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

ISBN: 0393052052
ISBN 13: 9780393052053
By: Peter Gay

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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

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


There's joy in definitions : it prevents us from having to be party to any more inane conversations e.g.What's Tracy Emin's latest stuff like?Well, it is what it is.Yeah.She's still keeping it real.Cool.So, let's define 120 years of art, starting with bad boy Baudelaire. Les Fleurs du Mal, 1857 – "the strictest rule-bound sonnets and the grossest subject matter". Sounds like Lou Reed. PG says that the essential elements of modernism are the lure of heresy and the cultivation of subjectivity... a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny…And these modernists were aesthetic radicals rebelling against the beloved and oppressive pastYeah right. Blah blah. Did modernism add up to anything more than a parade of lionised tortured white male artist ritually offending their tribal elders with their rulebreaking tuneless howls of pain about the meaninglessness and futility of boohoo human life?Art serves no one but itself – not mammon, not God, not country, not bourgeois self-gratification, certainly not moral progress. Nothing is truly beautiful but what can never be of use to anything. Everything that is useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and human needs are ignoble and disgusting. The most useful place in a home is the latrine. – Theophile Gautier, a foppish French writer.What a load of pompous shit – is a musical instrument ugly? Well, of course, tubas are fairly unlovely, I grant you, but all the rest of them are very beautiful to look at, and they are useful too because they produce music. Human beings appear to need music so that's one need which isn't ignoble. Gautier room, Gautier! And stay there! Walter Pater : All art constantly aspires to the condition of music. This is more like it – music can be abstract and very beautiful at the same time. What am I saying - music IS abstract. So in other words it doesn't represent anything, it just is. Oh, excellent, now I sound like a Van Morrison lyric. (Music can also be very useful, like jolly military bands firing up young men with the desire to slaughter other young men they haven't met yet, or like say disco music which inspires persons of all sexes to camp it up and become better acquainted. ) All these aphorisms have more holes in them than a Walmart that only sells cullinders.PAINTINGIt's clear what modernist painting is. Impressionism, cubism, you know the whole grinning growling gurning besplotched ploopy carousel. Poor Vincent! Starry night, ah! No 1 in the charts and you never knew. Tragic. Monet's prices rose spectacularly, year after year. In 1879 he was earning the same as a top lawyer. By the early 1880s he tripled that. In 1995 he was the Bill Gates of blurry painting. Blurry blurry waterlilies! Oh Claude!The painters rejected convention, conformity, the academy, they wanted to be proud and alone and unique, so they instantly banded together and called themselves Fauves or Cubists or Neo-plasiticists or The Shangri-Las or whatnot. They were a whole bunch of loners, loning together.Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian – the three imaginary boys. Paintings of white squares and then black squares by 1913! Now that's progress.What they did share was a powerful sense of opposition to the world as it was, and a hunger for spirituality – PGYeah well, Mr Gay, that's not so special. I too have a powerful sense of opposition to the world as it is, don't you? Doesn't everybody?Art historians who in recent years have announced the death of art usually give Duchamp the credit or blame for killing it – PGYou got to love Marcel, the only French artist to inspire a doowop group to name themselves in his honour. Readymades - Bicycle Wheel, 1913 – art by fiat – I am the artist and if I say this thing is art it is and I'll bite you if you say any different so yah. Yeah? Yeah? Bicycle wheel! Urinal! Suck it up, creeps!LITERATUREIt's also clear what modernist literature is.James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust were in a noisy pub one evening. 'Will you lend me £10?' shouted Joyce. 'You'll have to speak up a bit,' said Virginia, 'I can't hear a word you're saying with all the noise in here.' 'Will you lend me £10?' screamed Joyce at the top of his voice. 'It's no use,' said Virginia, 'I still cannot hear a word you're saying.' 'Now now, Virginia,' said Marcel Proust, 'I can hear him quite clearly.' 'In that case,' said Virginia, "you lend him the £10.' What's more extreme than Finnegans Wake? No book is. Samuel Beckett : Pinter said : The farther he goes the more good it does me. I don't want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, way outs, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. The more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him.They gave Beckett the Nobel Prize, that's how avant his garde was. MUSICAmong all the domains of modernism, music was the most esoteric. Unlike avant-garde painting, or the novel, or architecture, which all entered the mainstream of taste after a time of trials, much avant-garde music is still avant-garde music. PGWell, when Mr Gay says music what he is referring to is that strange thing called "modern classical music" or "atonal bollocks".Composers resigned themselves to their fate as emotionally available only to a narrow elite.- poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow professionals – pgHa ha, serves em right. Take it, take another little piece of my art, baby. Okay, I get this. Modernism introduced the concept of ugliness as not only acceptable but as something to earnestly strive for. So in music, atonality; in painting, horrible hideousness like les Demoiselles d'Avignon; in architecture, all that nasty steel & glass; in novels, abandonment of plots i.e. no funNote : modernism is the same as the avant-garde as far as Peter Gay is concerned. Same thing.Anyway, jazz does not merit a mention here. PG loses me when he describes what a modernist composer like Debussy was trying to do – using such phrases as "such descents into the self" and "the inner life and its felicitous portrayal" – I quite see that that is what Debussy was trying to achieve (and did) but can't see why the same vague phrases couldn't be applied to pre-modernists like Beethoven.Grand poetasting goulash like :Mahler was principally concerned to establish the sovereignty of the sounds he invented and constructed, to let them blossom in his own and his listeners' minds (p243) – pgWhy can't this be said about any composer? Or then again – why spin this fatuous twaddle anyway? Why not do something useful instead?Hold the front page. It says here that Modernists could be and often were right wing, racist and misogynist. No…TS Eliot, Charles Ives, Strindberg, Hamsun.The Wrap Up, at Long lastSo according to PG Modernism begn in the mid 1850s, got up to high speed in 1890 to 1920 and then crashed into a big fat thing called Pop Art in 1960 and died. Don't go breaking my art!!I was cruisin' in my Stingray late one night When Andy Warhol pulled up on the right He rolled down the window of his shiny new Jag And challenged me then and there to a drag I said, "you're on, buddy, my mill's runnin' fine Let's come off the line, now, at Sunset and Vine But I'll go you one better if you've got the nerve Let's race all the way To Pop Art CurvePop Art CurvePop Art CurveAbstract Expressionists :You won't come back from Pop Art CurveI don't get it. Peter Gay appears to despair at Pop Art and consider it a bad thing because – this is just a guess – although the artists were still white males, they weren't anguished, and they loved low culture (and spent their time eagerly ripping it off). They possessed "hardworking cheerfulness". Maybe that's what was wrong with them. They loved selling out! They wanted to be rich. (As rich as Monet!) After traversing so much interesting material PG suddenly seems to give up. He spends a few pages hunting high and low for signs of Modernism after Pop Art. In Literature he gives crazy number of pages to Gabriel Garcia Marquez who he appears to think is the very model of a modern major Modernist. He laments the absence of any other great-but-difficult cutting edge authors. He appears not to have noticed Williams Gass and Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, John Barth, Marguerite Young or Alexander Theroux. Throughout the book Modernism is identified with the avant garde – well, last time I looked, we still have one of those. We have Carl Andre's minimal bricks, Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, Tracy Emin's bed, Damien Hirst's sharks – we have regular outbursts of outrage from the bourgeoisie! What's not to love? Maybe he thinks of all this stuff as "post-modern" and in some way therefore not modernist. But we wouldn't know, because he never discusses post-modernism. Huh.I was going to grudgingly give this book 3 stars but you know what? it's just a bit crap really. Two stars, and sue me.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.

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