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

Bull’s HeadLarionov 1913

Bull’s Head

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.

Girl with a MandolinPicasso1910

Girl with a Mandolin

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.

Crystal Cubism————1915-1919

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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