A sometimes acute sense of how one might understand 'the modern' in 'modernism' illuminates. (Times Literary Supplement)
A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United Statesby Townsend Ludington
An impressive cast of scholars examines works and their creators across the whole spectrum of artistic
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The modernist movement has shaped our era as has no other. This insightful collection of original essays explores the impact of modernism on American culture and the ways in which modernism remains a key to understanding American art and society.
An impressive cast of scholars examines works and their creators across the whole spectrum of artistic expression--fiction and poetry, painting and sculpture, architecture, dance, photography, and film. In fresh and provocative essays they explore how the ideas of modernism helped shape such artistic expressions as the writings of the Harlem Renaissance, the paintings of Edward Hopper, New Deal public art projects, and George Antheil's Ballet Méecanique. Extensive use of color and black-and-white illustrations results in a book that is as appealing visually as it is stimulating intellectually.
The contributors are Casey Nelson Blake, Robert Cantwell, Ray Carney, Thomas Fahy, Lucy Fischer, John F. Kasson, William E. Leuchtenburg, Lucinda H. MacKethan, Randy Martin, Carol J. Oja, Miles Orvell, Joan Shelley Rubin, Jon Michael Spencer, and Maren Stange.
- The University of North Carolina Press
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Taken together the essays in this volume offer an interdisciplinary study of the modernist movement as found in American literature, painting, sculpture, music, architecture, dance, photography, and film during the period from the late nineteenth century to the present. A Modern Mosaic is a study, but not an assertion, of the exact nature of modernism, the definition of which has become an industry during the past several decades. What can be agreed on is that the ideas of modernism and the modern things that surround us such as automobiles, electronic devices, and a good deal of art and architecture are very much with us. Modernism, in fact, has dominated the last one hundred years as has no other movement. Some might argue that it is too amorphous to be called a movement, but the artists, sculptors, writers, photographers, filmmakers, dancers, and architects who have practiced their trades since the early twentieth century would protest adamantly, and that includes even the substantial numbers opposed to something they believed was decadent, immoral, and certainly negative.
"On or about December 1910, human character changed," Virginia Woolf famously asserted about the advent of modernism. No one believes that all of humanity changed in one fell swoop, but what did occur was that artists, sculptors, and so forth became aware of a movement afoot; for many of them, "the New" that it represented expressed what they felt as they strove to break from Victorianism in its many forms. Old truths came to seem hollow in the face of modern technology and industry, urban squalor had long since become a reminder that laissez-faire capitalism was not an unmitigated good, and the various conflicts of imperialist nations had already made people aware of the horrors of modern warfare before the guns of August 1914 began to bring home the fact that killing on a massive scale was going to be a part of the modern era.
"Make it new," blared Ezra Pound, and a generation of Americans took heed, but they would have even if he had not worked assiduously for modernism. Americans had many European examples: Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque, for instance, were but three of the artists who had a profound influence. Max Weber, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, and other painters saw the Europeans' works, understood them, more or less, and wove into their own efforts the elementalism of Cézanne and the simultaneity and three-dimensionality of Picasso and Braque (Plates 1 and 2). Modernists in one field influenced the new generation in other mediums. Cézanne, for example, not only affected visual artists; he affected Gertrude Stein, for one (Plate 3), who early on bought his paintings, explained them later to others such as Ernest Hemingway, and drew from them in her own avant-garde writing. Writer John Dos Passos, whose best works of the 1920s and 1930s--Manhattan Transfer (1925) and the trilogy USA (1930-36)--were as modernist as any by an American, wrote an introduction in 1930 to his translation of a long poem by French poet Blaise Cendrars. Cendrars's work, Dos Passos asserted,
was part of the creative tidal wave that spread over the world from the Paris of before the last European war. Under various tags: futurism, cubism, vorticism, modernism, most of the best work in the arts in our time has been the direct product of this explosion, that had an influence in its sphere comparable with that of the October revolution in social organization and politics and the Einstein formula in physics. Cendrars and Apollinaire, poets, were on the first cubist barricades with the group that included Picasso, Modigliani, Marinetti, Chagall; that profoundly influenced Maiakovsky, Meyerhold, Eisenstein; whose ideas carom through Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot (first published in Wyndon Lewis's "Blast"). The music of Stravinski and Prokofieff and Diageleff's [sic] Ballet hail from this same Paris already in the disintegration of victory, as do the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue, skyscraper furniture, the Lenin Memorial in Moscow, the paintings of Diego Rivera in Mexico City and the newritz styles of advertising in American magazines.We probably would place futurism, cubism, and vorticism under the more general rubric of modernism; nevertheless, Dos Passos's point was well taken: the modernist movement was all-pervasive and affected almost every aspect of twentieth-century culture, which, of course, A Modern Mosaic makes apparent.
Although this volume is not a history, it has a rough chronology about it. Thus, Robert Cantwell's "White City Elegy" takes us back to the late nineteenth century as it examines the Chicago Exposition of 1893, an event that its organizers intended to be a celebration of the past in the belief that the civilization of the United States marked the apex of all that had come before. "Greece lives, but Greece no more!" the thoroughly traditional poet Richard Watson Gilder wrote to celebrate the "White City." For him the exposition marked a new blooming of "the undying seed" that had been blown westward to America, "a veiled and virgin shore!" "Ah! happy West," he exalted, "Greece flowers anew, and all her temples soar!" They soared briefly in Chicago, but as Cantwell points out, the buildings were sheathed in staff, a fiber and plaster material that literally began to melt away on being applied to the frames of the pseudo-Greek edifices. "The White City was only a mock-up," he notes, "perplexingly suspended between reality and representation. . . . in many respects a simulacrum formally indistinguishable from its postmodern counterparts in theme parks, shopping malls, and redeveloped urban centers." Still a distance from such "postmodern counterparts," Carl Sandburg's 1914 poem "Chicago" suggests how far toward modernity that city had come some two decades after the White City. Not steeped in the issues that would affect his more intellectually sophisticated contemporaries such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens--the list goes on and on--Sandburg nevertheless giddily exalted the new city he saw before him, admiring it--with good American optimism, one might observe--as "Hog Butcher for the World, / Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, / Player with railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler; / Stormy, husky, brawling / City of the Big Shoulders." Like artists of the Ashcan School who were painting American cities at about the same time, Sandburg knew what was the landscape of the emerging modern nation; but they had an inherent optimism that differentiated them from Eliot, for instance--one has only to think of the London of his early poetry--or artist Max Weber, whose 1915 cubist work Rush Hour (Plate 4) is much more ambivalent about the urban scene than are most of the works of the Ashcan artists.
What People are saying about this
This collection of intellectually stimulating and provocative essays advances our understanding of modernism and its continuing impact on the arts in the United States.--Wendy Martin, Claremont Graduate University
"The combination of clear style and evident thesis in each essay, coupled with an unusually high number of illustrations in colour and black and white, a detailed general index and a bibliography accompanying each article, makes A Modern Mosaic a useful and engaging text. Along with its interdisciplinary approach, the book's other great strength is its focus on American modernism.--Journal of American Studies
A sometimes acute sense of how one might understand 'the modern' in 'modernism' illuminates.--Times Literary Supplement
Meet the Author
Townsend Ludington is Boshamer Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he directs the American Studies Curriculum.
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