What was Modernism, and why does it still matter? The term itself first gained currency in the 1930s, describing a kind of art that already may have peaked, some would say as early as 1922. Whatever its ups and downs in its own time, as the novelist Julian Barnes claims in one of the twenty essays commissioned for the present volume, Modernism never vanished. It remains our immovable feast.
Modernism was international in scope; it left its mark on all genres, from literature and painting to opera, dance, and architecture; it pushed the boundaries of what was artistically possible and aesthetically important; and finally, for all its destructive urges which it shared with the century itself, it was also celebrative.
This book is a response to the exhibition of the same name that opened at the Harry Ransom Center in October 2003. It includes original essays by such noted writers and artists as Russell Banks, Anita Desai, David Douglas Duncan, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Penelope Lively, which offer fresh perspectives on important Modernist figures, including William Gaddis, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, E. M. Forster, Paul Robeson, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier. In addition, essays by leading scholars in literature and art history focus on specific artifacts included in the exhibit. As the Center's Director, Thomas F. Staley, puts it in the Foreword, "Ours is an attempt not of definition but of discovery and rediscovery." Book and exhibition permit both reader and viewer to experience the textures, structures, and resonances which made the first part of the twentieth century so innovative that its art is still virtually synonymous with what "newness" means.
At one time or another every serious historian of Modernism must feel empathy with Hugh Kenner's remark in The Pound Era (1971) that Modernism is so large and complex a subject no one historian knows enough to take it on. After nearly a century, the dates, places, manifestos, movements, and names still seem to swirl about like particles in a cyclotron. Although Virginia Woolf famously designated the year 1910 as the start of the modernist revolution, it was in fact during the first few years of the last century, and continuing into the 1920s, that literature and the arts underwent a dramatic upheaval. In 1903 Gertrude Stein, a student of William James, left medical school in Baltimore to settle in Paris. As early as the 1890s, Joseph Conrad departed Poland after years at sea and began his writing career in London. In 1913, another writer of Polish origin, Guillaume Apollinaire, immediately absorbed the "new spirit" of Paris upon his arrival. Ezra Pound, from Idaho by way of Pennsylvania, arrived in London in 1908; the same year Ford Madox Ford began to edit The English Review. From St. Louis by way of Harvard, T.S. Eliot followed a few years later, like Pound, in the shadow of an earlier American exile, Henry James. Meanwhile James Joyce settled in remote Trieste and began making A Portrait of the Artist out of Stephen Hero, moving after the War to Paris, where, earlier, Henri Matisse had left a law office in Picardy to study under Gustave Moreau at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. From Barcelona came Picasso.
Countless other young artists and writers from Europe and America converged on Paris and London in these early years, and the gigantic burst of creative energy that resulted we have come to call Modernism. In spite of the struggles to define the term, chart its shape and contours, formulate its styles and sensibilities, record the dislocations and even convolutions it brought to twentieth-century European and American culture, the term Modernism continues to elude us.
Make It New: The Rise of Modernism attempts to capture in essence the texture, structure, context, and dimensions of the most dominant aesthetic moveinent of the last century. There are more than three hundred objects in this exhibition and they are intended not only to give narrative shape but more importantly to provoke epiphany. Our purpose has affinity with Stephen Greenblatt's term, resonance: "the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged." We hope the individual works in our exhibition, be they primarily visual or written creations, encourage the viewer to connect each to each like nodes in a design, similar to the reader's experience of Finnegans Wake, a work regarded as the exclamation point to Modernism. The whole of Make It New is designed to point beyond the sum of its parts, but the relationship of part to part suggests a rhythm, capturing the explosive energy that made the early twentieth-century world modern.
Our vantage point from this new century gives us the perspective of distance, for as Eliot wrote, "no generation is interested in art in quite the same way as any other." Eliot argued that every hundred or so years it is desirable to review the past and set it in a new order. Make It New does not so much suggest a new order, but it does aspire to create a freshness of vision and a deeper awareness of relationships, a pervasive intertextuality, not of these creations simply to each other but to the deeper social and cultural forces from which they emanated through the pens, brushes, and cameras of those who created them. Our distance from the roots of Modernism also should be seen as more than an opportunity to gain perspective in the construction of yet another narrative of Modernism. For, just as Pound's famous injunction to "make it new" stimulated radical changes in literature, so too the term Modernism itself evolves and is made new by our continual engagement with its art and ideas.
Ours is an attempt not of definition but of discovery and rediscovery.
It is particularly appropriate that an exhibition on this subject should be held here in the new Ransom Center Galleries, for it is our modern collections that have brought international recognition to the center over the past five decades. The Ransom Center is an institution of Modernism, and from its thousands of authors' archives, books, photographs, and art, the curators have chosen these objects to represent the focus and achievement of Modernism. The choice for inclusion was frequently debated among our curators, and their debates sustained the seemingly endless questions: What was Modernism? And what is Modernism now, in 2003?