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Sources of the Modern Imagination, II: A Review Essay Daniel R. Schwarz Cornell University John Elderfield. Henri Matisse: A Retrospective. New York: The Museum of Modem Art, New York, 1992. 480 pp. Cloth $75.00 Paper $37.50 FROM OUR VANTAGE POINT in 1994, we can see that the cultural revolution known as modernism originated as much with the paintings of Picasso and Matisse as with literary figures. Modernism questioned the possibility of a homogeneous European culture, even as it sought to propose diverse and contradictory alternatives. As John Elderfield puts it, "history was not always thought to be quite possibly a species of fiction but once comprised a form of order, and might still."1 One might recall James Clifford's comment that in 1900: ""Culture' referred to a single evolutionary process. The European bourgeois ideal of autonomous individuality was widely believed to be the natural outcome of a long development, a process that, although threatened by various disruptions, was assumed to be the basic, progressive movement of humanity."2 The major modernists felt estranged from orthodox political and historical assumptions and from the cultural values in which they were educated. Yet artists and writers paid homage to the very traditional ideas of art from which they were departing by their strong response to their predecessors and their need to modify and transform them. See Daniel R. Schwarz. "Sources of the Modern Imagination: A Review Essay. John Richardson. A Life of Picasso, 1881-1906." ELT, 35:3 (1992), 311-323. 192 SCHWARZ : MODERN IMAGINATION Modernists often tried to insulate art from history and to apotheosize the aesthetic. Indeed, New Criticism was not only a response to modernist texts, but originated in part from modernist aesthetics, such as Eliot's obj ective correlative, Joyce's concept of epiphany, and Lawrence's insistence that we believe the tale not the teller. But the recent emphasis on historicism seems to be particularly apt for modernism which was shaped by the world war, depression, the women's suffragette movement , and the disappointments of the promise of industrialism and urbanization. Our challenge is to find historical patterns and affinities without rigid periodicity. Modern literature and modern painting valorize what is represented as an intensified and illuminating version of reality. While self-consciously and knowingly using a web of signs, modern artists affirm that what they see is a version of the essential nature of things. Following romantic antecedents, and compensating for the dissolution of shared beliefs and emptiness within themselves, the artists' response to nature reflects an often desperate quest of an intuitive, powerful imagination—an imagination that deeply desires the capacity to see beyond the rest of us and to convince itself and others that it has done so. Prior artists drew upon other artists' subjects and inspiration, but modernism began to take art more seriously. Modernism's turn to intertextuality and metonymy relates to the loss of belief in the traditional Christian plot stretching from the Creation to the Apocalypse. The works of humans, like the world of humans, take on stature and importance once the painter no longer has to record the high points of the teleological Christian plot such as the Incarnation, the birth of Christ, or the crucifixion, or to record the portraits or deeds of secular potentates. The invention of photography, the breakdown of accepted moral certainties in religion and politics, the Darwinian revolution, modern physics, Freud, Nietzsche—all these about which I and others have written—played a role in the shaping new aesthetic assumptions. But we need to understand the affinities between modern painting and sculpture and modem literature. The experiments of Conrad, Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, and Stevens that challenged orderly narrative and consistent point of view owe something to the challenges to mimesis in Matisse, Picasso, and Klee. Their experiments in color, line, space, and abandonment of representation often provided a model for the experi193 ELT 37:2 1994 ments of modern writers. Juxtaposing disparate elements in collage certainly anticipated and was later affected by the disjunctions in modern narrative. The stress on form and style in Woolf and Joyce are a correlative in literature to Matisse's stress on patterning and the decorative. Is...


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