Modernism: The Lure of Heresy

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“Rich, learned, briskly written, maddening yet necessary study.”—Lee Siegel, New York Times Book Review
Peter Gay explores the shocking modernist rebellion that, beginning in the 1840s, transformed art, literature, music, and film. Modernism presents a thrilling pageant of heretics that includes Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, D. W. Griffiths, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Walter Gropius, Arnold Schoenberg, and (of course!) Andy Warhol.

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe - Katie Bolick
“It’s done so gracefully, and engagingly, that even as I raced to finish before our interview, I couldn’t make myself skim.”
Slate - Mia Fineman
“A masterful work of cultural history . . . and it’s truly a pleasure to read.”
The New York Times - William Grimes
“A sweeping survey . . . offering shrewd analyses.”
Los Angeles Times - Tim Rutten
“Peter Gay is perhaps our leading historian of culture and ideas.”
Washington Post - Michael Dirda
“An ambitious survey . . . [by] a superior popularizer.”
Katie Bolick - Boston Globe
“It’s done so gracefully, and engagingly, that even as I raced to finish before our interview, I couldn’t make myself skim.”
Mia Fineman - Slate
“A masterful work of cultural history . . . and it’s truly a pleasure to read.”
William Grimes - The New York Times
“A sweeping survey . . . offering shrewd analyses.”
Tim Rutten - Los Angeles Times
“Peter Gay is perhaps our leading historian of culture and ideas.”
Michael Dirda - Washington Post
“An ambitious survey . . . [by] a superior popularizer.”
William Grimes
A graceful writer, [Gay] leads the reader on a pleasant ramble through a well-traveled landscape, pointing right and left to the prominent features along the way and, like a superbly informed guide, offers his thoughts and comments…he covers a broad expanse of ground quickly, touching on most of the major figures but also bringing in lesser names, like the German playwright Georg Kaiser, who make the great galaxy of Modernism twinkle a little more brightly. Smart bits of description (the Guggenheim Museum as a fat white oyster) and well-chosen anecdotes speed the narrative merrily along…
—The New York Times
Michael Dirda
"As he did in The Bourgeois Experience, Gay approaches his subject as an intellectual historian, not a critic. That means you won't find close readings of Eliot's poetry here, or detailed interpretations of Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon," Joyce's Ulysses or Schoenberg's Second String Quartet. Instead, Gay emphasizes the general character and importance of an artist's achievement, relying heavily on the work of specialist scholars and biographers."
—The Washington Post
Lee Siegel
Gay's new book is the only one I'm aware of that tries to make sense of modernism in all its incarnations. Gay takes up his subject from the outset of the movement in the late 19th century to what he considers its continued vitality after World War II and its eventual death and possible resurrection in our own time. This comprehensiveness makes Modernism essential, especially for the general reader who wants to get a handle on Western culture's most enigmatic phase. (A gift of this book and The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross's magisterial history of modern music, would equal about three years of college.) But unlike Henry Moore's giant sculptures, in which negative space plays a positive role, Gay's omissions and miscomprehensions cry out to be filled in and corrected. And yet, at times, the book is so nimbly erudite that its stubborn flaws make it all the more richly challenging.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly

Putting a Freudian view of life as an arena of conflict at the center of a view of modernism, this outspoken study tracks the avant-garde across a wide array of high culture-literature, music and dance, painting and sculpture, architecture and film. Conventional Victorians, according to Gay, found the belief in art for art's sake of libertine and aesthete Oscar Wilde as much a perversion as his homosexuality. But even fans often get it wrong, says Gay, embracing Edvard Munch's most famous painting, The Scream,as the quintessential symbol of modern angst, while Munch meant his nightmarish vision as a confession of his own inner state. And thanks to generous patrons, the oeuvre of anti-artist Marcel Duchamp, an enemy of museums, is featured prominently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Modernism isn't a single style, Gay shows: in literature, Ulysses's wordy, sensual world stands in direct opposition to Virginia Woolf's in Mrs. Dalloway, spare and cool. This latest from Gay (National Book Award winner for The Enlightenment) isn't a monumental or definitive treatise but a highly personal, arbitrary and invigorating collection of mini-essays that view a variety of artistic works from a fresh perspective. 16 pages of color, and b&w illus.. (Nov.)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393333961
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/16/2010
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 640
  • Sales rank: 774,597
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Gay (1923—2015) was the author of more than twenty-five books, including the National Book Award winner The Enlightenment, the best-selling Weimar Culture, and the widely translated Freud: A Life for Our Time.

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