Taking case studies from the period of mainly French modern art extending from the turn of the twentieth century to the 1950s, this course focuses on the interpretation of modernism by writers associated with post-structuralism and postmodernism. We look at the political, social, and cultural contexts in which canonical artists worked, and apply literary, linguistic, and contemporary historical theory to discuss the operation of narrative, interpretation, explanation, and truth in the writing of art history.
The first part of the course in the autumn term establishes the overarching theme of how modernism and postmodernism have come to be seen across a range of disciplines, going on to look at the differences between the two and to ask how and why the modern has been rethought by the postmodern. We look at the art of Cézanne as an essential bridge between nineteenth and twentieth century art before going on to review avant-garde art from Picasso onwards through theories of semiotics, post-structuralism, the ‘thing,’ everyday life, and through the methods and themes of postmodernity.
In the second half of the course, we move deeper into the twentieth century whilst debating modernist and revisionist interpretations of art since the 1960s, initially of the painting of Francis Picabia, Giorgio de Chirico, and René Magritte. The ‘postmodernising’ of Surrealism by art history is taken as a special case over a two-week period in the course. From there, we go on to observe the radically different ways in which artists, filmmakers, historians, and novelists have represented the Holocaust, a historical event of unimaginable proportion that seemed to lead, in turn, to skepticism as to whether certain events in nature and society could be narrated at all. This idea was investigated in the work of Samuel Beckett and Alberto Giacometti, where reduction or erasure became creative acts. We move on to film to discuss and view nouvelle vague cinema then return to painting and collage at the end of the course, looking at Nouveau Réalisme and Pop art in France.