Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Alamy)


1922: Five defining moments from the year that modernism was born


In the 1922 edition of the American literary journal, Little Review, the poet Ezra Pound made a startling declaration. Just that morning, he’d finished reading the new novel by Irish ex-patriot James Joyce. The book, Ulysses, had been published a few weeks earlier and Pound was so compelled by what he’d read that he threw his calendar out of the window and resolved to start a new one from scratch. He proclaimed 1922 “Year 1 p.s.U” – that’s post-Ulysses.

100 years later, we’re still navigating our lives by great works of modernist art. Don’t believe me? Just consider how many times you’ve heard and read the word ‘post-modernism’ lately. Clearly, the works that were created in 1922 still hold enough sway over us that we regard our own time as being an afterthought, the big clear-up after the great storm.

But what exactly is modernism? Well, that’s a tricky one. Modernism is notoriously difficult to define – partly because the term can be used to describe a number of interlocking ideas. There’s ‘modernisation’: which is generally regarded as the process of industrialisation; then there’s ‘modernity’, a self-referential term used to describe the experience of living within a society engaged in technological innovation; and then there’s modernism – the artistic period from 1922 to the early 1940s that saw intellectuals respond to the social change, technological advances, moral complexities, and sicknesses of the modern world. It is this last one that we’ll be focusing on here.

A lot happened in 1922 — too much to express in a mere 1000 words, so here we’ll be looking through a selection of key moments from what was arguably the most important year in 20th-century art. Whether it’s Louis Armstrong boarding a train or T.S Eliot wandering over London Bridge, the influence of each of these moments is still being felt just as strongly – if not more so – 100 years down the line. 1922, after all, was the year the modern world began.

Six defining moments from 1922:

James Joyce publishes Ulysses

Ulysses is, in a sense, the archetypal modernist work. Like a lot of artists, writers and thinkers in the early 20th century, James Joyce held no reverence for cohesion or the tastes of the bourgeoisie. In crafting a book that regarded language not as a means to an end but as an end in itself, he completely revolutionised the English language.

Despite being set in Dublin, Ulysses was written while Joyce was living in Paris, a city frequently described as the home of modernist thought. Any of you who have seen Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris will know just how many influential figures of the modernist age made their home in the French capital, including the likes of Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, and T.S Eliot.

Joyce’s masterwork – which chronicles a single day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom – was published by the bookshop Shakespeare and Company in 1922. For some, it was a work of utter nonsense, but for others, it was felt to be one of the most revolutionary works of the day. Indeed, one of Joyce’s earliest advocates was the English occultist Aleister Crowley, who wrote a rave review of Ulysses, in which named Joyce “a writer who, in time, will demand recognition from the whole civilised world.” And, for once, he was right.

Louis Amstrong boards a train to Chicago

Trains appear a lot in modernism. The painters of the age frequently captured them chugging through the countryside – as did early filmmakers, who shot footage of high-speed trains moving inexorably toward the lenses of their cameras. Futurist thinkers were similarly obsessed with the symbolism of this intensely modern form of transport.

But there is one train that is particularly important: the one that took a 21-year-old cornet player called Louis Armstrong from New Orleans to Chicago in 1922. When he arrived in Chicago, Armstrong joined Joe King Oliver’s band and established himself as one of the godfathers of New Orleans jazz.

After leaving Oliver’s band, Armstrong set up his own group with some of the best musicians in the city and, over the next few years, changed the face of American music. Like Joyce, Armstrong took his art form down to its bare bones and then made it new, laying the foundations for the next 100 years of jazz music.

Nosferatu is released

In 1922, the German expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau made one of the earliest and most influential horror films, Nosferatu. This retelling of the Dracula story saw Murnau reach back into Bram Stoker’s original text to bring the infamous bloodsucker – played by the skin-crawlingly creepy Max Shreck – onto the silver screen.

Murnau was actually sued by Florence Stoker, the Dracula author’s wife, for copyright infringement after the film was released. She very nearly succeeded in destroying all of the original reels too, but thankfully lost interest before she got that far. If she had succeeded, that iconic image of Count Orlock standing at the top of the stairs, his shadow hauntingly elongated, wouldn’t have had the era-defining impact that it did.

That shadow wouldn’t have been quite so profound if it hadn’t been captured on film – an art form that came to symbolise all the artistic ideals that modernists aspired towards. By playing with the movement of light and shadows, Murnau transformed Max Shreck into the very embodiment of terror, only showing the audience fragments of Count Orlock’s inhuman form: his long milkwhite fingers, his pointed ears, his sharpened teeth. Without Nosferatu, horror cinema and, dare I say, fear itself, simply wouldn’t be the same.

T.S Eliot crosses over London Bridge

In 1922, the poet T.S. Eliot worked in the foreign and colonial department of Lloyds bank. His daily commute took him across London Bridge and up towards King William Street. This walk serves as the setting for one of the most memorable stanzas in one of the most important poetical works of modernist literature: The Waste Land.

Eliot wasn’t all that happy working as a banker, so, to get his creative juices flowing, he set up a literary magazine, The Criterion. As editor of The Criterion, Eliot published a number of the leading literary figures of the era, including Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Ezra Pound. The publication was intended to capture the spirit of the age, a new age. For its first issue, Eliot wrote a piece that would establish the journal’s modernist raison d’être: a fragment of The Waste Land.

Eliot’s 1922 poem is a work as much haunted by the ghosts of the war dead as it is by the spectre of Spanish influenza, which killed millions in the years immediately after the First World War. The poet moves between numerous voices, using them as voiceboxes to create a fragmented portrait of a nation sunk low beneath the “brown fog” of the modern age, in which the world no longer seems to adhere to any formal logic.

Bertold Brecht’s Drums In The Night debuts

In 1922, the German theatremaker Bertold Brecht put on a play that completely changed the world’s understanding of what theatre could do. The first half of Drums In The Night seems fairly typical of the era. Brecht captures the anxieties worming their way into the heart of post-war German society, using his characters to form a microcosm of a nation in flux.

We hear of the “demoralised” troops returning home from the front, the apathy of the current government, and the coming “revolution”. It’s all quite normal – you might even be reminded of the Victorian realist work of Ibsen. But, then, strange things start happening; things that will come to typify what is today known as the Brechtian style.

In act three, for example, a waiter suddenly begins narrating the rest of the characters actions. Then, a little later, halfway through a monologue, Andreas Kragler, the hero of the tale, throws something at the fake moon hanging above him and it falls down onto the stage, breaking the fourth wall and completely destroying the illusion of theatre. “It’s nothing but a cheap farce,” he tells the audience, “A few cheap boards for actors to walk on and a moon made of silver paper”. Brecht would later call such techniques examples of ‘The Alienation Effect’, things that a playwright or director can do destroy the imaginary boundary between audience and performer. It changed everything.