Cityscapes in Modern Art

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For many modern artists, one of the most potent symbols of man’s dislocation and separation from nature is the cityscape. For others, the cityscape symbolizes man’s new freedom from the drudgery of agriculture. By the 1930s and 1940s, images of the cityscape had begun to replace landscape art. Additionally, the view from the airplane, or from the Eiffel Tower, or from any of the growing number of skyscrapers around the world, had revealed a flat, patterned cityscape where recession, depth and naturalistic perspective had once reigned supreme.

The slums and wretched conditions were a part of virtually every cityscape and had inspired a new generation of architects to search for ways of building and a means of town planning which they believed would bring about positive social change. The machine was here to stay, and eventually individual artists as well as the influential and socially committed Bauhaus art school proclaimed their positive attitudes towards man’s new cityscape environment filled with both vehicles and machines.

Technology had also created new materials for the architect of the cityscape including steel, concrete and sheet glass, which would result in drastically different designs for public buildings and private homes and grant the much sought-after freedom from the past. Perhaps the anti-individualistic aspects of machine-produced objects could prove to be beneficial rather than harmful. After all, the collective individualism of national pride had resulted in a catastrophic war. A universal, supranational and anti-individualistic style for the new cityscape might help to unite man in a utopian brotherhood.

The materials of the modern age and the new cityscape style went hand-in-hand. Steel frames provided a modular grid which gave an almost unlimited verticality to the new architecture. Reinforced concrete allowed for expressive forms, and sheet glass permitted the creation of pure reflecting prisms described around the world in mystical terms.

The lack of ornamentation in prefabricated designs played a major role in the formation of an art which attempted to become a vehicle for universal values. This lack of ornamentation was further proclaimed as essential for the establishing of the newly spiritualized world order. Adolf Loos (1870-1933), ornamentation’s most virulent critic, insisted that this stylistic change alone would remake society.

According to Loos’ theory, the labor formerly wasted on ornamentation would be unnecessary. Less work would result in higher wages and a shorter workday. Class lines would ultimately be abolished. The simplified designs suitable for mass-production would return the machine to it’s rightful place as man’s servant. The cities of the world would be clean and orderly, with cityscapes built of rectangles and squares.

The aesthetic of mechanical simplicity and right angles in architecture had a direct counterpart in the sphere of painting. Piet Mondrian, a native of Holland, began his mature work with a variation of Cubism which was based on images in nature: the sea, sand dunes, the sky, and trees.

Mondrian’s desire to contribute to the spiritualizing of civilization grew in part from his Theosophical leanings. Like the architects of the International Style, he, too, sought the centrality and essence of an art stripped of peripherals. Beauty was not heavy and monumental like the ponderous public buildings and over-worked paintings of the past, but practical, light and ephemeral.

Mondrian’s striving for spiritual clarification in his work led him to a grammar of shape based strictly on horizontals and verticals. By this means, he achieved a remarkable degree of energy and vibrancy in his art. Mondrian was not threatened by the advent of the machine. The machine had not completely dehumanized man as other artists had prophesied so emphatically. Furthermore, the cities created by industrialization, especially Mondrian’s beloved New York, were not dysfunctional but dynamic and liberating.

Mondrian was part of an idealistic group of artists in the Netherlands known as De Stijl or “the style.” De Stijl’s creed was a combination of total abstraction, a minimum of creative terms, and restriction to the primary colors of red, yellow and blue and the non-colors of black, gray and white. Mondrian’s missionary zeal for a higher level of harmony in art had taken him beyond the bounds of Cubism.

One of Mondrian’s last paintings, “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1942-3), a large oil on canvas, exemplifies many aspects of his masterful technique. Only the title reveals the reference to the external reality of the cityscape. Mondrian’s interpretation of the New York street grid is joyful and colorful. In Mondrian’s work, the loose spontaneity of other modern artists has been rarefied and ordered.

Man no longer looks at technology as an omnipotent, mystical savior. On the other hand, the dark phantom of man disfigured by his association with the machine has also vanished with the light of the new era.

Man has achieved balance and creativity on a higher level. He is no longer dependent on either the natural world or the manufactured one. Mondrian’s vision is one of abstraction resulting in the revelation of a type of universal electricity which supersedes both organic and mechanical energy.

Mondrian’s grid fills the canvas, but also contains large amounts of space and air. Perhaps the disciplined rhythm of the machine, modern life and the cityscape holds within itself an even greater freedom than the prior vicissitudinous cycles of agrarian living.

The rhythm of Mondrian’s image is accelerated and syncopated, but doomsday fears of life driven out of control by the frenzied pace of the machine and man numbed by repetition, monotony, and noise have not been realized. Man has has adapted to the technological environment and is alive and thriving after all.

Mondrian’s composition is balanced with almost mathematical precision. The space has now been completely flattened. Yet somehow Mondrian’s rectangles and squares flash continuously with a voltage born of almost gymnastic geometry.

Are the squares in Broadway Boogie Woogie intended as symbols of cars or buildings or sidewalks or traffic lights or flashing neon signs? No matter, man has mastered all of the various aspects of his new, technological life. Like a child confidant in a now familiar environment and his own well-developed skills, man can build the future he envisions with the colorful building blocks of his mind and imagination.

Mondrian has reduced life and art to the bare essentials. Variations on a single shape are combined with only three colors and white. He has omitted even the black and gray of other De Stijl artists. Mondrian’s ability to triumph artistically in spite of these restrictions sends a clear and reassuring message of hope.

Although technology has impacted culture irrefutably, the creativity and genius of man has been able to flower even within the narrowest of confines. Technology and subsequent rise of the city has neither destroyed man nor been his savior, but has instead acted as an impetus for the refinement of his ideas about life and his own nature.

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Source by Kathleen Karlsen

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