Comparative Modernism Across the Arts

ENGLISH 590-1.01

Note: This is a collaboration between Dr. Corina Stan (Assistant Professor in English) and Gabriel Richard (Visiting Professor in Romance Studies, First Violin in the Paris Orchestra, First Violin of the Thymos Quartet). No pre-requisites; students will have the opportunity to choose the topics of their class presentations and written assignments based on their interests in particular art forms, and receive individual specialized guidance from the instructors. 

This course explores modernism as a rich mosaic of intermedial aesthetic practices, focusing closely on intersections between music, visual, and literary arts. This exploration will often take us behind the scenes of modernism, listening in on conversations in literary salons that inspired composers, or looking over the shoulder of writers jotting down ideas in diaries, while listening to music. Consider, for example, the lively portraits of artists emerging from Gertrude Stein's unusual Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; or Parade (1917), produced by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with costumes by Pablo Picasso, music by Erik Satie, and a scenario signed by Jean Cocteau; or Oskar Schlemmer’s eccentric piece of Bauhaus brilliance, the Triadic Ballet (1922), partly inspired by Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1913), both emancipated from the constraints of theatrical and operatic traditions that had dominated Western art for centuries. And Schoenberg, of course, acknowledged that his musical style had changed dramatically when he composed to Stefan George’s poems from The Book of the Hanging Gardens, which, in turn, were influenced by the synaesthetic qualities pursued by the French symbolists (Mallarmé was a great inspiration). 

How do we account for these intermedial practices, and how do they enrich our understanding of literary modernism, as well as of the ways modernism has constantly reinvented itself – all the way to the present day? Can we understand “the contemporary” if we do not engage with modernism?

In keeping with the insistence, in New Modernist Studies, on broadening the framework of modernism spatially, temporally, and conceptually, in this course we will map out some of the major networks of artistic influence that have generated intermedial artworks. Our excursus will be presided by two major figures of the second half of the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche, whose asymmetrical friendship was born under the auspices of their shared fondness for music and philosophy, and later ruined by aesthetic and ideological differences. “Wagner sums up modernity. There is no way out, one must first become a Wagnerian,” Nietzsche wrote. We will see that, where Wagner’s aim was to absorb all arts into the grand spectacle of the music drama, many later modernists thought of their work as an index to other arts; we will explore Rimbaud’s “methodical confusion of all the senses,” Gauguin’s work in Tahiti and his influence on German expressionists, O. Dejours’ Song of the Blue Rider (inspired by the painter Franz Marc), A. von Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony (to lyrics by Rabindranath Tagore), Aimé Césaire’s dedication of his Notebook… to Wifredo Lam (and the latter’s closeness with Breton’s circle), the work of El Lissitzky in Soviet Russia, and his influence on Bauhaus and De Stijl figures. In addition to the indispensable manifestos that punctuate the period we think of as “modernism” (from Luigi Russolo’s Art of Noises and Tristan Tzara’s Dada, to de Andrade’s Cannibalist Manifesto), we will also engage with some major literary texts that intersect other art forms, such as the Sirens episode in Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s final section of The Waves (partly inspired by Beethoven’s quartets), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (we will watch Luchino Visconti’s film, and analyze the use of Mahler’s Adagietto), excerpts from Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and possibly from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. We will close with two films, Time Regained (1999) by Chilean director Raúl Ruiz, based on the last volume of Proust’s novel, and Faust(2011), by Russian director Aleksander Sokurov.

In preparation for the course, students might enjoy reading through Alex Ross’s richly informative volume The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007) and Jed Rasula’s History of a Shiver. The Sublime Impudence of Modernism (2016).