What is Modernism?
Most agree that the Modernist movement took place between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. It might be described as a period that saw a shift in the way people thought, specifically in shedding their ties to tradition in favour of progress. Up until this time, traditions were held dear and people liked things to stay the way they were.
This meant that culture and science drew their influences from the past- using tradition and religion to guide their efforts. The Modernist movement is characterised by the abandonment of old ideas and breaking established rules, enabling people to free themselves to explore new avenues of thought. Indeed, the success of a an artist or thinker once depended on their ability to demonstrate and refine their chosen craft, the Modernist movement meant that greatness depended on one’s ability to break new ground, think outside the box and work from a clean state. To some extent, this still applies today. Entertainment is still judged through a modernist eye. In music and art particularly, technical ability plays second fiddle to originality.
Nietzsche urged people to take a step further in the development of the species by refusing to accept their animal instincts as insurmountable limitations, thus allowing each person to wipe clean his or her own personal slate. We can interpret Nietzsche’s famous words “God is dead” as a newly unlocked door to the modern world, in which people no longer see religion as their main motivator, or as something to restrict them. He felt that morals aren’t real, that they are ideas simply imposed on us by our parents, church or peers. He encourages people to write their own moral code and be faithful to that code. Nietzsche is telling people to be Modernist and avoid living by the rules of others.
Earlier in the course, we watched Citizen Kane. Considered to be one of the greatest of all time, largely due to Orson Welles’ experimentation with his cinematography. Like most modernist icons, in order to understand its brilliance we need to know what came before it. Citizen Kane may not amaze us today, because it plays much like other films. But the reason for this is that the majority of films made since Citizen Kane was released in 1941 take their artistic cues from it. Before Kane, films tended to look like stage shows, with wide, straight-on camera angles. Welles used innovations such as low-angle shots and the famous close-up of the reflection in the shattered snow globe.
Kane’s story is told in flashbacks delivered by different people, and through a newsreel. Time is distorted. But these and other storytelling innovations happened decades earlier in literature. In Ulysses, one hour may take place over the course of a few pages, the next hour may take hundreds. James Joyce looks at the world through the eyes of a normal man, an anti-hero. People engage in the idle chatter that is now the trademark of Quentin Tarantino’s films.
Wagner caused upset in the music world when he decided to begin breaking established conventions. He saw his music as art, introducing the concept of “gesamptkunstwerk”, or “total artwork”, where he not only wrote an opera, but took control of dramatic production as well. He rejected use of the “home key”, seeing it as stifling. This is the spirit of Modernism; casting off the shackles of tradition in order to free your creativity.
Art is an excellent way to observe changes in general thinking. Renaissance art, for example, illustrates the new ways in which people viewed things like religion and human figures at the time.
Modern art was born in the late 1800s with artists such as Vincent Van Gogh. But the pace really picked up with the arrival of people like Picasso, Braque and Matisse. Modern art has its roots in Romanticism, as artists worked harder to capture emotion in a raw form. Matisse is a superb example of this.
Art became less about technical ability and more about breaking new ground. It was about using techniques that had never been used before, and about looking at the world in new ways, and deeper introspective thinking.
But as well as breaking the rules of art production, it was about breaking the rules of society and dealing with subjects most would find unacceptable or shocking.
In 1907, Pablo Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (The Young Ladies of Avignon). Its original title was The Brothel of Avignon but the manager of its first exposition changed the title against Picasso’s wishes in an effort to make it less offensive.
For me, this is the perfect painting to accompany Circe, the 15th episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses. It is an aggressive depiction of five naked prostitutes, and was highly controversial at the time. The women in the painting have ugly, demonic faces and angular, distorted bodies. Where nudity in art might normally be a thing of beauty or eroticism, this is a dark and nightmarish image.
A seminal piece of modern literature is Ulysses by James Joyce. Circe is the chapter in which Joyce unleashes himself in terms of consciousness. This chapter is named after a Greek goddess featured in Homer’s Odyssey who used magic potions and drugs. During this chapter, Bloom becomes intoxicated and experiences hallucinations in a brothel. These hallucinations reveal Bloom’s anxieties, his subconscious. Much of this is sexual in nature and childbirth is featured. Freud would approve of this vision of a man’s subconscious. He believes that if you dug deep enough in your mind, all you would find is sex. Circe is like a novelised version of Sigmund Freud’s claims.
What Joyce did was abandon the rules of structure and plot, creating a stream-of-consciousness technique by simply writing as he thought. Sometimes this makes it difficult to decide on whether the words are those of his characters or himself. He abandoned morals, writing something deemed to be obscene at the time so that he could explore the human psyche. He refused to be limited by storytelling conventions, allowing him to demonstrate the randomness of life rather than sticking to the traditional structure and plot threading. He is literature’s Wagner, Picasso, Nietzche and Welles.