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Modernism - An Introduction

The first decade of the 20th Century was like the calm before the storm in a century that was overshadowed by conflict and war all over the world.

Pablo Picasso Guernica

The dramatic events of the decades to come would hold a massive potential for inspiration and material for novelists, poets, and painters. But the fact is, most of the artists of modernism turned their backs to the chaos and turmoil around them, and sought inward for a new understanding of life and a new approach to art. “The lost generation” as they were called, had a dejected and pessimist attitude to the ways of the world, and their quest was to create something new.

Art for Art’s Sake

Female Image by Pablo Picasso

Female Image by Pablo Picasso

Terminology may be a good starting point for an understanding of Modernism. What is contemporary is what is going on at the moment. Current and present mean just about the same. But the word modern needs a counterpart to be meaningful; if something is modern, it is new compared to something which accordingly is not modern. And there is also a slight difference between the adjectives modern and modernist, because modern might simply mean what is new (as opposed to old fashioned), but modernist means an artistic expression belonging to what we call the modernist period. Hence, something modern is not necessarily modernist. The slogan of the modernists of the first half of the 21st century was “Break the rules and make it new!” They wanted to reinvent art, for the sake of art itself. Of course this was a demanding venture, for both artists and not least for their audience. The many forms of modernist art were enigmatic and obscure and would to some seem quite meaningless. Art became abstract and subjective and hard to grasp, but artists, both painters and writers did not seem to care if an audience would “understand” their work. The artistic process and its result was what counted, not being acclaimed and appreciated. Moreover, much of the art was provocative in its attempt to confront established and traditional ways and values.

Images and Literature

Look up some paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henry Matisse or Salvador Dali. They will give you a fair idea of what was going on in both painting and literature during this epoch. Like the painters, the writers followed the experimental trend in their work. Literature became fragmented and introvert, presenting a plot more like a subjective experience rather than a comprehensible line of incidents. For example, the chronology of a narrative could be fragmented and reset in a new order, which would be rather confusing for the readers, but that was irrelevant. There was a new literary technique developed, called “stream of consciousness”, meaning that the reader follows the detailed and elusive thoughts and ideas running through the mind of a protagonist. Experimenting with punctuation was another way for the writers to challenge the established rules of writing. For example, how would you respond to a book with page upon page without punctuation and capitalization? The narrative would often be heavy with symbols and imagery making it even more difficult for the reader to comprehend. Also the poets broke with the rules. A poetic expression has usually demanded more of the reader than prose, in terms of language, but it has as a rule been recognised by certain criteria, like rhythm, rhyme, line structure and meter. But in modernist poetry it seems the slogan was “anything goes”. A modernist poem was more a subjective impression in lines, rather than a metaphoric reflection of an emotional experience or process. The modernist poets would for example make a poem out of simple everyday occasions and observations, things that readers normally would not see as poetic potential, or associate with poetry at all.

The Modernists

Irish writer James Joyce

Irish writer James Joyce

The modernist artists flocked to the cities where they grouped in communities, found mutual inspiration and presented their works for each other. Particularly Paris became the bohemian and artistic capital in Europe, but groups also gathered in London and New York. Many of the modernists were experimenting with other stuff than literature, taking substances of different sorts which were supposed to enhance their perception of life; it is a fact that many great works of art, particularly during modernism, have been conceived under some sort influence.

American poets were some of the most typical exponents of the modernist period; Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, (note the omission of capital letters), Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot are the most famous. Both Pound and Eliot left the USA and joined artist communities in Europe. T.S Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is probably the most extensive and famous poem in literary history. In modernist prose Ernest Hemingway stands out along with a line of prominent writers in America as well as in Britain. Hemingway’s vast production includes novels, essays and short-stories. His famous “iceberg-technique” was his way of presenting a narrative where what is not told would often be more important than what is told. It is a subtle narrative technique that challenges the reader to see the underlying elements of his stories. William Faulkner is another American writer whose works exhibit the experimental and suggestive way of communicating a plot. His most famous volume and perhaps his most typical of the period is “The Sound and the Fury” where the plot is partly told through a mentally retarded protagonist with no sense of time. The Irish novelist, James Joyce, is arguably the most prominent exponent of the innovative literary quest of modernism. His massive “Ulysses” is a prime example of the stream of consciousness technique. In “Finnegan’s Wake” he took his modernist project to the limit, violating the language into a narrative more or less unintelligible to the average reader. British D.H. Lawrence comes as a writer who wants to confront the old Victorian moralism. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is his most famous novel, which was banned for a period because of its explicit sexuality. Lawrence’s writing is an example of how the modernists wanted to provoke and to challenge the obsolete and prudish attitudes of the establishment. Other names are British Virginia Woolf, another of the “stream of consciousness” writers, Somerset Maugham, a brilliant short story writer, and George Orwell, whose disturbing “1984” and the allegoric “Animal Farm” have become world classics. On the brink of what we could call contemporary literature comes the genius of William Golding and American writers like James T. Farrell and John Updike. Golding is the author behind the disturbing and universal novel “The Lord of the Flies”, about children stranded on an island trying to build a civilized community, with a very foreboding outcome.

Last updated 05/24/2018
Written by: Jan-Louis Nagel

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Literature after 1900

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