The Bigger Picture: Modernism

Disclaimer: As I’m preparing for my comprehensive exams, I’m finding I have to organize my thoughts better, so in all honesty, this post as as much for myself as it is for anyone else.


this British WW1 postcard illustrates how the “Great War” was portrayed early on

Modernism, which is generally agreed to span the early 1900s to about 1965, was a period of innovation in art, literature and music. As I see it, it was the result of three things:

  • modern industrialization and the resulting growth of large cities into even larger cities
  • the shock of, first, World War 1, and then World War 2
  • the disillusionment with Enlightenment thinking that the war experience necessitated

A central theme of modernist work is a sense of alienation, a loss of faith (although this may not be true for all modernist artists and writers), and a rejection of traditional forms. Ezra Pound’s “Make it new!” was a call for experimentation, for letting go of established patterns and conventions and finding new ways to write that would be appropriate to the society in which the modernists found themselves. The idealism of the days before WW1 was no longer possible. In the aftermath of war, modernists saw decay rather than glory and many perceived the world around them as impersonal, capitalist, and essentially hostile to the arts.

self-portrait, Frida Kahlo

self-portrait, Frida Kahlo

Modernist experimentation resulted in a number of innovative approaches that have changed the face of art and literature (I’m going to focus on literature because I don’t really know very much about art). Some of these are stream-of-consciousness writing (think of Ulysses by James Joyce, for example, or some of Virginia Woolf’s work), straight-forward (or downright blunt) instead of flowery language (Hemingway; Pound & the Imagists), and the unreliable narrator (Faulker’s Sound and the Fury comes to mind). I’d say that all of these show how occupied the modernists were with the question of how to know what is true or real and what is not. If we cannot trust anyone (our family, friends, comrades, government) to tell us what is true, how can we know? If we have only our own minds to rely on, what does that leave us with?

Salvador Dali with ocelot

Salvador Dali with ocelot

One of my favorite features of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is also a “symptom” of modernism: the work’s self-consciousness. Modernists rejected realism (think of Dali and Picasso) and, in some cases, made a point of not just not trying to be realistic, but actively forcing the reader / observer to acknowledge the medium or the artificiality of the work. In Woolf’s Orlando there are several passages where this happens. In one such instance, the narrator (a fictional biographer of a fictional person) builds up our expectations for a profound and important statement which then has to be omitted because, as s/he explains, there is not enough room in the book because printing costs need to be kept down.

Some modernists / modernist work to be aware of and / or that I’ve written about here:

poppy flowers

poppy flowers

About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


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