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


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.


I've discovered in my time that books by tenured university professors with biographies emphasizing the author's twenty or more books are usually tedious. This one tries hard to offer something new to readers interested in modernism by including many little-known artists, but the prose feels like the author is just trying to get through another volume and get it published. As a Freudian scholar with strong scholarship in the Victorian middle-classes, Peter Gay offers some interesting insights on the intersection of the burgeoning bougreoisie with the modern art world, but his survey of the artists themselves relies on overinflated prose and hackneyed insights.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.


This book is very, very comprehensive and a wonderful study of the modernist period from literature to architecture to dance to theater - it's all here.


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.


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...


Leaves you still searching for the thread that pulls all of Modernism together. But nonetheless is a great overview of the period, especially for someone who isn't clear on the history of painting. This is a great substitute for a couple of college classes. I got the sense though that Modernism was lacking in answering or even attempting to answer any important personal questions. Life's meaning is disregarded in favor of looking for new ways of seeing. I think this is why reading most Modern literature gives one the sense of being locked up in a coffin for a month.

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'.......

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.


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.


Currently reading - Its a big fat textbook-looking book, but modernism comes off flashy and Gay is good at connecting artists and time periods and making it a little easier to wade through. Still working on it, but its interesting

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