Subjectivity Is All

Using a lifetime of colorful examples to define the undefinable


Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond, by Peter Gay, Norton, $35

The difficulty of summing up the meaning of the word modernism has always been exemplified for me by the following paradox. T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland of 1922 is, largely, a pastiche of ironic quotations from past literature and from popular culture. It’s an assemblage, a collage, like some of the cubism of Picasso and Braque. It is universally regarded as a monument of modernism. In the field of architecture, by contrast, the practice of designing a building as a pastiche of ironic quotations from the architecture of the past and from popular culture didn’t come along until the 1970s. When it did, it was universally labeled postmodernism. Modernism in architecture, in fact, can be defined as, precisely, a freedom from reference to the architecture of the past.

So what is modernism? The distinguished author Peter Gay, winner of the National Book Award for The Enlightenment and author also of Weimar Culture and Freud: A Life for Our Time, has now undertaken the task of telling us. I don’t think he succeeds, but probably his task is impossible. The book works anyway, sort of, as books of this kind often do. The argument over the nature of modernism is the unresolved, not very original substrate of the text. Overlaid on it is a long series of miniature essays and commentaries, often insightful and informative, on the lives and works of artists in every field, from the poet Charles Baudelaire at the beginning to the architect Frank Gehry at the end. There must be hundreds of them. It’s hard not to be suspicious of the author’s motives. Is he really interested in defining modernism? Or is the search for modernism merely the framework on which he can embroider a lifetime of colorful opinions about a variety of artists and movements?

Gay himself sometimes seems uncertain about his thesis. He admits that modernism is full of contradictions. He often makes that point by means of an authorial tic, a sudden reversal, that closes many passages. On the playwright August Strindberg: “Remember: it is one of the features of modernism to have a great artist make indelible contributions to the avant-garde while at the same time serving the forces of reaction.” On the architect J. J. P. Oud: “Modernists marched under many banners, with ideals that were at times incompatible with one another.”

Gay’s method is, perhaps, the only possible one. “Modernism is far easier to exemplify than to define,” he begins, accurately, and then he goes on to write a book of examples. He doesn’t attempt a philosophical discussion of the nature of modernism. But from time to time, while discussing an artist, he’ll suddenly fire off a definition of some aspect of modernism, an aspect that’s suggested by the work of that artist. The hope, apparently, is that by lighting up one facet of modernism after another in this manner, he’ll eventually show us a coherent truth.

This isn’t a book for people who don’t already know their art. Gay assumes you’re enlightened enough so that he won’t have to waste time explaining. Major figures are sometimes dealt with in a single sentence. (“The work of David Smith, for example, veered between gigantic metal pieces unrelated to anything but to his other constructions and table-sized ‘portraits’ that vaguely resembled human figures.” Got it?)


At other times he’ll examine more comprehensively someone he’s interested in. These are the best parts of the book. Some of the figures he treats in this deeper way are Gauguin, van Gogh, Baudelaire, Strindberg, Oscar Wilde, James Ensor, Ernest Ludwig Kirchner, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Knut Hamsun, Charles Ives, Arthur Schnitzler, T. S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Andy Warhol, Gabriel García Márquez, and lesser-known figures like the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and the museum director Alfred Lichtwark.

There are anecdotes: Robert Motherwell taking Mondrian out to dinner at the Tavern on the Green in Central Park, and Mondrian carefully seating himself with his back to the park so as not to have to see nature. (Gay is interesting on Mondrian, who, he thinks, retreated into abstraction because he was panicked by sex.)

And there are quotes: John Cage: “If my work is accepted, I must move on to the point where it is not.” Gauguin: “What must be killed so it will never be reborn: God.” Baudelaire: “The man of letters is the enemy of the world.”

The book’s major topics are: “Professional Outsiders” (modern painters and sculptors), “Prose and Poetry,” “Music and Dance,” “Architecture and Design” (including film), “Eccentrics and Barbarians” (a catchall: oddballs Hamsun and Eliot, barbarians Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin). The “minor” arts are ignored: landscape and graphic design, town planning, fashion, textiles, jewelry, jazz and popular music, etc.

Sometimes the judgments are so all-knowing they’re preposterous. Van Gogh and Gauguin are “certainly the most important” of modernist painters, but Cézanne is “the sovereign source of twentieth-century art.” (Gay is good on Cézanne, though.) Citizen Kane is “universally hailed as the greatest movie ever made.” (Rules of the Game, anyone?)

There are places where Gay seems to be summarizing his reading rather than offering a mature insight. This is especially true in the section on architecture, the area this reviewer knows best, where Gay is largely clueless. The Barcelona Pavilion, by Mies van der Rohe, is described without mention of its astonishing spatial ambiguities. Le Corbusier, the designer of the great, largely hand-built monastery of La Tourette, is absurdly dismissed: “Le Corbusier’s commitment to the machine (‘A house is a machine to live in’) may be his lasting legacy.” Most of what Gay says about Frank Lloyd Wright is clearly secondhand.

A few errors slip in, as they must. The film His Girl Friday dates from 1940, not 1949. Philip Johnson was not yet an architect when he co-curated the exhibition The International Style, and he built his Glass House in 1949, not 1959. And so on.

Gay’s definitions of modernism aren’t exactly fresh news, but they’re helpful. A modernist, he tells us, does the following: Lives in his or her own time. Refuses to be widely appreciated. Asserts the sovereignty of art and the artist over other elements of society. Possesses a hunger for spirituality. Believes that subjectivity is all. Wishes not to resemble anyone else. And as the subtitle tells us, is drawn by the lure of heresy.

In a final section, “Life After Death?” Gay asks himself whether modernism has died, perhaps in the years after World War II. He doesn’t come to a conclusion. He sees in Pop Art an “irredeemable retreat from the whole-hearted anti-establishment convictions that had animated modernists all the way back to Baudelaire and Flaubert.” He says that “the democratization of culture” threatens “the supremacy of the elite essential to avant-garde literature and art.” And this: “Yet the old Duchampian claim that anything can be art, the dream that Pop Art turned into reality, has been more destructive of modernism than more obvious challenges.”

But then he cites the modernist tendencies in Samuel Beckett and his school. And, in a final “Coda,” he writes admiringly of architect Frank Gehry’s famous Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, as a modernist work. Gay isn’t sure whether modernism is alive or not. But in any case, “It has had a good long run.”

The book is like a game in which Gay touches all the bases without quite crossing the plate. When the ambition is defining modernism, that may be all we can hope for.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Campbell is the architecture critic of The Boston Globe. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1996.


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