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10-08-2015, 16:03

Literature and the Arts: The Culture of Modernity

by similar changes in literature and the arts. Throughout much of the late nineteenth century, literature was dominated by Naturalism. Naturalists accepted the material world as real and believed that literature should be realistic. By addressing social problems, writers could contribute to an objective understanding of the world. But Naturalists lacked the underlying note of liberal optimism about people and society that had still been prevalent among their predecessors. The Naturalists were pessimistic about Europe’s future. They doubted the existence of free will and portrayed characters caught in the grip of forces beyond their control. The novels of the French writer Émile Zola (1840 – 1902) provide a good example of Naturalism. Against a backdrop of the urban slums and coalfields of northern France, Zola showed how alcoholism and different environments affected people’s lives. The materialistic science of his age had an important influence on Zola. He had read Darwin’s Origin of Species and had been impressed by its emphasis on the struggle for survival and the importance of environment and heredity. At the turn of the century, a new group of writers, known as the Symbolists, reacted against Naturalism. Primarily interested in writing poetry, the Symbolists believed that an objective knowledge of the world was impossible. The external world was not real but only a collection of symbols that reflected the true reality of the individual human mind. Art, they believed, should function for its own sake instead of serving, criticizing, or seeking to understand society. In the works of Symbolist poets William Butler Yeats and Rainer Maria Rilke, poetry ceased to be part of popular culture because only through a knowledge of the poet’s personal language could one hope to understand what the poet was saying. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the belief that the task of literature was to represent “reality” had thus lost much of its meaning. By that time, the new psychology and the new physics had made it evident that many people were not sure what constituted reality anyway. The same was true in the realm of art, where in the late nineteenth century, painters were beginning to respond to ongoing investigations into the nature of optics and human perception by experimenting with radical new techniques to represent the multiplicity of reality. The changes that such cultural innovators produced have since been called Modernism. The first to embark on the challenge were the Impressionists. Originating in France in the 1870s, they rejected indoor painting and preferred to go out to the countryside to paint nature directly. As Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903), one of the movement’s founders, expressed it: “Don’t proceed according to rules and principles, but paint what you observe and feel. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.” The most influential of the Impressionists was Claude Monet (1840 –1926), who painted several series of canvases on the same object—such as haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral, and water lilies in the garden of his house on the Seine River—in the hope of breaking down the essential lines, planes, colors, and shadows of what the eye observed. His paintings that deal with the interplay of light and reflection on a water surface are regarded among the wonders of modern painting. The growth of photography gave artists another reason to reject visual realism. Invented in the 1830s, photography became popular and widespread after George Eastman created the first Kodak camera for the mass market in 1888. What was the point of an artist’s doing what the camera did better? Unlike the camera, which could only mirror reality, artists could create reality. As in literature, so also in modern art, individual consciousness became the source of meaning. Between the beginning of the new century and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, this search for individual expression produced a great variety of painting schools—including Expressionism and Cubism— that would have a significant impact on the world of art for decades to come. In Expressionism, the artist employed an exaggerated use of colors and distorted shapes to achieve emotional expression. Painters such as the Dutchman Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890) and the Norwegian Edvard Munch (1863–1944) were interested not in capturing the optical play of light on a landscape but in projecting their inner selves onto the hostile universe around them. Who cannot be affected by the intensity of Van Gogh’s dazzling sunflowers or by the ominous swirling stars above a church steeple in his Starry Night (1890)? Another important artist obsessed with finding a new way to portray reality was the French painter Paul Cézanne (1839–1906). Scorning the photographic duplication of a landscape, he sought to isolate the pulsating structure beneath the surface. During the last years of his life, he produced several paintings of Mont Saint Victoire, located near Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. Although each canvas differed in perspective, composition, and color, they all reflect the same technique of reducing the landscape to virtual geometric slabs of color to represent the interconnection of trees, earth, tiled roofs, mountain, and sky. Following Cézanne was Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), one of the giants of twentieth-century painting. Settling in Paris in 1904, he and the French artist Georges Braque (1882–1963) collaborated in founding Cubism, the first truly radical approach in representing visual reality. To the Cubist, any perception of an object was a composite of simultaneous and different perspectives. Modernism in the arts also revolutionized architecture and architectural practices. A new principle known as functionalism motivated this revolution by maintaining that buildings, like the products of machines, should be “functional” or useful, fulfilling the purpose for which they were constructed. Art and engineering were to be unified, and all unnecessary ornamentation was to be stripped away. The United States was a leader in these pioneering architectural designs. Unprecedented urban growth and the absence of restrictive architectural traditions allowed for new building methods, especially in the relatively new city of Chicago. The Chicago school of the 1890s, led by Louis H. Sullivan (1856 –1924), used reinforced concrete, steel frames, electric elevators, and sheet glass to build skyscrapers virtually free of external ornamentation. One of Sullivan’s most successful pupils was Frank Lloyd Wright (1869–1959), who became known for innovative designs in domestic architecture. Wright’s pri private houses, built chiefly for wealthy patrons, featured geometric structures with long lines, overhanging roofs, and severe planes of brick and stone. The interiors were open spaces and included cathedral ceilings and built-in furniture and lighting features. Wright pioneered the modern American house. At the beginning of the twentieth century, developments in music paralleled those in painting. Expressionism in music was a Russian creation, the product of composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and the Ballet Russe, the dance company of Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929). Together they revolutionized the world of music with Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. When it was performed in Paris in 1913, the savage and primitive sounds and beats of the music and dance caused a near riot among an audience outraged at its audacity. By the end of the nineteenth century, then, traditional forms of literary, artistic, and musical expression were in a state of rapid retreat. Freed from conventional tastes and responding to the intellectual and social revolution that was getting under way throughout the Western world, painters, writers, composers, and architects launched a variety of radical new ideas that would revolutionize Western culture in coming decades.

 

 

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