Subject: English
Level: A Level
Exam Boards: All

The Origins of Modernism

  • The concept of modernism became current in the study of English Literature shortly after the First World War, mainly as a way to describe new forms of experimental literature- i.e. Eliot, Joyce, Pound, and Woolf. From then on, it expanded to include multiple art forms such as Naturalism, Symbolism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Imagism, Vorticism, Dada and Surrealism, as well as individual writers and works of art.

  • Modernism is generally the tendency of early twentieth century literature to break away from more traditional verse forms, narrative perspectives and techniques, and other literary conventions in order to reinvent the future canon and represent a life more appropriately in the age of urbanisation and mass-industrialisation

  • In other languages: avant-garde in French, Expressionismus in German, decadentismo in Italian, in Chinese the word modeng until the concept became more naturalised and known now as xiandai zhuyi. In Spanish, the word modernismo was in use as early as 1888 to a movement allied with symbolism, led by the Nicuraguan poet Rubén Darío. “What links all these movements is the shared apprehension of a crisis in the ability of art and literature to represent reality.” (xviii)

  • This crisis in the ability of art and literature to represent the world stretched back to not just the Renaissance but to the Ancient Greeks, involving both the content and form of representation. Some modernists pointed out that the emphasis should not be on the representation of the outside world but the effectiveness of the representation itself; there was nothing outside the text or the work of art.

  • In the late C19, there was a widespread unease based on the fact that multiple artists perceived a crisis in their own fields. Stéphane Mallarmé, the Symbolist poet, wrote of a “crisis in verse”. August Strindberg, the naturalist playwright, wrote of a “theatrical crisis”. The arts had been associated with mimesis since Plato and Aristotle, the imitation or representation of reality itself. However, by the early 20th century, art started to seek the representations of what was definitely not reality, that which was alien and ‘other’. Maurice Denis, a Symbolist painter, said in 1890 that “It is well to remember that a picture- before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote- is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.” A mere twenty years later, we see painters doing just this- assembling colours on a canvas with no depiction necessary.

Modernist art sought to radically reject the art from earlier periods.

Key Features

  • Nonobjective (or ‘abstract’) art presented lines, shapes and colours on a canvas with no “subject”

  • Free verse abandoned metre, rhyme, stanza and syntax

  • In narrative, the stream of consciousness aimed to represent the thoughts of the one character with no narrator intrusion

  • In theatre, playwrights broke the ‘fourth wall’ in allowing the characters to discuss the concept of being characters within a play.

Key People

Cezanne and Manet challenged the Renaissance system of perspective that purported a 3D structure onto a 2D canvas; the cubism and purely non-representative art coming from Georges Braque, Picasso, Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian and many others brought attention to the art representing nothing but itself.

  • The Russian futurists, in the beginning of the C20, invented zaum- a poetic language made up of nonsense words. German expressionist playwrights, through Stationendramen, portrayed characters as abstractions that showed different states of mind or, in a development of psychomachia, the different parts of the protagonist’s soul. Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, in 1939, was written in multilingual ‘jargon’ that was meant to represent the language of dreams.

  • Mimesis: Imitation; spec. the representation or imitation of the real world in (a work of) art, literature, etc. Archibald MacLeish, in his Ars Poetica (1926) that “A poem should not mean / But be.” Ezra Pound asserted that poetry should imitate spoken language and not merely conventional metres of literary writing. It should, according to him, contain “nothing, nothing, that you couldn’t, in some circumstance, actually say.”

  • The stream of consciousness technique corresponds with what Ian Watt called the “realism of presentation”, where reality is presented as it is experienced by the individual character, rather than from an omniscient narrator. Since the seventeenth century, stages for plays had been presented with a proscenium arch, left over from the Renaissance ideas of presentation. Modern playwrights sought to destroy this illusion

  • Kant is a central figure in the crisis of representation; he formulated some of the key thoughts surrounding the philosophy of modernity, the crises of liberalism and reasoning itself.

  • Plato held that art can never be true, for the reason that it is never anything but an imitation of the appearances of reality, rather than an analysis of their ideas. Art is an imitation of philosophy and philosophy is an imitation of life; therefore, art is twice removed from reality. Kant argued that we can never have direct and unmediated access to reality in any way. We can only know the appearances of a thing, what Kant called its ‘phenomena’. Appearance is the only reality that can be perceived.

Important Developments

  • Nietszche challenged the Platonic concept of reality over representation and depth over surface. Husserl created the system of phenomenology, which was meant to solve the problem of, and avoid the dualism and messy dialogue between reality and representation. Phenomenological reduction: where the question of correspondence is bracketed and refused access to the connection between a perception and reality
  • Cubism can be seen as a phenomenology of vision, where the painter attempts to render what the eye sees in its most basic form before it has even been seen; again, the perception is removed from the reality
  • William James introduced the phrase the ‘stream of consciousness’, which offers a phenomenology of mind; the narrative is pure perception, i.e. in Woolf’s lack of filtering devices
  • “Crucial to the social and political background of modernism was a crisis of political liberalism that had its roots in the radically transformed nature of social relations in the nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the eighteenth century and spread throughout Western Europe and North America in the nineteenth, brought about a profound transformation in human modes of life… large numbers of people… became part of the urban proletariat or the crowd or mass, a social phenomenon that fascinated the modernists” p11
  • Nietzsche criticised the ideal of the idea of Greek rationality, “know thyself”- he associated this with both Plato and Kant, and said “What, indeed, does man know of himself! Can he even once perceive himself completely, laid out as if in an illuminated glass case? Does not nature keep much the most from him, even about his body, to spellbind and confine him in a proud, deceptive consciousness, far from the coils of the intestines, the quick current of the blood stream, and the involved tremors of the fibres?”
  • The biological workings of our body, for Nietzsche, undermine our capability to be rational creatures It was upon the 1848 revolutions in Europe that Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto, urging men to “unite”- “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win” and “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living”. Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses; “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
  • Western European Marxists of the 1920s and 30s thought of modernism as breaking with bourgeois conventions and allowing the fractured nature of society to be expressed in literary and artistic form
  • Nietzsche claims that all language starts out as metaphor
  • He celebrates the liar as being able to transcend the limits of language to express reality and therefore considers the poet to be an elevated liar, one who is able to revive the dead metaphors upon which society is based


  • This view of truth came to be known as ‘perspectivism’, the essential question being whether or not an absolute perspective exists For Freud, dreams represent wish-fulfilment. In anxious dreams, the wish is something about which the dreamer feels conflicted; sometimes the ego/superego censors the latent wish and displaces/condenses it

  • In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis between 1916-7, he declared that “Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power”.

  • For Freud, repression was vital to a functioning society, otherwise no work would get done; he asserts that the greatest work is a result of repressed sexual desires, so that in a way, civilisation itself is a product of repressed sexuality at the same time as competing with it

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