Monday, March 17, 2014

Modernism’s Year One?

By David Luhrssen
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Modernism was a prevailing cultural current for much of the last century. In Constellations of Genius: 1922 Modernism Year One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Kevin Jackson insists on 1922 as the significant turning point. The British author rests his case on the publication that year of two seminal works, James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

Like any good Postmodernist, Jackson readily concedes that his scheme is an arbitrary one. Many other “years one” have been or could be proposed, starting with dates in the 19th century. Perhaps the zeitgeist really did whisper loudly in 1922 that it was high time for new ways to express the rapidly accelerating pace of modern life? Or not? Either way, the daybook arrangement of Constellations of Genius provides a useful and enjoyable framework for examining a host of significant cultural accomplishments at the height of the Jazz Age. It’s a book that can be opened with pleasure on any page.

Jackson’s scope is wide, chronicling Louis Armstrong, Aleister Crowley, H.P. Lovecraft and Wassily Kandinsky, among many others. Developments in film also factor into Jackson’s account. In 1922 Charlie Chaplin directed his first full-length feature, A Woman of Paris. Jackson adds that Chaplin “was far from alone in his attempt to mount ever more ambitious productions.” F.W. Murnau’s remarkable (and still uncanny) vampire film, Nosferatu, was released in 1922, and Fritz Lang introduced the criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse to moviegoers.

Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, probably the first documentary feature, was first screened in that year. His story is familiar to anyone who ever knocked on Hollywood’s door with a new idea. “Who wants to watch a movie about Eskimos?” the moguls demanded. Finally, Pathe decided to distribute Nanook—to critical acclaim, big box office and an enduring legacy on the art of documentary filmmaking.

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