Tale of the century

<strong>Modernism: the Lure of Heresy - From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond </strong>

Peter Gay

Early in his book, Peter Gay offers an account of the work of James Ensor, "probably among the best known" of the Belgian modernists. Born in 1860, Ensor specialised in a form of kitsch grotesque, with a particular fondness for skeletons:

One . . . is comfortably ensconsed in an upholstered easy chair glancing at Chinese objects; another is sketching; still another is playing a clarinet. He shows oddly dressed skeletons huddling around a stove to get warm; cannibalistic skeletons who battle with brooms and brushes over a hanged man labelled "Stew"; and a fleet of flying skeletons, the largest wielding an enormous scythe, terrorising a crowd that tries to flee. In Ensor's most renowned painting, The Entry of Christ into Brussels of 1888, a throng mills about the Saviour riding a donkey, while a top-hatted skeleton dominates the foreground . . . In one gruesome self-portrait . . . he has a white-robed waiter ready to serve up his, Ensor's, head on a platter to a party of nauseating banqueters and has painted a large label identifying him stuck into the top of the skull.

There is something refreshing about this account of modernist art. Ensor's baroque excesses, so counter to the common images of stripped down modernism, is a good reminder of the manifold forms of artistic expression during this period: the ones we rate; the ones best forgotten; and the ones people write their doctoral theses about.

Many academic surveys of the early 20th century are similarly forgettable. It is a period haunted by "isms" and attempts at self-definition - so much so that critics often lose sight of the artists they write about among all the labels. The results can be as dessicated and bloodless as Ensor's osteological visions. Gay's Modernism is quite the opposite. Tackling the 20th century's massive diversity of cultural productions, this highly readable, well-illustrated survey, moving between art, literature, architecture, music and film, with a light touch.

Modernism is, Gay claims, very much the "work of a historian". The "point of this study", he adds, "is not to compile an expansive catalogue of all the strands and leading figures in modernism, but to examine their presence in culture and to discover, if possible, whether they coalesce to define a single cultural entity." Such a linear, historical approach presents its own problems when dealing with what Baudelaire saw as the "fugitive, contingent" nature of modernist life itself. The book's structure admits this, moving between genres and modes of production, and changing its pace between descriptions of individual creators, and works of art, and more impressionistic descriptions of the "climate" in which they worked.

Gay's background as an historian shows, too, in the balance of the book. He gives due attention to each of the areas he covers, and doesn't shy away from the less attractive faces of modernism, taking time to discuss the beliefs and works of the "bigot High Anglican T S Eliot", the "hysterical anti-feminist August Strindberg", and the "Fascist Knut Hamsun".

Another strength of this book is its truly international perspective, but there is one figure missing - Sigmund Freud. The effects of the Freudian "climate of opinion" on the modern creative mind is handled as a brief note in his preface, but, for Gay, the Freudian perspective "lies at the heart" of his "historian's reading of the decades". Indeed, a psychoanalytically minded reader might note that Gay's acknowledgements begin with the assertion that "[t]his book is not my fault". As the author explains, the suggestion to write a book about "everything" to do with modernism came from his editor.

While Gay's disclaimer is a joke, one might also see it as a way of handling the implicit sense of responsibility - the guilt, even - that comes with any attempt to make those who happen to live in temporal proximity "coalesce" into a "definition". In the end, as an attempt to define or reduce the hundreds of artists and creators into a "single cultural entity", or cultural phenomenon, this book is, fortunately, a failure. As an intelligent and exciting account of creative individuals and the times in which they worked, it's an enormous achievement.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?