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The Whole Universe Rocks

The Harry Ransom Center's 'Make It New' shows how modernism changed everything

By Katherine Catmull, Fri., Dec. 12, 2003

Still from the film <i>The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari</i>, 1919,  from the Norman Bel Geddes Archive
Still from the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919, from the Norman Bel Geddes Archive

On or about December, 1910, art went strange.

Painting stopped looking like anything at all. Music lost its tonic anchor and harmonic charm. Poetry jumped the fence of meter and rhyme. To read a "good" novel, you needed three languages and a degree in anthropology.

Art started to make us feel a bit stupid.

Art stopped being pretty and accessible and started being work. This is when art left us behind.

And irritably, or guiltily, or with a shrug, many people left art behind as well.

It's not that educated Victorians and Edwardians spent every evening at symphonies and galleries. But before modernism, art never seemed downright hostile.

Modernism. Is there anything more old-fashioned than the word "modern," earnestly redolent as it is of chrome blenders and Our Friend the Atom? But although the word may be dated, we cannot shake off the cultural movement. Because don't bother asking what modernism is: We're soaking in it, to this very day -- and frankly, we're starting to get pretty wrinkly, which may be part of the problem.

A century after audiences nearly rioted at the premiere of a Debussy opera (as inexplicable now as rioting over Vivaldi), we're still struggling with modernism. Although some modernist art has grown friendly and harmless, much retains its power to shock and confuse.

Georges Dary. <i>Tout par L'Electricité </i> (Tours: Alfred Mame et Fils, 1883).
Georges Dary. Tout par L'Electricité (Tours: Alfred Mame et Fils, 1883).

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center's fascinating exhibition "Make It New: The Rise of Modernism" borrows its titular injunction from Ezra Pound. For if nothing else, modernism means a break with the old, with the past, scorning your father's Matthew Arnold. It means breaking accepted boundaries between artistic media, so that novelists help themselves to new styles in painting, which were borrowed from music, and vice versa.

And it means exultant plundering of extra-artistic realms like technology, psychology, and the new physics. As the abstract painter Kandinsky noted in 1911, "Professional men of learning ... finally cast doubt on that very matter which was yesterday the foundation of everything, so that the whole universe rocks." No wonder the artistic world rocked with it.

All those old walls tumbled down with explosive force, releasing what HRC director Thomas Staley, in his foreword to the exhibition catalog, calls "the gigantic burst of creative energy ... we have come to call modernism."

But defining modernism more precisely than that gets tricky. Is modernism the fervid, almost putrescent emotionalism of expressionism or the steely, speedy lines of the futurists? Is it the overdetermined richness of Joyce's Ulysses or the determinedly meaningless poems of the Dadaists? Modernism is messy, full of contending opposites, with no single style to point to.

And there's a reason for that. In his erudite catalog essay "Exhibiting Modernism: A View From the Air," Harvard professor Daniel Albright observes that "much of the strangeness, the stridency, and the exhilaration of modernist art can be explained by this strong thrust toward the verges of the aesthetic experience."

The point is, any old verge would do; it was a movement toward not a particular edge, but toward Edge itself -- outward toward extremes in every direction, testing the limits not of an envelope but of a sphere. The modernist movement is a starry explosion of rays, from different centers, going in different directions: a crazy parody of St. Augustine's definition of God.

This lack of structure presents a challenge to those trying to organize a coherent exhibition (or Chronicle article) around the topic of modernism. Albright himself describes modern art as a "radial net" in which lines connect nodes like "the great central nexus of cubism" and certain key aesthetic/historical moments.

He identifies one such key moment -- one well-represented in the HRC exhibition -- as the explosive premiere of Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) in Paris in 1916. Here converged the lines of Stravinsky's disturbing new music, Nicholas Roerich's costume designs inspired by American Indian motifs, Nijinsky's violent, innovative choreography -- and the highly modern marketing brilliance of the impresario Diaghilev. No wonder the opening-night audience rioted.

But as Albright says, one of the delights of the exhibit is that "each one of you can draw his or her own thread from object to object, text to text." Curator Cathy Henderson and her colleagues have constructed a web built upon five interconnected nodes they title "Portals of Discovery," "Forms and Technologies," "Invisible Worlds," "The City," and "Marketing the New." More than 400 texts, objects, photographs, and artworks are on display, ranging from a working zoetrope to a copy of The Waste Land inscribed from author T.S. Eliot to Ezra Pound.

Alliance Paris. James Joyce and Sylvia Beach standing outside Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, circa 1922.
Alliance Paris. James Joyce and Sylvia Beach standing outside Shakespeare and Co. bookshop, circa 1922.

The "Portals of Discovery" section showcases a few of the early passageways into modernism. These portals might be geographic -- for example, a 19th-century map of Central Africa is set against a quote from Heart of Darkness -- or historical: the opening lines of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August painted on a gallery wall, describing the funeral of Edward VII as the last gasp of the old world. Then there are aesthetic portals, such as the French Symbolist poets of the mid-19th century. In a handwritten copy of Baudelaire's extraordinary poem "Une Charogne" (published as "La Charogne"-- the Carrion), we see one of the first artists to find beauty in both the ordinary and the hideous.

Moving into the arguably overstuffed "Forms and Technology" section, we find the Eadweard Muybridge motion studies: those series of still photos of naked and near-naked people walking, vaulting, kicking a ball, climbing stairs, all in stop-motion. As earnest as these may look to us today, they were a revelation in their time and taught scientists and artists a great deal about movement -- perhaps informing paintings like Marcel Duchamp's infamous Nude Descending a Staircase.

Here too are the Imagists with their obsession with hard, concrete images and a photo of Imagist poet H.D. by Man Ray. Wittily, the curators have included a bit of handwritten doggerel by Robert Frost mocking the Imagists.

Cubism and abstract art also fall in this node; there are stills from the great 1919 expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and don't miss the amusing postcard from Picasso bearing a pencil sketch of an elaborate frame around a tiny dot, labeled "Tableau Abstrait."

There's also a jazz and blues section, which includes one of my favorite odd bits in the show: a note from F. Scott Fitzgerald, regretting that he cannot attend some party or other and conjugating the word "cocktail" as a verb: I cocktail, we cocktail, thou cocktail, you cocktail, it cocktails -- he goes on and on, through the imperative ("Cocktail!") and interrogatory ("Cocktailest thou?") forms all the way to the subjunctive conditional ("I would have had to have cocktailed") and conditional subjunctive ("I might have had to have cocktailed").

Interestingly, not included in the "Forms and Technology" node are electricity and radium and X-rays. In the HRC's organization, those belong in "Invisible Worlds," a meditation on the new unseen universes, both scientific and imaginary, that artists found to replace the one Alfred Lord Tennyson lost behind the veil. For this was a time fascinated not just with electricity but also spiritualism, not just with X-rays but also psychotherapy, not just radioactivity but also surrealism. Among the exhibits drawing thread to thread and node to node here:

1) a typed note from Sigmund Freud observing that "dass Dichter und Analytiker aus denselben Quellen schöpfen" ("the poet and the analyst draw from the same sources");

2) a drawing made by George Bernard Shaw's mother under the guidance, she believed, of spirits; and

3) documents by the surrealists, including a fascinating handwritten (by a number of famous hands) session of their "Exquisite corpse" game, in which one person after another adds a phrase without being able to see the whole sentence they're making (the game is named after the first sentence it produced: "The exquisite/corpse/shall drink/the new/wine").

Souvenir postcards from the 1913 Armory Show
Souvenir postcards from the 1913 Armory Show

"The City" node is nearly as cornucopian and overstuffed as "Forms and Technologies." And that's appropriate, since the city is the place where all the different energies of modernism -- all those rocketing extremes -- met and crashed into one another. In fact, the city is an art form in itself: Ezra Pound saw New York glittering at night and said, "Here is our poetry, for we have pulled down the stars to our will."

But the modern city is also the isolating, deadening, "[u]nreal city, under the brown fog of a winter dawn" of Eliot's Waste Land. And it's the Dublin that Ulysses/Bloom wanders through one June day; and the Paris Gertrude Stein said "was where the 20th century was."

This section touches on great political and social upheavals of the era, including the Russian Revolution, and, of course, World War I. There is Siegfried Sassoon's bitter little poem "The General," in his own hand with his own drawing. More heartbreaking is the last page of the last letter home, written by the brilliant poet Wilfred Owen before he was killed: "Mary's hopes for Peace Next Summer are sanguine, not to say sanguinary. Next Summer! When Christmas is the Limit of our Extreme Patience!" The peace came much sooner than that, less than a month later; but by then Owen was dead.

But "The City" also encompasses the sexual intrigues, publishing adventures, and literary theories of the Bloomsbury group, including a letter from the artist Carrington to one of her tormented lovers, and another from Virginia Woolf agonizing over how best to offer financial assistance to T.S. Eliot.

My favorite piece in the exhibition -- for no other reason than that it is intensely pretty -- is a rare copy of "La Prose du transsíberien et de la Petite jehanne de France," an accordion book written by the poet Blaise Cendrars and illustrated, gorgeously, by the painter Sonia Delaunay. The 1913 book -- unfolded on a gallery wall, it stretches a glorious 6 feet up -- describes a somewhat surreal ride Cendrars apparently took on the Trans-Siberian Express when he was 16, accompanied by one Little Jeanne, who periodically, inscrutably, dreamily asks him, "Blaise, tell me, are we very far from Montmartre?" The largely abstract illustration, which runs alongside the text, is so vibrantly colored, all tones of fruit and jewels, that you want to lick the paper (the HRC requests that you not do this). Poet Ron Padgett calls it "the first book illustrated with abstract art and the first book to function as an art object."

Possibly the most intriguing thematic node is "Marketing the New." Marketing came into its own at the beginning of the 20th century, and art embraced it heartily, the two major methods it employed being the Event and the Scandal. Ideally, these two combined, as in the riots that greeted Le sacre du printemps. Other performance Events included the wealthy Edith Sitwell's eccentric "Black Mrs. Behemoth": "In chanting her poems for performance," the deadpan catalog informs us, "she used a kind of bullhorn and turned her back to the audience so as, she said, to force them to attend to the sonic qualities." And people walked out of this performance, if you can believe it.

A more genuinely significant Event was the Armory Show of March 1913, so called because its 1,100 artworks were exhibited in a cavalry armory in New York City. This show brought modern art to the American shore for almost the first time, and reactions varied wildly. One critic called the exquisite Brancusi sculptures (here is Brancusi's own photo of one of these) "too comical for commentary." But in Theodore Roosevelt's "Layman's View" of the Armory Show he said: "There was not a touch of simpering, self-satisfied conventionality anywhere in the exhibition."

The bizarre publication history of James Joyce's Ulysses was perhaps the central marketing event of the modern age. It stretched over three decades, from 1918, when it was first serialized in an American literary magazine, through a sensational censorship trial -- the book's second -- in 1932.

The trials boosted the book's American sales, but what did the proud new Ulysses-owners make of it? The HRC features a hilarious and touching poster put out by the helpful American publishers titled "How to enjoy James Joyce's great novel ULYSSES." Heartily, it tells us, "For those who hesitate to begin it because they fear it is obscure, the publishers offer this simple clue to what the critical fuss is all about. Ulysses is no harder to 'understand' than, say, any other great classic. It is essentially a story and can be enjoyed as such. Do not let the critics confuse you."

Alfred Stieglitz, American, 1864-1946. <i>Old and New York</i>, 1910 (Camera Work No. 36, October 1911).
Alfred Stieglitz, American, 1864-1946. Old and New York, 1910 (Camera Work No. 36, October 1911).

Always good advice, that last.


This article's opening sentence is stolen from Virginia Woolf's famous line: "On or about December, 1910, human character changed." Woolf was talking about a time when artists shook off what they felt as the dank, oppressive hold of Victorianism -- its moderation, its centeredness, its middle-class anxiety. The earliest English moderns were paralyzed by the weight of the great Victorians like Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning. They despised them and could not escape them.

Is that the situation in which we find ourselves with modernism? Are we straining under the inflexible, hopeless weight of Ulysses? Yes, probably. A vaguely undergraduate sense of guilt hangs over great modernist works: haven't read them, ought to read them, don't want to read them.

But Ulysses and its ilk -- Eliot's The Waste Land, Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps, abstract and Cubist painting, the novels of Samuel Beckett and William Faulkner, and far more -- oppress us in a more significant way. Not to put too fine a point on it: Modernism's stern, fat genius of a derriere is sitting on our art. Hasn't It All Been Done? Once every icon has been thoroughly smashed, once there's been even one concert where a woman with her back to the audience reads nonsense poetry through a bullhorn -- does it ever need to be done again?

Being the children of modernism is a bit like being the children of a renowned genius. You know you aren't going to compete with that, so you devote yourself instead to drink and bitterness and feeble, flailing imitations.

What's left? Is art ... over?

Interestingly, that's what the late Victorians thought. They were sure they had exhausted not just art but also science: nothing left to create, know, or discover. But they left a sore spot unattended, the Victorians: Let's call it the death of God. It's not that they didn't acknowledge it; they were tormented by spiritual doubt. But they didn't pursue the death of God to its logical end: the death of form, of classicism, of taste. The modernists pursued that idea right into the ground ... and right back up into an explosion of celestial artistic fireworks.

What's our sore spot? What untested notion will erupt, like a pimple or a flower, from the fin de this siècle into a thrilling new aesthetic culture?

Whatever it is, chances are we won't like it. Cranky old Debussy -- so scary in his day, so sweet to us now -- wrote in 1902 that "by a unique stroke of irony, this public which demands 'something new' is the same one that is bewildered by, and jeers at, anything new or unusual, whenever someone is trying to break away from making the customary hullabaloo. This may seem hard to understand, but one must not forget that with a work of art an attempt at beauty is always taken as a personal insult by some people."

So when next the truly new comes along, in whatever form it may take: Try not to take it personally. end story


"Make It New: The Rise of Modernism" runs through March 7 at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, 21st and Guadalupe. For more information, call 471-8944 or visit www.hrc.utexas.edu.

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