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Modernism In Scandinavia And Italy Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 3532 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Modernism was not just a new style of thinking; it represented a new way of thinking, new ideas and a new ideology which was a shift from the contemporary ways of art, literature and architecture. Modernism, when defined roughly, refers to the contemporary ideas, notions, spirit and way of life. A more accurate definition would describe it as the change in the cultural values which originated in the form of cultural movements, and left their impact on the Western society in the late 19th and early 20th century. Some believe that modernism was an uprising against realism which was both conventional and conformist in its way of thinking. Some of the major political and societal changes which brought about the modernism were the post world wars situation. The huge developments and transformations in industry and technology coupled with the cultural exchanges, transportation and communication developments and influences from the West.

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The period of modernism in Scandinavia and Italy was both progressive and optimistic. It stems from the renaissance for the historians and was a cultural movement which impacted the Scandinavian and Italian art, architecture, music and literature. The breaking away from the conventional styles to newer representations in the period, where there was a shift from the traditional values. The period also marked growth and innovations in science, ethics, philosophy and psychology besides the previously mentioned art, architecture, music and literature.

Different countries have had their share of influencing modernism. Modernism was reflected in art and styles and the streak touched many countries, with each nation contributing uniquely and overall adding to the progression. This period saw a change in the style and ideology of art during this era. The philosophy of art was transformed during this period in terms of the themes and subject matter, and also the use of colours, shapes and lines.

“The intellectual underpinnings of modernism emerge during the Renaissance period when, through the study of the art, poetry, philosophy, and science of ancient Greece and Rome, humanists revived the notion that man, rather than God, is the measure of all things, and promoted through education ideas of citizenship and civic consciousness. The period also gave rise to ‘utopian’ visions of a more perfect society”. [1] 

Every nuances of design, architecture or art captures the political and cultural aura of the time and place, and the modern art in Scandinavia and Italy reflected their countries situations in the modern art.

Below is a modernism timeline which shows the significant events between 1920- 1970.

Modernism in Scandinavia

Scandinavia had a mixed dynamics of cultures, language and politics. This gave birth to a versatile and multi dimensional philosophy of art and design which became more assertive. The movement from Europe enveloped Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland within its fold. The Scandinavian countries had their own unique, yet impactful role in the move towards modernism. The response to the stimuli from the modern world was distinctive. The countries were experiencing the same changes in the modern life- social equality, industrialization and urbanization. Nonetheless, the outcomes and impact showed the unique natures of art and skills that evolved, which gave individuality and characteristic art and design to each of the countries. Yet the distinctiveness was combined with features which were common to all the Scandinavian countries which include a unifying touch in terms of ‘humanism, tradition, moderation, handcrafted perfectionism, modesty, quietude and purposefulness’ [2] which came to know as the style of the Scandinavian modern art.

Among the European countries, the Scandinavian were able to portray the modern artistic touch in their traditional and conventional craft most expressively. Countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland which had internal dynamics and resources which led to an increased inclination towards the craft industries were most explicit in communicating the modern aesthetic in their art and craft.”With the breakdown of the craft guild system in the mid- nineteenth century, they established a number of institutions to protect them from an influx of inferior, foreign mass-produced goods.” [3] The Swedish Society of Craft and Industrial Design was formed to cultivate and maintain high standards in crafts.

In the pre-1900 times, the Scandinavian countries derived their inspiration from the national traditions and folklore. The early works, which imparted and impacted the most to the modernism, included the Viking-revival imagery of Norway, arts and crafts movement of Nordic and the Swedish porcelain works which depicted the flora and fauna to their utmost beauty on vessels.

Harmony in visual arts such as architecture, decorative arts, graphics and craft came through the Art Nouveau movement which gave a unifying touch to the art. The driving motivation behind the flourishing of modern art during the Art Nouveau was the dissatisfaction with historicism, and the mutual feeling that a newer and fresher design should be adopted in the new century.

Gregor Paulsson’s book Vackrare Vardagsvara was the starting point towards the unifying of Swedish design. The Swedish design was directed towards achieving ideals of humanism and democracy, depicted through beauty and simplicity.

National romanticism found initial grounds in Sweden and Finland; however there was a failure to translate this style into architecture as a unifying feature. Works of architects like Gustaf Ferinand is of particular importance. The Scandinavian countries followed a same trajectory, like the Copenhagen town hall in Denmark failed to integrate Richardson’s example. Romanticism is Finland had become prominent in the late 1800’s. The inspiration behind the Finnish modern art was their folk epic kalevala. Sonck was a prominent figure who built a granite church and used materials such as steel and concrete for Engel’s university library. Other major buildings include Tampere Cathedral and telephone building with characteristic masonry syntax. Finland had been an imperial colony of Sweden and Russia, and therefore Denmark was where the revival of Romantic Classicism originated. Tinges of classism were seen in Sweden quite some time later in works such as Carl Westman’s Stockholm Courts. The architecture saw a shift from national romantic and classical to neo classical. In Sweden the Romantic classical revival could not witness its pure form and was diluted by inflection of plan and iconography.

Tampere Landmarks and Monuments: Tampere Cathedral (Tampereen Tuomiokirkko) tampere_cathedral_view.jpg

Alvar Aalto’s had Asplund as the driving force. Both Aalto’s and Asplund’s work had several directions to them, and depict different levels of cultural development. The work saw varying contrasts of classical and vernacular architecture. Major works of Aalto, such as the apartment’s, clubs, churches and renovations were inspired by Asplund, and had a Doricist touch to them with an amalgamation of vernacular, Hoffmann’s austerity of line and Italian. Aalto’s Paimio sanatorium instilled the Functional style in the 1927-34 periods. Aalto’s later works were inspired by Erik Bryggman, who was a Finnish architect, in which classicism was combined with the Soviet-Agit-Prop lead in architecture expression. The designs of Aalto derived inspirations from both Dutch and Russian Constructivism, and included the use of concrete, geometrical schemes and serial landscapes. Aalto was influenced by different peoples and philosophies in his works. His later career saw a shift from rational and technical ideas to human imagination, and the use of materials shifted from concrete to wood. This was the organic approach to style and design. Special consideration was given to the ambiance and environment of the architecture, with filtration of heat, sound and light. Hence, the designs incorporated the physical and psychological needs of the people. Efforts were made to ensure the control of environment, meet the people’s needs of privacy, suitable exposure to light and heat, design of ceilings and non noisy wash basins. The designs and features of the buildings were tailor made for each, so that the varying needs such as those of a library and hospitals could be met effectively. Aalto describes his anti mechanistic and more humanistic approach to architecture in the words, ‘To make architecture more human means better architecture and it means functionalism much larger than the merely technical ones. This goal can be accomplished only by architectural methods- by the creation and combination of different technical things in such a way that they will provide for the human being the most harmonious life’ [4] . Neo empirical times in Scandinavia(1930s) saw the anti urban streak in them with an inclination towards the humanistic and traditional inspired styles. Some remarkable architectures in this period include the powerhouse designed by Osvald Almqvist, Sven Markelius’s Swedish pavilion, the house of Gunnar Asplund and other similar styles of buildings. The basic features of architecture in both Scandinavia and Italy can be described in the words, ” the entire inventive effort of these architects consist essentially of devising flexible urban modules whose geometrical character permits articulations that fit well into natural site, leaving the color, simplicity, and traditionalism of the details to provide the more immediate directions” [5] .

The Scandinavian styles, which emerged after the post world war period, were the works of many talented Scandinavian architects and designers. The works of the architects was highly successful and impacted o only the Scandinavian countries but also the rest of the world as described in the following words, “Self-confidence grew with the successes. The American Lunning Award, reserved for Scandinavian designers, provided a number of young talents with their American breakthrough. In 1954 ‘Design in Scandinavia’ embarked on a three-and-a half year long tour of the US and Canada. It was not just beautifully crafted objects, but ‘A Scandinavian Way of Living’ that was promoted. Danish teak furniture, Swedish crystal and textiles, Norwegian enamel, Finnish furniture and glass merged into a concept generally perceived as Scandinavian: blond, cool, distinct and refined. Its careful craftsmanship, perfection, harmony and natural feeling were seen as the dream of a better world – in a Europe which had risen from the inferno of World War II.”

“Remarkably, there are few countries today – if any – which continue to produce as many vintage designs as the Scandinavian countries, testimony to their timelessness, practicality and to the well-deserved argument they transcend the vagaries of fashion” [6] .

Modernism in Italy

Modernism in Italy is closely linked to the social forces and is portrayed through the artistic strategies. Artists as individuals, or in groups, sought to demonstrate the change of the century and the change in the social environment (with culture and politics being the main drivers) through painting, design, music, literature and architecture.Two architects, Giuseppe Sommaruga and Ernesto Basile, were the major contributors to the Art Nouveau in Italy. Art Noveau also known as the ‘new art’ was a movement of changing styles of art, applied art and architecture in terms of style.

Italy was affected, better, influenced by Modernism such that the era brought forward architectural masterpieces that were at times either influenced by the works of foreign modernist architects or by older architectural designs.

The 1925 renovation of Rome brought about changes in the Roman map as streets were re-built to connect ancient monuments with the monuments that were to be built by the Mussolini with the help of Marcello Piacentini. While declaring the plan for the reconstruction of Rome, Mussolini declared: “In five years’ time, Rome must astonish the peoples of the world. It must appear vast, orderly and powerful as it was in the days of Augustus.”

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Affinity of tradition was so strong during the modernist era that it was almost impossible to construct and design buildings that did not draw influence from ancient Roman architecture. They were, therefore, bound to ‘retain a typical national character’. The act of taking inspiration from the past was best settled by the argument that the traditions are not erased from the memories of citizens but only evolve into variations of themselves.

However, the avant-garde architecture and modernism was viewed fearfully by those who had witnessed the devastations of the world war and regarded modernism in the technological spheres and other advances as the root cause of the war. The new slogan raised was therefore that of humanism, which incorporated that which was left in the pre war period. Special emphasis was laid on the psychological and physical aspects of the architecture of the people, the expressive use of materials, integration with the environment and incorporation of the traditions and societal factors. The art and architecture sought to remove the anti-technology and neo-humanistic approach and produce work which the people could identify with by having a relationship with them and incorporating traditions. This is referred to as the neo-empirical movement in Scandinavia and the organic movement in Italy. The urban areas began to have a domestic tinge to them, with an anti urban attitude emerging in both Scandinavia and Italy. The themes of nature and pseudo-psychologism flourished in the Scandinavian architecture in the 1930s.

The Italian architects drew their inspiration from the Scandinavian architecture and therefore the architecture in Italy showed the visible signs of being inspired from the Scandinavians. The ‘social-democratic’ styles were particularly attractive for the Italian architects. However, Italian modernism was more richer than the following of Scandinavian styles only.

“The flair of Italian furniture design for expressing exclusivity and esprit was much better suited to the booming economy than the sparse aesthetics and good-natured folksiness of Scandinavian design, which was beginning to feel tame and stagnant. A decade earlier, Nordic coolness and order had been needed to help heal the spiritual wounds in a Europe that was still in ruins and chaos. But now young Nordic designers could no longer walk in the old footsteps. Scandinavian design became unfashionable, also in Scandinavia itself” [7] .

However, the Italian architecture had more depth to it in the Neo-Realism, rather than just being inspired by Scandinavian styles. “The central concern was on the insistence on defining a common language that would be directly communicative for the poorer classes who were viewed as the protagonists of the postwar reconstruction” [8] . Informal ground plans were laid out to pay reverence to impulsive forms of architecture and materials such as wrought iron and Roman style bricks were used with an emphasis on local dialect. This combination clearly referred to the peasant world adorned for its naturalism. “Certainly the rediscovery of rural purity was simply one aspect of the cultural populism that was so in vogue in the post war Italian culture. It was a regressive utopia with nostalgic accents. But, as far as the architecture was concerned, it created a true proper ideology that was adequate to the particular role that the building industry was called to fulfill in the period of reconstruction [9] “. The architects gave monumental forms to their creations, with features of structural expressionism to build an emotive contact with the masses. The Italian architecture should also be viewed from the perspective of the polemics for and against the Organic architecture.

“In the Renaissance, architecture was seen as the supreme art…it also represented the highest artistic achievement a human being could attain. The Italian renaissance architecture had significant impact on the world at that time, “displaced only by the advent of modernist architecture in the twentieth century. [10] ” But even the modern architect Richard Meier notes that “the quality of light, expression of structure, as expressed in an interior like Sant’ Ivo Sapienza,” remains influential in the way buildings are designed today. Therefore, the ideas and philosophies that emerged with regard to the architectural design still find a place I today’s world. The idea of buildings that reach into the heavens or the principle that an interior should welcome the light into the interior rooms can be traced to this period. [11] Much of domestic architecture throughout Europe and America still resists modernism, and “you can still drive down the street in Palo Alto and see columned exteriors on the houses of the wealthy mimicking public buildings and communicating civic power. The focus of Italian architecture was on the creation of open, well-lit, and above all public spaces that welcomed both light and was a reflection of humanistic ideas with special emphasis on the physical and psychological comforts for the people. The developments in Roman architecture with their innovative designs and use of styles such as arches and vaults are the source of inspiration for many architectural masterpieces even today. The modernism period brought changes that have changed the world of architecture forever. These impacts of modernism can be seen not only in the Roman empire but have also spread far and wide during the travels and conquests of the Romans.


The Scandinavian and Italian art and architecture, and the economic, technological, demographic and cultural changes evolved in tandem. The architectural designs depict the periods and their relative influence with different architects and artists gaining influence in different periods, and their works marked by their characteristic styles, yet having a unifying national touch to them. The styles which were adopted were the neo classism, Romanticism, historicism and vernacular architecture. These trends in architecture coincide with the societal and political changes in these countries during 1920-1970’s. The use of wood and concrete and architectural styles like the arches, piers and others are the characteristic features of the times, and a reflection of political and societal evolution. The architecture in Scandinavia and Italy is intermittent with a variety of prevailing conditions, such as those of the society, but also reflect the architect’s innovation and style. The Scandinavian and Italian architecture hold onto their uniqueness even today. A visit to these countries show how the architecture has a touch of individuality to it ranging from the buildings, shops, hotels, restaurants and other architectural creations. The modern and contemporary styles have left their mark so prominent, that it can be seen even today. To conclude, it may be said that identity is very important. During the modernism, people found validation and expression in the objects with which they surrounded themselves and therefore their ideologies were reflected in their art and architecture.


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