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Irish Modernisms: Gaps, Conjectures, Possibilities (University of Vienna, 29th September – 1st October)

Irish writers made diversely vital contributions to literary modernism, to an extent arguably disproportionate to the country’s size and population. A few – Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, especially – have been central to the modern literary canon. The new modernist studies since the 1990s has tended to provide more historically detailed and archivally evidenced readings of these central figures, while space has also been found for hitherto less regarded artists. Networks of publishing and activity have also been under consideration, and the relation between the overlapping concepts ‘Irish Modernism’ and ‘The Irish Revival’ has been rethought, mainly resulting in greater overlap.


The conference on Irish Modernisms held at the University of Vienna this Autumn set out to increase the attention on the previously overlooked and to bring marginal figures and issues to the centre, filling some of the ‘gaps’ in its title. The call for papers cited the Cambridge Companion to Irish Modernism (2014) as a starting point while encouraging work on ‘marginal modernisms and previously neglected genres, forms, and sites of publication or expression’; the conference would be ‘dedicated to testing the borders of Irish Modernism’. This project might be called revisionist, if that term were not already so overloaded with freight in Irish Studies. In the event, numerous papers dealt with well-established names – though in one decentring development, none directly addressed the figure seemingly most central to the whole epoch, W.B. Yeats. This brief report will not seek to cover every paper (strong material on the more canonical writers will go undiscussed below), but rather will note a few elements of the conference in relation to its specific aims of exploring the field’s margins and borders.


In any consideration of canonical ‘gaps’ and absences of attention, questions of gender must figure prominently. The Irish canon of the modernist period is plainly dominated by male writers, raising the question whether this primarily demonstrates a dearth of opportunities for women writers at the time or a failure of critical attention over subsequent decades. No doubt both factors are involved. Some discussion at the conference suggested that women had found access to networks of publishing and publicity easier during the Irish Revival (here meaning, say, the pre-Rising years), and harder subsequently (during the notoriously censorious and restrictive Free State). The middle-class women activists and thespians detailed in Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces (2014) might provide evidence for that view. But much work can still be done to bring into focus the writing of Irish women in the period. One simple way this conference did that was to feature two women as keynote speakers, both of whom focused on women writers. Professor Patricia Coughlan of Cork University spoke on Elizabeth Bowen, perhaps the most canonically settled of all Irish women writers of the period. (Two other papers also addressed Bowen’s fiction.) Professor Coughlan also remained a constant source of knowledge and authoritative perspectives on a range of issues throughout the rest of the conference. In a second keynote address, Lucy Collins of UCD introduced the work of a number of Irish women poets, including Blanaid Salkeld and Sheila Wingfield. Discussion of the poetry was prefaced by an extensive consideration of the nature of canons and periods, and how these more mid-century poets had fallen between the visibility of the Revival at one end of the century and of Eavan Boland at the other.


Lucy Collins’ paper did the most to introduce truly little-known writers. Other papers tended rather to turn a spotlight on writers with some reputation: thus Daniel Curran and Karl O’Hanlon on the poetry of Thomas MacGreevy and Denis Devlin respectively. Fionna Barber, a scholar of art history, brought visual arts more to the fore; the fine Dublin painter Mainie Jellett was an intermittently recurring reference point. The conference seemed to have an appetite for such material, suggesting that comparisons and connections between literature and painting might be a border to test in future. A different tendency was the revelation of obscure works from well-known names. Two examples stood out: Michael McAteer reported on The Queen of the World, a science-fictional time-travelling pot-boiler from the renowned mythographer Standish James O’Grady, and Michael Connerty disclosed the existence of scores of turn-of-the-century comic strips by Jack B. Yeats. A slide show offered examples of the strips, which were an extraordinary spectacle: animal characters including a clever circus horse (a possible connection with Yeats’ better-known paintings of circuses), a venerable flying proto-superhero named Dickie Bird, and the consulting detective Chubb Lock Holmes (which might call to mind Hugh Kenner’s whimsical comparison, in the 1950s, of Sherlock Holmes to W.B. Yeats). Questions remain about the material: did Jack Yeats write the scripts as well as draw the pictures? But Connerty’s material posed the relationship between modernism and mass culture in a spectacularly entertaining new way.


One other theme was an emphasis on networks and institutions rather than individuals. Tobias Harris talked of Dublin magazines of the 1920s, raising questions about the role of printers as well as writers. With characteristic originality and flair, Ronan Crowley introduced the roman a clef as a genre of the Irish Revival, with a long list of novels cutting across seemingly disparate spheres from naturalism to Ulysses and Murphy. And Des Lally, a scholar based in the West of Ireland, reminded us of the importance of Dublin’s Gate Theatre in the 1930s, as a cosmopolitan home for the arts which also sheltered marginal and prohibited sexual identities. It seemed to me that such a paper could point the way to further accounts of places and social spaces that enabled the production and circulation of the modern Irish arts.


Some overarching questions were aired in a closing panel. Should the corpus of ‘Irish modernism’ be extended in time, even all the way forward to Eimear McBride? My own sense is that what academics call ‘modernism’ as a whole has expanded enough by now, and if anything we need ways to keep the category in check. Still, if the corpus of relevant works enlarges to take in lesser-known authors of the era, then in what way are the new works to be read? Would Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ or data mining be a more suitable way to handle such large hoards of textual material? Or do those hitherto neglected authors, like those cited by Lucy Collins, deserve more sustained individual attention? Should we, Paul Fagan wondered aloud, revisit such critical classics as Vivian Mercier’s The Irish Comic Tradition (1962)? And when will George Moore come back into fashion?


From a distance, one might wonder at the conference’s location. Irish Studies may naturally thrive in Ireland, but it has also found homes around the rest of Europe like that of Vienna’s Centre for Irish Studies – fostered notably by the late Professor Werner Huber, who died just months before this conference and was remembered fondly here. It might be true that fully to understand Irish writing, you need to spend time in Ireland. But it could also be that the discussion of such writing is sometimes enhanced by taking it elsewhere, to a kind of neutral territory. Co-organizers Tamara Radak, Paul Fagan and John Greaney can be commended for making Vienna such a place at this conference.


About the Author

Joseph Brooker is Reader in Modern Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. His books include Joyce’s Critics (2004) and Flann O’Brien (2005).



A Frightful Hobgoblin Stalks Through Modernism?

It all started in another book… A prequel. After an archival project retracing global networks of late modernist radical poetry groups in the Second World War, I found several poets turned to popular pulp. And I don’t mean Day-Lewis’ punning mysteries as Nicholas Blake – more like the New Apocalypse’s Henry Treece, Ruthven Todd, or Alex Comfort. They wrote fantasy novels with magic and swords, or for Todd: cats in space. The post-war years were a time of need, and poetry (especially radical) never pays its bills. So, after picking up its tab and archival traces in Personal Modernisms, I wanted to relax with pulp. I wanted simplicity.

reedThat’s how I found myself in the basement of the Reed College Library’s Special Collections in Portland – it was even a road trip: a journey, a quest. A “Reedie,” David Eddings, later became one of the best-selling fantasy authors of the twentieth century, as far from modernism and into pulp as possible. I’d become curious after giving my little sister a set of his books, at the same age I was given them when they first appeared in the 1980s. So in Portland with Eddings’ papers in hand, ostensibly a splurge during research on Robert Graves and the Beats, I discovered an irruption of the marvellous. Eddings had been a tenured professor of English literature before quitting the profession. Worse still, he’d taught Modernism! I held his lecture notes from three courses on modernist English and American literature. When his quest narrative gave cheeky dialogue between an ancient wizard and a young boy (the target audience), he set free choice and determinism in conflict amidst a magical prophecy by asking why two and two make four.

“Simple things are always the hardest to explain.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Garion retorted, a bit irritably.

“Oh?” Wolf looked at him with amusement. “Let me ask you a simple question, then? What’s two and two?”

“Four,” Garion replied promptly.


Was he really thinking of “two and two make four” as the expression of determinism in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground? Well, he had lecture notes on it…  He identifies Dostoyevsky as the prototype of the sociological novel in all of his modern writing courses, pointing to The Idiot and the underground man specifically. Even his lengthy (and very good) lecture materials on Ulysses close with the troubling assertion that Molly Bloom is deliberately obscene. Rather than seeing her “gusto for life,” we’d do well to regard her as the creation of a mind trained to think of women as filth: “She is deliberately obscene” as well as “life itself.” Oddly, in retrospect, Eddings’ lust-driven character Salmissra the snake queen also has “The catalogue of Molly’s lovers p 731” (Fonds 7.20), yet her sexuality is neutral, neither good nor bad.


Inconceivable! Political radicals and a modernist legacy amidst fantasy’s medievalisms and reactionary nostalgia? Could Futurism really shake hands with the anti-modern?

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But more was at work than this curiosity of my transformed childhood fandom. There was a lesson for my other self: the dusty prof in corduroy with elbow patches about to teach the textual variants of Hilda Doolittle. Eddings was a professor teaching modernism about as long as I’ve been as I write this, so underestimating seemed foolish. And if modernist concerns infiltrated Eddings’ fantasy novels, he was surely not alone. William Morris and Hope Mirrlees were obvious early voices, and my crew of radical poets in Personal Modernisms included several who turned to the genre after World War II. They were already infected by modernism. But what of those late arrivals who were only ever in the mainstream, like Eddings or Terry Brooks and Guy Gavriel Kay in the same 1980s moment? Was there anything a modernist might look to in fantasy outside of Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany (and even then perhaps because they sit so close to modernism’s more comfortable discourses with science fiction)? For Eddings, there were also pop culture commentaries that tended toward the dismissive. Farah Mendlesohn calls Eddings’ conclusion to the Mallorean series a choice so predetermined it’s pointless, yet with his lecture notes, the inevitability of choice seems the point. It would be less different from the freedom to believe that two and two is four in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four than the two remaining volumes of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Orwell’s not bad company in which to share modernist sources.

Eddings also had a simple prose style with what some describe as minimal world building without the grit of “real life.” It’s like those who say he wrote for money, as if we don’t find ledgers in modernist notebooks (ahem, Dylan Thomas). But he set the rumours in motion in interviews by saying the commercial success of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings inspired his turn to the genre: he found a copy of this late modernist predecessor in a bookshop in its 78th printing and hence a commercial model. His teaching notes and diaries revealed something different: a world as elaborate as Tolkien’s written prior to the narrative that became his Belgariad series. Except, Eddings’ lecture notes on Marx and Engels weren’t wasted, so economic and material conditions preceded ideology in his demesnes, unlike Tolkien… In each course he included a discussion of Marx and “system critics.” In “The Modern Novel,” his course introduction detailed the material forces shaping the aesthetic, structural, generic concerns of the novel form, especially commercial mass production. But for Eddings, the world-building that he built out from these critical interests was expunged from the commercial product (ahem, Lester Del Rey). Tolkien was also in his 1960s syllabus (long before the 78th impression) set amidst high modernists (Woolf, Pound, Eliot, and Joyce, no less). So much for the story of commercial opportunism. When we pause to consider fantasy’s world building and form beside the allusive compulsions of Pound, Joyce, Eliot, and H.D., it seems odd to exclude such contemporaries and descendants.


The archives also revealed a “real life” with plenty of grit, which differs from the narratives he offered of himself or that provide the biography on Wikipedia. Once seen, it became impossible to overlook in the terribly clean novels, just as his modernist preoccupations with allusion increasingly demanded attention. Even Eddings’ often repeated story of leaving his vaguely described (implicitly sessional or adjunct) tenured teaching post in protest against administrative fiscal greed is belied by his checklist prior to moving away from Dakota. The most important phrase in his “to-do” list is a question not a ledger: whether or not to sue for alienation of marital affections. He abandoned tenure and teaching modernism to work in Safeway, it would seem, to save his marriage. Clearly it was a strong relationship and lasted, and she appeared as co-author to his books after 1996 despite a series of strokes that left her unable to communicate – he cared for her at home, even though by then he was a millionaire. The many goody-goody troubled marriages in his fiction, in this context, suddenly become impossible to ignore, even if the narrative voice never dwells in a way that alienates the young reader. The wizardly drunkards are equally complicated by the drafts in his Alcoholics Anonymous recovery journals and a disturbing life chart graphing emotions against alcohol over a timeline of major events. Like the modernist authors on whom I work – Durrell, Hemingway, Elizabeth Smart, Wilde, Henry Miller – his public comments were storytelling to disguise deep-set intellectual and emotional concerns that, in retrospect, appear blindingly obvious in his superficially simplistic prose. It’s a plainness Hemingway shows took great effort. And yes, even Papa is much there in Eddings’ first novel as a student at Reed, though he valued Faulkner more.

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I now had a popular pulp author known for squeaky clean narratives who suffered infidelities from his lovers, struggled against addiction for most of his life, abandoned a tenured career for painful reasons, and had read deeply in Joyce, Woolf, Huxley, Amis, Durrell, and many others while admitting to only Chaucer, Spencer, and Mallory after his turn to pulp. He even used his time in Alcoholics Anonymous to outline his series The Dreamers as a response to the formal innovations of Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, a work already in his lecture notes as a prototype, just as Dostoyevsky anticipated his prophetic determinism. Was this kind of literary interest typical of the genre as a whole? Well, that’s my next book…


Most tellingly, I set Eddings’ thesis and his fiancée’s, both completed in 1954, side-by-side: his a novel and hers a project on F. Scott Fitzgerald. Four years later, she wrote him a “Dear John” letter remarkably akin to Hemingway’s in In Our Time. It may even have been her model – she too had a college teaching career in literature. It seemed clear to me that a literary author painfully aware of the stylistic complexities of modernist prose had moved from the aesthetic to the commercial. His thesis-as-novel, How Lonely Are the Dead, mirrors Hemingway’s style with Fitzgerald’s concerns, and in his own phrasing, oh boy, was he commercial! The literary and the radical had not, however, vanished. Critiques of settler colonialism appeared in his (anonymous) letters to the editor, his recognition of philosophical anarchism (read: sympathetic) occurs in his lecture notes, and he set up an opponent in fascism (Pound) to set beside elitism (Eliot) in lectures from the mid-1960s that could be trotted out in our notebooks today. My recreational turn to my childhood pulp was not the break I needed after a deep archival project. It was an entangled nest of modernist legacies.

thesis_2 thesis_1


mount_taborWhile in the basement at Reed, waiting to climb Mount Tabor to pick blackberries (no allusion to Heaney since they were for eating now) with a colleague at work on Mina Loy and Pound (authors deeply influential in Eddings’ lecture notes), I realized it would be ridiculous to keep up the pretence anymore. I cannot not genre modernism. The convoluted academic prose of justifications only showed insincerity. It didn’t work, struggling to keep the modernist, the radical, and the fantastic apart. The scenario’s nearly an allegory – and here, it’s no longer “nearly.” Of course there was a modernist fantasy. Of course modernism and subversion met in a radical fantastic. Of course there was a fantastic form of modernism. And of course their offspring conversed. Of course this was a superficially simple narrative of a quest, from Vancouver to Portland, to find a relic. And of course it really didn’t mean any of those things. It meant something more to literary criticism and conceptualizations of movements, periods, and especially genres. Modernism’s legacy might need as much attention as its origins, its lowbrow as much as any other market, and its persistence and echoes after its moment just as much as its first statements. There’s Nicole Peeler’s modernist PhD before her urban fantasy career, just as Hope Mirrlees’ “Paris: A Poem” precedes the magical Lud-In-The-Mist, or rethinking Eliot’s Arthurian Jessie Weston in the misprisions of the strong poetess of the 1980s Mists of Avalon.

But Goblin Modernism is another project. It’s A Modernist Fantasy, set in motion by a modernist scholar tripping into the archives of fantasy’s popular pulp.



About the Author

James Gifford is Associate Professor in the School of the Humanities and Director of the University Core at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He teaches and writes about too many things in too many disciplines after taking degrees in English, Humanities, and Music. His most recent books include Personal Modernisms and From the Elephant’s Back, his next A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, & the Radical Fantastic is nearing the end of its quest, and he’s just completed a decade-long project, “To seek a home beyond the unknown sea”: The Collected Works of Edward Taylor Fletcher, a nineteenth century multilingual Canadian poet, translator, and travel writer. He also edits the “American Literature: The Twentieth Century” chapter of The Year’s Work in English Studies. He tweets at @GiffordJames and began blogging 15 years too late.

Ben’s fairy tales: how The Storyteller sheds new light on Walter Benjamin’s philosophy

Whimsical twists exist everywhere in Walter Benjamin’s fantastic newly translated collection: an ill empress considers a set of scales which she deems as fine enough to weight the world; a lovestruck baron has gone bankrupt by renting a palace solely to see its mysterious madame; a man with the name “Elephant” revealed as the origin of the animal’s name.

Benjamin unfolded his theory of fairy tales in his essay “The Storyteller” (1936), after which this collection is named, writing that “the first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales”. This short story collection explores the themes of dreams and fantasy, landscape and travel, and play and pedagogy.

The collection is, like the late nineteenth-century Parisian arcade was to its author, a phantasmagoria. It extends an enigmatic world with uncanny creatures and suspenseful happenings between the conscious and the subconscious, between utopia and dystopia, between images and words, and between the ordinary and the exotic.

The first section contains portraits of dreams and fantasies. A desperate nightwalker encounters a speaking rock in forest. A dwarf confronts twelve images emblematic of his unrealised desires in a New Year’s Eve gala. Snippets of childhood and families telling of Benjamin’s attachments in exile turn up as dreams – or texts in his archive of memory. He wrote these fragments between 1906 and 1912, with some pieces from late 1920s and 1930s.

The non-linear narratives of these dreams, to a certain extent, anticipate the modernist aesthetics before the onset of European modernism. They find echo in canonical works such as the mythical parody in Ulysses, the dystopian city in The Waste Land, and the flâneuse in Mrs Dalloway. These stories, with their emphases on dreams, archetypes, and folktales, also illustrate his longstanding adherence to the Jungian idea of the “collective consciousness” which appears in The Arcades Project (Belknap, 1999).

The centre of the collection is a series of travelogue and journeys through lands and seas. Benjamin was a sickly child when he was small, so going onto the streets of Berlin was most exciting. Such “erotic tensions of modern city life,” as the translators highlight in the introduction of the volume, never left him. In the late 1910s, he travelled to Bern, Capri, Moscow, Ibiza, and Paris; some of these would become places in which to set his stories. The narrator in “The Cactus Hedge”, for instance, recounts the metamorphosis of an ancient cactus hedge which inspired an Ibizan’s crafting of Negro masks. Aimless strollers or suspicious stalkers are ubiquitous in this central section, in which Benjamin shows that city spaces are allegorical locations with embedded meanings, as in “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”.

The last section, “Play and Pedagogy” are new evidence for reconsidering Benjamin’s conventional image as a writer “mired” in hyper-academism. In these stories, he emerges as an educator with a keen interest in riddle, brainteaser, and play. This section reflects a recent interest in Benjamin’s pedagogical, playful side, as exemplified by other recent publications of translated archive materials like Radio Benjamin (Verso, 2014) and Walter Benjamin’s Archive (Verso, 2015).

Benjamin had a sustained interest in word puzzles and rebuses: In the First World War, Benjamin and his wife, Dora, corresponded with Gershom Scholem, their friend, who was under observation in the army by encrypted letters; in 1938, his imprisoned brother, Georg, sent some riddles through his sister-in-law, Hilde, to Benjamin as birthday present.

Stories in “Play and Pedagogy” also testify to the lasting influence of Benjamin’s early years’ boarding school mentor and educator, Gustav Wyneken. Wyneken promoted a doctrine of Youth Culture, which purported that the young were more spiritually, morally, and intellectually superior to the old, and the youth were hence expected to equip themselves with a full range of artistic culture and scientific knowledge. Benjamin’s confidence in the youth’s creativity and intelligence is marked in the collected responses to his radio challenges in “Fantasy Sentences” and “Radio Games.”

In order to subsist during exile, Benjamin got a job to broadcast a series of 20 minute programmes entitled Youth Hour on German radio between November 1929 and March 1932. These included interactive radio programmes for children. He gave them keywords to write poetry; the children would then send their works to Benjamin in the following week to be read out in the programmes:

Corner – emphasis – character – drawer – flat

On the corner – he said it with emphasis – I saw a character that was flat like a drawer.

Benjamin’s interest in nurturing children’s creativity to challenge conventional linguistic rules is evident in his word games in these programmes, while the interest in opening multiple possibilities and interpretations in language would later be developed in seminal works such as The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), which presents a defence for allegory against symbolism.

From Virginia Woolf to T.S. Eliot, the early writings of modernists have always been overshadowed and underrated. The publication of this collection follows the recent archival turn in modernist studies. This collection invites readers to reconsider Benjamin not only as an established theorist, but also as a creator imagining a world of tradition, hopes, and wisdom during a time of persecution. It would particularly engage both novice and experienced Benjaminians, but would also interest those who simply enjoy stories. The volume alters reader’s way of receiving Benjamin as a critic known for his dense and elusive writings. By highlighting his childishness, the collection brings fore Benjamin’s eccentricities to bear on his prophetic vision of a philosopher.

The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness by Walter Benjamin, illustrations by Paul Klee, is translated and edited by Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski and published by Verso (240pp, £9.09)

About the author

Jessica Siu-yin Yeung is PhD Candidate in the Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies at SOAS, University of London. Her current research focuses on the intersection of life-writing and allegory.

She has been awarded scholarships to study in Hong Kong and previously taught English Literature subjects at BA levels at Caritas Institute of Higher Education and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Her articles are forthcoming in Virginia Woolf Miscellany and a/b: Auto/Biography Studies. Her Twitter is @jsyyeung

The British Association for Modernist Studies, Essay Prize 2016

The British Association for Modernist Studies invites submissions for its annual essay prize for PhD and ECR scholars. The winning essay will be published in Modernist Cultures, and the winner will also receive £250 of books.

Essays can be on any subject in modernist studies, including anthropology, art history, cultural studies, ethnography, film studies, history, literature, musicology, philosophy, sociology, urban studies, and visual culture. Please see the editorial statement of Modernist Cultures for further information:

The BAMS Essay Prize is open to any member of the British Association for Modernist Studies who is studying for a doctoral degree, or is within five years of receiving their doctoral award. You can join BAMS by following the link on our membership pages:

The closing date for entries is 31 October 2016. The winner will be announced by 31 January 2017.

Submission Guidelines

  • Essays are to be 7-9,000 words, inclusive of footnotes and references.
  • Entries must be submitted electronically in Word or rtf format to and conform to Chicago style.
  • Entrants should include a title page detailing their name, affiliation, e-mail address, and their doctoral status/ date of award; they should also make clear that the essay is a submission for the BAMS Essay Prize.
  • It is the responsibility of the entrant to secure permission for the reproduction of illustrations and quotation from copyrighted material. Essays must not be under consideration elsewhere.

Enquiries about the prize may be directed to Jeff Wallace, Chair of the British Association for Modernist Studies, at

In the event that, in the judges’ opinion, the material submitted is not of a suitable standard for publication, no prize will be awarded.

The forgotten art of Winifred Knights comes to life at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

In 1921, aged just 22, the artist Winifred Knights was hailed a genius. She had just become the first woman to win the prestigious and highly prized Prix de Rome scholarship, having already won a slew of prizes as well as the admiration of both her tutors and fellow students at the Slade School. This early burst of glory was to be short lived: despite her achievements, her name disappeared into obscurity following her premature death at the age of 48. As such, Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition, part of its current modern British series celebrating the work of neglected artists, provides a welcome introduction to this long-forgotten fascinating artist.

Knights’ prodigious talent is clear in the early displays of draughtsmanship, completed at the Slade under the tutelage of Henry Tonks. Her classical figure drawings are exquisitely executed and demonstrate the painstaking attention to detail that slowed her output in later years. Knights’ style quickly matures into something distinct, a modernist reinterpretation of renaissance styles unlike any other early twentieth century artist. ‘The Deluge’, a centrepiece of the exhibition, is as remarkable today as it was to the panel of judges who, in 1920, unanimously awarded her the Prix de Rome scholarship after viewing it. The painting’s angular forms suggest Quattrocento art, yet the image’s sharp lines and sense of driving diagonal motion evoke Vorticism. The planes of solid colour and geometric shapes that underpin the composition almost gesture to abstraction. While the curiously dispassionate figures first catch the viewer’s attention, in the background the flat buildings, minimalist Noah’s arc, and natural landscape are realised in a startlingly vivid and dynamic manner.

This inimitable structure is also in evidence in ‘The Marriage at Cana’, the first painting that Knights completed whilst studying at the British School in Rome. The influence of Piero della Francesca is clear, and the modern, stylised figures of the wedding guests signal that this much more than a pastiche piece. The vibrant pink, sharply curved segments of watermelon on the plate of each guest add a slightly surreal touch – particularly in the centre of the image, where a furtive man caught in the act of nibbling a slice appears, on first glance, to be holding it up to affect a comic smile. Although superficially inspired by Biblical scenes, Knights’ paintings lack any sense of salvation or transcendence. Her work is marked by an eerie stillness, which conveys a disturbing, underlying sense of tension. In the ‘Santissima Trinita’, a work inspired by Knights’ participation in an Italian pilgrimage, this static quality again verges on the surreal. The muted, earthy colours radiate an ethereal glow, which transforms a naturalistic study of a landscape scene into something much more beguiling. In the lower half of the painting, the presence of the peasant women, who are shown either asleep or engaged in quiet ritual, adds to the strangeness of the piece.

The exhibition also provides a glimpse into a fascinating, idiosyncratic life. Inspired in part by her aunt Millicent Murby, a campaigner for women’s rights and Treasurer of the Fabian Women’s Group, Knights possessed ambition and refused to be limited by her gender. After receiving criticism from some of her male competitors, when she was awarded the Rome scholarship, Knights wrote to Murby that ‘people seem to be sorry for the other men…why should they be, they had just the same chances as I and more’. Her outward image reflected this bold, unconventional attitude: eschewing the fashion of the 1920s, Knights designed and made her own clothes, wore her dark hair up with a severe centre parting, and often sported a wide-brimmed black hat. Her appearance was as striking and distinctive as her art; indeed, there are clear parallels between the two. The impassive figures that people her paintings are clothed in the long, bohemian peasant dresses that Knights created for herself; the simple colours of the outfits (as depicted in the paintings and as worn by the artist) are in harmony with Knights’ characteristically muted palette. This is most notable in ‘The Deluge’ and ‘The Marriage at Cana’, two paintings in which Knights depicts herself as a central character, facing out towards the viewer but with her gaze averted. Indeed, Knights appears in all of her paintings – sometimes multiple times – in an act of intriguingly defiant, almost obsessive self-portraiture. It feels as if there is much more to be said on her presentation and exploration of the self, as well as the clothing and costume designs that, one assumes, form a significant part of her oeuvre. One hopes that this exhibition sparks further critical reassessment of Knights’ output and its context, as regards other modernist artists and designers.

The exhibition comes to a close with a range of portraits in which Knights acts as muse for other artists, such as Colin Gill, Arnold Mason, and her husband Thomas Monnington – all of whom were, arguably, in possession of an inferior talent. This seems sadly fitting for an artist who, for so long, has been remembered only as a footnote in the biography of her husband. Knights’ premature death and her years of inactivity due to motherhood and struggles with mental health foreshortened the development of her singular talent. Nevertheless, Dulwich Picture Gallery’s thoughtful, timely showcase of Knights’ small but stunning body of work goes some way to rectify the long years of critical neglect. It is unlikely that Winifred Knights’ name will be forgotten again.

About the author

Lottie Whalen is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Queen Mary, University of London, where she is working on an AHRC funded thesis provisionally titled ‘Mina Loy’s Designs for Modernism’. She can be found on Twitter at @LottieAW.

What we’ve enjoyed this week, #7

And lo, the August Bank Holiday is upon us again. Here’s a few pieces we’ll be enjoying over the long weekend.


Stanley Spencer

The Hepworth Gallery announced a one day conference dedicated to the British artist. This runs alongside their current exhibition of his work.


Jazzy style

Get your tickets for the Fashion Museum‘s exhibition of 1920s fashion and photographs. Featuring Hollywood, flappers, the Great War, and more.


Good news for Sheffieldians…

The Sheffield Modernist Society is getting a permanent home in the city centre. Meanwhile, the Manchester branch of the society will be hosting a talk in September, entitled Making Post-War Manchester-Vision of an Unbuilt City


Machines for living

See a selection of Julius Shulman‘s images of mid-century America at the Guardian.


New York Modernism

While London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery is currently exhibiting Winifred Knights, and will do the same next year for Vanessa Bell, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine is showing the work of women modernist artists including O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr and Zorach.


And finally…

…. do you know about the Ivan Juritz Prize for Creative Responses to Modernism? It’ll be launching soon. More details here.


What we’ve enjoyed this week, #6

Pretend the start of term isn’t beginning to loom, get a cup of coffee, and enjoy this week’s round-up of the best modernist (and modernish) links from around the web.

Making his Marx
The Jewish Museum in New York is currently hosting an exhibition of work by Roberto Burle Marx, aimed at redressing the lack of recognition for the landscape architect outside of his native Brazil. Read about his work at Metropolis magazine.

How one man’s proposal, scrawled on a modernist block, was co-opted by developers – and what happened to the couple.

Beneath the tower block, the beach
Calvin Seibert’s creations have over 170,000 views on Flickr. But why would someone bother to create brutalist sandcastles?

Virginia Woolf, quiz show host
Sara Pascoe wanted to create a program about Virginia Woolf which was “more life and less death”. Could Woolf work as a comedian?

Deep Radigue
Over at NTS Radio, Shiva Feshareki has put together a three hour mix celebrating the music of pioneering composer Éliane Radigue.

Eames on film
The official Charles and Ray Eames website has a “screening room” where you can watch a selection of their short films. (You can also read about the films here.)

And finally. . .
. . .does anyone have an advance copy of this novel, inspired by Charlotte Salomon, for us to borrow?

What we’ve enjoyed this week, #5

Your weekly round-up of the best modernist (and modernish) links from around the web, chosen by the editors of The Modernist Review.

Trouble at the mill
David Romero stumbled across a closed factory in Maryland. Here’s what it taught him about a lost economic moment, as told by Russell Shorto at The New Yorker.

Modernism rediscovered
See California modernism anew through the lens of the prolific Julius Shulman at It’s Nice That.

Lauren Elkin on walking Bloomsbury
BBC Radio 4 are currently serialising Elkin’s new book Flâneuse. Listen to this extract on women walking in Bloomsbury, and then cook sole in white sauce (to be eaten, of course, alone in one’s room).

Putting up the (Basil) Bunting
“Basil Bunting’s poem ‘Briggflatts’ has been hailed as the successor to Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos’ and T. S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets.’ Bunting himself, meanwhile, has been almost forgotten.”

Modernist music, BBC-style
How Delia Derbyshire brought modernist music to the mainstream through her work with the BBC.

And, finally, some good news for these dark times. . .
. . . as research shows that readers live longer.

Read all of our recommendations here.

Seen something great on modernism? Drop a line to

What we’ve enjoyed this week #4

Your weekly round-up of the best modernist (and modernish) links from around the web, chosen by the editors of The Modernist Review.

We’ve enjoyed…


Get ready to Rhys
A reading week dedicated to Jean Rhys will take place this September. More details here, and you can take part using the hashtag #ReadingRhys. We’ll be joining in, of course.

Anyone for a trip to Berlin?
The Berlinische Galerie has just launched this terrific-looking show all about Dada.

Music to our ears
We enjoyed this piece about jazz and modernism.

Olympic fever
Celebrate Rio 2016 from afar with a photogallery of the best modernist architecture in the Olympic host city. Then enjoy some great modernist design in these Olympics posters of years past.

Thinking it over
Writer Meg Rosoff made a short programme for Artsnight this week, featuring Eimar McBride on creativity and the unconscious.

Every weekend: your weekly round-up of the best modernist (and modernish) links from around the web, chosen by the editors of The Modernist Review. Read them all here.

Seen something great on modernism? Drop a line to

The London Mercury and the Scourge of the Blagueurs

Sir John Collings Squire (1884-1958), best known as an editor, a satiric poet, a parodic speech-maker, a lover of stout ales, and as one very well-accomplished in the field of general bluster, was from 1919 through 1934 the editor of the London Mercury, a widely-read literary magazine featuring reviews, news, and short original works. The magazine was noted (and at times denounced) for its more conservative approach to the literary scene of the time; Squire and his colleagues were not keen on Modernism, nor upon the sometimes less overtly Modernist but still distinctly modern works of the Bloomsbury Group, and the Mercury offered a venue in which work of an older style could still be published and discussed. The personal and professional feuds that developed between the new-wave literary scene and what one Bloomsbury wag described as “The Squirearchy” are deeply interesting, and had a considerable impact upon the formation of what we now consider to be the period’s literary canon.

In one of his editorial notes in the Feb. 1920 issue of the Mercury (1.4), Squire writes rather scornfully of the “experimental” verse being turned out by what he called the Futurist-Vorticist-Cubist type. I won’t go into detail about the specific poems (many of them quite shockingly though unsurprisingly weird) that he lambastes, as that’s rather beside the point, but what matters from our perspective is the brief mention he makes of Blast, the very influential (and extremely short-lived) Vorticist periodical put out by Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis and others. It lasted for two issues — the declaration of war in 1914 saw many of its contributors forced into other lines of work, and at least two of them (T.E. Hulme and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska) would be killed in action.

In any event, Squire looks back fondly upon Blast‘s demise, it having stood for many of the things he found most tiresome, but he offers a sort of lament all the same: in its death, he writes, it “[gave] place to countless smaller magazines and books.” This was the culture of the “Little Magazine” that flourished in this period; Ford Madox Ford’s celebrated English Review is one such example — a small periodical founded by, edited by, and largely beholden to a single figure’s tastes and ideas. These smaller magazines made their way along by constantly referring back to one another; the authors had feuds and denounced one another; they reviewed and condemned each other’s works; and so on.  Such magazines fed upon one another; they “attach[ed] themselves to anything which [would] give them publicity,” as Squire concludes.

The similarity of this to modern blogging is notable, wouldn’t you say? I would.  The only real difference is the possibility of real-time reader comment rather than much-delayed letters to the editor, and even that is not so much a difference of kind as it is of degree.

This brings us to the reason for this post.

In denouncing all of the above, which bears in its culture and its conduct so much that is now common among bloggers, Squire needed something to call them to distinguish them from periodical contributors generally. He unaccountably settled upon the epithet blagueurs. Let that sink in.

Squire’s emphasis in this was primarily upon the (to him) unappealing nature of the material being published, whether it be the font-based shenanigans of a Marinetti or the inarticulate noise-words of some of the verslibrists being reviewed by F.S. Flint in The Monthly Chapbook. He could not easily believe that many people sincerely enjoyed such poems, and still less that the artists were sincerely producing them. He viewed it as japery, fraud — the work of “tricksters” and “jokers”. Blageuers means exactly that. That it should end up sounding so much like the term chosen to describe a similar sort of personal periodical production a century later is remarkable. Nothing at all beyond a coincidence, but remarkable.

About the author

Nick Milne is a part-time professor in the University of Ottawa’s Department of English. His research focuses on Modern British Literature, with a particular emphasis upon the intersections of historiography and literary scholarship in the study of the First World War. He is a regular contributor to Oxford’s First World War centenary blog, WW1C, and his work has appeared in Slate,Tin House, Canadian Literature and the Bull Calf Review. He can be found on Twitter at @1stWorldWarrior.

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