- Painting Modernism by Ivan A. Schulman
José Martí famously declared “Decirlo es verlo” as he painted a canvas of words to describe the aftermath of 1886 Charleston earthquake. Rubén Darío titled a series of Parisian chronicles “Films de París,” using a movie metaphor to bring to light quotidian news from France to his Latin American readerships. Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera proclaimed that “El arte es nuestro Príncipe y Señor,” placing art at the center of a fledgling modernista movement. Influence stemming from the visual arts is found throughout modernista texts and the impact of visual modalities and cultures on modernismo is a field waiting to be explored. Ivan Schulman’s latest book, Painting Modernism provides an essential introduction to the intersection of the plastic arts and fin de siglo literature and explores what the author calls the “painterly” elements in modernista poetry, novels, and art criticism.
The book begins with an introduction which reveals a dedicated scholar that has spent a great deal of time and effort reading, writing, and thinking about the complications of modernismo. It speaks to the experience of a scholar who has carefully formed a multifaceted analysis of the modernista period and is not afraid to admit that his investigation often results in more questions than answers, more trails of inquiries than concrete conclusions, increased textual fragmentation than sure knowledge of the literary stylistics of the movement. The valuable introduction alone, which speaks of the “multiple, heterological” textualities of modernismo, its “pluralistic imaginary,” “lack of reasoned hierarchical order,” and modernista imaginaries “bedeviled by the persistence of inherited colonial essences,” is well worth the price of the book. There are six remaining chapters that explore how the art of painting is a mode of visuality evident in the texts and stylistic elements of the central authors of the movement. Each chapter further defines the modernista project as an extensive intertext with artistic forms that sought to redefine and renew Latin American culture of the period.
Chapter one discusses the connection of plastic arts and literature during modernismo and the individual expression of writers as painters of the worlds around them. Through textual analysis of José Martí and Rubén Darío’s poetry and prose, Schulman outlines the “imaged-based program” of fin de siglo letters (11). This chapter emphasizes the literary transformations of the two writers in coping with the “voids of the waning decades of the nineteenth century” by seeking out new expressionistic forms, many of which came by way of image-based artwork (13). Schulman continues in the following chapter by examining the modernista gaze as it was represented in the novel and how it expressed the transformations of Latin American modernity and “the resulting anguished sense of social, cultural, [End Page 611] and political displacement the writers of the period experienced” (15). Primarily focusing in on Martí’s Lucía Jerez and José Asunción Silva’s De sobremesa, the chapter presents an innovative chromatic and light-based analysis of the novels revealing a multi-perceptive complexity that adds to the movement’s hybrid aesthetic innovations.
Modernistas were avid art critics and essays and crónicas on art exhibitions helped to secure the movement’s role as a cultural authority in the Hispanic world. Chapter three, “From Painting to Literary Text,” is a close reading of Martí’s essay on Jean-León Gérome’s painting Pollice verso and a poem with the same title by the Cuban author inspired by the artwork. Here Schulman explores how elements of artwork make their way to the page and “reorganize reality” (35). Through this analysis the chapter brings to life Martí’s poetic and political project in his critique of the French painting. This liberation project questions the new social and economic orders of Latin America with the Cuban incorporating art criticism, ekphrasis, and the poetic recreation of art to formulate his aesthetic program. The chapter, though seemingly dedicated to Martí, ends with a short section on Julián del Casal’s poetry in relation to the French painter Moreau. The orientalist influence...