Groups, Coteries, Circles and Guilds

Modernist Aesthetics and the Utopian Lure of Community

by Laura Scuriatti (Volume editor)
Edited Collection X, 292 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction (Laura Scuriatti)
  • Part I Utopian Visions: Enlightenment, Sociability, Conviviality, Salons
  • 1 Utopias of Purposelessness: Sacred and Secular Sociability around (Ulrike Wagner)
  • Part II Written Coteries: Utopian Practices, Collaborations and the Question of Authorship
  • 2 Bridges over the Atlantic: Exploring Utopia in Women’s Modernism (Francesca Chiappini)
  • 3 Together, on Her Own: A Survey of Mina Loy’s Textual Communities (Laura Scuriatti)
  • 4 Renegotiating Authorship: The Case of Algot Untola (Kaisa Kurikka)
  • Part III Literary and Lived Utopias
  • 5 Progressive Intelligentsia: The Young American Critics, Utopianism and the Spirit of Dissent (Esther Sánchez-Pardo)
  • 6 Farley Farm: An Experiment in Artistic Utopia (Martina Rinaldi)
  • 7 Olive Garnett and the Utopian Lure of Community: From Tolstoyan Togetherness to Anglo-Russian Aesthetics (Martina Ciceri)
  • Part IV Internationalism and the Utopia of an Aesthetic Community
  • 8 Modernism and Pan-Europeanism: Utopian Concepts and Visions of the Porza Group (Dorothea Schöne)
  • 9 die abstrakten hannover: Utopian Designs for a New World (Isabel Wünsche)
  • 10 Meditative Modernism: Dornach 1913/Munich 1918/Stuttgart (Reinhold J. Fäth)
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

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Figure 9.1. Group photograph at the studio of Hans Nitzschke, Hanover, 1925, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart Archiv, Museum Wiesbaden. Top: Nelly and Theo van Doesburg, middle: Kurt Schwitters, Käthe Steinitz, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, front: Hans Nitzschke.

Figure 9.2. El Lissitzky, Demonstrationszeichnung zum Prounenraum auf der Großen Berliner Kunstausstellung 1923 [Elevation Drawing for the Proun Room at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition 1923], colour lithograph, 60.2 × 44.1 cm, Sheet 6 from the Prounen-Mappe (Proun Portfolio), Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, 1923.

Figure 9.3. Kabinett der Abstrakten [Abstract Cabinet] with works by Fernand Léger, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, El Lissitzky, and Piet Mondrian, Provinzialmuseum Hannover, 1927.

Figure 9.4. Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, excerpt from ‘Theo Van Doesburg (1916–27)’ and ‘die unvergleichliche mechanik’, De Stijl, 7/79–84 (1927), 105–6.

Figure 9.5. Cover page of abstraction-création: art non-figuratif, vol. 1 (1932).

Figure 10.1. G. Sommer, First Goetheanum, painting, 1929 (reproduction photograph by R. J. Fäth).

Figure 10.2. Second Goetheanum (photograph by R. J. Fäth).

Figure 10.3. Irma von Duczynska, Aenigma Catalog, 1918 (reproduction photograph by R. J. Fäth). ← vii | viii →

Figure 10.4. Stanislaus Stückgold, Zodiac (reproduction photograph by R. J. Fäth).

Figure 10.5. Walter Besteher, Portrait of Herwarth Walden (1917).

Figure 10.6. Walter Besteher, Head (1927).

Figure 10.7. Felix Kayser, Catalogue. A handwritten note from the furniture catalog Einfache Möbel dated at the beginning of production in 1928/29.

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The present volume is the result of the productive discussions and encounters among many of the contributors, starting with a panel at the EAM (European Network of Avant-Garde and Modernist Studies) in Helsinki in 2014 and continuing at Bard College Berlin. The editor wishes to thank all the contributors to the volume for their enthusiastic and original work, as well as for their support through the process of development of the volume. Many thanks to Caroline Patey for initiating the project, and to the research group “Writing 1900” for many inspiring discussions on transnational exchanges.

The editor also wishes to thank the anonymous reviewer for the helpful suggestions, Bard College Berlin for the financial support received, and Daniel Reeve and Lisa Vogel for the editorial work on the manuscript. Finally, special thanks to Egidio Marzona, who kindly granted the editor access to his wonderful archive of modernist and avant-garde art, for his invaluable insights, and for agreeing to the reproduction of Thayhat’s drawing, which graces the cover of this book.

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In its broader connotation, which includes the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century,1 the aesthetic moment of European and American modernism was characterized by the proliferation of literary or artistic groups and movements, of cultural formations such as small magazines, independent galleries and theatres, salons and guilds. The artistic production of avant-garde and modernist groups and individuals was not limited to standard literary and artistic forms, but spanned the organization of art exhibitions, performances, and events, the creation of styles and ‘isms’, the use of independent printed media for new literary and artistic experiments, the making of collective artworks, and the establishment of workshops and even schools (as, for example, in the cases of the Bauhaus in Weimar and later Dessau, the Collège de Sociologie in Paris, the Omega Workshops in London). Last, but not least, the avant-garde and modernist fascination with radical experiments and the creation of groups or circles also led to the development of utopian communities, usually set in rural or decentralized locations, whose goals very concretely merged arts, politics and economics (as well as, in a few cases, technology). The work done in social and collective environments during the first three decades of the twentieth century is crucial for modernist aesthetics, and its importance can hardly be overstated. As Raymond Williams observed, the ‘social and ← 1 | 2 → cultural significance of all […] groups, from the most to the least organized, can hardly be doubted. No history of modern culture could be written without attention to them’.2

While the historiography of the historical avant-garde has for obvious reasons relied extensively on grounding the concept of the avant-garde on the practices of groups, accounts of modernism, especially literary modernism, have tended to conform to a paradigm of single authorship, even when authorship depended on the participation in groups or networks. In the last two decades, scholarship has increasingly devoted attention to collective enterprises and network formations as fundamental sources for the understanding and interpretation of modernist literature.3 However, in spite of the fact that neither avant-garde nor modernist aesthetics are inseparable from the collective cultural formations which made them possible, the radical artistic experiments of the period were defined by some of their protagonists through the lens of post-romantic, idealized or radicalized notions of the genius and of his signature.4 This paradoxical situation characterized even the artistic production of groups, such as the Italian Futurists, who indeed celebrated genius as an aesthetic and political category, but denied that anything artistic could amount to the expression of the self of the artist.

Even in the interwar period, a moment when the traditional notion of the artist as genius was being challenged from many sides, uniqueness, originality and individuality – the qualities usually associated with ← 2 | 3 → it – were transposed either onto the figure of the artist as a visionary, or as an embattled individualist and non-conformist in permanent opposition to a hostile, philistine, conservative or materialistic society, or onto the very artworks themselves. Especially in Britain and the United States, new critical approaches privileged the formal analysis of artworks, which were seen as precious, unique, aesthetic objects whose meaning was not dependent on the contingencies of history and politics.5

This contributed to the long-standing characterization of the period through categories emphasizing uniqueness and originality, rather than collaboration or collective work.6 These phenomena, which might appear to represent two polar opposites within the aesthetic practices of the period, are not mutually exclusive; many of the essays collected in this volume indeed present them as inextricably linked, exploring the extent to which modernist aesthetics was also the result of the possibilities offered by communal spaces, collective enterprises, diffuse networks and international communities based on exchange, collaboration and an aesthetics of connection. This volume aims at presenting lesser-known groups and even individual modernist authors whose practices were based on the belief that lived communities and collective, collaborative artworks could be conceived as utopian artistic projects. The essays collected here show that the works and practices of these groups renewed the notion of utopia by making artistic experiments and social utopias interdependent, exploring notions of collective production and collaboration, and probing their many possibilities. ← 3 | 4 →

New paradigms have been recently developed in criticism which attend to the study of these complex interrelations and their historical, aesthetic, economic and political dynamics: cultural studies focused on small magazines, networks and salons, as well as works investigating modernism’s material cultures and cultural politics, have provided a complex picture of the period and the critical tenets associated with it.7 Jill Lloyd affirms the need to break with the (mostly Anglo-Saxon) tendency to see modernism as a general post-romantic phenomenon, and credits Peter Bürger with having initiated a paradigm shift in this sense.8 Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974) defines the avant-garde as inextricably bound to groups and movements, rather than to single authors; while in this theory community and collaborative practice are not crucial for the definition and understanding of the avant-garde, Bürger argues that the peculiar project of societal renewal pursued by the avant-garde pertained exclusively to the activities of groups rather than of individual artists. His study associates group practices with a tendency to dismantle the sacredness of authorship and masterpiece, and the mastery of the artist over the work of art. From his point of view, the difference between modernism and the avant-garde can therefore be articulated not only on the basis of historical periodization, but also on the basis of a varying emphasis on individual or collective aesthetics. Vincent Kaufmann suggests that, in the case of the French avant-garde, scholarship tends to assume that it consists of groups and movements rather than individuals, and that these groups considered themselves bound to a communitarian aesthetics, which meant by default an opposition to individual artistic practices. Following Bürger, Kaufmann ← 4 | 5 → adopts this as the true definition of the avant-garde, which he sees as constituted only by groups which pursue communitarian practices.9 On the other hand, Rachel Potter shows that, if we consider the socio-economic mechanisms of dissemination and promotion of literary works, early modernism (a term which includes the historical avant-garde up to the late 1920s), was ‘both vigorously individualistic and collaborative’,10 in spite of the fact that ‘the collaborative efforts of Modernists often seemed in tension with the experimental individualism of Modernist texts’.11 In this respect, Patrick Jagoda observes in Network Aesthetics that the early twentieth century was a historical moment in which Margaret Schlegel’s appeal to Harry Wilcox to ‘only connect!’ was a suitable and much-needed response, proposing interconnection as a means of counteracting the destructive individualism and the alienating fragmentation of modern life.12

Whether one considers the sociology or the political culture of the first half of the twentieth century – marked respectively by notions of fragmentation and alienation, and by the emergence of political forces which aimed at mobilizing large segments of the population towards revolutionary and/or aggressive projects – the dialectical tension between individualism and collective action which we find in modernist aesthetics and criticism seems a suitable response to this historical moment. Numerous artists responded to the radical impulses in many areas of political and social life by creating groups and movements: therefore, the radicalism of modernist art and literature can be seen to embody not only a revolt against the previous generation, but also a mode of participation in radical politics – whether progressive or totalitarian – of the early twentieth century. While the participation of authors and artists in radical experiments and politics was not by necessity attached to progressive positions – as the cases of Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Emil Nolde and ← 5 | 6 → Georges Sorel demonstrate – the formation of groups and movements had strong utopian connotations, and was mostly the result of a will to effect change, whether in the realm of aesthetics, or in society at large.13 These largely utopian goals expressed themselves in the creation of new modernist genres, such as the manifesto, or in the establishment of alternative infrastructures for the circulation and promotion of modernist works and ideas. They also relied on an optimistic vision of literature and the arts as effective instruments of political change and action. These were certainly ‘minor utopias’, to use Jay Winter’s definition: for Winters, minor utopias were markedly different in their forms of intervention and effects from the major (and discredited) utopias of the twentieth century, but still aimed at producing a better world.14

David Ayers and Benedikt Hjartarson point out that the avant-garde, with its manifestos, its wilful breaks with tradition, its critical attitudes and its radical projects or imaginative accounts of a new life and of the future, has by definition been associated with mainly antagonistic utopian projects, and in many cases, with their actual failure.15 Indeed, critics have seen the avant-garde attitude as a form of ‘pseudo-criticism’, that is, of ← 6 | 7 → a type of criticism of society which remains within the paradigms it aims to undo, or, alternatively, as a consolatory activity which provides a comfortable illusion of effecting social change, but does not in fact contribute to it. Prominent among these critics are the thinkers of the Frankfurt School,16 and also Peter Bürger, for whom the concept of avant-garde only applies to those groups whose practices aimed to refuse the autonomy of the realm of art from society, and to restore it into the midst of social and political practices, in order to change them. Cedric Van Dijck, Sarah Posman and Marysa Demoor note that these questions are inextricably related to symbolic paradigms of location, suggesting that criticism and the possibility of successful (minor) utopian projects are deeply connected with notions of the outside and the outsider.17 This paradigm takes on much more literal connotations if we consider the experiences of utopian communities founded by artists, writers and thinkers in rural locations, far from metropolises and cultural capitals, and conceived as spaces of freedom: the artists’ colonies at Monte Verità and at Dornach in Switzerland, the garden city of Hellerau, near Dresden, the Bloomsbury Group’s retreat at Charleston, the Surrealist experiment at Farley Farm, in Sussex, the Provincetown Players in the United States, are some examples of the numerous utopian communal projects purposefully located at a geographical and symbolic distance from social and political centres. These locations directly connect these experiences with the very history of the concept of utopia, whose meaning, as we know, describes a place which does not, or does not yet, exist, and can be understood also as the search for alternatives to the negative utopias of the early twentieth century. In this sense, the militant internationalism of many modernist groups signals these artists’ need to severe themselves from the destructive ideology of nationalism, and is itself a form of utopia. Indeed, especially in the inter-war years, the creation of trans- or international bodies and cultural entities (such as the PEN Club in 1921, or the ← 7 | 8 → Commission Internationale de Coopération Intellectuelle (CICI), which was part of the League of Nations, was meant to promote international understanding and to foster collaboration between intellectuals in different fields.18 Internationalism was seen as an instrument for repairing the wounds of the war, and international bodies sought to promote transnational collaborations in specific printed media, translations and cosmopolitanism.19

The chapters in this volume offer a varied, yet interconnected map of numerous groups, circles, salons and utopian communities throughout Europe and the United States; although the protagonists of some of these circles are well-known protagonists of modernism, the groups themselves – such as the artists’ collectives Porza, die abstrakten hannover and Aenigma, as well as the Surrealist retreat of Farley Farm in Sussex – are so far little known and under-researched. The chapters also bring into dialogue texts and artworks, archival material and, in some cases, still-unpublished material by a variety of modernist and avant-garde groups and single artists or authors, offering important instruments for better understanding the complex international geography and politics of modernism and the historical avant-garde. The volume shows that groups and circles gave writers and artists the possibility of developing interdisciplinary, international and political practices; the chapters illustrate from different perspectives how these practices, in turn, led to genuine interventions into public life, such as the creation of affordable housing projects (in the case of the Porza group and Aenigma) and schools (Aenigma), together with the more common institutions of art in the public sphere, such as galleries and magazines (Porza, die abstrakten hannover, the ICA in London).

Fundamental for most of the essays presented in this volume is the concept of sociability, which characterizes the lived utopias of modernist coteries, salons, circles and guilds. Although the concept acquired new prominence in German sociology of the early twentieth century, especially in the works of Georg Simmel and Max Weber, and in contemporary theory, ← 8 | 9 → its roots lie in the Enlightenment period, with its salons and circles – that is, in the moment in which the public sphere began to emerge as a fundamental cultural and political formation. The first chapter of the volume, by Ulrike Wagner, introduces the reader to the origins of the concepts of sociability and conviviality in the salons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Germany and the United States, proposing a detailed historical and theoretical analysis of the moment in which this concept underwent considerable critical attention, and was theorized as a practice which guaranteed individual and collective freedom within parameters of secularization associated with the practice of literary interpretation. This chapter stages a productive dialogue with modernist and contemporary theorization of these concepts in sociology and philosophy.

As Michael P. Farrell argues, artists’ groups may be small and do not necessarily have utopian or political intentions: they may, on the other hand, be founded on affective bonds, on relationships of friendship, intimacy, shared aesthetic and literary interests, trust or empathy.20 In his study of the Rye circle and the collaboration between Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, Farrell shows that affective bonds and collaborative work may take the shape of narrative and conversational situations which, in turn, give birth to literary communities. Friendship, sociability and conversation are the fundamental ingredients of the forms of the salon, the circle and the coterie, which represent perhaps the more frivolous aspects of community. On the other hand, the sociability, conversation and conviviality practised within small circles and groups was seen by sociologists Georg Simmel and Max Weber not only as the source of literary and artistic creation, but also as instruments to contrast the alienation of modern life and even to forge a more meaningful world.21 Martina Ciceri explores the literary practices informed by the internationalist, pacifist and utopian Tolstoyan communities in Great Britain, focusing especially on the power of conversation ← 9 | 10 → implicit in the literary exchanges and translations of Olive Garnett and the Russian emigré Sergey Mikhailovich Kravchinsky (Stepniak).

The chapters in the second section of the book focus on writers whose work was rather characterized by a marked scepticism towards any type of collective enterprise or community: Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and the Finnish author Algot Untola. In spite of this scepticism, communities and groups do appear very prominently in the works of these authors, especially in the form of coteries and alternative ‘republics of letters’. The textual communities of these authors are international or transnational (in the case of Barnes, Loy and the Baroness) and intertextual; their presence and form seems to question the aesthetic and critical categories of authorship and originality, as well as the political agendas associated with individualism, gender identity and political affiliation. Francesca Chiappini and Laura Scuriatti explore the contradictory aspects of sociability and various forms of community in the works of Djuna Barnes, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Mina Loy. Chiappini’s study of Barnes’s works identifies different levels of textual and virtual communities based on intertextual dialogues across the Atlantic; Laura Scuriatti’s chapter on Mina Loy surveys Loy’s numerous versions of community and the failed or successful utopias produced by them – from the elitist community of geniuses of Loy’s early writings, to the individualist communities of the ‘Feminist Manifesto’ and ‘Psycho-Democracy’, to her satire of sociability and the affirmation of textual, virtual communities based on literary dialogues and citation. Kaisa Kurikka’s chapter investigates a very peculiar case: the ideal, virtual and literary community created by the numerous pseudonyms and author-names of the Finnish writer Algot Untola. Kurikka’s chapter, as well as those of Chiappini, Ciceri and Scuriatti, addresses the problem of authorship in relation to collaborative and utopian practices; the chapters highlight from different angles the dialectics between individuality and collectivity that emerged in the early twentieth century and which characterized its major and minor utopian projects. Reinhold J. Fäth’s chapter on the group Aenigma, Martina Rinaldi’s study of Lee Miller’s and Roland Penrose’s Farley Farm, and Dorothea Schöne’s analysis of the experiments of the group of artists programmatically named after the small Swiss village of Porza, offer a broad panorama of lesser-known modernist ← 10 | 11 → communities that chose to stage their own utopian discourses of resistance or rebirth at a partial or intermittent distance from locations of power and cultural politics.

The part entitled ‘Literary and Lived Utopias’ focuses on the works and practices of the ‘Young American Critics’, the British author and translator Olive Garnett, and the Surrealists Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, merging analysis of these groups and their utopian ideals with historical study of their impact on literary and public spheres. Sánchez-Pardo’s study on the ‘Young American Critics’ Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford highlights the cultural and political critiques offered by these young authors against the very notion of nation as community and national identity, while reaffirming the connection between a universalist utopia and a local, national one in which literature and the arts play a major role. The textual communities created by the Young American Critics, by Olive Garnett and by the Russian emigré Stepniak pursued utopian goals and were based on specific models of utopian communities in the United States, Great Britain and Russia.

The chapters by Isabel Wünsche, Dorothea Schöne and Reinhold J. Fäth in the section ‘Internationalism and the Utopia of an Aesthetic Community’ investigate the tensions between different notions of community, and the need to rethink communal goals within or without paradigms of national identification. The groups discussed in these chapters – Porza, Aenigma and die abstrakten hannover – pursued parallel internationalist politics and transnational aesthetic practices, using the possibilities and channels of artistic networks to create utopian social spaces or even whole new communities, in an attempt to face threats of aggressive nationalism and the increasing rationalization and de-humanization of daily life; in the case of the group Aenigma, this work also included a recuperation of a spiritual dimension connecting all aspects of human life, from aesthetics to economics.

While the impact and success of these communities and projects, or of the paradigms they created, was mixed, the present studies of such instances of minor utopias provide an overview of a variety of neglected or under-researched groups and authors, showing the relevance of the study of collective, collaborative practices for avant-garde and modernist aesthetics. ← 11 | 12 →


Adamson, Walter L., Avant-Garde Florence: From Modernism to Fascism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

——, Embattled Avant-Gardes: Modernism’s Resistance to Commodity Culture in Europe (Oakland: University of California Press, 2009).

Adorno, T. W., Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007).

Antliff, Mark, Avant-Garde Fascism: The Mobilization of Myth, Art, and Culture in France, 1909–39 (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2007).

Biographical notes

Laura Scuriatti (Volume editor)

Laura Scuriatti is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Bard College Berlin. She is the author of Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism (University Press of Florida, 2019); she has co-edited, with Caroline Patey, the volume The Exhibit in the Text. The Museological Practices of Literature (2009) and, with Sara Fortuna, Dekalog. On Dogville (2012). She has published on Mina Loy, Ford Madox Ford, Futurism, H. G. Wells, Sacheverell Sitwell, Mario Praz.


Title: Groups, Coteries, Circles and Guilds