Understanding Modernity in Graphic Design

What does it mean “to be modern”? Is it enough to have a trendy haircut, a popular device, and follow the color patterns of own clothes? In the recent years, the modernity has acquired more a consumer form of an expression, where the concept was defined by the presence of those or other products and, not the least, the specific knowledge about them. The history of Graphic Design allows to see different interpretations of the concept “modernity” in terms of technological breakthroughs, movements, political decisions, individuals, inventions and works of art, as well as the evolution of the relationship between the image and the word throughout the twentieth century.

From the point of view of Katherine McCoy (Armstrong 219) in “American Graphic Design Expression” (1990), the graphic design has a perpetual internal opposition that consists in the struggle among business, craftsmanship, art, and commerce. The author also notes that if at the beginning of the 20th century the word has prevailed over graphics not only in the context of printing but also in the art in general, at the end of the century, the situation has changed dramatically.


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Perfectionism and the classical education of a culture have given rise to quite a straightforward expression of emotions, and in this case, the text is one of the simplest forms of it. The manifesto is one of the turning points of the 20th century, which was considered as an expression of modernity and literally was creating the history. For example, F.T. Marinetti in “The Futurist Manifesto” (1909) vividly embodied the mood and the current position of his time (Marinetti 25), rejecting the past and celebrating the headship of the industrial boom.

Developing modernization has become a prerequisite for this kind of applications, and the Manifesto has become a symbol of confidence and the future, which a priori meant to be modern. Then, this notion meant the abandonment of a utilitarianism, which has existed in society. Often these manifestos have contained the specific structure and character. In addition, it always called to something, whether it was the liberation of something or movement toward it. In many cases, not excluding this one, the manifestos have contained a reference to nationalism, fascism or other typical manifestations of extremist movements. “The Futurist Manifesto” anticipated the emergence of many similar texts such as “October Manifesto” (1905) and the following ones, which would often appear during the Russian Revolution of 1917, and would play a significant role as a literal call to action (Meggs and Purvis 76).

In terms of the graphic design, it is necessary to say that word at the beginning of the 20th century had an incredible force that was capable of making a person think without the aid of graphics, and, what is more importantly, to act. However, if “The Futurist Manifesto” has a negative connotation, reflecting the thoughts and ideas of the whole country, which was already covered by such negative phenomena as fascism, “Dada Manifesto” (1918) by Tristan Tzara is fundamentally different from it, nevertheless, being modern for its period (Tzara and Picabia 9).

Perhaps, due to the influence of similar texts, such flow as constructivism became modern and manifestos, in turn, less relevant. This happened at the beginning of 1920 and was continuing until the end of the 30s. Constructivism connected modernity with the rigor and accuracy of forms, with a predominance of clear geometric forms, concise and some monolithic nature. Without a doubt, this tendency was preceded by an industrialization and rapid technological growth throughout the world. In addition, the concept of constructivism implies not only the outward manifestation of rationality, but also the internal functionality, where the typical architecture buildings were the vivid examples of it, depicting the modernity of those years actually.

Communes, which were popular on the territory of the former countries of the Soviet Union and Germany, show a significant impact of the flow on the ordinary life. As for the graphic design, the word starts to give way to graphic, and it is manifested in such works as Black on black (1919) by one of the founders of constructivism Alexander Rodchenko (Elliot 312). The artist experimented with forms, creating something new, and considering any element as a fundamental opportunity for further action, which is a contemporary in its original form. Such work as Planes reflecting light (1920 -1921) also reflects notion of modernity, where such complex mechanical constructions as the cars are built from the simple materials and forms like triangles, circles, squares, hexagons, ellipses, and so on.

Similar works capture the essence of the constructivism, which consists in the requirement that any structure or mechanism should correspond to the concept of simplicity and functionality. Moreover, it is important to note that in this case, earlier the usual designations in the art have changed their meanings. For example, the work Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color (1921) vividly demonstrates it, using colors not as a tool by which artists create a picture, but as a work of art itself. That is, the color itself is worthy of attention because it significantly alters the perception of past art paradigm in general (Meggs and Purvis 317).

In addition to the various movements and tangible art works, a separate personality can also be the epitome of modernity. Such was Andy Warhol, not only thanks to his art, but also due to his whole life, too. Andy Warhol got the most popularity for his work Green Coca-Cola Bottles (1962), where he has depicted a lot of bottles of Coca-Cola in green tones. Most critics have ranked him immediately to such areas as pop art (McShine 57).

However, in my personal opinion, the works of Warhol do not belong to any particular stream, but just reflect the notion of modernity in the 60’s. In the first place, it was a period of consumption and mass character as the artist wanted to show, for example in the pictures Campbell’s Soup (1968), Andy Warhol focused his view on the multiplicity and replications, and, thus, made his paintings and works in large quantities and very quickly. Additionally, it concerns his Factory, where he put the art in the category of production workshop, and made the picture prints, photos and movies day after day.

Some people regard Andy Warhol an artist, who was engaged in the advertising that clearly characterized the sixties as the years of the consumption boom and the development of marketing as an art (Meggs and Purvis 452). The artist emphasized that to be modern means to have a great interest in the television programs and products that are continually broadcast on TV. Perhaps, exactly then people first think about the concept of modernity as such, due to the fact that the mass media persistently has used this concept as opposed to something old, backward and not interesting. Besides the legendary works of Andy Warhol, representing the portraits of celebrities in various techniques, such as, for example Marilyn Diptych (1962), shows the pathway of the celebrities to the cult in the mind of the society.

Thus, it is necessary to mention that each epoch, phenomenon, direction in art, art object, or even the artist himself can present notion of the modernity in greater or lesser extent. Because of this, the modernity does not have a universal definition because it depends on the specific conditions, and, in fact, has a chaotic nature. However, despite this, it lies in the fact that happens at present time, and the moments of the 20th century, mentioned above, clearly demonstrate this phenomenon.

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