A veteran cultural historian weighs in with an encyclopedic account of the fecund 120 years that engendered artists as varied and brilliant as Frank Lloyd Wright, T. S. Eliot and Marcel Proust.
Like a playwright or director, Gay (Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture, 1815–1914, 2001, etc.) sets the scene and describes the principal players, then brings them onstage, watches them perform and gives them notes afterward. His range and erudition are bewildering—is there a modernist novel, poem or play he has not read? A painting, sculpture, film or building he has not seen? He deals with many players in perfunctory fashion, but to numerous others—the notables—he devotes a few pages each (there is room for no more tonnage in this tome). He begins with the “founders” of the movement—Baudelaire, Monet and Oscar Wilde among them—and moves on to the painters and sculptors, featuring van Gogh, Munch, Beckmann and Picasso. Then it’s off to the writers, with special attention to Joyce and Woolf. In this section, he occasionally loses control of his usually restrained prose. “Like a seasoned animal tamer,” he writes, “Woolf cracked her whip on her prose and made the most feral brute cringe at her orders.” Proust and Kafka also merit much attention before the music begins and the dancers leap onto the stage. Mahler, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Balanchine compose and cavort before it’s time for the architects—Wright, Le Corbusier, the Bauhausers and others. The theater and the cinema follow, and Gay enshrines Eisenstein, Chaplin and Welles in his Modernist museum. A final ominous chapter assesses the effects of 20th-century totalitarian governments on the Modernists. He concludes with the rather patent commonplace that “the principal effect of fascism on the arts, then, was negative.”
An educational summary and analysis of a most miraculous cultural era.