Primitivist-Modernism: Black Culture and the Origins of Transatlantic Modernism

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Overview

This book explores a rich cultural hybridity at the heart of transatlantic modernism. Focusing on cubism, jazz, and Josephine Baker's performance in the Danse Sauvage, Sieglinde Lemke uncovers a crucial history of white and black intercultural exchange, a phenomenon until now greatly obscured by a cloak of whiteness. Considering artists and critics such as Picasso, Alain Locke, Nancy Cunard, and Paul Whiteman, in addition to Baker, Lemke documents a potent cultural dialectic in which black artistic expression fertilized white modernism, just as white art forms helped shape the black modernism of Harlem and Paris.

Coining the term primitivist modernism to designate the multicultural heritage of this century's artistic production, Lemke reveals the generative and germinating black cultural Other in the arts. She examines this neglected dimension in full, fascinating detail, blending literary theory, social history, and cultural analysis to document modernism's complex absorption of African culture and art. She details numerous ways in which African and African American forms (visual styles, musical idioms, black dialects) and fantasies (Baker's costume and dance, say) permeated high and mass culture on both sides of the Atlantic. So-called primitive art and high modernism; savage rhythms and European music hall culture; European and African American expressions in jazz; European primitivism and the racial awakenings of African American culture: paired and freshly examined by Lemke, these subjects stand revealed in their true interrelatedness. Insisting on modernism's two-way cultural flow, Lemke demonstrates not only that white modernism owes much of its symbolic capital to the black Other, but that black modernism built itself in part on white Euro-American models.

Through superbly nuanced readings of individual texts and images (fifteen striking examples of which are reproduced in this handsome volume), Lemke reforms our understanding of modernism. She shows us, in clear, invigorating fashion, that transatlantic modernism in both its high and popular modes was significantly more diverse than commonly supposed. Students and scholars of modernism, African American studies, and cultural studies, and those with interests in twentieth-century art, dance, music, or literature, will find this book richly rewarding.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Lemke makes a valuable contribution to understanding the impact of black culture on European and American modernism....It is indeed welcome to find a study of this subject that embraces artists and theorists of both the Harlem Renaissance and the European avant-garde. Notable for its command of source materials and recent scholarship alike, Primitivist Modernism opens avenues for further research on interculturalism and modernity."—Choice

"Primitivist Modernism is the first full exploration of the truly complex inter-relation among African, African American, and Euro-American cultures in the era of high modernism. Exploring the role of primitivism in the shaping of cubism, jazz, and the dance, and the effects of the black vernacular on literary forms, Lemke demonstrates in subtle detail that 'black' and 'white' modernist forms reflected, informed, and mutually constituted each other, almost like mirrored images. This novel claim she argues with deftness and subtlety. Primitivist Modernism is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the intellectual complexion of transatlantic modernism."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University

"This exciting book blends theory, social history, cultural analysis, and close readings of literature, art, dance, and jazz to argue the centrality of African art in the development of European and American modernism. Lemke's analysis of Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon is fresh and compelling; I found fascinating the sections on Josephine Baker and on Nancy Cunard and her journal Negro. Masterfully written, this book as a whole is marked by fastidious scholarship, command of literary theory and recent theories of primitivism, and rich, adventurous interpretations."—Patricia Hills, Professor of Art History, Boston University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195104035
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/28/1998
  • Series: W.E.B. Du Bois Institute Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 192
  • Lexile: 1330L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Free University of Berlin
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