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Updated on August 1, 2016

Historio-Intellectual Context

Modernism is a pan-European movement that can be dated roughly to the period between 1880 and 1930, with its peak period being 1910-1925. It was basically a response to the destruction of beliefs in traditional forms of art, literature, and social organization.

D.H. Lawrence once remarked that in 1922, the old world ended. Therefore, Modernism was a movement that was constantly engaging with a changing scenario. It was especially trying to respond to intellectual plight. For example, in science, there was a remarkable shift away from Newtonian science and toward Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This relativity transcribed into social reality as relative human experience, thus undoing the notion of absolutes. So, individual human experience was emphasized upon. Also, just as science had proved that splitting of atom into multiple particles was possible, so there was birth of a possibility of plurality of human experiences. In this manner, any or all absolutes were done away with. Moreover, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Darwin had questioned the idea of genesis, leading to the dilemma of faith and doubt. Similarly, Marx had debunked the idea of man in God’s image by showing man as an economic being, and in this way, he had also changed the way one perceived social organization. In philosophy, Nietzsche, too, had challenged religion by declaring, “God is dead”, and that man was born with the potential of both destruction as well as creation. Christian beliefs and their uniqueness were further shaken up, albeit unconsciously, by Sir James Frazer, an armchair anthropologist, when he wrote The Golden Bough, in which he referred to religion of primitive cultures where a dying god is talked about; this was similar to the myth of Christ’s sacrifice. Thus, myths became quintessential in this period, as seen in the works of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. These myths symbolized possibility of multiple realities, something which the modernist artists and writers delved on. However, it was in psychology that a new meta-narrative was created that changed the way one perceived reality or realities. In 1900, with the publication of Interpretation of Dreams, Freud introduced his theory of the unconscious. He argued that mental functioning of human beings could be divided into two levels – primary and secondary – thus creating multi-layered human reality. He also challenged the rationality of man’s behavior as he referred to the primary level, consisting of fantasies, dreams and myths, as one which did away with logic. In this way, all these changes in different aspects of human knowledge led to tremendous uncertainty and crisis of faith. This scenario of chaos gave way to despair, anarchy, procrastination, and a sense of alienation, all of which are reflected in the art and literature of the time.

Social Context

In social context also, The First World War had a tremendous impact on social reality. It shook the very foundations of England as a superpower. The nation realized it lacked technological advancement, which was the ground on which the war had been fought. With the war, the notion of heroism came under scrutiny, as common man straight out of factory or university was placed in a trench. The poetry of this period shows the most graphic details of war, as the notion of patriotism was replaced by the struggle of the common man to keep his senses intact in the face of horrors of war. With men at war, women took place in factories to earn a living and run the household. Thus, Modernism was not just an intellectual movement; it also petered down to common masses.

Pablo Picasso's Guernica


Aesthetic and Literary Context

Modernism was first started by artists, who no longer depended on patronage, as various art galleries were being opened up, giving large scope for innovation. In the changing scenario, the artist attempted experimentation in his art to find new form and style so as to form some ‘order’. So, there was rebellion against depiction of reality, and sometimes there was even denial of the need for form. There was tremendous self-aesthetic consciousness present in the works of modernist artists, as they employed techniques that were non-linear and non-sequential, just as time had been disrupted and had become relative.

Movements that expressed this condition of Modernism included Symbolist movement, Existentialism, Post-impressionism, Expressionism, Imagism, Futurism, Vorticism, Dadaism, and Surrealism.

In literature, the most important year for Modernism is 1922 when three landmark works were published – Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Wasteland, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Other prominent modernist writers include Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, Franz Kafka, and William Faulkner. Principal playwrights of this movement are – August Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello, and Bertolt Brecht. The most well-known modernist poets other than Yeats and Eliot are – Ezra Pound, Stephane Mallarme, Gertrude Stein, Rainer Maria Rilke, Guillame Apollinaire, and Wallace Stevens.

James Joyce's landmark modernist novel - Ullyses



In conclusion, one must look at the way Brabury and McFarlane sum up Modernism as '[a] concern to objectify the subject, to make perceptible the minds in audible conversations, to halt the flow, to irrationalize the rational, to defamiliarize the expected…to see uncertainty as the only certain thing.'

TS Eliot reading The Wasteland


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