Module Details

AR309-6-FY-CO: The Turn Of The Century: Art Nouveau To Abstraction

Note: This module is inactive. Visit the Module Directory to view modules and variants offered during the current academic year.

Year: 2017/18
Department: Art History and Theory
Essex credit: 30
ECTS credit: 15
Available to Study Abroad / Exchange Students: Yes
Full Year Module Available to Study Abroad / Exchange Students for a Single Term: No
Outside Option: Yes

Supervisor: Dr Natasha Ruiz-Gomez, Professor Peter Vergo
Teaching Staff: Dr Natasha Ruiz Gomez (autumn), Professor Peter Vergo (spring)
Contact details: Jan Butler, Second and Final Year Administrator Tel: 01206 873485 email: janbtlr

Module is taught during the following terms
Autumn Spring Summer

Module Description

Module Outline (updated April 2013)

It is now more than a century since the dramatic shifts occurred that are often thought of as defining `modern art`. This module offers a chance to discover what it really meant to be `modern` in turn-of-the century Europe, Scandinavia and Russia and how artists responded to the dramatic political, social and technological changes that we call modernization. Thinking about modern art is one of the most powerful ways to grasp the simultaneous elation and terror of `modernity`. We shall encounter radical ideas that range from sexual liberation to the politics of revolution, for this is the era of Freud and Lenin. We shall also look at the complex and sorry history of European imperialism in non-Western countries and the attitudes to non-Western peoples and cultures that went with it. Of course, it is not possible to cover every aspect of the art of the period, let alone the wider context. Instead, we shall look at a series of episodes, key works and events that will provide a basis for your further reading.

The module begins with a brief consideration of two influential tendencies: Art Nouveau and Symbolism. Art Nouveau was a movement affecting all European countries, one not confined to painting but which involved architecture and the applied arts as well. Symbolism was as much a literary as an artistic movement, being concerned with the force of the poetic imagination and often dealing with fantasy and desire. We shall look at Auguste Rodin`s Gates of Hell, which opens up questions of the psyche and the body. Whereas Symbolism rejected the urban and everyday world, Art Nouveau is one example of the opposing aspiration of modernism: to transform the entire environment according to its vision. At the same time, Art Nouveau borrowings from plant and other organic forms lend to some of its designed objects a peculiarly erotic mood - for example, in Hector Guimard`s famous entrances to the Paris Metro stations. While Symbolism focused on the expression of ideas, it was Art Nouveau designers who raised the possibility of an art dependent on forms that `mean nothing and signify nothing` (August Endell): a possibility also explored, although sometimes only tentatively, by artists working in Paris.

The remainder of the first term`s teaching concentrates on developments in France and Italy. It will explore diverse responses by individual artists working at the end of the nineteenth century to the legacy of Impressionism as the quintessential art of modern life. We shall focus on the colonialist impulses of Gauguin, the expressive inventions of van Gogh, the examination of colour theories in the Pointillism of Seurat and the constructions of Cézanne. Among works that we shall consider are Gauguin`s Vision After the Sermon, Van Gogh`s self-portraits, Seurat`s La Grand Jatte and Cézanne`s many depictions of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Out of this fragmented scene emerged the dramatic painting style known as Fauvism, the `movement` that established Matisse. But this new phenomenon was superseded almost immediately by the even more radical tendency of Braque and Picasso`s Cubism, arguably the defining creative moment of modernism. We will spend time discussing key works such as Matisse`s Joy of Life and Picasso`s Les Demoiselles d`Avignon. We will end the term looking at the most important modern art movement in Italy: Futurism, which embraced the beauty of speed and the `hygienic` power of war.

In the second part of the module, we shall trace the development of modern art in Central Europe, Scandinavia and Russia between about 1890 and 1920. We shall concentrate on a number of important artistic centres including Vienna, Munich, Berlin, Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Our focus, however, will be not merely geographical but also thematic. We shall follow the fortunes of various artistic groups or associations, among them Die Brücke (The Bridge) in Dresden and the Blue Rider group in Munich. And we shall examine several important topics: for example, the interest shown by so many artists in what they considered to be primitive or exotic art and artefacts as well as the ideas to do with political, sexual or social liberation that, rightly or wrongly, they associated with various kinds of non-European art. We shall also discuss how artists experimented with crossing the boundaries between one art form and another (e.g. painting, poetry, music) and how many painters were increasingly dazzled by the possibility of an entirely non-representational or non-objective art. This part of the module will include a consideration of figures such as Klimt, Munch, Kirchner, Kandinsky and Malevich. We will re-examine and unpack such iconic works as Munch`s The Scream, Klimt`s The Kiss, Kirchner`s series of paintings of the city, Kandinsky`s purportedly abstract Compositions and Malevich`s Black Square.

The aims of this module are:

to explore issues related to some of the main developments in European painting and sculpture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries;
to introduce students to works of this period (as far as possible, in the original) and to the comparative study of Modernist phenomena and issues in the various European countries;
to introduce students to specialised debates in past and recent literature around the interpretation of European art of this period;
to raise student awareness of different methods of approaching the discipline through analysis of chosen texts;
to stimulate students to develop skills in written communication through essay and oral communication, class presentations and debate in seminars.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this module the student should have:

a good understanding of the material covered and know some of the key works of the period;
a greater appreciation of works related to this subject and period;
some insight into the different methods of art-historical investigation that have been explored with reference to European art of this period;
some experience in textual analysis relevant to works and theoretical debates from this period;
an ability to discuss European art of this period and demonstrate all these competences through seminar presentations, three coursework essays of 2,000 - 3,000 words and an unseen examination;
worked together as a small team, developing communication and project management skills as well as the ability to meet deadlines for written work.

Learning and Teaching Methods

One two hour seminar each week for 20 weeks plus three revision seminars in the summer term. Two compulsory gallery visits during the year.


50 per cent Coursework Mark, 50 per cent Exam Mark


Three essays of 2-3000 words, each counting equally towards the final coursework mark.

Exam Duration and Period

3:00 during Summer Examination period.

Other information

Gallery visits during the year.


  • Preparatory Summer Reading (updated April 2013)
  • Abstraction: Towards a New Art. Painting 1910-20. Ex. cat. London, Tate Gallery, 1980.
  • Frascina, Francis, Tamar Garb, Nigel Blake, and Briony Fer. Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Green, Christopher. Art in France 1900-1940. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
  • Greenhalgh, Paul, ed. Art Nouveau 1890-1914. Ex. cat. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2000.
  • Hamilton, George Heard. Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1993.
  • Howard, Jeremy. Art Nouveau. International and National Styles in Europe. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996.
  • Stangos, Nikos, ed. Concepts of Modern Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 1994.
  • Further information can be found on:
  • online course materials for AR309-3-FY
  • School of Art History online course materials in Moodle:
  • School of Art History website:

Further information