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Modernism and Masculinity:
Mann, Wedekind, Kandinsky Through World War I
Gerald N. Izenberg. Modernism and Masculinity: Mann, Wedekind, Kandinsky Through World War I. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000. xii + 257 pp.
The claims of this book are, first, that "Modernism" and "Masculinity" are closely related, second, that literature and visual art in Europe between 1885-1920 reflect "a social and psychological crisis of Masculinity," and, third, that this crisis "helped shape both the thematic concerns and the formal innovations of the early Modernist revolution in the arts." The idea that gender is central for an understanding of modernism is interesting and compelling but not new. [End Page 518]
Izenberg's book displays a clear structure and is written in flawless prose. It consists of an introduction and three chapters: "Frank Wedekind and the Femininity of Freedom," "Thomas Mann and the Feminine Passion for Transcendence," and "Wassily Kandinsky and the Origins of Abstraction," followed by a conclusion and an index. In these detailed chapters, Izenberg makes direct links between the personal lives and private intricacies of Wedekind, Mann, and Kandisky—as documented in letters, diaries, and personal notes—and their artistic works. The book contains a wealth of biographical details and information on the artists' lives, and there are interesting cross-references among various parts of the three chapters that give the reader food for thought.
Upon first impression, this book is appealing and has some wonderful color plates of Kandinsky's paintings. A more careful study, however, leads to some serious reservations. The secondary sources Izenberg references on Wedekind, Mann, and Kandinsky are very selective and do not reflect much of the contemporary research on these three figures, nor does he explicitly interact with the relevant current debates in gender studies (including feminism), postmodern literary theory, and visual-verbal discourses. For example, he seems to assume the existence of mirror relationships between the artists' lives and their works, as if one could interpret literature and visual art by reducing their messages to the representation of primarily biographical indices. Biographic events become then unduly elevated to the status of immediately applicable tools for the interpretation of the three authors' dramas, novels, and paintings, respectively. Izenberg claims that lives and works are "parallel texts." He does not engage, however, with any notion of textuality, thus ignoring all theorists denying causal links between biography and artistic production, or those arguing for the forgotten and repressed complexity of language where meanings would rather be considered as co-determined and inter-contextually defined.
In addition, one may find Izenberg's psychological theorizing questionable. His specific concern with gender comes apparently from a traditional Freudian perspective on the Oedipus complex. Or perhaps I should say that of a Freudianism of the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century? The book is written without regard to any post-Freudian approaches and recent psychoanalytical research, such as the work of those who have meanwhile drawn much attention to the intricacies of [End Page 519] language (Lacan, Kristeva, Irigaray), or to more recent conceptual models of psychodynamics (Kohut, Klein, Winnicot). Furthermore, he offers a somewhat schematic application of Freud's notion of the Oedipus complex in which the mother (and subsequently the lover or wife of the artist) is usually identified by the artist as the primary source of his torment and his creative condition. The "crisis of Masculinity" seems to originate from a false idealization of femininity, which must be given up by the male artists in order to maintain their creativity. Such a "crisis" has much to do with a change of gender roles in history, which Izenberg mentions in passing without further questioning outdated models of masculinity or proposing more viable ones in the process. When women became increasingly emancipated, this threatened not only an archaic notion of masculinity (as one would assume) but in addition, as Izenberg seems to imply, "Masculinity" itself, whatever that may indicate in the artist's biographical contexts (although his term "Masculinity" remains somewhat opaque and seriously...