Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes


(literary-artistic-cultural period, app. 1900-1950)

see also Periods

Modernism is not identical to modernity or modernization, though these terms' meanings overlap.

Modernism is a recent period of Western or World Civilization; modernity or modernization is a historical process rather than a period.

Modernization or modernity is ongoing since emergence of humanism and modern science in Classical Greece, or at least since the Renaissance.

Modernization replaces or transforms traditions, collective identities, and past-orientations with revolutionary activities such as doubt, inquiry, individualism, and future-orientation.

The simplest understanding of modern culture is in contrast with tradional cultures, which prevailed through most human history and prehistory and still survive today in family life, rural and religious communities, etc.

Like the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism, Modernism is a period or movement—an international movement in European, American, and World art, literature, and culture.

Modernism occurs approximately 100 years after Romanticism (late 1700s - mid-1800s or later) and, more precisely, after the Realistic period in American literature and the Victorian / Edwardian periods in England.

Modernism begins in the late 1800s or early 1900s--a convenient starting point is just before World War 1 (1914-18).

Modernism continues till the mid-1900s (end of World War 2 in 1945) when it may be succeeded by Post-Modernism

Or Modernism continues even now, if Post-Modernism or postmodernism is just more Modernism.

Like other major cultural movements such as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or Romanticism, Modernism is both international and interdisciplinary (or multimedia, etc.).

Historic Dimensions of Modernism (esp. in literature)

Modernism begins in the late 1800s or early 1900s, climaxing from the 1910s to 1930s as writers and artists throughout Europe, the USA, and beyond create and publish numerous revolutionary works that are still recognized as titanic and influential, even if, a century later, their application as models grows more remote and limited.

The great decades of Modernism parallel profound world events, particularly the two World Wars (1914-18 & 1939-45) and the Great Depression (1929-1940?).

World War 1 is often seen as a starting event of Modernism. The devastation and disillusion of Western Civilization in the Great War accelerated and deepened Modernist thinking. However, harbingers of Modernism are visible in late fiction of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, or late Impressionist paintings by Manet or Monet.

Monumental political revolutions or reforms are contemporary with cultural Modernism: Russian Revolution (1917), Nazism & Fascism (1930s), USA New Deal (1930s), Chinese Revolution (1946-52).

Modernism may or may not end at mid-20th century, depending on definitions of postmodernism, but certainly the heroic age of Modernism has passed; the current cultural era may be, like Realism following Romanticism, both an extension of and an exhaustion from a revolutionary period. 

Breakdown of Western Civilization in World Wars 1 & 2 > intense questioning of cultural sources and aims

Reaction against formal limits of Realism and optimism of Victorian literature > experimental forms, pessimism.

Among Modernism's most controversial legacies is a divorce or schism between high art in perpetual revolution from established forms appealing to elite audiences, and low or popular art appealing to base instincts and nondiscriminating tastes.

Characteristics of Modernism (esp. in literature)

destabilization and fragmentation of reality > surprising and sometimes inconsistent metaphors for interior states

Realistic details > symbolic, suggestive, allegorical within mythic narratives or frames

narration through fragmented, internalized, or multiple perspectives or viewpoints; e.g. Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929); Woolf''s To the Lighthouse (1927)

unification of fragmenting reality through internalized or interior perception, as in stream-of-consciousness (< influence of Freud, theories of conscious and unconscious)

inner-outer correspondence of Romanticism > interiority, psychological reality, all reality translated into mental states or symbols.

non-linear time, or other distortions of time-conventions in Realistic fiction; e.g., Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Faulkner's Sound & Fury (1929)

Classical or mythic forms refashioned or made new (<archetypal psychology of Jung; advanced classical scholarship)

Allusiveness: symbolic references to or self-conscious intertextuality with prior literary monuments

self-consciousness and irony concerning literary and social conventions > admitted artifice in representation.

Primitivism: ("Belief, thought, or behaviour of a primitive or instinctive nature; the advocating or idealization of that which is simple, unsophisticated, or primitive"--OED); a.k.a. atavism

Invocations of classical or non-western forms including the Primitive, but Ezra Pound: "Make it new."

sexuality depicted more frankly and directly, though still symbolically, sometimes as obsession or fetish.

Characterization: Heroic individualism of Romanticism > isolation, eccentricity, anti-heroism; secondary characters as symbolic or allegorical types

Gothic may re-appear in broken or fleeting forms as the grotesque.

Like Romanticism, Modernism mixes revolutionary and reactionary elements.

Modernist Artists of various disciplines or media

Modern Literature

Ireland: James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Samuel Becket

England: Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Dylan Thomas, D.H. Lawrence

France: Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sarte, Albert Camus, Paul Eluard

Germany: Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse

other European authors: Franz Kafka, Luigi Pirandello

South America: Jorge Luis Borges


prose: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Katherine Anne Porter, Dashiell Hammett, late Henry James, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Zora Neale Hurston, Djuna Barnes, Patricia Highsmith, Jean Toomer

Modernist prose fiction marked by symbolism, narrative disruption, internalization of meaning, stream-of-consciousness

poetry: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, H.D., Langston Hughes

Modernist poetry marked by free verse and freer verse with formal variations, symbolism, internalization of meaning or personal symbolism


Modern Classical Music

Early Modernist: Debussy & Mahler

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, The Firebird



Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris

Duke Ellington

Count Basie

much experimentation with rhythm, tone--disruption of audience expectations

like Romanticism, some adaptation of folk melodies

Modern dance

George Ballanchine

Martha Graham


Jerome Robbins


Modern Painting

"representational" > "abstraction"

conventional exteriors > conflicted interiors

cultivated conventions > pure forms

classical motifs > distortions, non-Western figures, fragmentation of classical whole


Pablo Picasso


(Spanish > France)





Piet Mondrian (Netherlands)


Marchel Duchamp (1887-1968, France)

Nude Descending a Staircase (1912)



Matisse (1869-1954, France)

Two Girls in a Yellow and Red Interior (1942)


Marc Chagall (1887-1985, Belarussia)

Paris through a Window

Giorgio de Chirico

The Double Dream of Spring




Georgia O'Keefe








Modernist Architecture 

Sagrada Familia Basilica

Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

designed by Catalonian architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926)

under construction since 1882, completion target 2026

consecrated 7 November 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI

gothic influences modernized

Casa Vicens, Barcelona

Casa Batillo


Parc Guell