Modernism and the Museum

July 21, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)


I cannot remember when I last came upon on a book as stimulating as Rupert Richard Arrowsmith’s Modernism and the Museum: Asian, African and Pacific Art and the London Avant-Garde (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011).

Arrowsmith is that rare thing, an art historian who is equally well informed about the traditions of ‘West’ and ‘East’, ‘modern’ and ‘pre-modern’. He holds a Doctorate in English Literature from Oxford and has also spent a great deal of time in Asia; his web page informs us that he has lived for three years in Burma, where he was also ordained as a Buddhist monk.

The premise of his book is this: ‘There is a problem with the study of Modernism as a global phenomenon. Histories of the period have been written, until very recently, by scholars with little or no knowledge of culture provinces other than their own… this situation has led to a distorted view of Modernism as essentially a European invention, with comparable movements on other parts of the globe characterized as imitative of ‘advanced’ art and literature in Europe… The possibility of multi-directional, transnational exchange in aesthetic concepts, art-historical knowledge, and literary and artistic technique is thus discounted, played down, or at best acknowledged in tentative and misleading ways’ (p.1).

Arrowsmith sets out to correct this with much gusto and panache. Modernism and the Museum is a marvelously rich work: in illuminating some of the neglected conjunctions and confluences of the past Arrowsmith also shines a light towards exciting new possibilities ahead.

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