The concept of a traditional Modernism is perhaps something of an oxymoron. Weren’t the Moderns the ones who decried the shopworn conventions of the old? Wasn’t “Make it new!” their battle cry? A Modernist tradition? Get with the programme.
The Moderns, for sure, were people who had the interesting idea that contemporary artworks might actually be better, or at least as worthy of attention, as those of earlier times; and that our age, while different from preceding ones, might be even more worthwhile as an object of enquiry. Back in the 19th century that was a fairly radical notion. Historically artists were taught to revere the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the great Renaissance masters. There were some dissenters of course, like the Pre-Raphaelites, but their dissent took the form of a reverence for different historical periods, not for the unique characteristics of their own time and place.
Somewhere during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Modernist idea won, and painters turned from outmoded classical models to seek their inspiration in the new realities being opened up by contemporary science, technology, and philosophy. And although we have since moved from the Modern to the Post-Modern, the focus on the contemporary continues to this day. The past continues to be the nightmare from which we are trying to awake, not the model we are trying to emulate.
Or so say the art history survey books, delivered as gospel to each generation of 100-level undergrads. But of course, history always simplifies (kind of like I’m doing here): it has to, to create a coherent narrative out of what was ultimately a relatively incoherent mess of things that just kind of happened. That narrative becomes less convincing the more you start to dig into it.