Modernism Presented in Art Museums

Subject: Art
Pages: 11
Words: 3084
Reading time:
12 min
Study level: Bachelor


The museum format went through significant transformations in the 20th century. For a long time, museums collected the art of previous generations. The demonstration of contemporary art required new approaches and fresh ideas. Modernization attempts appeared most often in the design of the outer parts of buildings; museums received attractive exterior decoration, such as the glass pyramids of the Louvre. The museum was supposed to evoke a respectful attitude towards what was stored within its walls. That is why museums were arranged in palaces or in specially built buildings, the appearance of which was supposed to inspire respect. However, it gradually became clear that this approach did not attract modern visitors. It became apparent that contemporary art needed a contemporary place of expression.

The Guggenheim Museum took this trend well; at the time of its foundation, it was an absolute sensation that marked the onset of a new era in art, including the museum field. Nowadays, the appearance of this museum, with structural and technical elements placed on the facades, does not cause heated discussions. Museums of modern art are actively involved in educational work, and their publications, both popular and specialized, are sold in large numbers. Museums create public lecture halls on art history and numerous circles, including fine art studios. The Modern Museum is much deeper than a collection of art; it is a space that unites art, official and popular culture (Bennett & Bennett, 1995). In order not to be only repositories, museums hold numerous exhibitions, thereby showing that they are not behind the times. Museums of the modernist era have become a place where artistic creativity works for ordinary people and is not hidden from them behind thick glass.

Modernism as a Philosophical Movement

The word modernism is often used to refer to the entire culture of the 20th century; it is difficult to characterize it as a homogeneous trend. The term itself appeared at the end of the 19th century and was assigned to non-realistic phenomena in art (Keyser, 2020). Modernism as a philosophical and aesthetic phenomenon has the following stages: avant-garde, neo-avant-garde, and postmodernism (Keyser, 2020). The typical features of modernism include the loss of the last foothold, subjectivism, the deformation of the world, and formalism. Modernism is characterized by a break with positivism and the traditional Christian worldview.

The First World War entailed renovations in the old art because the old art had long ceased to meet the needs of society. At the turn of the century, realistic art noticeably changed both the problematics and the ways of depicting life. It continued to study the relationship between the individual and society, analyzing the objective reasons that give rise to their hostility. However, more attention was paid to the psychology of the characters and the depiction of the inner world of a person.

The modernist school, which proclaimed the primacy of art over life and preached a refusal to solve big social problems, was a vivid expression of the deepening crisis of society after the First World War. Modernists focus on the subjective world of heroes, seek to isolate a person from his surrounding social environment and explain the inherent shortcomings and vices of the primordial imperfection of human nature (Keyser, 2020). Modernism reflects the spiritual crisis of bourgeois society, a cultural type that includes a particular structure of thinking associated with an understanding of human culture and a vision of one’s place in it.

Modernism as a Practical Strategy

All modernist strategies that arose throughout the 20th century had a special relationship to reality, expressed in artistic forms. In a practical sense applicable to works of art, modernism has been divided into abstractionism, abstract expressionism, dadaism, impressionism, cubism, symbolism, surrealism, futurism, and fauvism (Arnason & Mansfield, 2021). Abstractionism aimed to achieve harmony, in response to the chaos of the natural world, by causing viewers to associate with specific geometric shapes. Abstract expressionism was expressed in artists’ paintings in quick and large paint strokes, conveying the creator’s emotional state. Dadaism was most clearly expressed in individual scandalous tricks, pseudo-drawings that do not make sense, and combinations of random objects (Arnason & Mansfield, 2021). The emergence and development of impressionism revolutionized the vision of the world: it began to be fixed in motion, elusiveness, and cohesion.

Post-impressionist artists did not cling only to visual impressions but sought to freely and generally convey the world’s materiality, resorting to decorative stylization. Cubism was characterized by the use of emphatically geometrized forms, likening the complex world to stereometric primitives. Symbolists radically changed not only various forms of art but also their very attitude towards it; their experimental nature, desire for innovation, cosmopolitanism, and a wide range of influences became a model for most modern artistic movements. Surrealism is distinguished by an emphatically conceptual approach to art, the use of allusions, and paradoxical combinations of forms.

Fauvism was characterized by the spontaneous dynamics of the stroke, the desire for the emotional power of artistic expression, bright color, piercing purity and sharp contrasts of color, the intensity of local color, and the sharpness of rhythm (Arnason & Mansfield, 2021). As its main program, futurism put forward the idea of ​​destroying cultural stereotypes. Instead, it offered technology and urbanism as the present and future main features. Thus, all modernist trends and strategies sought to convey the spontaneity of the world of the 20th century in a variety of forms of expression.

Guggenheim Museum: The Background

The Guggenheim Museum, named after its founder, a successful collector, is located in New York City. The museum is in one of the most populated areas of Manhattan, standing out sharply from the surrounding buildings. The place was selected for at least two decades; before that the museum had to rent space. However, the lack of a permanent place did not prevent the replenishment of the collection. The first pieces that Guggenheim acquired for his museum were the works of artists from Italy and France of the Renaissance, as well as the work of artists of the nineteenth century (Sims, 2020). From the first third of the 20th century, the Guggenheim collected the paintings, and in 1937 a charitable foundation was opened, the purpose of which was to support contemporary artists (Sims, 2020). The avant-garde was rightly chosen as the leading direction of the museum, as it fully met the requirements of the society of the 20th century, which needed a modern art space.

In the future, the collection of the museum will continue to grow. Basically, the enrichment took place at the expense of investors and the purchase of other collections; Guggenheim was more focused on contemporary art. The goal of the museum’s founder was to acquaint the public with the work of abstract artists, so the collections were exhibited in various American museums (Spector & Greene, 2019). To date, the main museum fund is still mainly the private collection of Guggenheim.

Museums of the Past and Modernist Strategies of the Present

Museums are a reflection not only of history but of the worldview of people and communities. In the past, museums have served a variety of functions, mainly as a store of value and as a place to meet and socialize. Nowadays, an art museum is more than just a collection of paintings. The effect and impression of a person from a visit to a modern art center became fundamental (Withycombe, 2021). Works fade into the background, the architecture of the building, the internal structure, and the possibility of direct interaction with art become essential.

Modern Differences

Today, a modern museum is both a social and cultural institution that implements the practice of representing contemporary art and its educational potential, stimulating creativity. Being a creative platform and opening up new opportunities for the visitor is the goal of many contemporary art museums. The very phenomenon of the modern museum differed from the past paradigm when the museum performed the function of selecting and preserving socio-cultural values (Withycombe, 2021). The museum used to play the role of additional education, providing an opportunity to get in touch with monuments of culture and history.

Ideas about the museum’s mission began to change at the end of the last century: it began to be regarded as an institution of socio-cultural adaptation. Museum’s mission began to be seen as a means of studying the cultural values ​​of past and present times and interpreting their meanings. The cultural changes that took place in the second half of the twentieth century gave every person the right to their own picture of the world and dialogue with the current culture. It created the ground for rethinking the foundations of the educational functions of the museum. Possessing a high power of emotional and informational impact, the modern museum, in the visitor’s perception, becomes a space, the main feature of which is continuous development.

The abundant flow of visual information that is now falling on a person is accompanied by a general degradation of visual culture and the loss of the ability to perceive aesthetically. It is characterized by openness to artistic impressions and a passive consumer attitude to the world. The museum has the opportunity and ability to counter these trends with the form of visual culture necessary for adequate verbalization based on contemplation. Under the influence of the artistic environment in the context of a modern museum, people experience an act of self-determination concerning themselves. The museum contributes to helping people understand the world around them and adapt to the surrounding cultural reality.


The Modernist Museum is still a building that houses art collections. It is also a repository of values, a meeting place, and an additional education space. Like modern ceremonial monuments, museums belong to the same architectural class as temples, churches, tombs, and some types of palaces (Duncan & Wallach, 2009). Continuity with the old is the central part of the development of the art museum, which, as society develops, begins to perform new functions. The collections of a modern museum may be the same as a hundred years ago. However, now it is distinguished by the main thing – the possibility of a lively dialogue between art treasures and the visitor.

The Influence of Modernist Practice on the Development of the Museum

With the development of society, museums and art spaces are also developing. Modernist practices, the openness of the world, and the focus on the future determined the internal arrangement of modern museums. First, such an influence can be traced to the architectural arrangement. Since the beginning of the Modern era, museums have been trying to increase the attendance and interest of the new generation by organizing performances and drawing attention to controversial exhibitions (Marincola, 2007). The methods of arranging art objects, the organization of the exhibition space, and the impact on the visitor are also influenced.


The architecture of the Guggenheim Museum attracts attention even in the modern urban structure. One of the most influential and famous architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, was invited to design the extraordinary building. (Paine & Clarke, 2018). In 1943, the architect was offered the idea of creating a museum that would be a temple of non-objectivity (Paine & Clarke, 2018). It took many years to bring this idea to life; delays were caused by the founder’s death, wartime difficulties, and unrest in leadership.

While the museum acquired its modern look, many design plans were proposed. The main goal of the project was to create an architectural object unique for the urban environment, so the creators immediately abandoned the classic museum layout. After the publication of the original construction plan, the public was dissatisfied: the project seemed inappropriate and too bold for the citizens. Over the years, the public has changed its mind, and the museum building has become one of the city’s recognizable landmarks. The building resembles a white ribbon rolled into a cylindrical shape from the street, slightly wider at the top than at the bottom, forming a spiral inside the gallery. The visitor views the works while walking along the ascending illuminated spiral ramp as if along a promenade. Its design was inspired by the ziggurat, a pyramidal, stepped, and inverted Babylonian temple.

The interior of the museum is a large hall covered with a glass dome. This layout allows the visitors to see what is happening at different levels of the opposite side and even communicate at a distance. The structural forms are organic and plastic; they freely flow into each other. The building has a symbolic meaning reflected in its forms: infinity, progress, and integrity. It is connected with human feelings, mood, and creativity. According to the architect’s idea, viewing the expositions was to start from the top, where visitors took the elevator from the entrance. Then the visitors were invited to get acquainted with the collections during the descent along the gentle slope of the building. The museum itself has become a significant work of art.

Art Space

The unique organization of the Guggenheim Museum begins already from the outside – from the general impression of the building and the art objects around. Inside the building, visitors are immediately invited to climb to the top of the spiral building and, from there, gradually go down. Despite the seeming randomness of the building, the art gallery is always built strictly and clearly, based on the motives of the church building (Ireland & O’Doherty, 1999). The vast wealth of the museum is located on spiral floors, offering the viewer a gradual top-down study of the world’s works of art. The works of Van Gogh, Léger, Kandinsky, Chagall, and Picasso are precious in the museum’s collection. The internal organization of the art space consists of spiral floors. It turns out that each time the visitor looks at the works of art as if from an angle, first surveying the part and then the whole.


The Guggenheim Museum currently has one of the world’s finest collections of classical modernist works from the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Here are paintings by Klee, Picasso, and Kandinsky, as well as many other works by famous artists (Spector & Greene, 2019). The museum collection is represented not only by works of the avant-garde and abstract art movement but also by other areas of contemporary art: minimalism, surrealism, conceptualism, and expressionism (Spector & Greene, 2019). The museum collection is rather diverse, but it is a single whole, bringing together artists from different directions. The exposition is composed in such a way that it does not separate works of art by time frame or by specific representatives, the geography of origin of the authors does not matter.

The museum constantly invites visitors to enjoy installations, take part in lectures or listen to a musical performances. In addition, the museum organizes games for children and adults, and conducts seminars and excursions. There are training programs, masterclasses, courses for children, and family studios. In addition, the museum presents various art objects of modern sculpture, which visitors can interpret on their own, appealing to their creativity. In addition to the leading exhibition presented by the works of the Impressionists, Modernists, and Cubists, the museum periodically hosts various thematic exhibitions that have become a natural sensation in the art world. Many exhibitions are devoted to entire eras and civilizations, for example, the culture of the Indians and Chinese painting.

Similarities and Differences in Displaying

There are not as many differences between museums of the past and a museum of the Modern era as it seems at first glance. The museum still consists of paintings hung on the walls in a particular order. The only difference is that the modern museum seeks to organize the art space in such a way as to encourage visitors to interact with art on their own. Thus, the spiral shape of the floors of the Guggenheim Museum encourages the visitor to be wholly immersed in the study of beauty. A significant difference lies not only in content but also in form. The internal and external architecture of the modern museum encourages the creation and a complete impression. The contemporary museum encourages a creative process in which the visitors continue to create in their minds.

Visitors and Space of the Modern Art Museum

The main difference between the museums of the past and modern museums lies in the focus on the visitor. Despite the course taken on the accessibility of museums, few people still visit them (Bourdieu et al., 1997). The impression with which people leave the museum is the main thing that the art space is working on. Compared to an ordinary art museum, where works of art are presented, everything from the furnishings and internal arrangement to the art itself works to impress the visitor in the museum of modernism.

Difference from Previous Museum Spaces

The basis of the past museums was the preservation of art and the preservation of culture. The museum was sober, and strict, obliging to a specific dress code and belonging of visitors to certain social circles. The Museum of Modernism tries to be closer to ordinary people. It is a common pastime, an open space accessible to everyone (Watson, 2007). The Modern Museum is a special ritual for citizens, enrichment and familiarization with something that people do not find in everyday life (Duncan, 1995). Museums are becoming not just places of interest but places of cultural life where people can communicate.

The preservation of cultural heritage is essential for historical museums and museums of contemporary art. However, modernity dictates the importance of not preserving the past but demonstrating modernity (Schubert, 2002). It is interesting to show something indirectly, not literally, forcing visitors to remove their meaning from the reviewed work. The purpose of the modern museum is to get visitors to interact with the beautiful and the great and convince people to take it outside by expanding the museum space and tearing down the walls.


Museums of the Modern era have undergone significant changes, have become visitor-oriented, look different architecturally and present a platform for contemporary art. The Guggenheim Museum is a colorful example of a modernist museum. The architecture of the building is already an art object, and it looks unusual in the urban infrastructure even now. The organization of the internal space encourages interaction with art; the visitor brings reflections and the creative process out of the museum. The modernist museum is accessible and shared by all, transforming from a place of art collection into a leisure center for all city dwellers.


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