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? Continue reading “The Modernist Review #31: Visual Cultures”

Synaesthetic Hieroglyphs: Max Ernst’s 1923 Tableau Poême ‘Dans une ville pleine de mystères […]’

Leanne Darnbrough, KU Leuven University

Perhaps no other visual artist of the Dada and Surrealist period worked so profoundly and adroitly with the concept of the visual pun as Max Ernst. His prolific oeuvre, which spans drawing, painting, frottage, collage, sculpture and writing, attests to his dedication to the development of a new, visual language. As Natalia Brodskaïa notes, « [i]l fallait cependant pour lui que le langage artistique réunisse deux facteurs : le naturalisme de la représentation et le secret. »[1] (‘It was however necessary that an artistic language unites two factors: that of naturalistic representation and that of the secret.’ [own translation]) While his use of the semantics of the visual has often been remarked upon, one aspect which has not received as much attention is how the synaesthesia of many of his works chimes with the Egyptmania of the wider cultural milieu and specifically with avant-garde attention to the mediality of inscription spurred by reflections on the hieroglyph. Hieroglyphic here embodies three main characteristics: (1) the image excised from its original context; (2) a blurring of the boundaries between pictorial and textual; and (3) a fascination with the ontology of the alphabetical. Continue reading “Synaesthetic Hieroglyphs: Max Ernst’s 1923 Tableau Poême ‘Dans une ville pleine de mystères […]’”

Unifying “Psychological Entities” and “Spatial Relations”: The Aesthetic Formalism of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf

1 July 2021

Amber Jenkins, University of South Wales

Debates concerning the nature of form and representation are a particular point of focus for scholars of the Bloomsbury Group. Despite the increasing body of research that highlights the complex theories developed by its members,[1] the dominant notion of ‘Bloomsbury aesthetics’ is a theory of art committed to the intrinsic values of pure form rather than representation. This definition is largely based on the early work of Roger Fry, which, as Simon Watney suggests, was ‘founded upon the belief [… that] art is constantly restoring itself to a state of Edenic “purity”, which is to be identified by a concern with particular internal formal values.’[2] While Watney’s definition summarises the ideas outlined in Fry’s ‘An Essay in Aesthetics’ (1909), in his later work, Transformations (1926), Fry attempts to resolve the conflict between pure form and representation by finding a balance between ‘the psychological and plastic aspects of a picture.’[3] Yet Fry continues to take note of a division between the ‘aesthetic experience’ of art and that of ‘ordinary life’ because of the distinct ‘mental disposition’ required to negotiate them. He writes, ‘it is not impossible to draw a fairly sharp dividing line between our mental disposition in the case of esthetic [sic.] responses and that of the responses of ordinary life’.[4] Here, Fry suggests that the distinction between form and representation is a result of the latter’s evocation of everyday experiences, which leads to a response to visual art based on ‘ordinary’ human interests. Although in Transformations Fry attempts to find harmony between these two aspects of painting, the predominant art historical emphasis upon ‘pure’ or ‘significant form’ has obscured the complexity of Bloomsbury discussions about the representative elements of a work of art.[5] It has also contributed to a critical oversight of the alternative formalist theories developed by the women of Bloomsbury.

Continue reading “Unifying “Psychological Entities” and “Spatial Relations”: The Aesthetic Formalism of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf”

Book Review: Modernist Objects

1 July 2021

Dazheng Gao, Durham University

Noëlle Cuny and Xavier Kalck, Modernist Objects (Clemson: Clemson University Press, 2020)

This eclectic collection of essays places objects at the heart of modernism. Or, to put it in another way, it attempts to establish the field of object study as underpinned by a modernist frame of meaning and, by doing so, manage a unified view of objects while retaining the capaciousness of the term ‘modernism’. One encounters the phrase ‘modernist objects’ with a certain trepidation as either halves of the term has gathered a degree of conceptual density that only becomes more elusive with every act of definition. The addition of every strand of new, valid significance is essentially a well-ventilated instance of alienation from its own airtight self-referentiality. On this occasion, it is the acknowledgement of the insecurity of the subject as the pre-eminent source of epistemological productivity, which is poised on two problems: the problem of the real (the contestation of the rigid categorization of objects that distinguishes between commodity and symbol, between ‘goods and gods’ (2); the recognition of deceitful perceptions, unstable surfaces of things) and the problem of the human (the object that is human body, whose meaning resists cancellation when the validity of all else is questioned; object experiments that ultimately are ‘human-oriented operations (10)’).

Continue reading “Book Review: Modernist Objects”

Book Review: Modernism and Still Life: Artists, Writers, Dancers

1 July 2021

Jack Quin, University of Birmingham

Claudia Tobin, Modernism and Still Life: Artists, Writers, Dancers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)

In Ciaran Carson’s posthumously published poetry collection, Still Life (2019), the Belfast writer contemplates a range of still life paintings by Cézanne, Monet, Velázquez and Canaletto, as well as contemporary Irish artists. One such ekphrastic poem, ‘Angela Hackett, Lemons on a Moorish Plate, 2013’, considers a painting of three lemons hanging in his bedroom. Each lemon exhibits subtle variations in colour and hue, from pale to darker yellows to an almost orange and green tinge, which Carson and his wife, Deirdre Shannon, interpret as variations of ripeness and decay. Carson meanders between recollections of youth in his long, sprawling lines of verse. The lemons remind the couple of a bar of lemon soap he or she received as a birthday present one year, of oversized school uniforms bought to be grown into, of the poet’s mother in the 1960s and the difficulty he had buying her a present. They wonder if the colours in Angela Hackett’s painting really do reflect the lifecycle of lemons.  Continue reading “Book Review: Modernism and Still Life: Artists, Writers, Dancers”

The Evolution of Eileen Agar’s Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse

1 July 2021

Christina Heflin, Royal Holloway, University of London

bouillabaisse, n.

     –– A dish of Provençal origin, composed of fish stewed in water or spiced white wine [1] 

Amongst her paintings, photographs, collages and sculptures, one work that has become iconic within the œuvre of British Surrealist artist Eileen Agar (1899 – 1991) is a fanciful-looking hat that she is often depicted wearing, The Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse. My academic research at the Tate Archives on Eileen Agar’s papers kept bringing me to this hat. Photographs and clippings indicating its different statuses kept me intrigued, and as I was starting to form my own research topic on the artist, I grew more and more aware that there was something magical about it. Symbolic of the light-hearted nature with which she generally approached her work, this object is, however, more than just a silly piece of millinery decorated with bits and bobs. Initially conceived around 1936, it is thanks to the documentation at the Tate, her autobiography A Look at My Life  as well as a few news reels made over the span of her career put side-by-side that there is evidence of the evolutionary nature of the Bouillabaisse hat.

Continue reading “The Evolution of Eileen Agar’s Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse”

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