Modernism, as its manifestly obvious name suggests, represents an idea, thought, movement or character that is modern. This term “modern” exemplifies different cultural tendencies and related intellectual movements taking place during the late 19th and early 20th century, roughly dating from 1860s to 1970s. It surfaced as rebellious angst struggling against the overly conservative realism, sternly rejecting tradition and endeavoring to create a new form of already existing artistic and intellectual modes of human existence, with rewriting, reevaluating and recapitalizing human certainty of existence. It gave birth to self-conscious authors whose physical existence was marred by the newly emerging technology, and whose psyche was beleaguered by the consequences of World War I. It is a new wave of rejection of optimism, of morality, of uncertainties outside the human body and mind, with a narcissistic significance of language; a revolutionized, fragmented poetic form which serves as a mirror of the author’s own fragmented soul.
Peter Gay states that “there is something about certain prints, compositions, buildings, or dramas that we classify as ‘modernist’ without hesitation or fear of contradiction[:] [a] poem by Arthur Rimbaud, a novel by Franz Kafka, a piano piece by Eric Satie, a play by Samuel Beckett, a painting – any painting – by Pablo Picasso” (Gay 2). Thus, these writers, poets, musicians, and playwrights were intent on portraying not the changes society was subject to, but the effects these changes had on its very nucleus. Their works are elaborate models of individuality and consciousness as products of bodies in collision with alien and frequently coercive external forces (Ayers 108).
Modern art had to be original and this became natural to the dominant conception of art, where it does not venture to obey established conventions and seek to achieve timelessness, but rather to convey what was so special and particular about the time in which it was created (Lewis 49). The heritage of the spirit of personal experimentation in visual arts lies with names such as Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Henry Toulouse, who later influenced names such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, and art movements such as Cubism, which in essence was “an intensification of Paul Cezanne’s play with perspective,” Expressionism, Pop art and numerous others (Lewis 80). For instance, Picasso took a more ascetic perspective of the human body and his sense of art as a demanding form, expressing anguish rather than joy, had a grand influence on modernist aesthetics (Lewis 73). These new shapes and visions of the world around them anxiously denied sober lines and colors, and instead, opted for artful vigor in energetic, colorful grids, which represents a search for freedom, stubbornly refusing to conform to any oppression from the past or the present.
These breathtaking, intensely stylistic and disconcerting experiments were disrupted and cruelly marred by the (after)effects of WWI. Despite the fact that the post war period of WWI brought within itself a profoundly cynical and pessimistic vision of the world and human existence, the modernists did not shy away from their ever potent urge for unfettered individuality of expression. The general populace of Europe was left with a feeling of disillusionment, which resulted in the literature of the time being apparently apathetic and disarrayed. The stable world of the 19th century, abundant in meaning and orderliness of existence, was exchanged for a bleak vision of literary tactics that the authors referred to in order to throw away the burdens of the realistic novel.
Writers such as Thomas Stearns Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka and many others introduced highly innovative literary devices, with which they challenged the traditionally established linear flow of their narrative, the form of which they neglected to be able to fully concentrate on the aesthetic form of their creation. Joyce endeavored to create in his works a moment of total insight, an “epiphany,” which would give the answer to the overwhelming question that is mentioned, but never articulated; this sense that life must have an ultimate meaning, but one that can never be made fully explicit pervades modernism (Lewis 120). In the same manner, Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and Pound’s “The Howl” transfigured the poetic language by utilizing fragmented forms which contradicted the unity and coherence of chronology, resulting in supreme accomplishments. In addition, Joyce’s mind-altering novel Ulysses not only serves as a literary example of modernism, but it also directly conditioned many of the English-language works which are nowadays considered fundamental to modernism (Ayers 66).
Hence, through the efforts of the aforementioned, prominent names, and numerous others, modernism has proven itself to be a shocking rebellion that altered the world of art through intense personal experimentations with form, structure and content, with “1920s being the decade of modernism’s greatest achievements” (Lewis 125). If we take one work of modernist art to be the representative of the genre, we would be forced to concur with David Ayers, that Joyce’s Ulysses is, just like modernism itself, “an edifice of almost bewildering complexity,” which like any other artistic creation eludes being tagged and traditionally defined, yet continues to enchant its audience with its magic (66).
Ayers, David. Modernism: A Short Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
Gay, Peter. Modernism: The Lure of Heresy: From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.
Pericles, Lewis. The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.