In this essay I will attempt to explain the ideologies behind the two periods of art known as Modernism and Postmodernism employing the works of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Julian Schnabel (1951-). Modernism is known for its characteristic simplicity and being futuristic, whereas Postmodernism is known for its complexity and historical quotation. Kandinsky, a renowned Modernist, is considered to be the founder of abstract art and a major artist of the Expressionist movement. Schnabel is known as one of the first Post-Modernists to arise out of the 1980s and also as a Neo-Expressionist. They are ideally posed to show the ideologies of each movement because they are influential in each of their separate period’s development.

The modernist period emerged from the Age of Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century. There was a shift from a belief in the will of a god to the humanist theories of Descartes, ‘I think, therefore I am’. Modernism envisaged a new era in which rational thought, not religious faith, would reign supreme and bring about a new and just society. In its utopian vision, modernism was essentially an optimistic school of thought and focused on innovation and originality. In painting it really evolved during the last half of the nineteenth century with Impressionism. The Impressionist use of brushstrokes and their absorption with the surface of a painting became known by the term reflexivity. At the beginning of the twentieth century this reflexivity, combined with the obsolescence of depiction as a factor in art, heralded in the age of abstraction. The invention of photography as a documentary device meant that there was no longer a use for artists to depict a scene. The aesthetic aspects of a work of art became utmost in the artist’s mind and the illusion of reality was quickly dispensed with to aid making the aesthetic elements more powerful. This type of non-narrative painting became known as abstraction.

Wassily Kandinsky is known to have made the first completely abstract painting in 1910. Born inMoscow, he arrived inMunichin 1896. He had trained as a lawyer but recognised that his true gifts were in the world of art. At first he was influenced by the lyrical naturalism that was the trend inMunichat the time. Then he came under the influence of German Primitivism and the Fauves. At this stage his narrative painting compositions showed unity and harmony but, following the example of the Fauves, he reduced the naturalism in his art and greatly extended its expressive powers. Glowing colours and fervent brushstrokes communicated sufficiently enough for him to depend less and less on his subject matter. By 1910 he made his first innovative attempt at a completely original abstract painting. This watercolour intended to carry the works meaning directly to the spectator by using just patches of colour and gestures of the brush. It was intended that the spectator should feel his way into the composition rather than read it. (Stangos, 1994, p.40)

In 1910, Kandinsky had written a book entitled On the Spiritual in Art. His leanings towards theosophy and the occult encouraged him to turn his back on the material world and commit his art to the world of the spirit. Kandinsky sought to connect visual art to the inner life of man by turning pictorial means to spiritual urges. As arts writer Nikos Stangos states, ‘Instead of reinforcing the false values of a materialistic society, art thus used would help people to recognise their own spiritual worlds’ (Stangos, 1994, p.43). In his book, Kandinsky wrote of the avant-garde’s battle with traditional limits of artistic expression. He wanted to represent the battle between spiritual values and the materialism of contemporary society.

During the following years, Kandinsky developed his non-referential art further, using semi-improvisatory techniques to get the greatest possible immediacy. Kandinsky’s move into abstraction was not welcomed by some of his fellow artists in Munich, therefore he joined together with Franz Marc (1880-1916) and other like-minded artists to form a new group, De Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider). According to their manifesto, art was to be a vehicle of human hopes and fears all linked by a desire to find a new means of expression. In Composition VI  (1913), the surface of this large canvas is teeming with energy and, even though the individual elements are balanced, the composition is very complex and without a central focal point.

 By1921, Kandinsky was already making fewer marks than his earlier abstractions, arranging them into a more identifiable diagonal composition. In The Black Spot (1921), the forms of his earlier work, some of which can be traced back to stylised ciphers for mountains and figures have begun to develop a life of their own and have settled into a pictorial vocabulary that Kandinsky is using more sparingly at this time, and in simpler compositions.  

After spending World War 1 in revolutionary Russia, Kandinsky returned in 1922 to Germanyto help Walter Gropius with teaching at his new school, the Bauhaus in Weimar. The Bauhaus was to become famous as the school that pioneered the teaching and practice of modern industrial and architectural design. Gropius wanted to lead the Bauhaus from its concern with artistic self-expression toward “an objective involvement in socially useful design” (Stangos 1994, p.48). Kandinsky continued to teach at the Bauhaus until the school closed under harassment from the new Nazi regime in 1933. During his time at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky formulated more of his understanding of art and creativity. He published his text Point, Line to Plane as one of the Bauhaus books in 1926. It is an attempt to codify the sensual and emotional value of colours and forms so as to enable the artist to control the expressive means at his disposal. His work lost much of its impetuous character and became simplified and controlled (Stangos 1994, p.48). His teachings about form were essentially new, starting with an analysis of individual elements such as point, line and plane, and examining their relationships to each other. The circle, a symbol of perfect form and a cosmic symbol at the same time, was the focal point of his paintings of this period.

After he was dismissed from the Bauhaus, Kandinsky became an exile again, this time in Paris where he continued to work as an artist, although conditions were not originally favourable . Cubism and surrealism were in fashion, but Kandinsky continued to paint his abstractions. He died inNeuillyin 1944 of a stroke.

 Postmodernism emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century after the Punk movements of the 1970s. Change, upheaval and conflict signified the jostling for supremacy amongst the various superpowers. Counter-cultures developed within Western society as people struggled to find identity amongst all these power shifts. The clamouring for recognition by different identifying groups was seen in art as a reason to break away from the formalist dictates of modernism. Representational art along with conceptualism allowed an ‘anything goes’ mentality during the late 1970s. Abstraction was no longer the sole determiner of a work of art as it had become under the influence of art critic Clement Greenberg. Postmodernism allowed an undisciplined array of styles and it has become a widespread cultural phenomenon. As a movement it has accommodated seemingly everything in art which makes it extremely difficult to provide a clear and concrete definition of the term. (Kleiner & Mamiya 2005, p.1034)

Whereas Kandinsky can be identified as one of the first modernists of the twentieth century, Julian Schnabel can be identified as one of the first artists to be identified with post-modernist characteristics in the late twentieth century. While the modernism practised by Kandinsky looked optimistically towards the future, post-modernism is inherently cynical and irreverent. It uses parody and pastiche to reject high art forms (Sturken, 2001, p.238-239). Post-modernism relies heavily on style and image and contains a reflexive quality that shows people’s absorption in the world of simulacra. It is a world in which people live through advertising and popular media. Schnabel’s work recycles conflicting images and systems of representation. His huge panels combine images quoted from film, photographs and religious iconography on surfaces patched together from posters, rugs, driftwood and  broken crockery.                                           

Julian Schnabel was born in New Yorkin 1951. After studying art at the Universityof Houstonand participating in the Whitney Study Program from 1969-1974, Schnabel was catapulted to the status of art world superstar in the early eighties, when his career was synonymous with the revival of painting as a meaningful art form. One of the most financially successful and aggressively self-promoting artists of his generation, he was a leading figure in what came to be known as ‘neo-expressionism’. He produces paintings and prints, and his brash appropriative style combined huge scale, often garish colours and obscure textural reference. The most iconic of his works are his ‘plate paintings’ in which broken crockery is attached to a support and painted in oils. The Student of Prague (1983) draws on the imagery of Christian ritual, layering roughly hewn crucifixes over the bed of broken china vessels, and deploying structure that recalls traditional triptych alterpieces. The title also copies a German silent film of 1913 by the German expressionist director Paul Wegner.  The plate painting Self-Portrait in Andy’s Shadow (1987) demonstrates Schnabel’s frequent use of the plate surfaces for large-scale portraiture, mostly of friends and personalities in the art world. Here, Schnabel makes his own image and links it, as homage, to Andy Warhol, whose date of death is written on the surface.

The use of historical quotation, referential imagery and great reflexivity, by his use of unconventional painting materials, elicits divided responses from the art critics. Some are offended by his deliberate flouting of the conventions of ‘high art’, while others hails his work as following in the best traditions of Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollack. Some feel that Schnabel’s popularity in the 1980s was synonymous with consumerism and that he exemplifies the cold commercialisation of the art world that was tied to economic boom of the era. The reviewer Ken Johnson wrote that whatever the formal virtues of Schnabel’s art there is always a reckless theatricality about it. He goes on to say that in his series of portraits of the same young blonde woman whose eyes’ have been covered by a horizontal bar of paint, there is a cliched quality in the fact that he is replicating an amateur portrait found in a thrift store (Johnson, 2005).

A retrospective exhibition in 1998 of Schnabel’s work included one of the first of the series of smashed plate paintings The Painter and the Doctors (1978). The reviewer Phyllis Braff wrote that this work generates thoughts about Schnabel’s  treatment of materials, space, scale and imagery and the way he constantly questions art practices (Braff, 1993). Another reviewer in 1989, Roberta Smith, called him ‘the master of conspicuous pictorial consumption’. He uses found artefacts, materials, words and cultural figures in his artworks. However, Roberta Smith felt that he has ‘a tendency to catapult genuine emotion into the realm of self-parodying melodrama’ (Smith, 1989). Michael Brenson wrote in 1987 that when combining an expressionist method with consuming self-consciousness and control ‘kitsch is always a danger, and the artist loves courting it’(Brenson, 1987). The curator at the Whitney Museum wrote in the 1989 catalogue that Schnabel’s work straddles modernism and post-modernism, ‘swinging between a modernist faith in painting and heroic individuality and a postmodern scepticism that mocks heroism and compels the viewer to see art first of all as performance and fiction’. The artist himself has written about his ambiguous plate paintings, ‘I wanted to make something that was exploding as much as I wanted to make something that was cohesive’. In his painting Rebirth I : (The Last View of Camilliano Cien Fuegos) he adds a pair of enormous blue eyes and a series of evenly spaced horizontal lines to a Kabuki backdrop of a cherry blossom landscape.

Whatever is thought of his work, Schnabel can be considered a ‘maximalist’ in that he throws everything at his paintings, including the kitchen sink. His Baroque tendencies seem to stem from a reaction against the arte povera movement, with their emphasis on humble materials and absence of colour. A secular Jew, Schnabel even uses Catholic iconography to match his forms and textures, such as ecclesiastical purple velvet. Although he still paints and holds regular exhibitions world wide, he is now more respected as a filmmaker. He has made the highly reviewed biographical films ‘Basquiat’ and ‘Before Night Falls’ and has recently won best film at theVenicefestival for ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’.

Kandinsky wrote: ‘Every work of art is the child of its age… [and] that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated’(Kandinsky, 1914). In my use of Kandinsky and Schnabel as examples of their periods of art, I cannot but think that each of them truly is ‘a child of their age’. They show that, through clarity, innovativeness and optimism, Modernism is to the Renaissance as Postmodernism, in its playfulness, melodrama and complexity, is to the Baroque. Kandinsky, in his studies into the abstract in art, was a major influence on the Modernist period and Schnabel, in his innovative use of historic sources and varied materials, is a major influence on the Postmodernist period.



  1. Stangos, Nikos, 1994, From Fauvism to Postmodernism 3rd Edition, Thames andHudson
  2. Kleiner, F.S. & Mamiya, C.J.,2005,  Art Through the Ages 12th Edition, ThomsonWadsworth Press
  3. Sturken, M. & Cartwright, 2001, Practices of Looking, An Introduction to Visual Culture,OxfordUniversity Press
  4. Johnson, K., 2002, New York Times, Art in Review, April 5th
  5. Braff, P., 1993, New York Times, Art Reviews; Revealing explorations of works by two contemporary masters, August 23rd
  6. Smith, R.,1989, New York Times, Review/Art; Julian Schnabel’s mantra: Stop ruining the world, December 8th
  7. Brenson, M., 1987, New York Times, Art: Works by Julian Schnabel at the Whitney Museum, November 13th
  8. Kandinsky, W., 1914, The Art of Spiritual Harmony, Translated by Sadler, M.T.H., from Über das Geistige in der Kunst, originally published 1911



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