Modernism was, of course, concerned with the modern world. But it made a necessary distinction between the modern and the Modernist. The modern was a matter of period and historical phase; the Modernist a matter of art and technique, a peculiar twist of vision.
Modernism brought together, married, dallied with, rejected and played out the interconnections between the artistic tendencies of earlier times. But it played with a modern consciousness. It hated and at the same time lauded the growth of modern industrialism and the rise of the cities. It attempted to and in many ways succeeded in seeing the world in which we live with new eyes. A mixture of movements and sensibilities and styles and emotions, a cross-fertilization of all of the possibilities took place.
Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (the women of Avignon) in 1906/7. It was an act of outright challenge to the laws of composition and perspective of the past.
At the same time Guallame Appolinaire began writing poetry which explicitly dismissed the poetic compositions of previous times. Punctuation was rejected, regular typography went out of the window, even recognizable verse forms were undermined. There was a shift away from the obvious, the sentimental, and the lyrical. Poetic sensibilities were searching out a new vocabulary, irony, complexity, tension, structure, ambiguity and toughness.
Poems by DH Lawrence could appear next to those by Ezra Pound. Writers and artists who were futuristic, revolutionary, naturalistic, or romantic, could and would, suddenly, almost overnight, find themselves in certain senses in league with others who were nihilistic, conservative, symbolistic or classical. It was important, not only to celebrate the technological age, but also to condemn it. What took place was a fusing of intellect and emotion, subjective and objective, reason and unreason.
In short, modernism is characterized, apart from its international character, by its fascination with evolving consciousness. This is Strindberg, talking about the characters in his play, Miss Julie, but it is the kind of comment that might have been made by any modernist writer:
Since they are modern characters, living in an age of transition more urgently hysterical at any rate than the age that preceded it, I have drawn them as split and vacillating. . . conglomerations of past and present. . . scraps from books and newspapers.