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The Pulse of Modernism: Physiological Aesthetics in Fin-de-Si ècle Europe

by Robert Brain

Reviewed by Jennifer Ferng



Singing the praises of vibrating protoplasm and experimental phonetics, The Pulse of Modernism (2015) is a rich, scholarly tour through some of the lesser-know nineteenth-century inventions of physiology. Physiologists' experimental systems conceived in laboratories were transferred into the domains of aesthetics, poetry, and biology, yielding a rich assortment of epistemic things. What Robert Brain calls "experimentalizing life" - among them, the inscriptions of spoken speech, kinesthesia, and techniques of abstraction - allowed for these disciplines to flourish at the boundaries of art, literature, and science. Revealing modernism's "hidden strata," he pushes back the chronological timeline of modernism to the fin-de-si ècle movements of the late nineteenth century that produced a "skill-based artisanal industrialism," counter to the central cultural references of the twentieth century. Indebted to the early work of Bruno Latour, Brain's arguments emphasize that "early modernism was deeply imprinted with these materialities of the laboratory" (Introduction, xvii). This book, as an interdisciplinary study in the history of science, opens up discussions about how aesthetics interacted with physiology in a surprising number of sophisticated ways.


The book is divided into two parts: the first deals with the developments of physiology as the founding inspiration for some of the techniques pursued by those in the arts and the second addresses how artists from Georges Seurat and Paul Signac developed their methods to question physiological aesthetics. Summoning the culture of the graphic diagram, these "immutable mobiles" circulated between physiology and aesthetics in "an exchange economy of inscriptions." As Brain suggests, movements, color, music, and articulated sound could be transformed into "luminous undulations" or "curvilinear inscriptions" (97). Physical phenomena were translated into wavy lines that were made into comprehensible statements about individual reactions to images - time also took precedence in the nineteenth century, as an omnipresent, enigmatic and non-visible phenomena that could be measured and evaluated. However, these curves and lines still required informed interpretations from scientists and physicians.


Some of the illustrations that accompany these experimental systems point out how creativity became mechanized. For instance, the aesthetic protractor developed by Charles Henry allowed a user to locate rhythmical numbers at a glance and convert them into degrees. A working artist could then determine if specific angular distances between lines were harmonious in their visual composition. In High Kick (Chahut) from 1889-90, Seurat's method of painting "as done mechanically by hand" relied on the repetition of circular lines, which expressed a feeling of gaiety as relayed by Henry van de Velde (144). As a "metapicture," his painting now presents itself, according to Brain, as a high-speed photograph where dancing takes on a machine-like appearance.


In expanding on "art's capacity to make primordial rhythms of biological life perceptible," we see that other artists like Edward Munch and August Strindberg are also equally interested in sensory fusion (174). Around the 1890s, symbolist poets enjoyed investigating theories like "color hearing" that joined Hermann Helmholtz's tone color with Wagner's reunification of forms that touched the eye and ear. In this variation, sounds, or even the memory of sounds, evoked sensations of color or luminous images. For some, it was considered the rare product of an organized nervous system. Munch's famous painting The Scream (1893) concentrated the melding of color and sound through swirling waveforms that converged back on the central figure cupping his face. Brain draws a fascinating parallel between the Scream and Parisian psychiatrists who used extreme bursts of sound or light on hysterical subjects at the Salpetri ère and Bicêtre hospitals.


The complexity behind some of these scientific innovations could be overwhelming in their minutiae, but Brain is careful to guide the reader through how these experimental systems were responsible for given aesthetic outcomes. This is not a work to be rushed through, and in fact, it demands significant reader engagement and one is rewarded with a wealth of information about many of these little known figures (or even unexpected information about popular figures such as Seurat). But the masterful handling of such material speaks to Brain's talent at handling multiple narrative strands and cumulative arguments. This study is rather unique not only in its ambition and intricacy, but also for its remarkable approach in tackling some of the larger philosophical questions shared by science and art alike. These modes of experience that aimed to "synchronize sensibilities and shape social order" in European modernism were eventually excised from disciplines like art history (226). Not forgotten, however, these profound inventions that existed well before the twentieth century continue to persist as partisans of physiological aesthetics, which will serve as important references for those who practice in the visual arts.


Last Updated 6th December 2015

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