Academic study in the humanities involves the construction of elaborate stories. Normally we privilege the conventional narrative form, settling for beginnings, middles and ends, and filling the structure out with characters (the personalities of thinkers and artists), plots (motives and intentions), relations (movements and groups as well as actions and reactions) and all important setting (historical and social contexts). So, in the case of modernism (potentially even now nothing more grounded than an elaborate academic fiction) we find scholars debating beginnings (early proto-existentialism, impressionism and the tension between symbolism and naturalism), middles (the first two decades of the twentieth century, the adventures of the avant-garde and the emancipation of modern spirits from the strangulations of their traditions and institutions), and ends (late-modernism and the disillusion of the thirties, the failure of the various modernist projects as the second world war of the century inevitably approaches). Characters adorn these stories. Quixotic and intense, the symbolists attempt to derive essence from the language of nothingness. Adventurous “new” women struggle with the hangover of nineteenth century chauvinism. Provincials from Ireland and the United States relocate as exotic exiles in the continental cities: Berlin, Munich, Vienna and, the modernist city par excellence, Paris. Futurism takes the written world and applies it in the battlefield. But this story is not the kind of thing you’d find in the texts we read as modernist. Where’s the self-reflexive questioning, the troubling of beginning, middle and end, the connecting nothing with nothing, the fragmentation and increasingly hollow hope of renewal? When we turn to Walter Benjamin, what we find is an early example (and still utterly singular) of an attempt to arrive at a construction of knowledge that is equal to its subject, that is, in some sense, its subject.
Modernism: A Brief Reminder
There may still be some confusion over this term so now is a good point to clear that up. The “-ism” of modernism does not signify (as it might suggest) that a single coherent philosophy exists, arrived at by consensus amongst modernist authors. The term comes to be identified with a very wide range of trends and movements in the arts and humanities during a broad and necessarily ill-defined period.
It is not uncommon to find that peculiarly modernist works can be traced as far back as the mid nineteenth century—e.g., some aspects of Dostoevsky and Edgar Allan Poe. Also, still in the mid to late nineteenth century, certain trends that we can see leading to Modernism are evident, such as the Naturalist, Impressionist and Symbolist techniques associated with artists and writers in what was then emerging as an avant-garde.
Then in the 1890s modernism begins to emerge, in many different contexts, with some force. In painting, post-impressionism liberates the rigorous impressionist techniques designed to capture the transient play of light so that paintings and writings are now capable of documenting hitherto unheard of and never-before-seen worlds. Subjective or sub-conscious realms are powerfully documented through the estranging techniques of artists and writers. A number of explicit movements—alongside powerful individuals who will belong to no movement—emerge with philosophies and manifestoes, particular adherences to various kinds of techniques and motivations. The Italian Futurists, the Russian Futurists, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Fauvism (wild beasts), Cubism and all kinds of abstract versions of all of the above, emerge in their own specific times and places. You need a map to chart this ferment of activity.
The First World War has a dramatic effect on society at the time (obviously) but you should not underestimate the intelligence and resourcefulness of modernist writers here. First world war poetry is not modernist poetry as such. With most war poet collections we observe a gently traditional lyric style pass as the war progresses, from enthusiastic, often jingoistic naiveté, through shock, trauma and realization, to weary and disillusioned bitterness. Modernist writers had already taken nihilism by the horns (Hemingway literally of course) so the “horrors of war” were somewhat less of a surprise, which in no way suggests that their response was any less intense.
After the war modernist activity reaches its height. The Waste Land, Ulysses, Mina Loy’s poetry, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the greatest works of Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, as well as Picasso, Matisse and Paul Klee (for instance) in the art world, all emerged during this period.
The late twenties and the thirties reveal both a maturing of and, many people believe, a decline in modernism. Certainly great changes occurred. The dawning realization that people would not become any more aware or conscious of the conditions of existence and/or the virtues of aesthetic production for its own sake leads to a rather more satirical and in some cases rather more despairing engagement. Many of the leading figures are dead by the time the Second World War begins. That, therefore, can seem a convenient place to end the story. However, modernism was never intended to be convenient. I find it often very difficult to justify finding an ending anywhere, at least not yet, but that is another story.
Techniques and Characteristics
Modernism manifests a variety of attitudes and techniques. Very broadly, there is an increasing problematisations of media of representation, drawing attention to the modes of representation themselves. Rather than attempting to represent a) the world, b) thoughts, c) feelings, d) relationships (or anything else) the modernist writer and artist attempt to draw attention to the way representation organizes our often very different experiences of the world, thoughts, feelings, relationships and everything else. For this reason, art and writing becomes less like a way to something else (as a window provides a clear view to the other side of a wall) and more like something you have to take notice of for itself (the window is now like a stained glass one).
John Willet has attempted to define the powerful and heterogeneous (heterogeneous means “manifesting in many different ways”) phenomena of expressionism as follows:
The term has varying meanings, which differ according to the context (and to some extent the country) in which they are used. Expressionism is normally:
1. a family characteristic of modern German art, literature, music and theatre, from the turn of the century to the present day;
2. a particular modern German movement which lasted roughly between 1910 and 1922;
3. a quality of expressive emphasis and distortion which may be found in works of art of any people or period.
Etymology: French, from monter to mount
1: the production of a rapid succession of images in a motion picture to illustrate an association of ideas
2 a: a literary, musical, or artistic composite of juxtaposed more or less heterogeneous elements b: a composite picture made by combining several separate pictures
3: a heterogeneous mixture
Cinema operates through two main principles of artifice (creation). The first is montage, in which images are juxtaposed in a succession in order to produce associations. The second is through the construction of an imaginary space, achieved through the placement of the camera and, thus, through the direction of the spectator’s gaze. Both of these techniques directly reflect those of modernism in writing and art. The difference, however, is that cinema subordinates them to the most conventional demands of realism: plot, character and narrative resolution. Luis Buňuel’s surrealist film, Un chien andalou, begins with a montage sequence that tricks the eye: a man, a pair of hands, a razor, a young woman, an eye, the moon, clouds, another (probably animal) eye, which is then cut with a razor blade. The logic of montage suggests that the woman’s eye has been cut with a razor blade.