There are all kinds of ways to define modernism: people even like to point out that modernism isn't that modern any more. Its heydey was in the early to mid 20th century. However, the painting above illustrates my favorite view of it. I came across this painting in Venice, which is not a stronghold of modernism, and is therefore a great place to appreciate it. Venice flourished in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and because most of its treasures are from those eras, a modern art museum, like the (Peggy) Guggenheim really seems rebellious in Venice.

And right there in the midst of all the wonderful Renaissance art which values proportion and limits and boundaries is this the Guggenheim Museum with this amazing painting by Gino Severini, called "Sea=Dancer" or, if you like French, "Mare=Ballerina." Severini was a leading Futurist. This literary and artistic movement was, would you believe it, "founded by the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in Milan in 1909"! The museum's web site says that it "wished to annihilate the past and express the dynamism of modern life. Its painters proceeded to transform Cubism, which they criticised as a merely static syle, into a kinetic evocation of movement and aggressiveness." ... "Through abstract, interlocking shapes, [this painting] captures the swirl of the dancer's legs and full skirt — a movement that Severini saw as analogous to sunlight on the sea, which is here evoked by the luminous blue-green wave-like forms" (Peggy Guggenheim Website,, September 23, 2003)

And that's great, but what I really love about this painting is something else. Did you notice the guy even painted on the frame? To me modernism is the unwillingness to color "within the lines." Modernists are provocative: they deliberately violate boundaries to get your attention, to get you to notice things that might otherwise escape your notice. It's the sheer audacity of modernism that I admire. Through its provocativeness, I find myself experiencing what Victor Shklovsky called "the sensation of life." He said, "Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. ... The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar," to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged" (quoted in Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, by Bert O. States, p. 21).

So much for my personal view. The article below provides a more analytic approach to modernism. Read it, and try not to be bothered by the fact that it cites a great number of names you may never have heard of. Just imagine who these people are, and read for the "gist of it."


Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

The New York Times June 29, 1997, Sunday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section 7; Page 24; Column 1; Book Review Desk

LENGTH: 1428 words

HEADLINE: A Change of Mind

BYLINE: By Hugh Kenner; Hugh Kenner, a professor of English at the University of Georgia, is the author of "The Pound Era."

BODY: THE FIRST MODERNS Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought. By William R. Everdell. 501 pp. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. $29.95.

Yes, somewhere a while back "human character changed." Virginia Woolf thought it happened around the time of an art exhibit in 1910, but British awareness is notoriously belated. The change started to happen in the 1870's, and not, as William R. Everdell arrestingly demonstrates in "The First Moderns," in painting or in literature but in number theory. He's aware that word-focused people will be startled: "Everyone who has heard of modernism has heard of Picasso. Most have heard of Joyce. But who has heard of Dedekind?" Yet it was an 1872 pamphlet of Richard Dedekind's that first, to use the terminology of 19th-century positivism, "rigorized" modernism's generic concept -- which, as Everdell reveals, is discontinuity.

Dedekind established that mathematicians are deceived if they think they are working with a continuum. No such thing exists. Within any numeric space, say between 1 and 5, you can increase the population all you like. To natural numbers like 2 and 3 and 4 you can add infinitely more rationals like or 118/119, plus infinitely more irrationals like the square root of 2: still, you'll never begin to crowd out the unpopulated space. It will always affront you like a dark sky studded with stars. So much for "that grail of 19th-century metaphor, smooth change."

This new principle quickly turned up in physics. Soon Ludwig Boltzmann would be calling continuity a statistician's illusion, since the behavior of single atoms is unpredictable. By 1900, the 20-year-old Albert Einstein was calling Boltzmann's work "magnificent." And while all this was going on, Georges Seurat was organizing a 7-by-10-foot canvas called "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte" (now often called "the first modern painting") out of thousands of colored dots, "each no larger than an eighth of an inch." Today, visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago, where Seurat's great work occupies an entire wall, are confronted with some 50 human figures plus three dogs and a monkey, all reducible to "the same kind of array of little dabs of pigment," forming "a harmonious whole that radiates an extraordinary calm."

An accredited art historian wouldn't have reached pointillisme by such a knight's move, via math to physics, thence sideways to painting. But for Everdell (who is dean of humanities at St. Ann's, a private school in Brooklyn, where he has taught history for 25 years), it's a mode of thought that seems to come as naturally as breathing. His book teems with coincidences of dating: the year Seurat died, 1891, "Matisse gave up his legal career and registered at the Academie Julian in Paris to learn painting. Also in that year, Edison patented the kinetograph movie camera," the pertinence of which, of course, lies in its triumphant foregrounding of discontinuity: 16 still photos per second, which the eye interprets as movement. Thus Everdell establishes discontinuity as modernism's key theme. And it was not, as philistines would have us believe, a habit of subjecting what's "real" to a cranky "style." A colleague recalled Seurat pointing out newly planted trees and "making me see that their green crowns against the gray sky were haloed in pink." Such is nature's discontinuity. Accordingly, Seurat "was the first painter to grasp fully that Impressionism was discontinuous -- the first discontinuous painting since the Renaissance."

One showpiece of discontinuity, "Ulysses," our author seems to slight. A whole chapter on James Joyce is devoted to "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," a book finished while "Ulysses" was started. Yet behold the Joyce of "Ulysses," attentive to a discontinuity among his 18 episodes -- each invokes a new hour, a new place, often new protagonists and a new narrative voice -- and notice how the reader grows continually more aware of how each new space on the page is yielding a new word.

Dickens, who believed in continuous effects, had no intention of our perceiving his separate words; they blur into an agreeable whole. But within a few lines of text a Joycean cat says, "Mkgnao!," then "Mrkgnao!," then "Mrkrgnao," that last time "loudly." To hear the sounds, we're meant to be watching the page -- where we also note that real cats don't say the conventional "Meow"; that their degrees of urgency may be distinguished with the help of single letters; that this real cat is a hungry cat. Having fed her, Mr. Leopold Bloom "listened to her licking lap." It's odd to reflect that no pre-discontinuity novelist would have regarded that as an acceptable clause. "Licking" (adjective), followed by "lap" (noun): that phrase had never been ventured before; nor, to my knowledge, has it been tried since.

Another writer Everdell skirts is Ezra Pound, who's present as modernist writing's prime publicist but absent as one of its major practitioners. (That's happened frequently, but I'd anticipated more from so perceptive a historian as Everdell. ) You'd expect the "Cantos" to be a prime exhibit, but the sole Pound text he lingers on is the two-line "In a Station of the Metro," which he does correctly call "a pivot point" in this century's English-language verse.

His chapter on Whitman, Rimbaud and Laforgue, which comes right after his early Seurat climax, deals with what Pound and Eliot were to inherit, a French phenomenon -- "poems without meter" -- that derived in part from a French assimilation of Whitman, who couldn't read French. The chapter ends by remarking that "ambiguity is more than a style, and irony more than an attitude. It is the epistemological principle of modernism. Emotions superimpose themselves in the minds of poets and succeed each other in the hearts of readers without predictability, logic or coherence. Modernism discovered that they cannot be rendered by rant, or even monologue, however comic. Probing for that incoherence and evoking it with words has been, since Laforgue, the poet's work."

The next chapter is about the discovery, in 1889, of the neuron. Inside the brain itself no continuity was to be found; rather, a host of atomlike cells. Three overview chapters -- on the role of Paris in 1900, on the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and on Europe's 1913 annus mirabilis -- permit some stirring montage effects:

"At No. 7, Rue Cassette . . . a strung-out Breton named Alfred Jarry was writing things that would have deeply shocked a Pole named Marie Curie, who was in the shed near the physics faculty, one neighborhood east, refining tons of Czech pitchblende ore into the first milligram of radium. In the same city where the now ailing Mallarme had held his poets' Tuesdays, Prof. Henri Poincare was pursuing the strange implications of Cantor's sets and Maxwell's radiation laws, and composers Gabriel Faure, Claude Debussy and Erik Satie were stretching key signatures to the breaking point."

Discontinuity was coming to reign in every department of human activity. By 1905, "the quantum of light" -- light itself -- was concerning Albert Einstein. Toward the end of that year, his famous equation was implying a funnel between mass and energy, its governing constant being the velocity of light. Thirty-three more years and nuclear fission would show "how mass could be deliberately converted to energy in microgram quantities." Then, in 1945, "came proof that that was more than enough to annihilate a city."

IT'S a mark of the tightness of Everdell's exposition that his next chapter, about Picasso in 1906-7 and "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," seems to follow from that implied apocalypse quite naturally. One of the demoiselles was quickly perceived to be "the first of all figures in Western art to have been painted from all sides at once." Thus Cubism "not only represents the final breaking of both the painting and the world into discrete parts or atoms; it also opens the way to recombining those parts in new and startling ways." That was comparably true -- a point the book never labors -- of recombinations of energy and mass. Yes, Hiroshima was leveled; on the other hand, you're quite likely unsure about atomic fusion's contribution to the light -- solar or artificial -- by which you are reading this page.

William R. Everdell, it is only fair to add, has himself recombined the parts of our era's intellectual history in new and startling ways, shedding light for which the reader of "The First Moderns" will be eternally grateful.