The difficulty of explaining what the term “modernism” really meant struck me on a discussion with a friend about the subject. Suffice to say that I – fourth year literature major with all my intellectual ideas and pretensions – struggled to present a precise and coherent definition of what modernism ought to be.

It is not until several readings that I begin to suspect that perhaps the essence of modernism (with its many –isms) lies in its sheer complexity (form, perspectives, techniques, modernist attitudes towards subject matter). Erich Auerbach’s reading of To the Lighthouse exemplify the complexities of Virginia Woolf’s novel as he posit that in framing objective reality as an external realm, modernist writers like Woolf strive to plunge beyond the surface meanings to expose the multi-layered nature of and the intricate relationship, between language as a mirror and medium to our understanding of  life. But I may be going a few steps too far as the situation seems to entail a paradox – Woolf goes beyond the simple juxtaposition of objective reality against the fluidity and flux of human consciousness; but rather, her writing shows how our subjectivity in turn shape perception, and reveal the constructedness of reality (as opposed to the realist novels of the nineteenth century whereby the external shapes the inward).

In “Picasso, Africa and the Schemata of Difference”, Simon Gilkandi sheds a closer insight into the power relations between the West and the Other, as he exposes the deep hypocrisy by which modernist artists like Picasso (how about Gauguin and his Tahitian paintings?) subsume and objectify the Other into the modernist aesthetics and simultaneously disentangle themselves from the subservient and degraded position of the Other (treating the Other as art object rather than rightful human beings); in so doing, the Other become the aesthetic means to the high modernist ends. In a sense, Pablo Picasso did not paint the Africans out of a complete understanding and empathy with them, but the contrary, he painted them as he saw them and chose to objectify the Africans into his own nihilistic vision of art, politicizing his art against the conventions of western traditional mediums. Perhaps it is how the great painter himself betray the mentality of the white colonialist – in his eagerness to represent modernist art as he saw it, his paintings unwittingly unveil the deep-seated anxieties which mark the problematic power relations between the colonial white man and the Other.

Lee Wenting

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