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Modernism: The Lure of Heresy Hardcover – November 12, 2007

4.5 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Putting a Freudian view of life as an arena of conflict at the center of a view of modernism, this outspoken study tracks the avant-garde across a wide array of high culture—literature, music and dance, painting and sculpture, architecture and film. Conventional Victorians, according to Gay, found the belief in art for art's sake of libertine and aesthete Oscar Wilde as much a perversion as his homosexuality. But even fans often get it wrong, says Gay, embracing Edvard Munch's most famous painting, The Scream, as the quintessential symbol of modern angst, while Munch meant his nightmarish vision as a confession of his own inner state. And thanks to generous patrons, the oeuvre of anti-artist Marcel Duchamp, an enemy of museums, is featured prominently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Modernism isn't a single style, Gay shows: in literature, Ulysses's wordy, sensual world stands in direct opposition to Virginia Woolf's in Mrs. Dalloway, spare and cool. This latest from Gay (National Book Award winner for The Enlightenment) isn't a monumental or definitive treatise but a highly personal, arbitrary and invigorating collection of mini-essays that view a variety of artistic works from a fresh perspective. 16 pages of color, and b&w illus.. (Nov.)
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An elegant, erudite, insightful, and entertaining analysis of the arts and culture of our time. -- Ada Louise Huxtable, author of Frank Lloyd Wright

An elegant, erudite, insightful, and entertaining analysis of the arts and culture of our time. -- Ada Louise Huxtable

As a cultural and intellectual historian, he has perhaps no peer in his own generation. -- Harold Bloom

Beautifully written, wide-ranging and psychologically acute....Gay's magisterial book is richly rewarding. -- Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World

This is cultural history of the highest magnitude, a work as astute in its analyses as it is massive in its ambition. -- Stacy Schiff, author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)

Treats the not-always-distant past with the suave, detached but never-indifferent passion of someone possessed of...a true historical imagination. -- Adam Gopnik, author of Paris to the Moon

You can be sure that students and journalists and teachers will be stealing from Modernism for years to c ome. Bravo! -- Hilton Kramer, author

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (November 12, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393052052
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393052053
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #992,230 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The history of Modernism will never be written; we know too much about it (apologies to L.S.). Yet time and again some intrepid soul takes up the challenge and plunges ahead.

I am happy to report that Peter Gay, while by no means having written that elusive definitive opus, acquits himself splendidly and has produced a compulsively readable introduction to this vast topic. Discussing both the usual suspects in concise chapters (Baudelaire, Picasso, Cezanne, Duchamp, Joyce, Schoenberg, etc) and some less so (Ensor, dealer Durand-Ruel, museum curator Lichtwark), Gay weaves multiple stories together to make a seamless whole that carries the reader across Modernism's multiple manifestations: dance, sculpture, architecture, music, film as well as painting and literature.

Apt illustrations punctuate the text and the book's production as a whole is lovely. I would only criticize the dearth of illustrations when discussing paintings: verbal description can't do the visual arts justice. And like much of Gay's previous writing, Saint Sigmund hovers over the entire enterprise, thankfully never becoming too intrusive.

Having written definitive explorations of European culture in the 18th and 19th Centuries, it is a pleasure that Gay has brought readers into the 20th with this new volume, certain to be one of the most accessible introductions to Modernism for some time to come.
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Format: Hardcover
I recently took a course on Joyce's Ulysses and I've been studying Eliot's "The Waste Land" both of which were published in 1922 and serve as defining modernist texts. I looked forward to reading Peter Gay's "Modernism" for insights into the movement's complex nest of heretical ideas, conflicted cultural displays and artistic expressions.

I feel let down. He focuses on the usual suspects; Joyce, Picasso, Balanchine, Stravinsky etc. and tells their stories with verve and enthusiasm. He dates the beginning of modernism from Baudelaire's publication of Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857. These poems offered up the twin defining characteristics Gay assigns to the movement; the breaking of conventions that elicit passionate revulsion and a subjective, psychological, inward focus by the artist. The book then follows painting, drama, music and architecture in a chronological progression through the male canon (except for Virginia Woolf) praising their distinctive takes on modernism as he has defined it.

He pulls the curtain down on the movement in 1960 with the advent of Pop Art. He ends the book with a rather perplexing claim that modernism is the great undead of movements, finding the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the architecture of Frank Gehry worthy of inclusion despite their work post-dating the movement's death knell by more than a generation. He does this by violating his own rule which is, "the lure of heresy." He doesn't claim that either Marques or Gehry were treated as heretics. They were grandly praised and understood immediately upon the appearance of their work. Isn't modernism dead when there is no shock?

This paean to the Marquez and Gehry points to a key weakness of the book in terms of providing an intellectual framework for the movement.
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Format: Hardcover
Just read this in Spengler's Decline of the West, the book I'm reading after this one: "No one has seriously considered the possibility that arts may have an allotted span of life and may be attached as forms of self-expression to particular regions and types of mankind, and that therefore the total history of an art may be merely an additive compilation of separate developments, of special arts, with no bond of union save the name and some details of craft-technique."

Well, Gay does consider this about modernism in his intro, but rejects it. He claims that the urge to talk about "modernisms" instead of one coherent movement is misguided, and yet basically does so himself throughout his survey (and that's really all it is) of a hugely disparate collection of artists and artworks. Instead of building a case for why everyone from Picasso to Knut Hamsun to Eliot are really members of a single coherent approach or worldview, he lapses into an encyclopedic collection of artist biographies (which all seem to include the "so-and-so was born to parents of such-and-such type" trope) with thin connective tissue bringing them together in anything more than a motley crew of once-marginalized, now-highly regarded mavericks. He does posit the thesis statement that what everyone in modernism shares is a devotion to innovation and the psychological, but this doesn't seem like enough to hang 500 pages on. He also claims in the intro that he is going to use Freudian-type methods to dig into the drives of these characters, but does nothing of the sort. I learned some facts about the titans of modern art that I might be able to drop at the MOMA and sound semi-familiar with whoever I'm looking at, but not much else. I also agree with another reviewer that he missed the big picture in a major way by ignoring postmodernism...this is museum catalog blurbage masquerading as cultural/intellectual analysis.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Peter Gay has written a sweeping survey of Modernism that is lucid, highly readable, amply illustrated, beautifully designed, and remarkably complete. He has, essentially, written a survey of 120 years of cultural and aesthetic history. This is not a task for the faint of heart, but Gay has never suffered from that malady, his array of works spanning multiple centuries. His two-volume history of the Enlightenment remains a very important study and his work on Freud and on 19thc sensibility equally so.

The problem with Modernism is that there is so much of it, particularly if you set out to write about poetry and fiction, music, architecture, painting, pop culture, and the many movements and sub-movements attending them. And of course, he is not bounded by any national borders. This is history with a capital H. That means that he has relatively little space (4-6 pp., usually at the outside) for each major figure. Thus, the book is a sweeping survey, an excellent introduction to the subject. Theory is kept to a minimum. He focuses on two aspects of Modernism--its penchant for aesthetic heresy and its stress of subjectivism.

The book is also scrupulously fair, recognizing silliness and extremism where they are found and recognizing the important realities that work designed to shock the middle class cannot exist without a middle class prepared to consume it and a society sufficiently free and stable to protect the shockers and provide them a safe place in which to work.
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