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Groups, Coteries, Circles and Guilds

Modernist Aesthetics and the Utopian Lure of Community

Edited By Laura Scuriatti

In the first half of the twentieth century, artists, intellectuals, writers, thinkers and patrons in Europe and the United States created a large number of artistic communities, circles, groups and movements with the aim of providing alternatives to the increasingly conflictual political and intellectual climate; the works and artistic practices of many of these groups were marked by an ethos of collaboration, based on a collective understanding of artistic production, and on the nurturing and exercise of sociability and conviviality. Collaboration, sociability, friendship and collective artistic efforts represented the utopian aspects of the radical experiments carried out by avant-garde and modernist artists; they were also the counterparts of the period’s obsession with the notion of genius and the cult of the artist. This book offers studies of under-researched (and often consciously provincial) avant-garde and modernist groups and authors. Their progressive aims are here read as particular forms of utopia based on the ethics and aesthetics of community.

The essays in this volume analyse the significance (and failures) of literary coteries as spaces of aesthetic and political freedom. They explore the internationalist and interdisciplinary practices of the Porza Group, the abstrakten hannover and the anthroposophical group Aenigma; the utopian efforts of the artists’ communities at Dornach (Switzerland) and Farley Farm, in England; the political and aesthetic implications of collaborative practices of cultural mediation, criticism and translation within the Bloomsbury group, the «Young American Critics», and of single individuals in relation to networks and avant-garde coteries, such as Mina Loy, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Djuna Barnes. The volume offers an evaluation of the roots and ethos of sociability in the Enlightenment, as the basis of modernist utopias of community; it also reflects on the problematic notion of individual authorship within artistic groups, as in the case of the early-modernist Finnish author Algot Untola, who created around forty fictitious author-names.

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Introduction (Laura Scuriatti)


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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....

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