The Modernist Review #34: Modernism and Science

30th September 2021

The beginning of Autumn is a great time for reflection, and 2021 has given us more than enough to think about. As we debate the ethics of vaccine boosters, try to interpret the erratic rise and fall of the graphs, and do our best to resist imitating Chris Whitty’s ‘Next Slide Please!’ whenever we open Powerpoint, it’s clear that science – and the debates it elicits – have become increasingly unavoidable. The last two years have shown more than ever the ways in which science – its methods, images, and practical applications – pervade and shape both our lived experience and our artistic interpretation of our place in the natural world. Of course, though science’s cultural presence may have been particularly stark of late, it is certainly nothing new. This issue of the Modernist Review brings a wealth of examples of the varied ways in which modernism and science were interwoven in the first half of the twentieth century to generate innovative aesthetics, striking social commentary, and dramatic philosophical and political conversations across fields.

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Humphrey Jennings: analytic history and the poetic cross-section

30 September 2021

Aoiffe Walsh, Royal Holloway, University of London

Filmmaker Lindsay Anderson famously described Humphrey Jennings as ‘the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced.’[1] But what could have prompted Anderson to make such a claim? I propose it was the way in which Jennings imbued the exploration and analysis of photographic factuality with a sense of emotion and imagination. As a documentary filmmaker with the Crown Film Unit, responsible for wartime propaganda films, the materials Jennings worked with were those of the objective world manipulated in such a way as to appeal to British sentimentality. Jennings was also part of a Surrealism emerging in Britain in the early 1930s that explored emotion and imagination alongside empiricist knowledge claims. Educated at Cambridge University within the lively discourses of logical positivism, pragmatism, humanism, and materialism, Jennings’ work displays a set of complex artistic impulses and influences. The way that Jennings generates imaginative and affective expression through the capture of material mundanity is a deliberate result of how he conceives of history, knowledge, poetry, and analysis. Reconciling such often disparate intellectual systems results in what Jennings described as an ‘imaginative history.’[2]

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Wassily Kandinsky and His Engagement with Experimental Psychology

30 September 2021

Anne Regina Grasselli, University of Edinburgh

The preoccupation of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) with scientific theories of visual perception and their role in his move toward an abstract non-objective art has been a key subject of research on the artist. These have focussed for the most part on the influence of the publications of the founders of Gestalt psychology, Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967), and Kurt Koffka (1886-1941), whose theories on visual perception do bear some important similarities with those expressed by Kandinsky.[1] Kandinsky himself, however, stated forcefully in the 1928 second edition of his second major book, Punkt und Linie zu Fläche (Point and Line to Plane), that his ideas predated those of the Gestaltists.[2] Indeed, there are clues in both his writings and his art that he was influenced by the work of an earlier generation of psychologists, including Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and Theodor Lipps (1851-1914). Connections with Lipps’ research have been noted before, but the importance of Wundt, who is regarded as the ‘father of experimental psychology’, for Kandinsky’s work has not previously been recognised.[3] Presented here is some evidence of his early contact with the theories of Wundt and Lipps and his later use of some of their diagrams as the basis of painted compositions and theories. Continue reading “Wassily Kandinsky and His Engagement with Experimental Psychology”

So late in time: David Jones’ Liturgical Geology in “Rite and Fore-Time”

30 September 2021

Catherine Enwright, Boston College

“Rite and Fore-Time”, the first section of David Jones’ long poem The Anathemata (1952), begins in the present tense. A priest, using the particular Latin formula of the Roman Catholic Mass of Jones’ day, is consecrating a host. Stripping away the specificities of rubric, the poem focuses on the strange action of the priest: ‘We already and first of all discern him making this thing other…’[1] He is engaged in consecration, the act of making a holy object, a thing set apart for God, anathema in its forgotten sense. Before the word only meant expulsion from a human community, anathema was also used to describe ‘a thing consecrated or devoted to divine use’.[2] The title’s reclamation of the word’s gentler meaning sets in motion Jones’ larger project: to consider the strange action of the Catholic priest as an event occurring at the end of a long history of man creating anathemata, things of no use except worship.

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Eduardo Paolozzi’s ‘ethnographic Surrealism’

30 September 2021

Michael Clegg, University of Birmingham

In the 1950s, Eduardo Paolozzi was a leading figure in the emergence of a distinctive, post-war British modernism in visual art, one characterised by the use of collage and the incorporation of motifs from popular culture. Later, he was to receive multiple public commissions and is known by many through his sculpture Newton (1995) in the British Library forecourt, a reworking of William Blake’s foundational image of Romantic anti-science. This essay looks at another of Paolozzi’s activities from his time as an established artist: his curation of an exhibition at the Museum of Mankind, then Britain’s national museum of ethnography, in 1985. The show, ‘Lost Magic Kingdoms and Six Paper Moons from Nahuatl’, was framed by the museum’s staff as a creative response to the inadequacies of their own discipline with its rational and analytic (implicitly scientific) approach to objects from non-European cultures. I argue here that Paolozzi’s curation failed, however, to provide a convincing alternative, its own weakness rooted in his fealty to his particular modernist heritage.

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Novel facts: astronomy and fiction’s authority in early 20th century European periodicals

30 September 2021

Adele GuytonUniversity of Leuven

On August 6 2021, the Wiener Zeitung dug into its archives and published an article from 1895 called “Die Welt in Hunderttausend Jahren” (the world in 100,000 years).[1] If it were published today, it would likely raise eyebrows, but as I hope to show in this essay, its quirks are not unusual for European periodicals at the turn of the century. Its author, Ludwig Karell, was a frequent popular science contributor to the Zeitung, yet here he summarises predictions about the future of the Earth, not from a recent astronomical or geological treatise, but from bestselling astronomy writer Camille Flammarion’s 1893 novel La fin du monde.[2] As if to emphasise the factuality of this (fictional) information and avoid the speculation inherent in the future tense, the descriptions of the future are mostly written in the past tense: for instance, the article states that in the thirtieth century, it ‘was already possible to predict the weather as exactly as we today predict a solar or lunar eclipse’.[3]

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‘In conch-shell’: A Conchology of Form and Self in the Poetry of H. D., Marianne Moore, and Amy Lowell

30 September 2021

Anya Reeve, University of Oxford

I don’t know where I should like to live unless in a nautilus shell.[1]

‘Verses were the murex’, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) writes in her novel Palimpsest (1926).[2] The character of Raymonde – moving through a sea of imbricated, recursive prose, towards the concrete form of her poetry – is here describing the act of setting into verse.[3] To do so, she invokes the image of the murex, a marine mollusc encased in a spiny shell. This sense of versification as murex-like incipiently suggests a wider theme: the surprisingly profound valency of conchology (the study of land and marine molluscs’ shells) within the corpuses of the associated poets H.D., Marianne Moore and Amy Lowell. For all three, seashells and snails’ shells are invested with a symbolic and formal potency, particularly in their architectonic figuration as habitable spaces. ‘We speak of our houses, of our “shells”’, Moore aptly summates.[4] Shells are employed within this female and queer milieu to express the status of the poet; articulate the poet’s practice; and, at times, lend conceptual or formal shape and texture to the individual poem itself.

Continue reading “‘In conch-shell’: A Conchology of Form and Self in the Poetry of H. D., Marianne Moore, and Amy Lowell”

Sex and Suffrage in Charlotte Haldane’s Man’s World (1926)

30 September 2021

Allegra HartleyUniversity of Huddersfield

In 1926, Charlotte Haldane published Man’s World, a novel which despite its comparisons to Huxley’s Brave New World has received relatively little critical attention.[1] The narrative is set in a future society run by a male scientific elite, in which the sex of a foetus can be determined and controlled, allowing for ‘orders’ to be placed for male or female children depending on the current needs of the state. Women, as a result, have been divided into classes – ‘neuters’ and ‘mothers’. ‘Mothers’ are chosen for their physical and psychological suitability to the vocational role of producing children whereas ‘neuters’ are considered inappropriate ‘types’ for motherhood and are sterilised at a young age. As a result, gender presentation, sex characteristics, and sexuality follow a stark and rigorously policed binary.[2] This preoccupation with the categorisations of sex, sexuality, and gender reflects a cultural interest in sexology apparent at the beginning of the twentieth century. Whilst the study of human sexual behaviour has roots firmly in the nineteenth century, the topic of sex and genetics had ramifications for women’s emancipation well into the opening decades of the new century.[3]

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‘Going Deaf’ in Stella Benson’s Living Alone

30 September 2021

Rhiannon CogbillIndependent Scholar

A prefatory note to Living Alone (1919), the third novel by the early twentieth-century English writer, suffragist and campaigner Stella Benson, informs readers that it is ‘not a real book’ and indeed ‘does not deal with real people’.[1] One aspect of this unreality relates to genre: Living Alone, in which witches and wizards intrude upon the work of a charitable committee during the First World War, demonstrates what Nicola Darwood characterises as Benson’s ability to ‘cover a wide range of issues […] through a mixture of realism, fantasy and satire’.[2]

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Book Review: Grotesque Visions: The Science of Berlin Dada

30 September 2021

Rachel Eames, Independent Scholar

Thomas O. Haakenson, Grotesque Visions: The Science of Berlin Dada, (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021)

Part of Bloomsbury’s New Directions in German Studies series, Grotesque Visions focuses on the interaction between ways of seeing in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century medical and anthropological sciences and the work of the Berlin Dadaists Salomo Friedlander (aka Mynona), Til Brugman, and Hannah Höch. Haakenson explores ‘the tenuous use of sensory knowledge in empirical scientific practice, and reveal[s] the ways in which hierarchies of vision’ (118) formed and were challenged by artists in early twentieth century Berlin. Haakenson relates strategies of scientific observation and typification to the development of the grotesque and frames his study around their opposition. Where scientists sought to teach a standardized and regulated form of vision, the Dada grotesque celebrated bodies that refused to conform to scientific type.

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