Daring Diagonal Virtual Museum

The “isms”

Gallery 3.12

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The suffix ism is often used to distinguish one art movement from another. It is also used to distinguish different philosophies, theories, religions, social movements, and behaviors. The term comes from an Ancient Greek root that refers to “taking side with” or “imitation of.” Not all art movements use the ism suffix, but many do.

Modern art has had many movements, many of them regarding themselves as avant-garde, and yet a significant fact is that although these movements may have different names such as Cubism and Minimalism, a common morphological expression runs through them. That morphological signature is the use of diagonals, a phenomenon here referred to as Diagonality. Many art movements that use the ism suffix are in this museum and collected under an all-encompassing conceptual umbrella to imply the common diagonal thread. Others that do not employ the ism suffix, but which exhibit diagonal traits, are also included under the umbrella.

Diagonality never became an art movement as, for example, did Cubism in the first quarter of the 20th century. There was never a group of artists, or architects, or town planners that called themselves Diagonalists in the way that some painters were referred to as Constructivists or Vorticists. Nor was there ever a group of designers who associated with others of like interest and collectively explored a design theme in a way that might have been called Diagonalism or Diagonality. Also absent were art historians and design critics who might have labeled a group of designers as Diagonalists or who wrote about the motif in a broad thematic manner. Curious is the fact that there has been an absence of manifestos written by proponents of Diagonality. This was not the case with at least three early 20th century movements—Futurism, Rayonism, and Constructivism. There is one exception to the absence of a manifesto that advocates, by name, the theme of Diagonality. It barely qualifies because of its brevity but is an impassioned article entitled Michelangelo’s Fortification Drawings: A Study in the Reflex Diagonal, by art and architectural historian Vincent Scully, Jr.

Scully’s article appeared in the first issue of Perspecta (1952), the Yale architectural journal. Enthralled by the energy and dynamism of the diagonal, Scully wrote in his typically passionate style: “…much of the key to architectural design lies in a sensitivity to rectangular, curvilinear and diagonal rhythms…these drawings [Michelangelo’s] are important to us, because they demonstrate an intense investigation into the nature of the diagonal carried on under pressure by an architect who was [also] a sculptor and painter…” Scully goes on to call for mid-twentieth century architects to look afresh at the vitality and the promise of Diagonality.

One way to view the art movements under the Diagonality umbrella is to imagine a patchwork quilt where the quilt is the Phenomenon of Diagonality, and the patches are those works produced during the 20th and 21th centuries that incorporate the diagonal motif.

  • Cubism
  • Constructivism
  • Deconstructivism
  • Expressionism
  • Crystal Cubism
  • Orphism
  • Futurism
  • Cubo-Futurism
  • Hypermodernism
  • Minimalism
  • Modernism
  • Precisionism
  • Purism
  • Rayonism
  • Remodernism
  • Vorticism

Click any thumbnail to see the illustrated essay



Rayonism (1909 – 1914) was a short-lived avant-garde movement that was a crucial step in the development of Russian art. It was based partially on the scientific understanding that we never actually see an object we are observing; rather we passively receive rays of light emanating from a source such as a star or a light bulb. Additionally, we receive rays of daylight or rays from a light source such as a lamp and these rays are reflected off surfaces and enter our eyes. Artists of the Rayonist movement were not always so much interested in the objects reflecting the light but in the light rays flying through space. Their goal was to give those electromagnetic rays imagined form, which in physical reality they do not possess.

The idea of Rayonism emerged after Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova heard a series of lectures in Moscow given by the Italian Futurist Marinetti. Futurism had emerged the year before in Italy. It was concerned with how speed, modernity, and technology were expressing the dynamic character of early 20th century life. Larionov and Goncharova wrote a Rayonist Manifesto in 1912 and published it the following year around the time their paintings were exhibited in the 1913 Target Exhibition. The artists wrote about advancing a style that “signifies spatial forms which are obtained from the intersection of the reflected rays of various objects, and forms chosen by the artist’s will.”



In 1915, at one of only two exhibitions of vorticism ever presented and one year after the movement was formed, Percy Wyndham Lewis, a painter, polemicist and writer, described the short-lived but electrifying movement as follows: “By vorticism we mean (a) Activity as opposed to the tasteful passivity of Picasso; (b) Significance as opposed to the dull and anecdotal character to which the Naturalist is condemned; (c) Essential Movement and Activity (such as the energy of a mind) as opposed to the imitative cinematography, the fuss and hysterics of the Futurists.” This was an expression of opposition to the decorative phase of synthetic cubism but a curious position because the ideas and style of most of the Vorticists’ works were originally based on futurist and cubist models. There was some interest in the “fourth dimension” at the time and while vorticist art was very geometrical, Wyndham strove to downplay this connection. It was Albert Einstein who redefined the fourth dimension scientifically, not aesthetically or philosophically.

Based in London, the Vorticists were international in scope and quite ambitious in their goals. Their works are dynamic, brimming with explosive energy, diagonals and sharp-edge angularity filling every square inch of their canvases. Bright colors were another hallmark. Gaudier Brzeska, who regrettably died early in the trenches of the first World War, produced many sketchbooks filled with faceted, abstract vorticist drawings. He was also a sculptor. Vorticism’s goal was to go beyond futurism and cubism; their sometimes architectural forms floating in space did just that. It was Ezra Pound who gave this pivotal modernist movement its name, and historians regard vorticism as one of the most truly avant-garde movements in British history.

The Path to Cubism————————

The Path to Cubism

The French post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), regarded by many as the father of modern art, is generally not regarded as a Cubist. However, his early move away from representational subject matter surely cleared a path that he and others marched along toward cubistic works of art. It was a period of transition from an old-world artistic order to a modern order in which the use of the diagonal motif played an increasingly central role. The fact that Cézanne’s paintings, over time, became more and more diagonal in composition is not surprising; he often laid down his oils in parallel diagonal strokes.

In his 1888 work called Mardi Gras, the subject matter, although recognizable as human forms in something of a staged setting, shows how important diagonality is becoming compositionally. Not only does the diamond appear in the harlequin’s costume but the triangle dominates as a subtext. The most salient feature is the white rod under the harlequin’s arm which carries a compositional line down from Pierrot’s conical hat, extending it through the outstretched hand of the harlequin. The hand is a fulcrum point where the imaginary line angles back and is picked up by the bent left leg. This then gets picked up in turn by the triangle of the harlequin’s legs and feet. This budding expression of diagonality is again revealed in Cézanne’s painting of a decade later, The Card Players.

James Kettlewell—art historian, educator, and curator—wrote the following about one of Cézanne’s famous paintings, “Keeping with the diagonals, Cézanne, in the Card Players, also exploits the tension of these diagonals pulling against the verticals and horizontals of the frame. Tensions are what make paintings or designs exciting. In theory, he was not doing these kinds of adjustments consciously but, as he would say, he was simply following his sensations.”

In Cézanne’s many versions of The Bathers, there is clear evidence on the artist’s deliberate intent upon presenting a rhythmic succession of triangular shapes into which the figures and leaning trees are ordered. The powerful and memorable pyramidal composition has both stability, gravitational massing, and a lively but crude array of human legs and outstretched arms that emphasize Cézanne’s fixation on the diagonal motif. Cézanne’s increasingly geometric and triangulated painting style influenced the work of Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Albert Gleizes, and Jean Metzinger, among many others.



Cubism was not only an avant-garde art movement that came into existence in 1907 Paris, but it also inspired related movements in music, literature, and architecture. Cubism is a style of art where the subject is represented from a variety of vantage points. These diverse viewpoints use geometric shapes such as the square and triangle to communicate the fractured perspective. This method of essentially deconstructing the subject and recreating it from a variety of viewpoints allows the artist to better capture the subject, thus representing the subject in a greater context. Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque first created Cubism in Paris, later to be joined by Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Robert Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier, and Fernand Léger.

The fractured, multi-perspective imagery fostered a freer geometric approach in architectural design. An early influence of the prismatic quality of Cubist geometry on building design is the 1912 facade of the La Maison Cubiste by Raymond Duchamp-Villon.



Expressionism is a modernist, avant-garde art and performing arts movement that originated in Germany in the first quarter of the 20th century. Initially it began with painting and poetry, eventually evolving and expanding to architecture, literature, theater, dance, film and music. The ideology of realism was rejected by the expressionists, as their objective was to convey the emotional experience vs. physical reality. Some of the most prominent artists in this movement were Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc and Egon Schiele. Architects that created works that were imbued with the Expressionist mode design were Erich Mendelsohn, Rudolf Steiner, Bruno Taut and Hans Scharoun. In 1933 after the Nazis seized power in Germany, expressionist art was outlawed as degenerate.

Expressionist architecture bridled against aesthetic dogma. Form was distorted for emotional effect and new, original and visionary imagery was embraced. Diagonal themes that included lightning, crystals and rock formations were highly regarded. Expressionist architecture draws on inspiration from Moorish, Islamic, Indian and Egyptian sources.

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Deconstructivism is a post-modern architectural style in which the classical linear and often stagnant approach to architectural design is fragmented in its appearance. In essence the “skin” of the structure is often “manipulated” using unorthodox shapes and spaces. Architects associated with Deconstructivism include Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Bernard Tschumi, Coop Himmelblau and Zaha Hadid.

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Dan Flavin (1933-1966) was an American minimalist artist who used fluorescent light fixtures as sculptural objects. He was influenced by artists whose diagonal motifs figured strongly in their oeuvre. These include Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, Theo van Doesburg, and the Russian constructivist sculptor Vladimir Tatlin. Flavin was intent on celebrating movement by “exploiting the liveliness and speed implied by the diagonal.”

Flavin’s first mature work was “The Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the Diagonal of May 25, 1963),” which he dedicated to the art historian Robert Rosenbaum. An earlier version, executed in yellow, is dedicated to Constantin Brancusi, while the one shown above, executed in white, honors Rosenbaum.

Flavin executed 39 “monuments” to Vladimir Tatlin, an artist he held in very high regard, particularly for Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International (1919-1920),” a Constructivist work that was intended to be an office building. The leaning, spiraling steel sculpture, designed as a towering symbol of modernity, can be found in most art history books covering the modern era. A work that links Diagonality to social upheaval, the monument was intended for erection in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in recognition of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.



also known as Tatlin’s Tower

Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953)

Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919-1920) has an assured place in the history of Diagonality. A Constructivist work that, according to some accounts, was intended to be an office building, it is a leaning, spiraling steel structure that was also designed as a towering symbol of modernity. It was composed of a twin helix that spiraled upwards to a height of 400 meters, dwarfing the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Four large rotating geometric structures were to be suspended in space and seen by visitors, who would be carried aloft on various mechanical devices.

Constructivism was an artistic and architectural movement that emerged in Russia beginning in 1919. Constructivist works influenced many other modern art movements such as the Bauhaus and the De Stijl. Images of the Tower can be found in most art history books covering the modern era. Importantly, it is a work that links the artistic expression of Diagonality to social upheaval.

The monument was intended for erection in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) to honor the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. It combined a machine aesthetic with dynamic components that celebrated technology. Augmenting its thrusting, tilted skyscraper image, there were to be searchlights and projection screens meant to announce a new and dramatic change in the course of world culture. Tatlin’s Tower was to house lecture halls in a cube at the base of the Tower. Russian and Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky reportedly quipped that the monument was “made of steel, glass and revolution.” The Tower initiated a period of exchange of ideas between Moscow and Berlin by such luminaries as El Lissitsky.

Large models of the Tower have been constructed in Stockholm, Moscow, Paris, London, and Norwich, UK. The inspirational power of Tatlin’s Tower continues; Ai Weiwei’s 2007 sculpture “Fountain of Light,” once displayed at the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, is modelled after the “Monument to the Third International.”

Crystal Cubism————————

Crystal Cubism

A graphic shift occurred in the Cubists’ ranks between 1915 and 1916, which reverberated for four years after that. This shift, known as Crystal Cubism, deals with an emphasis on flat, unshaded surfaces and overlapping geometric planes. There is a decidedly more abstract, almost collage-looking presentation of the subject matter but usually rendered in paint, not in fabrics. The French poet and art critic Maurice Raynal named the style crystal Cubism because, like crystals, the compositions were graphically tightened into more crystalline shapes and cohesive unity. The Cubist method has been considered ‘analytical’ and involved decomposing subject matter to reveal its underlying geometrical construction. In this transformation, the diagonal rose to prominence.

This style in paintings and sculptures had different names between 1917 and 1920. It was alternatively called the Crystal Period, Pure Cubism, Advanced Cubism, classical Cubism, Synthetic Cubism, or the second phase of Cubism. Artists involved in this stylistic shift were Albert Gleizes, Juan Gris, Henri Laurens, Pablo Picasso, Jean Metzinger, and Jacques Lipchitz. Many critics regard the Crystal Cubist period as the most important in the history of Modernism.

Cubism arose from a dissatisfaction with the age-old idea of form as it had been practiced since the Renaissance. Paul Cézanne was central in this movement away from old conceptions of a representational art form to one more abstract and less concerned with conventional images of the world created by the eye and mind. The trend was toward greater simplification of geometric structure. In his later years, Cézanne’s works became bolder, more dynamic, and more nonrepresentational. The diagonal motif became more salient, a motif important in its own right.

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