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3. Utopian Promise   

11. Modernist Portraits

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Cultural Change, Cultural Exchange: The Jazz Age, the Depression, and Transatlantic Modernism

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Going to See Chaplin

[6548] A. E. Marey, Going to See Chaplin (1920), courtesy of the Gazette du Bon Ton.
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Popular history depicts the inter-war period as a time of raucous frivolity, speakeasies, flappers, and stock market millions. Indeed, unemployment during the 1920s in America was relatively low; some made sizable fortunes by speculating on Wall Street; and women wore shorter dresses and enjoyed a certain degree of freedom. But only an elite few enjoyed the easy lifestyle portrayed in overly nostalgic looks back at this decade; in America in the 1920s, one-tenth of a percent of the wealthiest families made as much money each year as 42 percent of the poorest families. Wealth was not enjoyed equally by everyone, and the twenties also witnessed growing numbers of labor strikes and a rise in what was called nativism, a preoccupation with protecting the interests of "native-born" Americans against those of increasing numbers of foreign immigrants. In 1924, the Immigration Act capped the number of immigrants permitted to enter the United States, particularly those from countries with cultures deemed unassimilable: while 34,000 British immigrants were allowed to enter, only 100 could come from any African nation or China.

At the same time in Europe, a spirit of experimentation and artistic freedom prevailed, and many artists moved abroad to find places to live that were more conducive to their work than the conservative and restrictive United States. These American expatriates contributed to the renovation of art and literature termed modernism. The label "modernist" applies to works of literature, art, and music produced during this time period that in a variety of ways reflect a "modern temper." Such work is characterized by a sense of loss, alienation, or confusion caused by changes in the social and physical world that served to dislocate individuals from traditional understandings of how the world functioned. Modernist works tend to break with conventions governing art: modernist writers often shied away from conventions of chronology, point of view, and coherence; modernist artists dismissed traditional conventions of representation, depicting fragmented and abstract images; composers rejected rules about melody and harmony. Much in modern society--moral values, gender roles, connection to one's work--seemed to have splintered apart, and modern art in some ways represented this sense of fragmentation. Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase provides a visual image of this fragmentation; John Dos Passos's pastiche of story and newspaper headlines textually represents a fragmented world.

Modernism was an international phenomenon; in the early twentieth century, travel and communication became increasingly easy, promoting the exchange of ideas among artists. Writers and artists in diverse countries answered the call to make a new kind of art for a new kind of world. They sought artistic inspiration from the cultural capitals of Europe; Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Anderson, Cummings, Joyce, and Picasso all lived and worked in Paris, which at the end of the nineteenth century had become a center for avant-garde art. Modernist artists of diverse nationalities worked in New York, Paris, and London, among a variety of other locations, and modernist thought traveled freely back and forth across the Atlantic and the borders of Europe through individuals and a vast array of publications. Paris was certainly a center for much of this thought, but modern art appeared in numerous other places, and modern architecture redefined cityscapes throughout the United States and Europe.

Nineteen thirteen was a watershed year for modernism: in New York, the Armory Show introduced abstract art to the American public, and in Paris music and dance took on new forms with the riot-provoking ballet The Rite of Spring, with its jarring music and erotic choreography. In her autobiography, arts patroness Mabel Dodge opined, "It seems as though everywhere, in that year of 1913, barriers went down and people reached each other who had never been in touch before; there were all sorts of new ways to communicate as well as new communications. The new spirit was abroad and swept us all together." In 1923, the sense that something important was happening in the world of letters that involved both Europe and America prompted Ford Madox Ford to start a magazine called Transatlantic Review, featuring the work of the multinational writers then residing, like Ford, in Paris.

European writers and artists also looked to other traditions for inspiration, especially in the cultures of Africa and Asia. Several historians have noted the significant influence of African American art and culture on the development of modernism. In part, modernists looked to the primitive as an antidote to the modern world and saw in African art and in people of African descent a link to a primordial past (for more on primitivism, see Unit 10). African American performers and writers found greater acceptance in Europe; Parisian audiences were fascinated by the new dance and music coming from performers Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson.

In 1929 the New York stock market crashed, wiping out the savings of millions of Americans and paralyzing industry; the economic collapse that ensued turned into a worldwide depression. Soon a quarter of the American work force was unemployed, and breadlines and soup kitchens attempted to meet the needs of the millions of Americans without sources of income or sustenance. Initially, economists and politicians predicted the depression would not last long, and those with money and power were unwilling to help the unemployed, whom they believed to be out of work as a result of their own shortcomings. It was not until President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" that the federal government began to provide relief to the unemployed, largely through new work programs created by government spending. The depression did not end until the onset of World War II, when production accelerated once again and more work became available. Many Americans in Europe returned home during the Depression, their sources of income destroyed by the crash. Nonetheless, the interaction of American and European artists had fundamentally changed the art and literature of the twentieth century.

  1. Comprehension: What made modernism a transatlantic phenomenon? Which technological and social developments contributed to this cultural exchange?

  2. Comprehension: What attracted American authors to Europe? What did they find there that they couldn't find in the United States?

  3. Comprehension: How did political and economic changes in the United States affect the cultural climate of Europe? What impact did the stock market crash and the depression have on Americans living abroad?

  4. Context: In addition to its setting in Africa, Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" references numerous other locations where Harry had spent time. What function does this catalog of different locales serve in the story? Why does Harry reminisce about them as he lies dying in Africa? Why is he concerned that he hasn't written about these places?

  5. Context: How does Paris figure in "Babylon Revisited"? As Charlie looks back on the end of the 1920s after the Wall Street crash, what does he think of the life he lived in Paris? What does he believe contributed to the lifestyle he led then?

  6. Context: What does Quicksand's Helga Crane criticize about American culture? What does she find different in Denmark? What options are open to her there that are not available in the United States? What limitations do Danish cultural values impose on her? What does the novel suggest about the influence of location on individuals' lives?

  7. Exploration: Transatlantic exchanges were not new in the twentieth century. Look at some of the writings of early visitors to the United States and consider what they hoped to find. What did Alexis De Tocqueville, Fanny Trollope, and Charles Dickens have to say about the young republic? What did nineteenth-century American authors such as Hawthorne and James find lacking in American culture that they sought in Europe?

  8. Exploration: The things that contributed to transatlantic exchanges between the world wars only intensified in the latter half of the twentieth century. How have jet airplanes, television, and the internet extended the cultural exchanges possible among distant nations? What are some examples of these exchanges and what impact do you think they have had on the development of art and literature? On national identity?


[3334] Anonymous, The Trading Floor of the New York Stock Exchange just after the Crash of 1929 (1929),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [1930-67B].
Photograph taken from above the Stock Exchange floor. The crash and ensuing depression brought many expatriate artists back to the United States.

[3547] Anonymous, Louis Armstrong, Half-length Portrait, Facing Left, Playing Trumpet (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-118974].
Innovations in music, prose, poetry, and painting mutually inspired each other. Writers tried to incorporate imagery and rhythms from jazz in their work. F. Scott Fitzgerald labeled the era the "Jazz Age."

[3548] Anonymous, Louis Armstrong Conducting Band, NBC Microphone in Foreground (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-118977].
Louis Armstrong was one of the best-known jazz musicians of the 1930s. Jazz was an important theme in modernist writing and visual art; its syncopated rhythms inspired both authors and painters.

[4022] Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912),
courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Abstract painting exhibited at the Armory Show in New York in 1913. American audiences criticized and ridiculed the work, an example of cubism, a painting trend that incorporated fragmentation and geometrical shapes.

[5935] Dorothea Lange, Depression (1935),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Unemployed man leaning against vacant storefront. Many people lost their jobs and savings during the Great Depression. New Deal photographer Dorothea Lange captured many images of the hardships endured during this time.

[6520] Benson, Brown, Sterlin, and Lange, Keep Jazzin' It Ras' (1918),
courtesy of the Brown University Library, Sheet Music Collection, The John Hay Library.
Sheet music cover showing musicians and instruments. Jazz influenced poetry, prose, and painting, as artists tried to incorporate its images and rhythms.

[6540] Ethel M'Clellan Plummer, Vanity Fair on the Avenue (1914),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-1408].
Four women in stylish attire. Popular culture and international cultural exchange, including high fashion, grew with technological advances.

[6548] A. E. Marey, Going to see Chaplin (1920),
courtesy of the Gazette du Bon Ton.
Individuals waiting to enter a theater in Paris. Technology made movies available to mass audiences and facilitated the production of popular culture, which often crossed national boundaries.

[6557] George Barbier, La Belle Personne (1925),
courtesy of Chris Lowe.
Painting of woman posed with fan, vase, and elegant curtain, table, and clothing. Definitions of female beauty and sexuality changed with modernization, diverging from restrictive Victorian standards.

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