History13 Feb 2008 01:46 am
Modernism (like romanticism) is a title more properly descriptive of trends common to a lengthy era (starting at the end of the 19th C and not quite vanished in our own time) than of one particular artistic movement. It is impossible to reduce modernism to one set of political, philosophical, or aesthetic values; the existence of such concepts as a modernist physics and modernist industrial production clearly show that such criteria do not provide an adequate definition of modernism on their own. Simply put, modernism is all about method—it is when we look at technique that we perceive family resemblances between Picasso, Proust, Heisenberg, and Nietzsche.
One of the most important commonalities running through modernist enterprise was the use of perspective as an analytic tool in the comprehension and reassembly of reality. Modernists had a habit of breaking things down into component parts—i.e. analysis—and re-using those parts in such a way as to establish new grounds for artistic, philosophical, political, and other investigations. A short survey of modernist artists and thinkers can help to illuminate this use of analytic perspective.
By making use of quick drying paint (the appropriation of new technology is another narrative strand in modernism), suitable for outdoor painting, French Impressionists sought to demonstrate that, as viewers, we see not objects, but, rather, light itself. Thus, the “true” nature of the object becomes contingent on the shifting foundations of environmental lighting, as illustrated by the series of Monet Haystacks below:
In his masterwork Ulysses, James Joyce employed different authorial voices in each “episode” of the novel, ranging from the form of a play to newspaper headlines to the Catholic catechism to stream-of-consciousness. Joyce deliberately adopted his disparate styles in an attempt to subsume the entire body of Western cultural history into his own story (reports vary, but are mostly positive).
The thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat posed by physicist Erwin Schrödinger (which came about through a long correspondence with Albert Einstein) demonstrates that, according to the logic of quantum mechanics, a cat put in a potentially lethal box is both dead and alive until it is observed to be in either state.
Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet filmmaker, was the most famous proponent of the use of montage in cinematography. Through the juxtaposition of radically different images, he hoped to communicate the essence of an event in a way that he felt was more holistic and multi-layered than the illusion of temporal continuity favored by Hollywood. Below is a recreation, in his distinctive style, of events that took place during the Communist revolution in Russia (from the movie Oktober).
The preceding experiments in perspective are but a small cross-section of seminal modernist undertakings; for more on the topic, check out Yale scholar Peter Gay’s new book Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.
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