The Modernist Review #31: Visual Cultures

1 July 2021

In Jean Rhys’s 1927 short story, ‘Mannequin’, we open to the scene of Anna trying to find her way to the lunch room, dressed in the ‘chemise-like garment of the mannequin off duty’.[1] On the cusp between a state of dress and undress, between human individuality and thingness, clocked-on objectification and clocked-off satiation of hunger, Anna and the other mannequins represent a crossroads of modernist preoccupations with visual culture. Rhys traverses the bridge between mannequin as human model and mannequin as static window-dressing with Parisian grace, grappling with the tension between stillness and movement that embodies the ways of seeing and being seen in modernist artforms. In this Benjaminian age of mechanical reproduction, where does the agency lie in visual forms of representation?

At the turn of this century, Bill Brown theorised the ontology of things, asserting that we ‘begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us’.[2] This shift in perception is embedded in the visual difficulties of modernism where representation looks on at itself as a thing. Visual modernist responses to artefacts, art objects and organic materiality take up the space of this month’s issue of the Modernist Review. Investigating this theme, this month’s articles and reviews probe modernist efforts to revitalise objects through visuality, teasing the boundaries of inertia and vitality, of object and thing.

Leanne Darnbrough explores the visual languages which infiltrated poetics as Egyptomania swept through Europe in the 1920s through a reading of the hieroglyphics of one of Max Ernst’s tableaux-poèmes. This impulse towards perceived exoticism is also a kind of revitalisation of dormant iconography, a meeting of the ancient and contemporary as so often witnessed in modernisms. Such a confrontation of old and new is highlighted in Jack Quin’s review of Claudia Tobin’s Modernism and Still Life: Artists, Writers, Dancers (2020), with what Quin identifies as the ‘poignant insistence on the “still” in Still Life as adverb as well as adjective’; continuity and stagnation disrupt one another in a life that gives us lemons.

Continuing with the food theme, the surrealist millinery of Eileen Agar and her ‘Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse’ in particular, Christina Heflin charts the evolutionary potential in organic sculptural forms. Like Rhys’s mannequins, the art object at once embodies and critiques its status caught between functionality and momentary aesthetics. Speaking of objects, in his review of Modernist Objects, edited by Noelle Cury and Xavier Kack, Dazheng Gao identifies the value of this text in encompassing a significant body of object criticism in the modernist context where the problem of the real is foregrounded in literary and non-literary discourse.

Closing off this visual feast, in her article, Amber Jenkins considers the challenge Fry presented for modernists in demanding that the purity of form should define creative expression rather than representation and argues that both Bell and Woolf found that by centralising human and social feeling they were able to unify form and representation in their respective fields of creative expression. Thus in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse when Lily Briscoe draws on her memories of Mrs Ramsay she is able to complete her painting with daubs of blue and green thereby expressing her own emotional response through form and representation.

These various pieces knit together and pull at unravelling threads of modernist visual culture. From the vibrancy of fish stew headgear to writing that recognises itself as primarily a visual form, it seems that modernist visuality is as much about figuring out what an object is as it is about looking at it. After this long period spent looking at the same things every day – the four walls of our bedroom, the Zoom screen from the desk-cum-kitchen-table – it has been a pleasure to welcome vibrancy back again, and we hope that you enjoy reading this issue, too.

Best wishes,

Emily, Josh, Bryony, Gill & Jennifer


Sources:

[1] Jean Rhys, The Collected Short Stories, (London: Penguin, 2017), n.p.

[2] Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory,’ Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2001, Vol. 28, No. 1, p.4.

Cover image: Edward Wadsworth, Regalia (1928), Photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) (https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wadsworth-regalia-t03398)

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