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[BOOK REVIEW] Modern art, 101

Peter Gay's 'Modernism' reads like a basic college survey of art from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century, complete with random references to Freud

By William Grimes  /  Ny Times News Service , New York

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond
By Peter Gay
610 pages
W.W. Norton and Co

Spoiler alert: The hero dies at the end, but shed no tears. Modernism, the artistic revolution that began with the poetry of Charles Baudelaire in the 1840s and quietly expired in the 1960s with Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes, enjoyed "a good long run."

So Peter Gay concludes in the final sentence of Modernism: The Lure of Heresy From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond, his sweeping survey of the poets, playwrights, painters and architects who set out to rewrite the rules of art, transform consciousness and shock the complacent middle class.

Gay points out that that complacency has been greatly exaggerated. All revolutions require an enemy. The Modernists found theirs in the bourgeoisie, a fat, convenient target but also a source of support and encouragement. Enlightened curators, like Alfred Lichtwark at the Hamburg Kunsthalle and art dealers like Paul Durand-Ruel in Paris, helped prepare the ground for the eventual victory of Modernism's disorganized troops.

"Businessmen of culture offered and sold artistic products, whether dramas, drawings or volumes of poetry, and with the same gesture advanced the aesthetic cultivation of the buying public," Gay writes. The road was long and difficult, but never quite as lonely as the artists themselves often saw it. Their isolation was, in part, a self-created myth. "If my work is accepted," John Cage once said, "I must move on to the point where it is not."

Gay, the eminent historian of the European Enlightenment, Weimar culture and Sigmund Freud, spent the greater part of the 1980s and 1990s chronicling the sensibility and cultural life of the Victorian middle class in his five-volume series, The Bourgeois Experience. It makes some sense, then, that he should now turn to the artistic avant-garde dedicated to pulling the rug from under the oppressive father figures of the 19th century. Otherwise, it is hard to locate the motivation for yet another general work on a movement whose every breath and gesture has been subjected to minute study by legions of historians.

Gay adds little new in what amounts to a college survey course. A graceful writer, he 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. From seminal figures like Baudelaire and Flaubert, he moves right along to the Impressionists and then, taking the various art forms in turn, advances chronologically through the great debacle wrought by fascism and World War II before wrapping up with such postwar phenomena as Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.

He has a thesis. Modernism, he argues, was propelled by two main impulses: the urge to overturn established hierarchies and break rules - this is what he means by "the lure of heresy" - and a compulsion to explore the artist's interior world. These primal drives produced "a single aesthetic mind-set," a "climate of thought, feeling and opinion," unifying what might appear to be a scattering of disconnected artistic revolts.

Armed with this pair of organizing principles, Gay sets forth down his well-traveled highway. Prodigiously well informed, 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, but rarely does Gay heed the greatest Modernist injunction, attributed to Sergei Diaghilev: "Astonish me!"

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