Poet descending a staircase: Literary modernism's engagement with avant-garde visual art

Date of Completion

January 2007


Literature, Modern|Literature, American|Literature, English




During the modern period, painters, poets, dancers, musicians, novelists, and composers who grew dissatisfied with formal constraints and conventions often looked to other artistic genres in order to revolutionize their own. In particular, many visual and textual artists worked closely and in dialogue, concocting a kind of Modernist Esperanto—a tongue each bent to the dialect of their particular medium. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, my dissertation explores the formal possibilities experimental writers discovered in avant-garde artistic movements such as Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and Orphism. In the innovations of four literary modernists—James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Virginia Woolf—the study locates various modes and degrees of appropriation from the techniques and conceptions of visual art. Each chapter explores a different experiment, including the literal collaging of texts onto other texts, a practice adopted by Joyce, and the juxtaposition of multiple temporalities, suggested by Cubist painting but borrowed by novelists like Woolf for the purpose of exploring consciousness. While the importance of visual culture and aesthetic theory to these writers has been noted in recent scholarship, my work demonstrates the creative cross-fertilization through close reading of particular novels and poems as responses or parallels to specific developments in visual art.^ Just as vital as the theoretical implications of formal likeness are the grounding historical and biographical particulars: letters, diaries, and critical prose by its four subjects. Additionally, the study makes use of art historical sources, interdisciplinary scholarship, and pictorial examples from the schools of Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism, and Simultaneism. Examining this transfer of methods from one medium to another also casts light on and emphasizes the importance of larger creative communities such as the Bloomsbury group, the New York Moderns, and World War I-era Zurich.^