Local Constellations

Peter Brooker, Sascha Bru, Andrew Thacker & Christian Weikop (eds.), The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Vol. III: Europe, 1880–1940

Oxford University press, 1528pp, £145.00, ISBN 9780199681303

reviewed by Louis Goddard

One of the first places ever to publish my writing was The Morning News, a venerable online magazine that has been running in various forms since 1999. Before a major redesign in 2011, the site’s About page included an epigraph of sorts, a quote from Woody Allen’s classic 1979 comedy Manhattan: ‘I was going to a do a piece on Sol [LeWitt] for Insight—do you know that magazine? It’s one of those little magazines. I mean, they’re such schmucks up there, really mired in ’30s radicalism.’ It was the sort of knowing self-genealogy that has characterised much of the small press production of the past hundred years, even as the technological implications of ‘small press’ become increasingly anachronistic: an irreverent nod to tradition, making a serious claim to the revolutionary spirit of forbears while seeming merely to castigate oneself for inherited foibles and pretensions.

With this in mind, it’s intriguing to find a slightly distorted version of the tendency in one of the very first truly avant-garde ‘little magazines’, Le Chat Noir (1881–95). As Diana Schau-Botea relates, discussing the magazine’s associated cabaret at Montmartre (most famous for Théophile Steinlen’s iconic advertisement poster), ‘[f]rom the beginning, [Rodolphe] Salis’s cabaret was presented as a Fumist creation, which belonged, paradoxically, to different historical periods’ — in January 1882, the magazine billed it mischievously as ‘LE CHAT NOIR | Cabaret Louis XIII | FONDE EN 1114, PAR UN FUMISTE’. Through the invented ‘Fumist’ movement, the editors of Le Chat Noir drew pre-emptive attention to precisely this invented character, a deliberate and collaborative self-definition typical of virtually every -ism of the 20th century.

It is this collection of -isms which, by and large, makes up the raw material of The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Vol. III: Europe, 1880–1940. This imposing double-edition represents the culmination of well over seven years of work on modernist periodical culture by lead editors Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker. Including two marginally slimmer volumes covering Britain and Ireland (2009) and North America (2012) respectively, the project seems destined to take up a good foot of space on university library shelves for the next several decades, even if the combined price tag of £396 will keep it out of all but the most comprehensive private collections. Considered in terms of sheer research achievement, the three volumes dwarf the online Modernist Magazines Project that spawned them, though the latter — which ceased operation after reaching the end of its grant period in 2010 — still serves as an invaluable companion resource, offering digitised material from 69 separate periodicals.

Where Volume I was organised chronologically and Volume II thematically, the present edition takes a geographical approach: individual essays, generally considering two or three magazines over 20 or 30 pages, are grouped into regional sections, the size of these groupings corresponding to their supposed cultural and historical importance. Thus, the book begins with 12 essays on France and ends with just five on ‘Russia, the Soviet Union and Ukraine’. This organisational strategy is a valuable critical manoeuvre in itself, and the editors are convincing in defending disparities in coverage as reflective of real asynchronies in cultural and artistic development across the roughly 4 million square miles that we call Europe. A separate introduction for each section allows individual regions and cultural formations to be mapped on the macro level before the more focused work of the essays themselves, many of which are detailed efforts at low-level economic and social history.

In fact, one of this book’s most important roles may turn out to be as a work of cultural geography, or geographical cultural studies. Facing the first page of Brooker’s excellent and theoretically-informed general introduction is a map that will be familiar to any player of the strategy board game Diplomacy, showing Europe in its immediate pre-war configuration, with Austria-Hungary looming large. Directly below it is a representation of the international situation post-war, with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Baltic states heralding a new era of territorial fragmentation. Bridging this gap, and represented on the page by a thin black line, is a diverse set of modernist and avant-garde groups that are for the most part neither committedly nationalist nor unproblematically internationalist in outlook.

Brooker describes how ‘“small groups” of associates, friends, lovers, and relatives comprised a fluid nucleus that … crossed language and national boundaries at the same time as they combined visual, aural, and written media ...’, but he is far from according these free-floating players any absolute, ‘paranational’ status. Figures such as Apollinaire, Picasso, Tristan Tzara and Le Corbusier may operate in some sort of international cultural milieu, but they also work under the nationally constitutive influence of Paris as a capital city, as well as in accordance with the pressures of their own individual national identities: French, Spanish, Romanian and Swiss, with elements of Italian and Polish thrown in for good measure. To consider European modernism—or ‘modernisms’—in any serious way is necessarily to consider issues of nationhood from a critical perspective.

Thankfully, most of the essays in this volume manage to strike a sustained balance between the broad thematic interests of the general reader, particularly this focus on national identity, and the hyperlocal detail required by the researcher. It is perhaps inevitable that most academic readers will come to a book of this sort seeking information on a specific periodical, and a detailed index makes this sort of reading perfectly possible. But it is astute editorial choices, above all, which will save the complete Critical and Cultural History from becoming merely a set of reference volumes. The decision to include inline translations for non-English quotations is particularly welcome, allowing the specialist to stray outside her own national field to build up a truly European view.

This is, of course, the point at which overall editorial policy rubs up against the distinctive styles and techniques of individual contributors. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most obtrusive issue here is with scale. In Luca Somigli’s otherwise excellent essay ‘Past-Loving Florence and the Temptations of Futurism’, for example, he describes the little magazine Lacerba as ‘arguably the most influential avant-garde journal of the pre-war period’, leaving the reader to decide whether his frame of reference is Florence, Italy or even Europe as a whole—it is unlikely that this ambiguity would have the same confusing force in, say, a standalone article on Florentine magazine culture. Still, this sort of disjunction is practically unavoidable in a book of such broad scope, and actually appears less often than one might expect in the course of 56 chapters. As mentioned above, most of the articles collected here focus on social and economic detail, a tendency that is to some extent a function of their subject matter: experimental periodicals that are generally short-lived and precariously-funded, produced by well-connected residents of a restricted geographical area (almost always a single European city). Still, the contributor pool as a whole could hardly be accused of avoiding wider theoretical issues—the disciplinary self-reflexiveness evident in both the general introduction and its section-specific counterparts rubs off on individual essays and makes for a book with a remarkably critical attitude towards the now-established institution of Modernist Studies. Aside from the key categories of modernism and the little magazine, one of the concepts most frequently and fruitfully interrogated is that of the avant-garde, a term which is rarely deployed without an extended discussion of Peter Bürger.

Ultimately, the volume succeeds in the task set out for it by Brooker, quoting the social scientists Michael Werner and Bénédicte Zimmermann: that of providing a histoire croisée which presents ‘a “plurality of temporalities” layering intersecting sites or “local constellations.”’ This book’s editors and contributors recognise the value in modernist magazines’ playful claims to tradition and influence, presenting a networked, interconnected view which nevertheless remains alive to obvious differences and discontinuities. There is great value in considering these periodicals as a category, as the very idea of an Oxford-stamped Critical and Cultural History implies, but they are also resolutely singular efforts, each marked by its own distinctive group of contributors and patrons, by its visual format, and by its characteristic contents. To successfully bridge this gap over the course of 1,528 pages is a tremendous achievement.
Louis Goddard recently submitted a PhD thesis on the contemporary British poet JH Prynne at the University of Sussex. He now works on investigative projects as a data journalist for The Times and The Sunday Times.