Where did modernism come from? 1

History and Origins of Modernism: An Ancient Century Turned to Modernity

We are at the end of the 19th century, during the Victorian era of colonialism and British imperialism, in the midst of the Second Industrial Revolution. This prosperous era, focused on progress, brought its share of the great technological and social revolutions that forever rocked the world: modernity. High-speed transport is developing, from train to car to long-distance ocean liner travel; the electricity fairy gradually illuminates the three “capitals of light”, New York, Paris and London, in parallel with the introduction of new hygiene rules that clean up societies and promote medicine. Cities are changing and people’s lives are changing through inventions and technological progress.

Travel posters, 1897 – Gallica

Horsesweeper in Paris, 1895, Eugène Atget – Gallica


Posters from the modern era, “luxury lighting” 1895 and “safety oil” 1891 – Gallica

This progress turned to modernity and the machine caused a wave of industrialization in Europe and as far as Russia, followed by a rural exodus where the new townspeople were so many workers to run the machines. Man has a new superpower: he can increase his skills tenfold and save time by becoming less tired. Gradually industrial products, produced at low prices, are flooding the market, alienating the modern worker. And the man seeks his place.

Typography and images are liberated thanks to progress

At the same time, the increase in goods created in this way and technological progress are driving the demand for advertising in the West. Less than a century earlier, the invention of lithography (a free-motion printing technique on a porous stone) less than a century earlier freed the gesture from the weight of the chisel hitherto used to cut individual letters in metal or stone. to cut. Whereas until then letters inspired by Roman capitals were printed, rigorously drawn and engraved according to construction grids, then clamped in a press and accompanied by ornaments, we can now free ourselves from the limitations of the past. Illustrators and typographers create innovative freehand serifs and hairlines and draw on the same medium, or carve large whimsical letters in wood for advertisements, made by hand. And the revolution isn’t just about letters.


Printing techniques and their influence on the writing form — Man and his signs, Signs, symbols, signals, p. 144, Adrian Frutiger

Thanks to the use of lithography and wood engraving, around 1820, text and illustration are no longer printed separately and have won over the years in all visual media from the press to posters, including, of course, book covers, children’s games, souvenir cards and caricatures. Bold and creative, the artists are now responsible for the graphic composition as a whole for the first time, drawing both the illustration and the letters by hand. This new mastery marks the birth of graphic designand involves a community of internationally renowned illustrator-graphic designers, such as Beardsley, Chéret or Toulouse-Lautrec.

The Golden Age of Illustration

around 1860, chromolithography enhances and revolutionizes printing by bringing color : it allows to paint on the stone by hand, color after color (sometimes more than 15 colored stones are needed to form a single image, in successive passes as a printer would) and will be used until well after the Second World War. The illustrator Jules Chéret in France puts his art at the service of industry. He develops this printing technique with 3 or 4 colors in successive passages after a trip to London in 1860 (see posters below, red and orange, then dark blue) by painting a silhouette on a plain background and without perspective accompanied by minimal text; this style will become the reference in Europe and the United States.

color printing-XIX-old-posters

Posters from 1892, Jules Cheret — Graphics in the 20th centuryRichard Hollis, Threshold, p17

With the invention of offset printing, 40 years later, it is: the golden age of illustrators… and the explosion of advertising. Result of this modernity: we have fun and we draw a lot! Around 1880, Paris was considered by the Americans as the capital of art and fashion.


Jules Chéret posters, around 1876 — Gallica

Posters around 1890 — Gallica

Poster by Adrien Barrière, 1900 — Gallica. “It’s the perfect hygiene product of the 20th century,” says Marianne.

“The walls formerly left to banal or purely industrial advertising, the cold and bare palisades of our buildings under construction, have become real museums where the thinking masses, in love with art, can satisfy some of its aspirations. This form of education was made to seduce her: (…) the street, which she loves, is more colorful, more melodious than ever.” We read in the collection The Illustrated Posters (1886-1895) by Ernest Maindron, 1896. And it is always in a very visually charged context that the need arises to evolve towards greater simplicity and readability, or to break with the past.


Alfred Choubrac, 1885 — Gallica

The first lines, a revolution that is not unanimous

You should know that as early as 1816, England, leading the way in this modern world, specially invented for advertising and the press, the first sans-serif characters, which have the advantage of being more readable and simple, in this graphic flow. the Two lines English Egyptian from the William Caslon foundry in sans serif and capital letters; at that time the word “Egyptian” was a category for new and different characters.


English Egyptian1816 – Creativemarket.com

Later, the “Seven lines grotesqueby Thorowgood, who stands out with the first lowercase boldface letters, in 1832. More neutral, without ornaments or cultural connotations, these monolinear characters are a total break with the gothic, roman or elzévir characters previously used in calligraphy and printing, and are therefore a graphic revolution… even if they probably go quite unnoticed!


Eight Lines Grotesque and Seven Lines Grotesque, Thorowgood 1832 – Commercialclassics.com


Eight Lines Egyptian Open and Seven Lines Grotesque Open, Thorowgood 1840 – Commercialclassics.com

These first characters without embellishments are: made for readability and are generally only used in titles. We draw the largest letters possible in as little space as possible. These characters are called grotesque compared to the more refined Roman letters… this name indicates their intrinsic value and the small value given to them. If they mark the beginning of rulers – which a century later will revolutionize the modernist graphic landscape as ‘universal’ typefaces – they are far from unanimously accepted.


Blake & Stephenson, 1849, 1845 – Commercialclassics.com


Column place Denfert Rocherau 1898 – 1st women’s poster, September 1908 — Gallica

A century before the Bauhaus, the modernist school par excellence, the first characters of constant thickness and without ornaments eliminated for the first time the ups and downs inherited from the pressure of the handwritten pen on the paper, or from the engraving of Roman capital letters. . Writing, which hitherto bore the stamp of man, here becomes the visual translation of a purely mechanical, standardized process.which will be completed around 1920 with the creation of geometric lines (which we will discuss in a future article).

In 1876, Joseph A. David, an American engineer, took it a step further by inventing the Universal punched sheet. It is a metal template plate with circular and linear geometric shapes that allows to draw geometric characters without serifs, designed as an educational object for primary schools. This object collects the rational and plastic thinking (artist / craftsman or engineer / typesetter) founder of the modernist movementwhich would later be used for the designs of the first Bauhaus geometric lineals.

universal cut plate
universal cut plate
Universal punched plate, 1876

These technological and social advances are changing the face of the civilizations they traverse. In response to the rapid advance of the role of the machine, which is gradually dehumanizing humans, the artists wonder how to proceed: redesign a new modern world by re-evaluating the craftsman’s genius, or wipe the past clean and resolutely embrace modernity? This is what we will see in the next article of this series, the two faces of modernism and its social ideologies.

Leave a Comment