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

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.


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.


Generally good overview of trends in modernism. Nothing really ground breaking here, however. Not sure that the organization into cultural type worked that well, creating perhaps too much repetition of figures, general viewpoint, etc. Nevertheless, for those wanting a non-academic and less technical work, this does the trick.


kinda simplistic. he makes his point in one sentence - 'make it new!' - but it's not even his own sentence. it's some other guys. ezra pound, i think. yeah.

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.


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.


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


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


Finally finished the book, after maxing out renewals and having a fine placed on my library account. I won't lie to you; reading Peter Gay's Modernism is no light undertaking. There are, after all, more than 500 pages of text. As voluminous as the volume is, though, it may still not be enough for Gay's ambitious undertaking. He seeks to define Modernism and discuss its exemplars. Although he does exactly that, there is still a sense of something missing, as if there is a slight blip in the book's coherence. The definition of Modernism given and applied over and over is a little simplistic, comprising two parts. The first part is given in the title: "the lure of heresy." The second part is subjectivity. These are the main two criteria Gay applies to modernist works. He begins with Baudelaire's exhortation to "Make it new!", contending that adhering to this imperative is what marks the beginnings of Modernist art. Well, okay. But this is what pioneer artists have been doing all along, else art would never advance or change. Is it simply that artists adopted this exhortation and began consciously attempting to do things that have never been done before that makes it Modern? We need another ingredient to Modernism. At least one. Gay turns to subjectivity as the second ingredient. That is, exploration of the self and the inner realms through art. However, he concentrates much less on this than on the "lure of heresy" and thus runs into some difficulties when discussing art in the Soviet Union, and overall differentiating the modernists from the non-modernists. He attempts to delineate between them, but I did not find that particular portion of his study illuminating. As a survey of late-19th to early-20th century art, the book is decent if far from exhaustive. Gay is at his best when discussing history, art history, and architecture. He is on much shakier ground with music and literature. His literary analysis leaves much to be desired, as he has a tendency to assert a claim, provide some supposedly illustrative quotations, and leave it as if it is self-explanatory. In his section on music, Schoenberg's twelve-tone composition method is prominent, but he leaves any explanation of what the twelve-tone system is until nearly the end of it. Overall, it seems that in this book, Gay has decided on a definition of Modernism and marshalled an array of work from artists working in various art forms (painting, sculpture, fiction, poetry, music, dance, drama, film, and architecture) to apply his definition to. Challenges to his schema are not handled very sure-handedly, as we can see in his discussion of Soviet art and artists. Most of the Soviet artists he discusses at any lengths are generally emigrants who continued their work outside of the U.S.S.R. In his section on the threats to Modernism, in dealing with art in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Fascist Italy, he baldly states that Modernist art was impossible in Nazi Germany because of political constraints. He doesn't go so far as to say the same thing for the Soviet Union, but certainly gives short shrift to artists who chose to remain there. One of the figures Gay declines to discuss at any length is the composer Shostakovich. Yes, I do have a soft spot for Shostakovich, and so of course I'd like to see more about him. I recognize that in a book of this kind of scope that there is no room to dwell too long on any particular thing, but I certainly thing that Gay could have said much more on Shostakovich, as he poses quite a challenge to Gay's narrative structure. Gay does mention the composer's censure by Soviet authorities and discusses what the charge of "formalism" meant for him and other Soviet artists. But he doesn't push this very far, and there's certainly more to be said there. Gay does not write off all Soviet art as non-modernist, as he does about Nazi Germany, but he is also unwilling to explore to what extent modernist art was possible under the Soviet regime. I suppose he can be forgiven for this, as it is a difficult question, but I would have liked to have seen some acknowledgment that it was a difficult balance for Soviet artists to strike, and Shostakovich would have been a good example through which to begin to explore that.


so, I checked this out at a bookstore recently and was shocked to see Gay attempts to offer a synthesis (a singularity, if you will,) to the history of Modernism.This cannot work. Modernism is not to be traced linearly.However, after listening to the NYTimes Book Review podcast, I am intrigued enough once again to read the book. The NYTimes critics are such bourgeois assholes. I'll read it and like it to spite them.I've always wanted to read Gay's history on Weimar culture. So, more Gay Reading. Great. heh. Oh sheesh. I better pick up his essays on Freud.

Peter Mcloughlin

I liked this book. It covers a lot of ground albeit in brief highlights but it is such a big subject that you can't blame the author. In my updates I am a little more specific about the contents of the book. I am a fan of modernism so I will naturally enjoy any treatment of the subject. This is a good introduction to this varied movement. I think anyone with a passing interest in modernism will get a lot from this book.

Lewis Manalo

I didn't read this straight through, but after the first chapter I dipped in where I was interested. Though someone looking for a more specialized take on the subject, such as Modernist theater, will find the book to general, as an overview it's great. I'll probably get around to reading all of it.

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'.......


I was impressed by the flowing, lucid prose, as well as by the vast scope of this book. In a mere 610 pages (including the index and a bibliographic essay), Peter Gay provides a warm, sympathetic overview of a century's worth of artistic expression in multiple disciplines—painting, music, architecture, literature, dance and motion pictures.This approach necessarily leads to some skimming of creators and works. The book has so many hooks, in fact—jumping-off points for further research—that I'd recommend reading it alongside an encyclopedia, or a computer with Internet access, so you can look up more about items referred to only in passing. I also wanted more illustrations, and more in color, but I liked the ones that were chosen.But Gay really does hit pretty much all of the names you'd expect and then some, and goes into detail on many. The sections on Baudelaire, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Frank Lloyd Wright and the "coda" about Frank Gehry were especially memorable.In all I'd say this work is a great success.Oh, and A Note on the Type: There isn't one, which is a shame, because the typeface used for chapter and section headings, and other such elements within the book, is distinctive and unfamiliar to me. I would have liked to know what it's called.

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".

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