Modernism #4: Isn’t Modernism really a 20th Century phenomenon?

Yes. Flaubert and Baudelaire were important influences but it was in London, in the early 20thcentury, that the movement we now call Modernism came into being. The English novelist Virginia Woolf gives its start date as 1910 – the year in which an exhibition of French art called “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” came to London.

What struck observers like Woolf about the exhibition was that the paintings on display were not attempts to reproduce an objective reality (a landscape, a face, a bowl of fruit) as, up to this point, much Western visual art had been. Instead, what the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were attempting to encapsulate in paint were individual, subjective perceptions and experiences: in a word,impressions. Their subjects were indistinct, glimpsed, fragmented, captured in bursts of colour, broad brush-strokes that merge into one another, hazy shapes and blurs. For Woolf, artists in London were operating in the shadow of the Victorians and she, as a novelist, wanted to find a way to break from the tradition of the Victorian novel. This exhibition was a great inspiration and she would go on to achieve in her novels what these artists had achieved in their paintings – namely, to convey what it is like to be a human experiencing the blur and confusion of the here and now.

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