© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

Artists in many places around the world (but especially in Western Europe and North America) responded to the sense that the world was undergoing dramatic changes in the early twentieth century by attempting to produce a new kind of art that would be relevant to this changing world. This project eventually became to be referred to collectively as modernism, though artists who would come to be known as modernists varied widely in their styles and ideologies. Perhaps the one characteristic that all modernist artists shared was this sense of needing to do something new, as is encompassed in the exhortation that the American expatriate poet Ezra Pound (1885–1972), a central modernist figure, gave to his contemporary artists: “Make it new!”

This drive to achieve newness can perhaps most easily be seen in modernist architecture, which produced a wave of buildings that looked distinctively different from nineteenth-century architecture, emphasizing clean, practical designs, as opposed to the ornate flourishes that were typical of the Victorian era.

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Typical example of Victorian architecture.
The modernist Sea Lane House, West Sussex, England, 1937.

One of the most important movements in modernist architecture was the so-called Bauhaus (literally German for “building house”) movement, which was active in Germany between 1919 and 1933. Their own most important location, the Bauhaus Building in Dessau, designed by Walter Gropius, is representative of the straight lines, right angles, and flat roofs that are typical of this influential school of architecture. Ultimately, though, the most important modernist innovation in architecture (heavily influenced by Bauhaus) was the development of skyscrapers, which again featured straight lines and right angles, but soared into the skies thanks to new building technologies that made it possible to build taller buildings than ever before. This kind of skyscraper originated in New York City, but soon spread across the world; indeed, the style of these skyscrapers came to be known as the “international style.” Building such skyscrapers, of course, takes time and money, so it is not surprising that this style of architecture would develop more slowly and last longer than most forms of modernist art, remaining dominant in cities around the world at least into the 1970s.

Bauhaus Building, Dessau Germany, 1925.

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Seagram Building in New York City (1958)

As opposed to the simplicity of modernist architecture, modernism in the other arts tended to be more complex than its nineteenth-century predecessors. Modernist painters, for example, moved away from the realistic representation that was dominant in Victorian art and toward various experimental forms that sought to renew our perception of reality, rather than simply reinforce it. For example, the cubist paintings of Spain’s Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) broke apart components of reality and reassembled them in new ways that were designed to make us look at reality with fresh eyes, overcoming old habits and assumptions. And surrealist painters, such as Spain’s Salvador Dalí (1908–1989), emphasized the irrational and the unconscious, producing works that attempted to see reality from that point of view, rather than from the rationalist point of view of the Enlightenment.

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Picasso, “Three Musicians,” 1921.
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Dalí, “The Persistence of Memory,”1931.

However, it was in the realm of literature that modernism had its most memorable impact, partly because revisions in the Western literary canon undertaken in the 1950s pushed modernist literature to the forefront of the canon, identifying modernist works such as Ulysses and The Waste Land as the epitome of aesthetic achievement in literature. This revision of the canon was led by the so-called New Critics, who valued complexity and ambiguity, both of which were hallmarks of modernist literature. In addition, this revision of the canon was undertaken at the height of the Cold War and was driven largely by a desire to be able to argue that Western literature was superior to Soviet literature, which was dominated by a very straightforward form of realism. In contrast to realism, the works of Western literary modernists seemed complex and sophisticated, making modernist literature the perfect tool for the Cold War argument that Soviet literature was so simplistic that it did not even really qualify as literature, even though Soviet novelists in fact produced some of the greatest works of twentieth-century literature, such as the various novels of Maxim Gorky, or Mikhail Sholokhov’s magisterial historical novel Quiet Flows the Don (1928).

The label “modernist” encompasses a wide variety of literary works in all genres, but there are certain fundamental properties that are shared by almost all modernist works. These include:

(1) A sense of intense social, political, and cultural crisis, triggered by the sense that the world was changing rapidly and that old ways of living were becoming obsolete.

(2) A complex relation to the literary tradition, in which modernist writers had an intense sense of the large volume of literature that had been produced before them, but also felt that the works of the literary tradition were unable to address adequately the new world of the twentieth century. As a result, modernist literature employed an unprecedented level of allusions to previous works of literature, but often treated those earlier works with irony, or even derision.

(3) A rejection of realism as outmoded and as based on a bourgeois notion of reality that was rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and unable to describe the experience of living in the twentieth century.

(4) Formal complexity and experimentalism (including intense self-consciousness and focus on art as the subject of art). Modernist artists were continually seeking new ways to try to capture in literature the texture of life in the modern world.

(5) Exploration of the nature of the human mind and of human psychology, inspired in important ways by the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud. This exploration also led to an unprecedented emphasis on frank representation of sexuality as a crucial aspect of human experience.

In addition to these general characteristics, modernist literature tended to focus on certain basic topics and themes that modernist writers saw as central to the experience of living in the modern world. These included:

  • Art and the special role of the artist.
  • Alienation and the loss of shared values in a society rapidly growing too complex for anyone truly to understand.
  • Quickened pace of life and the regimentation of time.
  • Urban experience. Joyce’s paralyzed Dublin, Eliot’s unreal London, Alfred Döblin’s chaotic Berlin, and the changing Paris of Marcel Proust all emerged almost as characters in their own right.
  • Probing psychological depth. Modernist literature explores the inner lives of its characters far more than had any previous literature, as when Flaubert’s indirect free style was extended to “stream-of-consciousness” techniques in an attempt to capture the texture of the actual flow of thoughts.
  • New frankness and detail in dealing with sexuality, as well as unprecedented explorations of gender, especially on the part of women writers such as Virginia Woolf, who represented the experience of women from a strongly feminist point of view.

A Sample Modernist Poem

“The Second Coming,” by William Butler Yeats

When William Butler Yeats won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, he became the first Irish writer to be so honored. And it was an honor well-deserved. Not only had Yeats by this time established himself as one of the world’s greatest poets (though much of his greatest poetry had yet to be written), but much of his poetry was overtly political, written in support of the cause of Irish independence or other related causes. Beginning with his early phase that drew upon Irish mythology to romanticize the Irish past and rural Ireland as a whole, Yeats had by this time already moved into a more modern, urban phase that demonstrated his tremendous range as a poet. Thus, he was something of a transitional figure, though his transition was spread over decades.

Ultimately, Yeats would emerge as a crucial modernist poet. Indeed, his well-known poem “The Second Coming” (1920) is one the most powerful expressions of the sense of crisis that drives so much modernist art and literature. It is also a powerful work of verbal art and has become one of the most quoted poems of the last hundred years. In many ways, this poem simply expresses a typical modernist sense that human history, in the wake of World War I, might have been approaching a crucial turning point, the current order on the brink of collapse and a new (possibly ominous) order about to begin. In an Irish context, it is worth remembering that the poem, though published in 1920, was written in 1919, at a time when the Irish War of Independence was just underway, so that this sense of crisis was particularly tangible. At the same time, both the feel of this poem and some of its imagery draw upon Yeats’s particular interest in mysticism and the occult, studies that had led him to conclude that human history unwinds in cycles of about two thousand years each, one of which (that began with the birth of Christ) was coming to an end. However, “The Second Coming” is not a Christian poem and does not in any way imply the literal second coming of Christ. Instead, Yeats expresses a great deal of uncertainty concerning the actual nature of the new cycle that is about to begin, or even whether its coming will be a good thing or a bad thing. Here’s the poem:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

“The Second Coming” consists of two stanzas, the first of which is an image of chaos, loss of control, and the breakdown of the old order, beginning with its opening image of a trained falcon that is now beyond the control of the falconer who trained him. One of its key statements of the modernist sense of crisis, “things fall apart,” provided the title for the novel by Chinua Achebe that we will be reading later this semester and refers there to the destruction of traditional African societies by European colonization.

The second stanza of “The Second Coming” then addresses the new world that is to come, expressing uncertainty and anxiety by metaphorically describing this new world as being initiated by a strange beast of unknown nature (imaged in the poem by a vision of the Egyptian Sphinx stirring and coming to life) that is about to be unloosed on the world. The prevailing tone is one of anxiety, even terror, but the note of uncertainty is strong enough that it leaves open the possibility that the upcoming change will actually be a good one. Yeats, like many other modernist artists, hoped that he, through his poetry, could help to bring about this better outcome.

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The Sphinx at Giza, Egypt.