The Modernist Movement

December 7, 2013 | | Comments Off on The Modernist Movement

    Modernism brought the ideas of the subjunctive, the introspective, the irrational, and the abstract into early 20th century writing.  (The West pg. 638)  Modern biology, physics, and psychology influenced the change of thought.  These ideas and values also influenced art and literature.  Literature was no longer about realism; it reflected the deeper meaning of life and the inner conflicts of men and women.  The movement rejected values of the enlightenment and dismissed tradition.  Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Rene Magritte’s “The False Mirror” embodied the modernist movement.  Woolf’s fictional character in A Room of One’s Own projects Woolf’s desire to find a place for herself in society while Magritte’s work represents humans understanding their place on Earth.

    In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf describes her daily life of a woman at a University through the actions of a fictional character.  The novel describes her own actions and feelings about being a woman in society.  Her writing is a stream of consciousness in which she contemplates how hard it is for women to be acknowledged by men for their writing.

Virginia Woolf

Image: Virginia Woolf








Woolf’s writing was part of the modernist movement in Europe during the early 20th century.  Woolf’s writing examines the existence of women in society.  Her novel describes the inner thoughts of women and the struggles they face.  Woolf has a vivid imagination and creates different scenarios in her writing to portray woman writers.  As an example, she writes about Shakespeare and his success.  Woolf then asks what it would be like if Shakespeare had a sister who was just as brilliant.  She explains that Shakespeare’s “Sister Judith” would not have gotten the same education as her brother and would have been forced to do her writing on her own.  Her parents would have likely asked her to do chores around the house and tried to marry her off.  Woolf concluded that Judith would have killed herself in the end.  Woolf uses the modernist movement’s new type of writing, stream of consciousness.  Authors use this type of narrative to tell a story through a character’s thoughts and actions.  This type of writing reflects the new insights on psychology in the early 20th century.

Woolf’s writing reflects the modernist movement by writing about the inner thoughts of her fictional characters and the rejection of tradition.  Woolf’s writing supports women’s rights and asserts that men fear women.  One of the ideologies that came forth during the early 20th century was feminism.  Writers such as John Stuart Mill, Henrik Ibsen, and Virginia Woolf described the difficulty of women in society.  They described that women were married off at a young age and could never be free to be by themselves.  They were forced to look after their children and take care of their husbands.  Feminist writers, such as Woolf, also described the lack of appreciation of the talents of women.  Woolf wrote that many women were creative yet weren’t able to show their work.  Their families expected them to mend clothing and do chores around the house rather than write and draw.  In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf contemplates women in history.  She believes that literature writes about powerful women.  Woolf writes “Some of the most inspired words…fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.” (pg.43)  Although Woolf is reflecting on the Elizabethan woman, she explains that women are still thought of as inferior to men.  She turns to history to set a background as to the gender issues that linger in the 20th century.  Woolf makes the point that in order for a woman to succeed she needs a place to live and she needs money.  Men have the time and space to write while women are supposed to be doing household chores and taking care of the children.  In order for a woman to write she cannot be tied down to a husband and family.  Woolf’s point is similar to other feminist writers.  This reflects the modernist movement in that there is a sense of self.

At first sight “The False Mirror” looks as though it is a painting of an eye.  However a closer inspection reveals that the iris is a blue sky with white clouds.  The painting makes the viewer question what they really know.  This abstract piece of work embodies the Modernist movement.  It is open to the interpretation of the viewer.  Before the Modernist movement, artwork depicted real life events.  Modernist artists then began creating “new” pieces of art unlike anything seen before.  Magritte incorporates symmetry in his painting, one of the key changes from realism to modernist art.  The viewer might not understand the meaning of the painting at first glance.  The viewer may wonder if the eye is looking at the sky or if the sky is part of the eye.  The painting represents how humans view the world, it symbolizes their role in the world, it reflects on the study of biology and psychology, and it reveals self-awareness in the world.  By looking into the eye and seeing the sky the painting can be interpreted to mean that the world is a product of a human’s imagination.  Because there is only one eye in the painting the picture represents all of humankind.  It does not show the face so that the viewer focuses only on the blue sky.  The painting reflects the existence of humans in the world and the impact they make.  The symmetry in the painting is another factor of modernism.  The painting is not a completely realistic representation of an eye.  Other than the iris being a blue sky the eye has no eyelashes.  Modernists expected viewers to share their personal interpretation of the artwork.  There was no longer reason and clarity but ambiguity and an appeal to subconscious.  Magritte’s painting rejects tradition and creatively incorporates the sky into the human eye to present a deeper meaning.  Magritte juxtaposes two unrelated objects.  By doing this Magritte is forcing the viewer to look at the world differently.  This contributes to the modernization of psychology and self-awareness.  Magritte’s painting is considered part of the unconscious because of his combination of the human eye and the sky.  His painting is dreamlike and reflects the idea of irrationality.

The False Mirror






Image: The False Mirror

While Woolf and Magritte are both modernists, they differ slightly on the message they are trying to portray.  While Woolf takes a feminist approach in her writing, Magritte takes an abstract approach with his painting.  Woolf describes her feelings on the subject of women in society while Magritte allows the viewer to think about the deeper meaning of “The False Mirror.”  However, the pieces of work have similarities.  There is a message that lies underneath the surface.  Woolf makes the point that men don’t see women as equal and they underestimate the talent of women.  Woolf explains that there are some very talented women who haven’t been able to show their work.  Similarly, Magritte’s “The False Mirror” is a painting that is more than a depiction of an event.  It reflects how humans think of the world.  Both pieces describe self-awareness.  This theme of self-awareness reflects the movement of psychology in the early 20th century.

Written by: Malin Serfis


Magritte, Rene. The False Mirror. 1928. Painting.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1st ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1929. 43. Print.



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