Modernism: The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond

ISBN: 0393052052
ISBN 13: 9780393052053
By: Peter Gay

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About this book

Peter Gay's most ambitious endeavor since Freud explores the shocking modernist rebellion that, beginning in the 1840s, transformed art, literature, music, and film with its assault on traditional forms. Beginning his epic study with Baudelaire, whose lurid poetry scandalized French stalwarts, Gay traces the revolutionary path of modernism from its Parisian origins to its emergence as the dominant cultural movement in world capitals such as Berlin and New York. A work unique in its breadth and brilliance, Modernism presents a thrilling pageant of heretics that includes (among others) Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, and D. W. Griffiths; James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot; Walter Gropius, Arnold Schoenberg, and (of course!) Andy Warhol. Finally, Gay examines the hostility of totalitarian regimes to modernist freedom and the role of Pop Art in sounding the death knell of a movement that dominated Western culture for 120 years. Lavishly illustrated, Modernism is a superlative achievement by one of our greatest historians.

Reader's Thoughts


Not a book to read for bold new assessments or provocative theses, but to gain a broad overview of the Modern movement which, according to Gay, starts with Baudelaire and ends with Warhol. Lucidly written -- but could have done with more illustrations -- and engaging throughout. Gay covers the gamut: from prose, poetry and drama to art to architecture to music (but leaves out photography). Makes you realise once again that though there may be very many good works of art nowadays, there aren't any great ones.

Jared Colley

What's up people; I'm back. Been on book review sabbatical, but here I am. I'm going to keep this one short. Peter Gay is one of my favorite historians of modern-to-late-modern Europe. His work on the Enlightenment, the rise of the middle class, weimar culture, etc. is all excellent - especially his Enlightenment books (1st volume won the National Book Award...). His latest study is on 'Modernism' (with a capital 'M'); it covers literature, architecture, the visual arts, etc., but there is one omission (as pointed out by my good friend, Roberto). There is no investigation of the great Gertrude Stein!!!!My 3 star rating is misleading; the book is lovely and informative. I learned much about architecture and sculpture specifically. However, any book that claims to be an account of Modernism as a cultural phenomenon should engage the eccentric work of Gertrude Stein.Note: For a good account (but less "exhaustive") of Postmodernism, read David Harvey's 'The Condition of Postmodernity'.......

Mike Kelley

A good primer with an appropriate mixture of breadth and depth. Wanted to fill out the knowledge on the movement and was obliged with artist anecdotes and a few enriching observations. Must confess to be more interested in the architectural side of the movement than the literary. Unfortunately am one of those readers obsessed with content and subject matter.

Daniel Mueller

The thesis isn't profound, that all of the arts underwent a radical change from objective to subjective representation between the mid-1800s and now, but what I love about this history is how incisively the author treats all the artforms--literature, dance, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and film--and shows how diverse artists, architects, composers, and writers responded to powerful cultural and historical forces with a similar premise but with markedly different results. The book, extremely erudite, is packed with anecdotes that give the reader insight into the personal lives of a great many modernist luminaries. I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Escandalo! Not sure if Gay succeeded in pulling it all together, a sprawling primer.


Big, but necessarily cursory overview of a movement in the arts that was never clearly defined, has no real dates, and may or may not have died at some point over the past 70 years. To his credit, Gay acknowledges these difficulties, but then compounds them and confirms the uncertainty by introducing his own questionable theories to tie his thesis together. In other words, it feels a bit like an extended undergraduate dissertation that demonstrates he's done his research, but leaves one feeling a bit... so what ? Two notable faults in Gay's reasoning: (1) the bizarre insistence that Pop Art 'killed'' Modernism - a notion which applies only to visual art, and assumes a kind of monolithic succession of movements in this field, and (b) the abandonment of musical Modernism at Stravinsky, with no reference at all to jazz, on which he drew extensively, and which accompanied and underpinned much of the art in all media throughout the 'Modernist' period - whenever that was.

James Murphy

Peter Gay writes that the 2 major attributes of modernism are the desire to confront conventional sensibilities and a focus on self-scrutiny or the deep scrutiny of subject. That emphasis on investigation and understanding of people and ideas, Gay makes clear, means that psychology in art of all kinds drove what we call the modernist movement. Freud overlooks all of it, even though the full thrust of his ideas on art and culture haven't been fully digested.As the title states, the book concerns itself with those writers, artists, architects, and musicians who produced work with those ideas in mind and who we consider modernist, from Baudelaire to Beckett. And beyond: he spends a lot of time at the end discussing Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Frank Gehry. Most of the iconic works we associate with modernism are discussed, along with those who gave them to us. I thought the discussions of the writers--the artists I'm most familiar with--were insightful and thought-provoking. I was inspired in some cases to read again or discover for the first time. His treatment of Proust was the most interesting in the book.However, Gay is a historian rather than a critic, and I wondered if this was the reason for the largest drawback I saw with the book, that it's essentially a survey of the modernist movement and reads a little like those dreary history and literature texts we used to pour over in school. The need to try to catalog everything results in a blandness. In order to comprehensively comment on such a large cultural event he necessarily has to hurry at times, meaning his discussion is too often only cursory. A study of the artists and works driving one of the most interesting aesthetic trends of our time should be more engaging.


fascinating all-encompassing account of the modernist movement.. from music, dance, painting, architecture, film, poetry, music.. etc. i love this book and recommend it to any history/art buff but it reads like a text book and may be dry for some

Steven Haberman

The book is a tremendous achievement. It might be read along with Alex Ross's "The Rest Is Noise" for anyone interested in a more complete understanding of the twentieth century.


my mum got me this for father's day...looking forward to it...billy raves about it...i'm hoping it'll be useful to the thesis...

Arvind Balasundaram

In this gutsy accomplishment, Yale historian Peter Gay provides a colorful history of the Modernist movement in 510 pages with an accompanying rich Bibliographical essay. Defining the Modernist movement as roughly dating from the early 1840s to the early 1960s, from Baudelaire and Flaubert all the way to Pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, Gay defines what constitutes 'modernist' along two prerequisite criteria:1. The lure of heresy must be present, whether it is the introduction of obscenity into poetic meters, or the deliberate violation of the rules of harmony and counterpoint in musical composition, and2. A commitment to a principled self-scrutiny, essentially a deep exploration of the self.Using these guidelines, Gay takes the reader through snippets in the lives of Modernism's chief lieutenants. Beginning with Baudelaire and the publication of his Les Fleurs du mal in 1857 and ending with Frank Gehry's audacious statement with the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Gay keeps reinforcing why each constitutes Modernism along the two criteria outlined. He takes us into the lives and world of Modernism's chief protagonists across a span of domains - Flaubert, Beckett, Pinter, D.W. Griffith and Orson Welles, painters Duchamp and James Ensor, the beginnings and eventual explosion of Dada, T.S. Eliot and Franz Kafka, Chaplin and others. He demonstrates how many are flawed in their views like the Nazi sympathizing Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, and American filmmaker, D. W. Griffith. Gay then reaches his conclusion the Modernism died with the advent of Pop Art, arguing that even though this attempt to blend low and high art was noble, as in Lichtenstein's cartoon art, the second principle of deep exploration remains dubious. Gay ends his work with a shade of optimism in Modernism's resurgence with Garcia Marquez and Gehry.This book is worth a read, especially if you want a quick overview of this very exciting phase of cultural accomplishment, resilient enough to outlive two World Wars and several barbaric dictatorships and brutal regimes.


Decent overview. As with any overview, there are parts that are skipped and balance between what's covered and how much is always subjective. Overall, a good introduction

Jaye Viner

Aside from some disappointment on how the 1960's European film directors were breezed over compared with the five directors that Gay chose to highlight, I found this book just about everything I had hoped for in a hope skip and a jump overview of modern art. It was a surprisingly personal representation much more an expression of Gay's opinions than academic study. and with that came both the good and the bad. If anything I enjoyed revisiting what I knew already, learning some new things, and having now in my possession a long list of other books to read and further a more in-depth understanding.

Zöe Yu

I liked it, a book for very detailed and personalized general information on modernism. Most of the figures in the stream of history are mentioned by the author. However, names like Susan Sontag during the important 1960s was not appeared in the text at all. She might be just a surfer, a rider on the wave, or perhaps, her value is far more underestimated by the contemporary literary world. But anyway, this book brings back many memories and knowledges on "Foreign literature".


This is a book about wacky artists and their fascinating crusades. The modernist movement was brought about the industrial revolution's alienation of community, which enhanced individualist expression due to the prevailing misery of a world succumbing to mechanical efficiency and city life. Impressionism, fauvism, and the evolution into abstract expressionism is thoroughly covered. Biographies are brief and the paintings minimal; I would have liked to see more illustrations (in color too) so I knew which paintings were being written about instead of having to search online. He also covers musicians like Stravinsky, architects like the Bauhaus, the development of film, and writers like Woolf, Proust, and Joyce. My favorite part of this book was reading about Virginia Woolf's amazement with Marcel Proust's talent and her befuddlement by Joyce (I have the same sentiments). Now I think I can see the kind of influence Proust had on Virginia Woolf; I didn't see it before, and it's beautiful.Modernism was a movement that transcended all the arts and still does to this day. You might not think so after reading the book; the author seems to be certain that the movement died in the 60's with the development of Pop Art. But just because the mass interest in painting dissipated doesn't mean that people stopped pushing the envelop in other mediums. I'm not sure why Peter Gay never mentioned postmodernism; modernism's successor after the 60's, surely he must be aware of it. In literature it didn't end with Gabriel Garcia Marquez; we had Pynchon, Rushdie, DFW, David Mitchell, Danielewski. In music we've had all kinds of genre transformations; classical music shouldn't be the only genre to consider. Free jazz, prog rock, electronic music, and even rap have all had noteworthy artists who push the envelope and experiment with different styles (John Coltrane, Pink Floyd, Delerium, Radiohead, Tool, and The Mars Volta all come to mind). Then in film Orson Welles was certainly not the only avant-garde influence; Antonioni, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and Aronofski have all directed postmodern masterpieces. Perhaps this book deserves a successor; one that moves away from classic forms and ironically embraces the modern world that really solidified after the 60's. Also, I can't understand why he never mentioned Gaudi, the famous modernist architect who so clearly influenced Frank Gehry, whom he devoted a whole chapter to. Nonetheless I learned a lot from this book and I thank the author for introducing me to several interesting artists I'd never heard of before.

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