Characteristics of the vanguards

In the 20th century an immense variety of artistic movements emerged. Many of them have been classified as avant-garde, whether artistic or literary, while others have not, such as art deco, for example.

This depends, to a large extent, on the fulfillment of a set of characteristics. Let's get to know in detail the elements that define or characterize avant-garde movements.

Purpose of breaking with the past (revolutionary spirit)

Pablo Picasso: Guitar and violin. c. 1912. Cubism. Oil on canvas. 65.5 x 54.3 cm. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

The first characteristic element of all avant-garde is the rupturism or spirit of rupture with tradition. Avant-garde movements question the traditions of academic art, which includes not only the themes, but especially the principles of composition, be they plastic or literary.

Opposition to naturalistic representation

Kazimir Malevich: Suprematist composition. 1916. Suprematism (geometric abstractionism). Oil on canvas. 88.5 x 71 cm. Private collection.

Since Classical Antiquity, Western art had been based on naturalism, that is, on the imitation of nature or representation of the apparent world. The vanguards rebel against this principle. We can think of three elementary reasons:

  • the perception that there was nothing that could surpass the masters of the past,
  • the exhaustion of the iconographic program and, finally,
  • the historical transformations, especially social and technological, that changed the function of art in society, so it made no sense to adhere to the uses and customs of nineteenth-century art. EXAMPLE

Valuation of the compositional elements themselves

Piet Mondrian: Composition No. 10. 1942. Neoplasticism. Oil on canvas. 79.5 x 73. Private collection.

By breaking with the principle of imitation of nature and promoting originality, the avant-gardes promoted the autonomy of language itself (plastic or literary), free from subordination to content.

In the visual arts, some avant-gardes took this to such an extreme that they eliminated outright any reference to the themes or any temptation to "meaning" so that elements such as lines, points or geometric shapes could be valuedly appreciated. Hence the resignation to title many works. For example, the numbered compositions of Piet Mondrian.

In literature, this was expressed, among other ways, in a dissociation between the sign and the referent, which would allow the aesthetic evaluation of language as an autonomous reality, outside of any significant obligation.

Search for originality and novelty

Joan Miro: Catalan landscape. 1924. Surrealism. Oil on canvas. 64.8 x 100.3 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

All these elements combine to proclaim originality as a characteristic element of the avant-garde. Each one of them tried to constitute its own, original language, marked by novelty.

Proclamation of creative freedom

Vassily Kandinsky: Composition VII. 1913. Abstractionism. 195 x 300 cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The desire for originality requires the avant-garde to proclaim maximum creative freedom. If the art of the academy sought from the artists the assimilation of minimum conventions regarding the handling of plastic elements and the concept of art, the avant-gardes were the expression of a longing for individual freedom and, therefore, derived in particular languages , not conventional. This indicated the absolute independence of the commission and, consequently, the maximum personal freedom in artistic expression.

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