Vitalist Modernism

Session Convenors

Fae Brauer, University of East London Centre for Cultural Studies Research
Serena Keshavjee, University of Winnipeg Cultural Studies Program

Session Abstract

Faced with ‘a queasy sickening feeling that all was not right’, by the fin-de-siècle many Modernists in America, Australia, Britain, Canada and Europe expanded the field of art into raw nature, ethnic communities and tribal cultures as vitalisers of energy that could be emotionally and creatively liberating. Following theories of Vitalism by Henri Bergson, Hans Driesch, Alois Riegl and Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘the vital state’ (‘l’élan vital’) became widely engaged for its conception of life as a constant process of metamorphosis, impelled by the free flow of energies able to generate what Bergson called ‘creative evolution’. Imbricated within Neo-Lamarckian ecological evolutionary theories, Vitalism was also embraced for being anti-rationalist and anti-mechanistic, particularly in its opposition to Thomas Huxley’s conception of plants and animals as machines, and its reconception of them as inspiring organisms within unspoiled nature, perpetually mutating into increasingly complex species and solidarist colonies following the Transformist concept of ‘life-force’.

Pitched against mechanistic productivity and repressive materialism, Vitalism spawned an expanding field of Modernist art in which artists embraced nature, intuition, instinct, spontaneity, chance, intense emotion, memory, unconscious states, uncanny vibrations, and a psychology of time. This pursuit was enhanced by the further expansion of art into Anthroposophy, Organicism, Supernaturalism, Magnetism, Eurhythmics, Freikorperkultur, Heliotherapy, Herbalism, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Nudism, Theosophy and Vegetarianism, free dance plus regenerative new sports and physical cultures. The artists exploring this expanded field were doing so, as this session will reveal, within cultures as geopolitically widespread as Britain, China, France, Iceland, Oslo, Switzerland and the Soviet Union.

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Speakers and Abstracts

The Manly Arts: Water sports and virility at the fin de siècle

Anthea Callen (University of Nottingham and Australian National University)

Outdoor water sports offered men legitimate opportunities for male bonding, for enhancing bodily fitness in strenuous physical action, and for the mutual pleasures of nakedness or semi-nudity. Further, the act of water bathing and associated rituals of hygiene themselves became increasingly legitimised – and controlled – in a bourgeois society keen to display its distinction from the ‘great unwashed’. At this period, rowing and swimming became competitive sports that encouraged manly attributes while usefully channelling the male libido. As such, these sports belonged to the new health and hygiene movement aimed at regenerating French manhood and purifying the French nation. Indeed, these ambitions were echoed across Europe and North America to Australia and New Zealand. Modern medical discourses of hygiene and cleanliness penetrated not only the feminine toilette and the brothel, but also the world of virile male fitness.

Examining in this paper images ranging from Daumier’s caricatures of plein air bathing through to Eakins’ sculls men, the river scenes of Caillebotte and Cezanne, to Henry Scott Tuke’s Cornish scenes of youths bathing and boating, and thence to the wider world of popular sporting Physical Culture, I shall demonstrate the conflicted meanings of water sports at the fin de siècle, and the key problematics of class, sex, gender and nationalism that their apparently idyllic portrayals raise.


The Vitalized Bodies of National Science: Edvard Munch’s University of Oslo Murals

Patricia Berman (Wellesley College)

Between 1909 and 1916, Edvard Munch produced 11 murals for the University of Oslo that display as their centrepiece a five-part allegory of enlightenment represented by a vitalising sun and naked bodies awakening into and merging with the radiating light, and a sixth mural representing naked bodies coloured by spectral rays. Munch was one of a generation of Nordic artists who pictured bodies being ‘vitalised’ by sun, water, and exercise. Indeed, ‘Vitalism’ has been identified as a movement in the visual arts in the Nordic countries as a branch of pan-European expressionism. As articulated by Norway’s E Leonard Hasvold, a social reformist who embedded sea bathing into school curricula, by Denmark’s bodybuilding advocate Jørgen Peter Müller, and others, open-air exercise built both muscles and social capacity through a popular Neo-Lamarkian eugenics. Norway had suffered a significant loss of its rural population in the mid-19th century through emigration to the USA, a declining birth rate, and relocation within the country to seek urban economic opportunity. A growing anxiety about its future was, in the words of Mattias Tydén, a ‘breeding ground’ for racial thought and eugenics. The ‘Committee for Racial Hygiene’ was established in Norway in 1908, preceded by a similar organisation in Denmark, and was followed, in 1909, by the establishment of the Swedish Society for Racial Hygiene. Norwegian scientists conducted extensive surveys of the national population, collecting bodily metrics in an attempt to identify an historical race.

At the same time, Kristian Birkeland’s laboratory at the University of Oslo created artificial and targeted electromagnetic rays, enabling an economic boom in energy production. In the previous decade, Fritjof Nansen had led an expedition to the North Pole, in part to make observations of the aurora borealis. In the first years of the 20th century, Norway, in the words of historian Robert Friedman, staked its international prestige on the science of aurora and electromagnetism. The convergence of medical solar therapies, the science of ‘new rays’ (the title of one of Munch’s murals), and the burgeoning field of race anthropology and ethnology at the university provides a frame through which both Munch’s paintings may be read, and the iconography of institutional educational modernism may be recuperated. In turn, the shaping of the idea of a distinctive ‘Nordic’ race was itself at stake. Drawing upon this constellation of conditions, the solarised bodies created by Munch and his contemporaries will be deciphered as both mirroring and magnifying these new sciences that were so profoundly important to the nation’s modern identity.


Vitalism, Esotericism and Psychophysical Aesthetics in an Emerging Nation State

Benedikt Hjartarson (University of Iceland)

The paper will discuss the shaping of aesthetics as an important field of modern culture in Iceland, focusing on the period after the country gained sovereignty in 1918. Art and literature were attributed a key role in shaping a powerful, genuinely modern Icelandic culture. The main aim of that project was the moulding of the civilised Icelandic citizen and the paper will discuss the key models that came to play a role in that context. Of specific interest are the vitalist and esoteric notion of subjectivity dominant in cultural debates at the time, ranging from the pivotal role of Bergson´s philosophy to William James´s writings, Fechner´s psychophysics, Haeckelian monism, psychic research (Myers, Kotik, Crookes, Lodge), theosophy (Leadbeater, Besant) and Neo-Lamarckism (Driesch, Winge). The links between vitalism, esotericism and modern aesthetics can indeed be seen as a common characteristic of the writings of the country‘s leading intellectuals in this period, as can be seen among others in the works of Guðmundur Finnbogason, Ágúst H Bjarnason, Björg C Þorláksson, Sigurður Nordal, Helgi Pjeturss and Þórbergur Þórðarson in the late 1910s and 1920s. The paper will argue that the concept of Icelandic culture that took shape in this period can only be properly described by taking into consideration the various notions of evolution, energy, telepathy, ethereal vibrations and psychic processes that circulated in these theories.


Dada Vitalism

Brandon Taylor (University of Southampton; Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford)

Intersections between the terms ‘Dada’ and ‘vitalism’ are numerous in the years around the end of the First World War – and by no means uniform. We look initially at what Theo van Doesburg termed ‘neo-vitalism’, in effect a Dada version of vitalism that consisted of enjoinders to discord, indifference, amorality, permanent and ongoing contradiction – a declaration of the world’s bankruptcy as well as a confirmation of its energetic life. Such ‘life’ belonged to the work of art. Yet for him and others, very subtle philosophies of ‘nature’ underlay such exhortations, including those expressed in contemporary writings of biologists of the stature and importance of Jakob von Uexküll and Hans Driesch. Other artists close to van Doesburg, including Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp and Tristan Tzara, belong to this moment too. We review their different commitments to creating things that are ‘here here here’, but also ‘nothing nothing nothing’.


Integumentary Abstraction: Arp’s wood reliefs

Tessa Paneth-Pollak (Michigan State University)

The planar quality of Arp’s Dada reliefs has prompted art historians to describe and photograph them frontally, like images. This paper attends to the overlooked lateral edges separating the reliefs from surrounding space. In keeping with Arp’s somatic metaphors, I propose that these edges function like membranes or integuments, barriers between the inside and the outside of a body that both protect it from the external world and enable sensations of pressure and pain. As Arp subjects the wood panels of his reliefs to the saw, he models their differentiation from surrounding space on the boundaries of the organism. By conceiving of the painterly tableau as something that takes shape – or, like a body, individuates – in the negative space of découpage (cutting out), Arp pursues a project of abstraction that models itself upon the organic body’s capacity to know through touch. The extremities of his reliefs seem, as a result, to satisfy Hugo Ball’s 1916 vision for an organically responsive art that would ‘[f]orm … a living organism that reacts to the slightest pressure.’

Attending to the vitalism of Arp’s abstraction offers us a new model for thinking about modernist abstraction in relation to the world and the organic body. In a period when cell theory was reshaping ideas about the integrity and boundedness of the organism, Arp’s reliefs offer to reconfigure the individual human ego whom painting has traditionally mirrored. Guided by Canguilhem’s notion that ‘The history of the concept of the cell is inseparable from the history of the concept of the individual,’ I argue that Arp’s reliefs aim to re-model, in miniature, the boundaries of the body and psyche as they model the paradoxes of becoming an individual through infraction and of becoming bounded through violation.


Bergson and Surrealism: ‘A haunting melody of life’s entwinement with matter’

Donna Roberts (University of Essex; Independent Scholar)

The connection between Surrealism and Bergson’s ideas has received relatively little critical scrutiny. While conspicuous, given a general accord regarding a rejection of positivism and a sense of the limits of scientific knowledge, the reasons for this oversight might be identified in terms of the vicissitudes of Bergson’s reputation and the historical shifts in the critical focus on his work.

By the time André Breton had published his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), Bergson’s philosophical star was waning, and it is most likely that the association of Bergsonism with the deeply conservative ‘spiritualism’ lingering over from the previous decade largely determined Breton’s circumspection towards ties with the philosopher. Furthermore, it is only since the growing absorption of Gilles Deleuze’s reappraisal of Bergson’s significance – as well as the deeper critical facilitation of evolutionary theory within philosophy and the humanities at large – that Bergson’s philosophically and politically redeemed writings can be seen more clearly to relate to certain key principles of Surrealism: most notably, a vital affirmation of life in all its complexity and excess. This paper will explore the ways in which a post-Deleuzian reading of Bergson might open up a clearer picture of the relations between the philosopher of the élan vital and an intellectual movement that, perhaps more than any in the modernist era, embraced the radically transformative possibilities of an open-ended, spontaneously creative principle of life and art.


Vitalist Chinese Modernism

Craig Clunas (University of Oxford)

In 1915, the translation of Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution into Chinese expanded the global reach of this work, already familiar to Chinese intellectuals from an even earlier translation into Japanese. And in 1922–23 Hans Driesch himself spent an entire year lecturing in China, where his work was the focus of intense interest and debate. Ideas of ‘vital spirit’ and ‘Vitalism’ as intrinsically Chinese, in contrast to a sterile and mechanistic Europe, were rapidly developed by Chinese intellectuals of the newly founded Republic, eager to argue that such an understanding of existence had already existed in China for centuries if not millennia. At the same time, artists and art historians of Republican China rapidly connected the thought of Bergson and Driesch with premodern Chinese artistic theory, in particular with the newly prominent ‘Six Laws’ of the 6th-century writer Xie He. In doing so they argued that Chinese modernity, and a modern Chinese art, could found itself on indigenous sources. But the advanced western thought on which they drew was itself deeply engaged with what was seen in late 19th-century Europe as ‘oriental’ wisdom, and the key texts were products less of an indigenous essence than of a long series of acts of translation and appropriation between writers in Chinese, Japanese, French and English. This paper will look at this ‘echo-chamber’ of mutual appropriation, and argue for the necessity of seeing Vitalism as a historically situated phenomenon with a truly global reach.


A Sort of Vitalism: Soviet Darwinism as a means to regenerate the wounded in World War Two

Pat Simpson (University of Hertfordshire)

This paper speculatively explores the vitalist implications of the propagandistic visual presentations about Darwinism and natural history given to wounded Soviet soldiers and grieving widows during World War Two, by the Directors of the Darwin Museum (Moscow) and their son, Rudi. Post-war, as a reward for such activities, these individuals were all given medals extolling their patriotism and contributions to the defence of Moscow against the Nazi invaders. Apparently, the Soviet government regarded their activities as having been politically and ideologically significant.

As Aleksandr Vucinich has argued, vitalism and neo-vitalism in their more metaphysically orientated forms seem to have held no real interest for Russian experimental bio-scientists and natural historians. This was to carry on into the Soviet period. Yet, as Vucinich has also argued, the blurring of boundaries within Russian (and later Soviet) scientific thought, between Darwin’s notion of the ‘struggle for existence’ and, apparently, Lamarckian ideas on the inheritability of acquired characteristics and the action of will, allowed for a vitalist element to continue to exist in Soviet Darwinism. My argument will suggest that both the impetus towards the wartime activities of the Moscow Darwin Museum, and the accolades awarded by the Soviet government, may relate to a non-metaphysical element of vitalism, buried deep inside the Russian and Soviet construct of Darwinism, and increasingly entrenched during Trofim Lysenko’s rise to power.

Visual Solidarities: Crossing borders in aesthetic practices

Session Convenors

Mary Ikoniadou, Manchester Metropolitan University

Zeina Maasri, University of Brighton

Session Abstract

This session examines the often side-lined, post-1945 histories, trajectories and methodologies of visual production and circulation that express and constitute relations of solidarity. It builds on the premise that in solidarity there is a sense of border-crossing from self to other and towards a shared space of politics that potentially challenges stable identities and fixed localities. Engaging with the concept of solidarity in expanded art historical and visual fields of enquiry, allows us to probe the particular affective and symbolic capabilities of image production in relation to contingent politics of circulation and reception. Visual solidarities do not just require inclusion in a world map of artistic production; crucially, such visual practices and cultures challenge conceptual frontiers in the field and allow us to imagine and/or shape its future.

The papers in this session will focus on historical networks of exchange and political solidarity that were established against the backdrop of a global Cold War order and in the wake of Civil Rights Movements and processes of decolonisation. Through different perspectives and methodological approaches, each of the papers will focus on a specific element of aesthetic practice and its associated mode of artistic production and circulation: mail art; posters; a magazine; and the decolonisation of artistic pedagogy. The discussion will cover a vast geography of connections brought by relationships of affinity, friendship and activist collaboration, which cut across national frontiers and ideological divides.

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Speakers and Abstracts

The Aesthetics of a Common Struggle: Third World solidarity in a foreign-language magazine in the GDR

Mary Ikoniadou (University of Central Lancashire)

For the Greek political refugees who resided in the socialist states, solidarity with anti-colonial and liberation movements was not an empty political discourse promoted by their host states and/or supported by the Greek Left. Solidarity provided a notion of cross-identification across multiple ideological, aesthetic and affective registers.

For Pyrsos illustrated magazine, published in the GDR in the 1960s by Greek political refugees, solidarity ‘with those fighting for their freedom, for democracy and national independence, for peace’ was at the core of its editorial strategy. Pyrsos publicised the anti-imperialist struggles in Vietnam and Congo, amongst others, while at the same time drawing parallels between the plight of the Third World and Greece, which, since the aftermath of WWII, was under US-controlled administrations. According to this perspective, Greece’s subordination to US political and economic power implied that its national situation could be considered analogous to that of Third-World countries whose underdevelopment was also explained by US interventionism.

Beyond symbolic, the comparative plights and its aesthetics in Pyrsos corresponded to lived and constructed experiences and memories for the magazine’s readership, largely composed of former partisans, young political refugees in Eastern Europe as well as students and economic migrants in the West. Through the visual analysis of the magazine, the paper will argue that Pyrsos mobilised solidarity and positive identification in its efforts to generate collective political subjectivities amongst its diverse readers. These were rendered visible in the design layout of the magazine, which was conceived according to Brechtian aesthetics.


‘Working Men of All Countries, Unite!’ Mail art networks across Eastern Europe during late socialism

Cristian Nae (George Enescu National University of the Arts, Iași, Romania)

 Despite their historical differences, during the 1970s and 80s, Latin America and Eastern Europe shared the status of ‘secondary’ cultural and economic regions, where authoritarian political regimes aimed to control and often restrict the international circulation of ideas and cultural goods. Appearing as an informal alternative to the more prominent institutions and art spaces fostered by the Fluxus movement, mail art ensured a horizontal connection between remote artists sharing similar aesthetic or political concerns. It transformed personal communication into an art form, using various social systems and challenging their bureaucratic apparatuses through subversive artistic strategies.

The presentation intends to map out and analyse influential mail art exchanges between Hungary, Romania, East Germany, Poland, Uruguay and Argentina during the 1970s and early 1980s, which fostered artistic solidarity not only within the former Eastern bloc, but also across the Iron Curtain. It also offers a theoretical framework for describing these more or less formalised artist networks and publications in terms of a special kind of relational aesthetics and geography, which could be grounded in the leftist cosmopolitan imagination described by the term ‘internationalism’. I claim that, at least in Eastern Europe, mail art extended and materialised in a virtual, secondary public sphere the principles of solidarity, collective creativity and authorship predicated by many leftist politic agendas. It also defied established cultural categories and geographical confinements, blurring the boundaries between artistic media such as photography, conceptual art, performance art and graphic design, as well as between the production, exhibition and reception of art.


Draw Me a Revolution: Aesthetics of solidarity in the trenches of Arab Hanoi

Zeina Maasri, University of Brighton

Mobilised by radical networks of solidarity, stretching from Cuba, through Algeria and all the way to Vietnam and China, an anti-imperialist revolutionary subjectivity was constituted through a global flow of discourses and associated circuits of visuality. In this globally expansive revolutionary geography, Beirut — dubbed the ‘Arab Hanoi’ — acted as a nodal site in and through which an aesthetic of solidarity with the Palestinian liberation movement converged and circulated along transnational circuits. The city’s formerly liberal and cosmopolitan artistic and intellectual public culture, I argue, was displaced in the aftermath of the devastating 1967 Arab-Israeli war and thereby radically transformed. Dar al-Fata al-Arabi, a pan-Arab publishing project launched in Beirut in 1974 and linked to the PLO, exemplifies the aesthetic embodiment of ‘Arab Hanoi’. By closely examining the social life and international itinerary of one particular publication, entitled The Home, I reflect on the historical junctures and disjuncture of the Palestinian struggle with global politics of decolonisation; circuits of visuality linking revolutionary anti-imperialism; tensions between radical art and diplomacy; and last but not least, the utopias and disenchantment of a generation of politically committed Arab artists and intellectuals.


Arte do Povo: Revolutionary aesthetics and solidarity networks at the National School of Visual Arts, Maputo

Polly Savage (SOAS)

Opening in 1983, Mozambique’s national school of visual arts (ENAV) sought to develop a revolutionary mode of visual practice for the new nation – ‘arte do povo’, or art by the people, for the people, in reprisal for the bourgeois elitism of colonial art systems. The school was staffed in the early years of independence almost exclusively by cooperantes – international solidarity workers from both sides of the Iron Curtain, but primarily from Eastern Europe, the USSR and Cuba, who sought to express commitment to the Mozambican Revolution. Over the 1980s, the cooperantes were gradually replaced by bolseiros: Mozambican students who had trained in the Soviet Bloc and Cuba, many of whom still teach in the school today. Taking ENAV as a critical nodal point in the aesthetic and affective geographies of late socialism, this paper draws on archival research and interviews with students and teachers from the school to consider how this diverse faculty brought differing forms of art theory and practice into contact in the classroom. Examining the implications of visual pedagogy as an expression of transnational solidarity, I interrogate the forms of knowledge exchanged during this pivotal period at ENAV, and, more broadly, the nature of the political and aesthetic ontologies forged at this contact point of militant global networks.