The escape from God and tradition

Early Modernism
April 21, 1995

We are getting ahead of ourselves. In our rush to witness the spectacle of post-modern art we have allowed our memory of modern art to blur. Modernism, which sought to escape from the past, has been passed over. As Early Modernism makes abundantly clear, this is premature: there can be no serious analysis of post-modern positions without our first knowing modernist positions precisely. We need a reliable history of Modernism.

Christopher Butler has written an unusually ambitious and wide-ranging, yet uncommonly lucid introduction to the most significant avant-garde movements in European painting, music and literature which developed during the period from the turn of the 20th century to the start of the First World War. It seeks to examine the nature of the intellectual and artistic changes that occurred at this time through a provocative analysis of the intimate interaction between the arts, the conceptual interrelationship between diverse aesthetic innovations and the ways in which they expressed complex and often fully coherent visions of the modern world. It pursues this objective in a fairly clear, constructive style and with a good range of helpful and high-quality illustrations.

As Butler notes, many of the earlier texts focusing on this period and cultural context are compromised by their excessively literary bias. In stark contrast, Butler opens up his account to show the shared concerns and influences that helped to furnish such figures as Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Marinetti, Mann, Pound, Eliot and Apollinaire with the motivation and the means to conceive and create novel conventions and techniques in their respective arts.

Theories of the unconscious, of intuition, of the necessary evolution of art and of the relationship between abstraction and the empirical world are all shown to have exerted a profound influence on the work and outlook of these artists. The theoretical contributions of such figures as Nietzsche, Freud, Simmel, Jung and Bergson are thus considered in relation to the artistic debates and experiments of the period. Nietzsche's argument, for example, concerning the "subject as multiplicity", his belief that part of being human is being aware of the chronic fluidity of personal identity and of the freedom constantly to reconceive it, expressed itself in Modernist literature in the form of the individual as the field of conflicting forces and drives.

Strindberg's Dream Play (1903) took this idea and deployed it within an Expressionist narrative structure, a context in which the characters (he said) "split, double, multiply; they evaporate, condense, scatter and converge".

Nietzsche said: "I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar". He meant we are not free of God as a transcendental authority, so long as we continue to imagine that our world is ordered by subjects and objects, past present and future tenses, colons and full stops. Modernism played with the implications of this remark, both positive and negative.

The idea of the supercession of the art of the past by the reconsideration of its languages engaged artists broadly of the right (Kandinsky, Eliot, Lewis, Pound and Benn) as much as it did those of the left (Picasso, Joyce, many German Expressionists and much of the Dada movement). According to Butler, one can distinguish between Modernism evolved by artists who were "tradition haunted", committed to the continuity of culture and the creative renewal of its fundamental impulses, and a Futurist and Dada avant-gardism, which sought to destroy the past and its authorities and (as Barthes put it) "escape forward".

The early Modernists of left and right, Butler argues, were united not so much with the search for a realist explicitness about the world outside art as in the interpretation that it was ascribed. This explains his emphasis on the expressionist nature of early Modernism, the fact that it was not just a movement that was concerned with the limits of a permissible description of experience but also with the appreciation of the "close interdependence between changes in artistic convention and changes in beliefs about 'the nature of human nature'".

Inevitably a survey such as this will occasionally be guilty of the dubious omission or critical simplification in the interests of a more intelligible and engaging historical narrative. The author himself acknowledges that multidisciplinary concerns oblige him to rush rather breathlessly from masterpiece to masterpiece, thus tending "to ignore the relationship between major and minor works within the canon I propose'. It is also evident that Butler is not always well-informed about some of the social and political theories he makes use of: his fascinating chapter on the city, for example, is somewhat compromised by the absence of discussion of the work of Walter Benjamin, and his consideration of Stravinsky refers to Adorno's critique in The Philosophy of the New Music, but ignores the later significant reconsideration, while a passing reference to something called "Hegelian marxism" is allowed to go unexplained.

This is, none the less, a refreshingly generous and generally sensitive account of the early influences on, and the development of, the Modernist movement. It will encourage students of literature, music and painting to reconsider their specialist interests within a richer cultural context, and it will teach social scientists to think a little harder before making dubious generalisations about the relationship between art and modernity. It is, in short, a serious book which deserves a wide and attentive readership.

Graham McCann is a fellow of King's College, Cambridge.

Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Painting in Europe 1900-1916

Author - Christopher Butler
ISBN - 0 19 811746 9 and 818252 X
Publisher - Clarendon Press
Price - £.50 and £12.95
Pages - 318

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