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Modernism, Energy, and Environment

In October 2019, The Getty Center in Los Angeles opened its “Manet and Modern Beauty” exhibit, a major reappraisal of Manet’s late work. The directors believed these canvases would reveal how “Manet’s growing fascination with contemporary fashion and femininity coincided with a steep decline in his health and mobility, a confrontation with his own human frailty.”[1] If the emphasis of the exhibition fell on his less familiar works, the narrative of the modern artist as a suffering genius sounds familiar enough. But another increasingly familiar effect of modernity may have shaped the experience of the exhibition in ways that the curators and directors did not anticipate.

The exhibition opened as California was being scorched by another hellish fire season. The Getty Fire raged from October 28 until November 6, burning some 745 acres. Its proximity to the Getty Center prompted an outpouring of media stories about the safety of its multimillion-dollar art collection. A Los Angeles Times headline simultaneously emphasized the risk to the artworks and allayed any worry: “Fire licks the edges of the Getty Center, but the art is safe.” CNN, The Guardian, and The Washington Post circulated images and video of the growing inferno and ran similar stories about the fortress-like design of the Getty Center. Its construction materials, double-enclosures, and air-filtration systems were all designed, we learned, specifically for wildfires. The Getty Center tweeted out its own assurances to the public on October 28, 2019: “600+ personnel are continuing to employ air and ground support, including air tankers, to contain the fire.”[2] The architectural fortifications and the militaristic response ensured the protection of the vulnerable, valuable artworks within. This unfolding story of carbon modernity triangulated the severity of climate breakdown, the marvels of human ingenuity, and the intertwined economic and cultural value of art. With the right battle plan and the properly designed fortifications, things could go on as ever.

To some degree, that proved true. The Getty closed on October 29 but reopened the next day. Still, we might wonder how museumgoers would receive these artifacts of late nineteenth-century modernity within the museum’s walls while anthropocene fires raged outside. The air ventilation system was designed to shield paintings from the effects of smoke, but could it prevent acrid smells and arresting visuals of blazing hills from altering the perceptions of “the breezy stylishness of his [Manet’s] late works” (Beeny, Manet and Modern Beauty, 89)? What does Manet, or modernism more broadly, look like from our vantage point of chronic climate instability?

Consider the centerpiece of the exhibit: Spring, one of two paintings from an unfinished seasonal quartet. This allegorical work juxtaposes natural beauty with the seemingly artificial appeal of fashionable Parisian women. From the perspective of the late nineteenth-century European modernity, Manet’s juxtaposition gathered force and legibility through the tension between fashion’s ephemerality and the predictable recursivity of the seasons.[3] The looped, closed temporality of the natural world functions as a background, which enables the radical appearance of fashion, of novelties emergent and residual, but always fleeting. Yet, even here in this neat separation of the natural and the social, other factors now appear. Richard Brettell observes that Manet’s model, Jeanne, is in a garden with rhododendrons, which “became fashionable in English and French gardens only in the middle of the nineteenth century, when they enjoyed almost a craze. . . . Native to high altitudes in Nepal, India, and the Appalachian Mountains in the United States, these bush-like trees can grow to great heights.”[4] The background that stands in for the natural here signals that Jeanne is in a public garden, a curated space of non-native plant life collected from the non-European world.

Spring by Édouard Manet, painting of woman's face with vegetation in background
Fig. 1. Spring by Édouard Manet. Public Domain.

The story of modern beauty, or of the aesthetic expressions of modernity writ large, is also a story of the complex interrelations of nature, empire, and culture that have grasped the attention of scholars in the Environmental and Energy Humanities. As we gaze back at the cultural histories of modernity, as we attend to its artifacts, how can we not also see the unfolding of our moment of ecological crisis? Several recent works in modernist studies have also argued that our research and methods should not, perhaps cannot, be shielded from the intertwined ecological and political catastrophes around us. Justin Neuman and Michael Rubenstein’s Modernism and Its Environments, Sonya Posmentier’s Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature, Margaret Ronda’s Remainders: American Poetry at Nature’s End, Kelly Sultzbach’s Ecocriticism and the Modernist Imagination: Forster, Woolf, and Auden, and Andrew Kalaidjian’s Exhausted Ecologies: Modernism and Environmental Recovery are a few recent efforts that detail how modernism’s longstanding preoccupations—the city, technology, innovation, social change, war, empire, race, gender, sexuality, media, capitalism—are in fact entangled with the nonhuman world. Across this growing body of scholarship, we see the modern not so much through an ecocritical or environmental “lens”; rather, modernity and its cultural expressions are interconnected with the nonhuman world and the violent reshaping of it. These works show us how modernists often understood, sometimes misunderstood, their own interconnections with forces and lifeworlds larger than themselves and gave expressive form to them as they emerged, mutated, or vanished. 

“Energy and Environment” hopes to continue this reassessment of modernism alongside global energy systems and their often violent relation to the nonhuman world. Recasting modernist cultural production in this way also invites us to continue the work of understanding modernisms’ transnational histories, their relations to racial capitalism, and their imperial, settler colonial, and anticolonial imaginaries. Given what we continue to learn about the relation of fossil capitalism to processes of modernization, what other cultural histories might we excavate and what actors within them might now appear as avatars of the “modern?” Is there anything else left to learn from the art objects and cultural forms that have captured our attentions for so long? What anticipations, knowledges, complicities, and even misapprehensions about the earth system are enciphered within modernist works? What else might come into view that was previously marginal, barely visible?

This is an open invitation to scholars, artists, activists, and others to think daringly and speculatively about new and unresolved questions around modernist cultural production broadly conceived and its relationship to environment and energy. This forum welcomes contributions of all sorts: speculative essays, archival examinations, interviews with scholars and artists, field reports, and other forms of thought-making that might not find a home in more traditional academic venues. As we explore these and other questions, we might wonder, as Anne Raine has, if modernism is what we should be thinking about in this context at all.[5] We should make space for that and remain alert to the way “modernism” continues to serve as an honorific term, a way to attribute value and direct attention to the things we find interesting now. Please reach out with your ideas and let’s think about what stories of modernity are worth telling, are even believable, as fires burn, glaciers and species disappear, and capital eats away at whatever is left.



[1] Timothy Potts and James Rondeau, “Foreward,” in Manet and Modern Beauty: The Artist’s Last Years, ed. Scott Allan, Emily A. Beeny, and Gloria Groom (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2019), viii.

[2] Getty Center (@GettyMuseum), Twitter, October 28, 2019, 2:00 p.m., https://twitter.com/GettyMuseum/status/1188878282881585152.

[3] The interplay of fashion and modern aesthetics has been illuminated most recently by Celia Marshik’s At the Mercy of Their Clothes: Modernism, the Middlebrow, and British Garment Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017) and Lily Sheehan’s Modernism À La Mode: Fashion and the Ends of Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018).

[4] On Modern Beauty: Three Paintings by Manet, Gauguin, and Cézanne (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2019), 33.

[5] “Modernism, Eco-Anxiety, and the Climate Crisis,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 4, cycle 3, November 21, 2019, https://modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/raine-eco-anxiety-and-climate-crisis.