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Posts Tagged ‘modernism

“I would say lenguage is that we may mis-unda-stend each udda”*…

Long-time readers will know that your correspondent adores George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (c.f., e.g., this post: the remarkable Chris Ware on the modern relevance of the seminal strip). Today, Amber Medland on Krazy Kat‘s huge resonance with Modernists throughout its run…

The Kat had a cult following among the modernists. For Joyce, Fitzgerald, Stein, and Picasso, all of whose work fed on playful energies similar to those unleashed in the strip, he had a double appeal, in being commercially nonviable and carrying the reek of authenticity in seeming to belong to mass culture. By the thirties, strips like Blondie were appearing daily in roughly a thousand newspapers; Krazy appeared in only thirty-five. The Kat was one of those niche-but-not-really phenomena, a darling of critics and artists alike, even after it stopped appearing in newspapers. Since then: Umberto Eco called Herriman’s work “raw poetry”; Kerouac claimed the Kat as “the immediate progenitor” of the beats; Stan Lee (Spider-Man) went with “genius”; Herriman was revered by Charles Schulz and Theodor Geisel alike. But Krazy Kat was never popular. The strip began as a sideline for Herriman, who had been making a name for himself as a cartoonist since 1902. It ran in “the waste space,” literally underfoot the characters of his more conventional 1910 comic strip The Dingbat Family, published in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal. Hearst gave Herriman a rare lifetime contract and, with his backing, by 1913 the liminal kreatures had their own strip. Most people disliked not being able to understand it. Soon advertisers worried that formerly loyal readers would skip the strips and miss the ads. Editors were infuriated by devices like Herriman’s “intermission” panel, which disrupted the narrative by stalling the action…

For [E.E.] Cummings, who, with his flagrant anti-intellectual stance, privileged what he called “Aliveness” above all else, Charlie Chaplin was the only artist to rival Herriman. But technology disrupted both Chaplin’s and Herriman’s idiosyncratic work. At the introduction of sound in film in 1927, Chaplin said that the “spontaneity of the gags had been lost,” but what he really lost was his control of time. Sound erases distance; there was no longer a delay in which the incongruity between seeing and comprehending could bloom. In his essay “What People Laugh At” (1918), Chaplin noted “the liking of the average person for contrast and surprise in his entertainment.” Both Herriman and Chaplin orchestrated meticulously timed, silent dialogues between images and words. Slapstick—a word that originally referred to two pieces of wood joined together, used by pantomime clowns to make loud noises—is, in their work, a deliberately clumsy cleaving of the relationship between words and images. If people could explain themselves, there would be no time to revel in ludicrous situations, as when in The Kid, Chaplin, caressing the hand of a policeman’s wife, is accidentally caressed by her husband…

The unsung Modernist: “E. E. Cummings and Krazy Kat,” from @ambermedland in @parisreview.

Enjoy Krazy Kat strips here.

* Krazy, to Ignatz (Herriman one-upping Wittgenstein…)

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As we praise percipience, we might recall that it was on this date in 1948, in the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Haredevil Hare,” that Marvin the Martian made his debut.

“Haredevil Hare”: Bugs Bunny, disguised as a Martian, hands Marvin the Uranium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator. (Animation by Ken Harris.)

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“I shall have more to say when I am dead”*…

Brian Brodeur reassesses an unjustly-forgotten modernist…

On December 22, 2019, the sesquicentennial of a writer Donald Justice referred to as “the first modern American poet” passed without a whimper. Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935) would’ve found this critical neglect fitting; obscurity was one of his perennial subjects. Though he won three Pulitzers and was a favorite poet of Theodore Roosevelt, Robinson, whose own mother waited seven months to name him, was attracted to characters few people acknowledged, cared about, or understood.

Before Robinson, very little lived experience had crept into the lines of late Victorian American poetry, which included the likes of rightly forgotten Richard Watson Gilder (1844–1909) and Robert Underwood Johnson (1853–1937): parlor versifiers Whitman famously dismissed as “tea-pot poets.” Rather than saturating his work with overblown symbols, hackneyed aphorisms, and hollow moralism, Robinson relied on the more sophisticated techniques of understatement, irony, and sparse detail. He also confronted such 19th-century taboos as alcoholism, homelessness, and assisted suicide.

So why has Robinson’s Collected Poems remained out of print since the 1970s? Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), another virtual nonperson for most 21st-century readers, Robinson is often overlooked as being insufficiently modern, unfashionably didactic, and even culturally problematic. Though this latter description might be justly applied to Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855), which perpetuates stereotypes of Native American life, none of these epithets accurately describes Robinson.

Understanding this collective lapse in critical judgment begins by acknowledging that Robinson continues to challenge dominant literary conventions. To begin with, his poems almost always tell a story, almost exclusively in meter and nearly always in rhyme; he also valued clarity of style and rationality of thought over the experimental fragmentation of many high modernists, and, unlike the Confessional poets who came later, hardly ever wrote about himself explicitly. Another reason for his neglect involves a commonly held misconception about literary history. Though Robinson was born nearly 20 years before Ezra Pound (1885), many consider him a peer of the much younger modernists who are often lumped together with him in anthologies of modern American poetry. Robinson broke new ground in his best books, which were published between 1897 and 1925, but his poems can sound antique when compared to The Waste Land (1922) and The Pisan Cantos (1948).

Yet it serves to remember that art has no present without its past. Acknowledging practices of earlier periods gives poets the knowledgeable freedom to experiment in their own time. Robinson’s best work offers contemporary practitioners options, ways of writing largely ignored by 21st-century American poets…

An appreciation: “‘The Flicker, Not the Flame’: E. A. Robinson’s Narrative Compression,” from @bbrodeurpoet in @LAReviewofBooks.

* Edwin Arlington Robinson

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As we give credit where credit is due, we might spare a thought for Maya Angelou; she died on this date in 2014. A poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist, she published several books of poetry, seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows through a career that spanned over 50 years.

Her autobiographical work drew on her experiences as a fry cook, sex worker, nightclub performer, Porgy and Bess cast member, Southern Christian Leadership Conference coordinator, and correspondent in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa. She went on to work as an actress, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. Then, in 1982, she was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton (making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961).

Angelou was nominated for the Pulitzer and the Tony, won three Grammys, and was awarded over 50 honorary degrees. She won the Spingarn Medal in 1994, the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. And in 2022 she became the first Black woman to be depicted on a U.S. quarter.

Angelou at the Clinton inauguration [source]

“The nice thing about doing a crossword puzzle is, you know there is a solution”*…

An Ernie Bushmiller “Cross Word Cal” cartoon, from Sunday New York World, 1925. Note how the animals are caged by letter length and genus — Source.

Roddy Howland Jackson (himself a setter of puzzles) considers the origins of, and reveals the pleasures and imaginative creatures lurking in Torquemada’s seminal puzzles, the original cryptic crosswords…

Just a few years after The Waste Land appeared — a poem whose difficulty critics compared to some “pompous cross-word puzzle” — Edward Powys Mathers (alias: Torquemada) pioneered the cryptic: a puzzle form that, like modernist poetry, unwove language and rewove it anew…

“The Swan” from Torquemada’s Cross-Words in Rhyme for Those of Riper Years (1925) — Source

T. S. Eliot, Vladimir Nabokov, Torquemada, and the Modernist crossword: “Beastly Clues,” from @roddyhj in @PublicDomainRev.

See also “Topic: Surprise, Drowsy Cows RIP, as Corrected (2,5,7,10)

* Stephen Sondheim (who helped introduce Americans to British-style cryptic crosswords)

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As we contemplate circuitous clues, we might note that today is National Thesaurus Day, celebrated each year on this date in honor of physician, natural theologian, and lexicographer Peter Mark Roget, who was born on this date in 1779. In 1852 Roget published his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition (or, as we know it, Roget’s Thesaurus), a pioneering collection of related words.

Modern thesauri tend to be collections of synonyms and antonyms. Roget’s Thesaurus was…

… essentially a reverse dictionary. With a dictionary, the user looks up a word to find its meaning. With Roget’s, the user start with an idea and then keeps flipping through the book until he finds the word that best expresses it. The organization of the book reflects the unique intelligence of the polymath that created it…

Roget’s was a two-for-one: it put both a book of synonyms and a topic dictionary (a compendium of thematically arranged concepts) under one cover.

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Roget’s official portrait by Thomas Pettigrew

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“All familiar things can open into strange worlds”*…

Jasper Johns, Three Flags, 1958; Whitney Museum of Art

A thoughtful consideration of a modern master…

In​  the summer of 1953, after a stint in the army, Jasper Johns, aged 23, moved back to New York City. There, a few months later, he met Robert Rauschenberg. Their artistic and romantic partnership would last until 1961; the company they kept included John Cage and Merce Cunningham. In this heady atmosphere, Johns chose, in autumn 1954, to destroy all his prior work, and to begin the paintings that made his name when they were shown four years later: flags, targets and numbers crafted in encaustic (pigment mixed in hot wax) with collage (often mere newspaper) on canvas…

Johns made an exceptional entrance in early 1958: his first show at the new Leo Castelli Gallery nearly sold out, with three paintings immediately purchased by MoMA, and one piece appearing on the cover of ARTnews. Then 27, he had sized up the New York art world precisely, dominated as it then was by the formalist model of ‘modernist painting’ used by Clement Greenberg to champion Abstract Expressionism, and deftly deflected its discourse towards what Leo Steinberg would term ‘other criteria’.

In a studied phrase Johns spoke of his position as one of ‘shunning statement’. This suggests an aversion to polemics, political as well as artistic, that goes beyond temperament, a fatigue with the heated ideologies of the period (the Korean conflict, the McCarthy hearings, the Cold War). And Johns did muffle his subjects along with his gestures; his large White Flag (1955) is literally whited out. Might this intimate a ‘painting degree zero’ in line with the ‘writing degree zero’ posed by Roland Barthes against Sartrean commitment at around this time? ‘I can’t imagine my work being used to accomplish anything socially,’ Johns said. This is less negation than neutrality à la Barthes, for whom ‘the neutral’ was a way to baffle conceptual binaries, to undo ideological oppositions, to mess with ‘the paradigm’…

On the occasion of the Whitney’s (@whitneymuseum) show (through February 13) “Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror,” Hal Foster‘s “Which red is the real red?,” from @LRB.

* Jasper Johns

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As we look closely, we might spare a thought for Francis Picabia (Francis-Marie Martinez de Picabia); he died on this date in 1953.  A French avant-garde painter, poet and typographist, Picabia experimented with Impressionism and Pointillism before becoming a Cubist. He then became one of the early major figures of the Dada movement in the United States and in France, and was later briefly associated with Surrealism.

See his work at the record of a major retrospective hung at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2017 on their web site.

Francis Picabia, 1919, inside Danse de Saint-Guy

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“Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all it’s flavour”*…

Possibly the most remarkable city block in the world…

The Illa de la Discòrdia (Catalan pronunciation: [ˈiʎə ðə lə disˈkɔɾði.ə]) or Mansana de la Discòrdia [mənˈsanə ðə lə disˈkɔɾði.ə] — “Block of Discord”; Spanish: Manzana de la Discordia — is a city block on Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample district of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. The block is noted for having buildings by four of Barcelona’s most important Modernista architects, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Antoni Gaudí, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and Enric Sagnier, in close proximity. As the four architects’ styles were very different, the buildings clash with each other and the neighboring buildings. They were all built in the early years of the 20th century…

Wikipedia

From the left in the photo above:

Casa Lleó M Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1905)

Casa Mulleras Enric Sagnier (1906)

Casa Bonet Marceliano Coquillat (1901/1915)

Casa Amatller Josep Puig i Cadafalch (1900)

Casa Batlló Antoni Gaudí (1877/1906)

* William Cowper

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As we marvel, we might send boldly-sketched birthday greetings to Sir Peter Cook; he was born on this date in 1936. An architect, lecturer, and writer, he was a founder of Archigram, a group that championed neofuturistic design as a challenge to the complacency of modernism…. every solution becomes the next problem…

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