Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Peter Nicholls provides original analytic accounts of the main Modernist movements. Close readings of key texts monitor the histories of Futurism, Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. This new edition includes discussion of the recent research trends, examination of developments in the US, and a new chapter on African-American Modernisms.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Of a Certain Tone

Abstract
The beginnings of modernism, like its endings, are largely indeterminate, a matter of traces rather than of clearly defined historical moments. To make those traces visible, as I shall try to do in my opening chapters, is to reconstitute a pre-history of the various modernisms without which their own exemplary works can hardly be understood. Indeed, much that has proved controversial about the literary forms of modernism has its origins in the writings of the 19th century and, especially, in the work of French poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé.
Peter Nicholls

1. Ironies of the Modern

Abstract
Perhaps the real paradox of Baudelaire’s ‘To a Red-haired Beggar Girl’ is that it suggests that irony is a necessary defence against modernity, even as it seems to assume that to be distinctively modern the poet must be ironic. In this chapter, I shall try to unpick this complicated response to ‘modernity’ and to trace its ambiguous relation to ideas of the social in the work of Baudelaire and some of his contemporaries, writers such as Gustave Flaubert, Herman Melville and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Peter Nicholls

2. Breaking the Rules: Symbolism in France

Abstract
If the work of Baudelaire, Melville and Dostoyevsky seems indelibly marked by an experience of aporia and loss, it is because they are finally unable to escape the confines of a degraded social world; their texts bear the traces of that world, even as they curse, repudiate and try to transcend it. The failure of metaphysical values destroys the hope that a coincidence between self and world might be achieved through sociality and a shared language. As we have seen, the alternative often canvassed by these writers is some kind of intense solitariness which might make the connection between self and world realisable without the intermediary forms of the social. But, as each writer discovers in a different way, this cultivation of the solitary stance is both ambivalent and dangerous, threatening to produce precisely the narcissistic atomism which characterises a degraded social sphere.
Peter Nicholls

3. Decadence and the Art of Death

Abstract
Mallarmé’s importance to writers in the last two decades of the 19th century can hardly be overestimated — in fact the literary history of that period might be written in terms of the various twists and distortions given to his poetic theory. One reason for his centrality was precisely that his work made itself available to such a range of appropriations. There was, for example, the Symbolist Mallarmé, whose opposition to ‘teaching, declamation, false sensibility, [and] objective description’ Moréas had invoked in his manifesto; but there was also the more hermetic, not to say precious Mallarmé, the Master presiding over those exclusive Tuesday salons where disciples debated his hyper-refined aesthetic in hushed and reverent tones. As the fin de siècle approached, French culture became obsessed with this second image of the writer as epitomising the decadence of the modern period. Concepts of Symbolism and decadence now began to flow together, becoming inextricably confused by the beginning of the new century. Fundamental to each was a complex idea of ‘refinement’ which brought to one focus the social and aesthetic entailments of ‘style’.
Peter Nicholls

4. Paths to the Future

Abstract
The decadents were finally ruined — as, of course, they had known all along they would be — by the cynical cast of their aesthetic. The decadent self was nourished by the pride it took in recognising that its own values were false, a cynical superiority of view which was also, however, an acknowledgement of its powerlessness to make things otherwise. This art accepted the hollowness beneath its material display and with a kind of malicious joy resigned itself to a circular logic for which death was not an escape but a consummation.
Peter Nicholls

5. A Metaphysics of Modernity: Marinetti and Italian Futurism

Abstract
On 20 February 1909, the Parisian paper Le Figaro printed a bizarre manifesto, which declared the beginning of a new art in much the same terms as might be used to declare war. The connection, as we shall see, was far from coincidental. The writer of the manifesto was an Italian, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, author of Symbolist verse and editor of a literary magazine called Poesia. Marinetti had spent his childhood in Egypt, where his father had amassed a fortune which would later provide resources for the multifarious activities of Futurism. Educated in Paris, Marinetti had a close knowledge of the French language, in which he wrote most of his early work, and his acquaintance with the literary scene there gave Poesia a key role in promoting a range of writers from More´as and Romains to Alfred Jarry. First and foremost, Marinetti was a formidable cultural impres-sario, a tireless publicist of his own genius and that of his movement, Italian Futurism. Here was the writer not as cloistered man-of-letters but as performer, activist and knowing buffoon. The manifestos of Futurism would constitute a guide to almost every aspect of avantgarde activity to come; they would also encode some of its most problematic attitudes.
Peter Nicholls

6. Other Spaces: French Cubism and Russian Futurism

Abstract
The extremism of the Futurist aesthetic leaves us with the question as to whether there could in fact be no ecstatic modernism, as we might call it, which did not tread the same path, no modernism which did not make the celebration of a dynamic modernity the ground of a radically anti-social aesthetic. An alternative route did lie in conceiving of modernity less as a content to be represented than as an instigation to form, and indeed we find that Ungaretti’s criticism of Futurism for its failure to move beyond representation was widely echoed by modernists elsewhere. Guillaume Apollinaire, for example, impressario of French modernism and a formative influence on Ungaretti’s early work, voiced the same complaint:
The Italian futurists declare that they will not abandon the advantages inherent in the subject, and it is precisely this that may prove to be the reef upon which all their artistic good will will be dashed to bits. (AOA, 199)
The emergence of Cubism after 1907, the year of Picasso’s path-breaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, was to give French modernism a strong anti-representational bias. Futurist painting was profoundly affected by these developments, which in Italy were first discussed in Soffici’s 1911 article on Picasso and Braque for La Voce,1 but where the French scene differed from the Italian one was in the close working alliances forged between Parisian writers and artists.
Peter Nicholls

7. Cruel Structures: The Development of Expressionism

Abstract
In previous chapters, we have seen Paris emerge as a magnetic cultural centre, as the very hub of European modernist activity. Here a sense of energy and dynamism brought art and metropolitan life into powerful association — the Paris of Delaunay was pre-eminently the city of light, colour and movement, the city where expanding consumerism had acquired an exciting erotic aura. If that sense of erotic modernity was connected, via the new painting, with an attack on forms of representation, it was above all because the Symbolist preoccupation with desire as the response to loss was now being called into question by the sense of modernity as an experience of plenitude and abundance. In this respect, dynamism and simultaneity expressed what the Russian writers referred to as the ‘self-sufficiency’ of the medium, be it paint, stone or language. Delaunay’s vision of Paris caught exactly that sense of self-sufficiency in its association of non-figurative forms with a vividly coloured expression of energy and confidence.
Peter Nicholls

8. Modernity and the ‘Men of 1914’

Abstract
In its association of narrative with forms of psychic oppression and confinement, Expressionism provided an extreme statement of one of the main principles of early European avant-gardism. Where it differed from some of the other tendencies, though, was in its agonised sense of the ultimate impossibility of escaping from structure into some pure, pre-Oedipal origin. The drive towards metaphysical presence was, in this sense, always compromised by the more powerful demands of history, narrative, and repetition. When we turn to the Anglo-American modernists, we find once again that the problematic of time occupies a central place, but here temporality is explored not as a repressive genealogical structure but rather as a discontinuous cultural memory conceived as the very matrix of the new modernism. There are many reasons for this difference in perspective, but one is surely that, while the Expressionists associated narrative forms with the stultifying reproduction of a domestic history, for many of the major figures of Anglo-American modernism time was imaginatively experienced through the shock of ‘exile’ and cultural contrast.
Peter Nicholls

9. At a Tangent: Other Modernisms

Abstract
Pound’s way of pitting the ‘armour’ of style against the mere ‘drift’ of desire neatly encapsulates a turn against those fantasies of the disembodied self which had played such an important part in early European modernism. By way of contrast, the ‘Men of 1914’ were concerned with inventing strong and authoritative versions of the self, a difference in emphasis which grounded their claims for the autonomy of the avant-garde in a model of psychic development, which to some extent paralleled the Freudian trajectory from primary narcissism to objectival desire. There was, however, no acknowledged debt to the new science of psychoanalysis here; in fact, Freud was generally condemned by the ‘Men of 1914’ as a prime instigator of another ‘romantic twilight’, in Lewis’s phrase.1
Peter Nicholls

10. African American Modernism

Abstract
Pound was mistaken in identifying Loy as a fellow American, but he did so in part because her ‘verbalism’ seemed to him representative of a new quality in American writing. While Laforgue’s poetry spoke ‘not the popular language of any country but an international tongue common to the excessively cultivated’,1 the ‘logopoeic’ inventiveness of Loy and Moore seemed to him a ‘distinctly national product’ that could have originated only in America.2 In Loy’s view, too, the ‘new’ language of the avant-garde would take its cue from the impact that a rapidly evolving American speech was having on the more traditional structures of English. Loy explained to her son-in-law Julian Levy that she ‘was trying to make a foreign language because English had already been used’,3 and in an essay of 1925 called ‘Modern Poetry’ she characterised the American language as a ‘composite language’, a ‘welter of unclassifiable speech’, and as ‘English enriched and variegated with the grammatical structure and voice-inflection of many races’.4 In view of this ‘novel alloy’ (the word-play seems deliberate), ‘it was inevitable’, says Loy, ‘that the renaissance of poetry should proceed out of America, where latterly a thousand languages have been born’ (158).
Peter Nicholls

11. From Fantasy to Structure: Dada and Neo-Classicism

Abstract
Works like Walrond’s Tropic Death, McKay’s Banjo, and Schuyler’s Black No More have a boisterous negativity which makes them not altogether remote from that pre-War moment of New York Dada and the forms of irony and black humour which Picabia and Duchamp had introduced into the American cultural scene. The invention of Dada proper, however, along with the discovery of its talismanic name, took place elsewhere, in Zurich. Switzerland’s neutrality made it a natural haven for artists and intellectuals seeking refuge from war-torn Europe; Zurich especially became ‘an island, isolated in the middle of a war’,1 an oasis of bourgeois normality from which to launch a critique of the reigning political madness. Here German intellectuals previously affiliated to Expressionism — Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp — were joined by Romanians Marcel Janco and Tristan Tzara.
Peter Nicholls

12. Other Times: The Narratives of High Modernism

Abstract
On the other side of the Channel, the post-war years also saw a growing concern with ‘order’ and ‘structure’, though here its results would be very different. As we have seen in earlier chapters, the ‘Men of 1914’ version of modernism derived much of its energy from an attack on modernity. The polemical thrust given here to an anti-mimetic art was directed against the imitative tendencies associated with the mass politics of a democratic age in which, as Wyndham Lewis put it, ‘the life of the crowd’ forces man to ‘live only through others, outside himself’.1 One of the first moves of this modernism had been to reconstitute the self as closed, autonomous and antagonistic. At the same time, though, this construction of the self eschewed any form of romantic individualism: notions of authenticity and spontaneity were discarded as so many trappings of the democratic age, and the ‘Men of 1914’ stressed instead the self’s unoriginality, its embeddedness in a complex cultural tradition. Having made the self autonomous, then, these modernists had no great desire to explore its interior — that was associated with the ‘twilight’ romanticism of Freud’s chaotic unconscious — and the aim was, rather, to avoid a narcissistic individualism by restoring art to the public sphere.
Peter Nicholls

13. Death and Desire: The Surrealist Adventure

Abstract
It is a sunny Spring day in 1934; André Breton is strolling through the Paris flea market with Alberto Giacometti. Like many such occasions valued by the Surrealists, this is a planned adventure, with both men on the lookout for objects which will strike the desired note of the uncanny, something at once unexpected and oddly familiar. Giacometti picks up a rather ominous metal mask which, after seeming to ‘entertain some fear about its next destination’, he buys; for his part Breton
made just as elective a choice with a large wooden spoon, of peasant fabrication but quite beautiful, it seemed to me, and rather daring in its form, whose handle, when it rested on its convex part, rose from a little shoe that was part of it. I carried it off immediately.1
Peter Nicholls
Additional information