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What was Modernism?

Modernism is a vast artistic movement which can broadly be defined as a both a self-conscious reaction to the moral evils associated with modernity (defined as an incessant drive for social, scientific and technological progress manifested in the industrial revolution), and an acknowledgement of the limits of artistic form when conveying a modern world defined by its lack of meaning. Thus, modernism is characterised by a shift from accepted objective realities towards fragmentary and highly subjective interpretations of truth. Artistic form thus strains to manifest immense challenges towards previously universally recognised truths, most notably through the works of Darwin and Freud, which destabilise the notion of God as the arbiter of truth and the self as rational and autonomous. As inheritors of the Enlightenment’s tradition of ‘Kantian self-criticism’ and the Romantic’s critical reflection on industrialisation and the rigid, systematised artwork of the academies, modernist artists continue this contemporary critique of modernity by increasingly resorting to ‘primitive’ cultures, perceived as potently expressive and emotionally direct, in order to starkly juxtapose accepted Western notions of beauty and progress. By comparing and contrasting the radical approaches to form and the crucial (yet problematic) exploration of primitivism in Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), this essay will identify the extent to which these artworks encapsulate the defining characteristics of both artistic and literary modernism.

Modernism largely originates from the self-critical scepticism of the enlightenment, and in the Romantic movement through its seeking of a primordial, simplified pastoral life (perceived to be closer to man’s natural, uncorrupted state) and its rejections of academic methods of painting in favour of major formal innovation. Immanuel Kant clearly defines the ‘motto of enlightenment’ as having ‘the courage to use your own understanding’ emphatically declaring to the West: ‘Sapere aude!’ [dare to be wise]. Romanticism thus inherits this tradition of intellectual scepticism by reflecting critically on social issues such as slavery and imperialism (as seen in Turner’s crucial painting The Slave Ship (1840), Fig. 1), and also on artwork itself, through a rejection of the illusionistic quality of academic art (such as that of Bouguereau). Romantic poets and artists felt that mankind had fallen from its natural state through a prioritisation of rationality over emotional expression, rejecting Hobbes’ pessimistic conception of mankind’s state of nature as a ‘war of all against all’, instead favouring the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s philosophy, which argued that the ‘simplicity of manners’ and ‘innocence of behaviour’ he positively attributed to natives were ‘corrupted by [western] commerce’. Thus, modernism’s preoccupation with perceived unadulterated nature of the primitive as a potent point of contrast to the corrupted, overly rational western man can be traced back to the Romantic notion of the “noble savage”. Modernism progresses a self-conscious opposition to the artistic status quo through their rejection of, as identified by Greenberg’s seminal essay ‘Modernist Painting’ (1961), the ‘vivid illusion of three-dimensional space’ found in the Old Masters’ work, in favour of emphasising the ‘ineluctable flatness’ of the canvas, thus using art ‘to call attention to’ the limitations of art.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Fig. 2)is a pre-eminent example of artistic modernism given its striking use of primitivism found in the use of African and Iberian imagery, employed as a means of rejecting and threatening traditional western bourgeois culture, colonialism and notions of beauty espoused by nineteenth-century Academies. Despite being taught at Spain’s Royal Academy to capture the illusion of reality in art, Picasso was left disillusioned by his ‘academic training in beauty’, which he disregarded as a ‘sham’ and instead embraced the primitivism of his avant-garde forefathers, such as Gauguin. Increased French colonial activities during the nineteenth century meant native artworks were frequently exhibited in France, such as in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, which Picasso himself visited. Charles Harrison identifies this exposure as an ability for early modernists to critique the academies for espousing a ‘restricted view of art and of its meaning and value in society’, and embrace what Matisse termed a return ‘back to the source’ of mankind’s ‘expressive force and vitality’ found in “primitive” art. The influence of African masks which Picasso viewed in ethnography museums is evident in the two right-hand figure’s distorted and fractured facial expressions (Fig. 3), enabling Picasso to compose his ‘first exorcism painting’, in which he exorcised his own susceptibility to an idealised western ‘canon of beauty’, in order to ‘liberate an utterly original artistic style’ through his modernist engagement with the novel and exotic appeal of African arts that had been disregarded by academies (Fig. 4). However, Picasso’s appropriation of African art has been criticised by Patricia Leighten as a ‘deeply romanticised’ narrow-minded generalisation of African culture as ‘the embodiment of humankind in a precivilised state’, which is thus exploited merely as a means of subverting of the western academic tradition, rather than acknowledging African art for its own merit, highlighting an unsettling characteristic of modernist primitivism. Picasso was also influenced by Iberian statues and reliefs, infamously receiving a stone Iberian sculpture stolen from the Louvre in 1907 (Fig. 5), and imbues the left-most figure with this Iberian manner, through the protruding eyes and the rigid, statue-like posture (Fig. 6). Therefore, through Picasso’s subject matter being distinctly outside the western artistic canon, whilst also incorporating allusions to the Old Master El Greco (specifically his masterpiece, The Opening of the Fifth Seal (1614)) this work characterises modernism’s break and rupture with tradition by Picasso ‘simultaneously invok[ing] and demolish[ing] the canon […] where [he] had trained his eye’ (Christopher Green). This, along with the painting’s sculptural lack of refinement, where formal constraints are shown to collapse and fracture under the sheer emotional potency of the primal scene, typifies early modernist painting.

Picasso rejects the use of art merely a means of conveying the artistic status-quo espoused by Western academies, instead favouring the practical use of art as a means of embodying radical new approaches to form which draws attention to the flatness of the plane, presenting fragmentary and deconstructed female forms and angular shapes which heralds the origins of Cubism as a more authentic presentation of reality. By abandoning the academies’ single unified perspective and rupturing unities of space through flattening the picture frame into crude contours and harsh lighting (continuing Manet’s proto-modernist flattening of the subject in Olympia (1863) (Fig. 7)) and documenting the prostitutes’ brazen sexual explicitness, Picasso radically subverts accepted western depictions of the female nude. The use of horrifically deconstructed female prostitutes can be charitably interpreted as Picasso’s adherence to modernism’s social critique of the naked evils of colonialism, where the viewer is confronted and judged through the piercing gaze of the figures. Leighton claims that the ‘deliberate ugliness of the Demoiselles’ represents the ‘persistence […] of ugly realities such as colonial subjugation’, shedding light onto a social evil ‘a complacent modernity would prefer to elide’. However, this manipulation of the female form can also be read as embodying ‘the misogynist core of modernist experimentation’, continuing from the patriarchal enlightenment tradition, where the manipulation’ of the female body merely ‘for the interests of modernist progression’ is identified by Tamar Garb as an exclusion of women from being ‘active participants in the elaboration of higher culture’.

Primitivism is employed by Conrad in his novella Heart of Darkness to contrast the modern western man with African natives perceived as belonging to a timeless, primordial history and being intimately connected with nature and meaning itself. Conrad himself visited the Congo as the captain of a steamer on the Congo river in the 1890s, but was left disillusioned by the whole colonial project which he viewed as inefficient and excessively barbaric. Edward Garnett, his close friend, surmised this transformative experience which ‘swept away the generous illusions of his youth’ as the ‘turning-point in his mental life’. Thus, Conrad characterises modernist literature by employing the primitive to convey an intensely personal realisation of the West’s morally bankrupt ideals of modern progress (manifested in barbarous colonialism), specifically through unsettlingly close comparisons between the ‘wild and passionate uproar’ of the primal natives and the supposedly civilised western man, Marlow who is ‘thrilled’ by his ‘remote kinship’ with the ‘savages’ (Conrad, p. 36), thus destabilizing settled imperialist myths of the western man’s mental superiority to the African people. François Warin identifies Heart of Darkness’s fundamental  place in the modernist tradition by ‘assum[ing] that the future of humanity is to be found in the past’, which ‘relies on an inversion of the ideology of progress’ and returns the reader to ‘the earliest beginnings of the world’ (Conrad, p. 34): the primordial Congo. However, post-colonial critics such as Chinua Achebe have identified the modernist’s unsettlingly ‘racist’ reduction of Africa (conceived of as the ‘antithesis of Europe’) to the ‘role of props’ merely as a means of critiquing Western civilisation and dramatizing the ‘break-up of one petty European mind’, and therefore being culturally insensitive to life and culture of real Africans. Conrad, similarly to Picasso, also exploits the female body as a means of conveying African directness and emotional potency by juxtaposing Kurtz’s European ‘Intended’ (who is characterised negatively as a ghostly ‘pale head, floating…in the dusk’, with her true human emotion being lost through excessive rationality (Conrad, p.73)) with the ‘passionate’ strength of nature being imbued in Kurtz’s ‘savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent’ (Conrad, p.60) African mistress. Moreover, Marlow’s assertion that women ‘should be out of’ this quest to obtain truth and left to ‘stay in that beautiful world of their own’ (Conrad, p.48) further allies Conrad with a characteristically muscular intellectual tradition which excludes women from modernism’s development of higher culture.

Heart of Darkness can be viewed as a founding text of literary modernism by embodying a godless western world devoid of divinely ordained meaning, where the fleetingness and ambiguities of subjective experience are manifested within the increasingly abstract and interminable syntax, thus representing the limits of language as it strains to comprehend a frenzy of sensory perceptions. Conrad engages in modernism’s preoccupation with the subversive contemporary thought of Darwin, Freud and Nietzsche, which denies God, the notion of existence as inherently meaningful, and the mind as autonomous and rational. Following Nietzsche’s blasphemous assertion ‘God is dead’, Conrad (as an ex-Catholic) is unable to accept the loss of God as ‘a premise of universal meaning’, with John Glendinning identifying the resultant ‘vacated meaning’ within Heart of Darkness giving the text its profoundly disorientating quality through multiple fragmentary viewpoints with no overall consensus on the truth. Conrad thus engages in literary modernism’s radical break from the norms of Victorian novels such as Eliot and Dickens, who are able to extract and present the self-contained ‘meaning of an episode’ (Conrad, p.5) through a narrator’s god-like omniscience. In contrast, both Conrad’s personal writings and Heart of Darkness demonstrate modernism’s acceptance of the transience of perception, where it is impossible to ‘convey the life sensations of any given epoch of one’s existence’ (Conrad, p.27), leaving the narrator and subsequently the reader living ‘in the flicker’ (Conrad, p.6) of life, never fully inhabiting true reality. This points towards an acknowledgement of Freud’s influence towards conceptions of the individual which manifests itself a shift from ‘the outward to the inner […] from the tradition area of chronological time and outward space to the radically new dimensions of psychological time and non-logical organization’, which is fundamentally unknowable to the author and reader (Kenneth Graham). Modernist texts also continually look back to a time of perceived stability such as that of antiquity or pagan myth, specifically in Heart of Darkness, where Marlow seeks ‘truth stripped of its cloak of time’ (Conrad, p.36), identified by Graham as embodying the ‘modernist mood of bleak-eyed, undeluded penetration’ beneath culturally accepted traditions recently exposed as facile. Marlow’s journey into the Congo is thus a spiritual, mythologised quest to imbue a foreign world with symbolic meaning and order; whereby Conrad keenly anticipates Joyce’s use of Homeric myth in Ulysses (regarded as the defining work of literary modernism), which T.S. Eliot termed ‘a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’. Heart of Darkness, therefore, in its influence on subsequent works of modernist literature and subversion of accepted Victorian tradition and methods of mimetically representing reality in favour of innovative approaches to form, embodies Ezra Pound’s rallying call of modernist development: “make it new!”

To conclude, both Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness exemplify modernism’s sustained attack on western modernity and universal notions of truth through engaging with the disregarded art of ‘primitive’ cultures and thus opposing the canons of academic tradition. Picasso and Conrad establish a redefinition both of the limits of representing reality within art and of the limits of human perception itself, through drastically experimenting with form in order to call attention to the artificiality of depictions of reality in the Western tradition, thereby favouring a general acceptance of doubt and ambiguity over universal definitions of truth. Underlying Picasso and Conrad’s radical experiments of form, however, lie modernism’s disconcertingly misogynistic and xenophobic prejudices towards women and “primitive” cultures, which are also imbued problematically in their works. Ultimately, through inhabiting a vastly complex universe devoid of divine meaning, in which one is unable even to govern one’s own mind, modernist artists profoundly rethink the role of art as a means of engaging critically with social change, and by liberating form from its academic constraints capture the unprecedented sense of rupture and disorientation associated with modernity.

Figure 1: J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840)


Figure 2: Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)


Figure 3: Pablo Picasso, detail: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)


Figure 4: Mbangu mask of the Central Pende People


Figure 5: Ancient Iberian Bust, stolen from the Louvre in 1907


Figure 6: Pablo Picasso, detail: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)


Figure 7: Édouard Manet, Olympia (1863)




Primary Texts

Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, ed. by Paul B. Armstrong (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005)

Secondary Texts

Achebe, Chinua, ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”,’ Massachusetts Review, 18 (1977), 782-94

Dawtrey, Liz, ed., Investigating Modern Art (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, the Arts Council of England, and the Tate Gallery, 1996)

Edwards, Steve and Wood, Paul, eds., Art of the Avant-gardes (London: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 2004)

Gombrich, E. H, The Story of Art (London: Phaidon Press, 2007)

Green, Christopher, ed, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Harrison, Charles, An Introduction to Art (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2009)

Franscina, Francis, Charles Harrison, and Gill Perry, Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century (New Haven; London: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 1993)

Johnson, Bruce, Conrad’s Models of Mind (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971)

Lawtoo, Nidesh, ed., Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Contemporary Thought (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)

O’Brian, Patrick, Picasso: A Biography (London: HarperCollins, 2003)

Osborne, Harold, Abstraction and Artifice in Twentieth-Century Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979)

Stape, J. H., The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

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