of these cities and how they were distributed across continents.

Newcastle, 1910
The building of bridges, roads, quays and yards as part of the transport infrastructure in Newcastle,1910

War & Peace

However, when exploring the context within which Modern art evolved, it becomes apparent that innovation and cultural change do not happen within a vacuum; that any change is a consequence of, and largely influenced by, the circumstances within which it occurs.

It is only through the exploration of the contexts and circumstances that surround any developments within the Arts that we can begin to evaluate our perceptions of their significance.

Creative artifacts are a reflection of the context within which they are produced. For example, the formation of the Dada art movement is bound to the outbreak of war in Europe. Essentially, an informal international movement, the birth of Dada was directly linked to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The movement was a protest against nationalist and colonialist interests.

Dadaists believed these represented the basic cause of the war. Additionally the movement was a protest against cultural and intellectual conformity, in society in general and art in particular.

The Dada movement was made up of a loose collection of artists who consciously rejected the values and aesthetics of contemporary capitalism.  Dada was essentially a protest movement which employed elements of nonsense, irrationality and anti-establishment protest in its output which encompassed visual, literary, and sound media.

This included the use of collage, sound poetry, cut-up writing, and sculpture. Through these media, Dadaist artists expressed their abhorrence of violence, opposition to war and rejection of nationalism.

The increase popularity of the Dadaist movement in post war Europe is a direct result of the group’s activities, designed to demonstrate its perceptions of the futility of that conflict and reflect their growing dissatisfaction and ultimate rejection of the institutions that led to mass slaughter in Europe.

The fundamentally nihilistic, left wing, Dadaist movement created the context within which Surrealism would flourish, supported by the psychoanalytical theories of Jung and Freud and art work of Breton, Miro and Dali.

Ironically, war is regarded as the most powerful driver behind innovation and change; in particular, technical and scientific progress; and was consequently, celebrated by the Italian Futurist movement.

New materials and improved processes such as stainless steel, artificial fibres and Chrome plating, while they would lead to an expansion of the materials available to the artists and craftsmen during the Art Deco movement, must be considered within the context that also produced machine guns and high explosives. The extent of the casualties and degree of injury to individuals is a direct consequence of these innovations.

However, it is also the case that advances in medical science enabled surgeons to perform unprecedented reconstructive surgeries, such as facial reconstruction, artificial limb manufacture, skin grafting and blood transfusions. These procedures were developed to deal with the massively increased number of severe trauma cases that resulted from the conflict.

Consequently, living examples of the horrors of war appeared on the streets of post war Europe, and were recorded in the work of Otto Dix and his contemporaries, leading to the social unrest that fathered Dadaism.

Otto Dix, “Invalids of War Playing Cards” 1920
Otto Dix, “Invalids of War Playing Cards” 1920

Similarly, the science of psychoanalysis was developed through the work of early pioneers such as Charles Myers and W. H. Rivers as a direct result of their attempts to deal with “Shell Shock”. Their identification of mental conditions such as hysteria, disorientation, delusion, limb paralysis and loss of speech as the result of physical trauma informed the work of the early Surrealists.

Indeed, Andre Breton who had trained in both medicine and psychiatry and would later write the first Surrealist Manifesto, served in a hospital where he used Freud’s psychoanalytic methods with traumatised soldiers.

Max Ernst, “The Elephant Celebes” 1921.
Max Ernst, “The Elephant Celebes” 1921.

Consequently, to begin to gain an understanding of the context within which Modern art was conceived, we must view it from several perspectives and as a convergence of influences, not as an event in isolation.

However, when considering any evidence presented from the perspective of a contemporary commentator, we must also be aware of the context within which the commentator offers this opinion; that the commentator is themselves subject to bias dictated by their circumstances; Otto Dix’ experience of being wounded undoubtedly had a profound effect on his art.

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