Fragmentary Modernisms: The Classical Fragment in Literary and Visual Cultures, 1896-1950

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Classics and Ancient History


In 1896, two Oxford archaeologists discovered a 'torrent' of papyri in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, including fragments of lost poems by the lyric poet Sappho. Their discoveries, and the publications and lectures based on them, gripped the public imagination, infiltrating popular novels and music hall songs, newspaper reports, and the Times 'book of the week'. Other notable archaeological discoveries - such as Arthur Evans' excavations at Knossos (home of Ariadne's mythical labyrinth) at the turn of the twentieth century - continued to bring a stream of fragmentary material from the ancient world to contemporary public notice. Discoveries of fragmentary remains abroad were mirrored in museological developments at home. Radical changes in museum display - increasingly the site of consumption of ancient art and artefacts beyond the Grand Tour and its successors - were emphasising fragmentation by removing the older neoclassical restorations from the staple classics of ancient Greek sculpture, including the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. As Rilke put it, writing on a damaged torso in the Louvre: the fragment can be so lucent that it has the power to 'change your life'.

A striking parallel to these developments is found in contemporary artistic and literary production. The revolution in literature and the visual arts which took place between the late-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries was fundamentally marked (almost to the point of cliché) by a tendency to radical fragmentation: statues half-finished as if broken off by the ravages of time; poems with little or no narrative meaning, the words laid out on the page as though parts of the text had been excised; novels seemingly made up of what Virginia Woolf called the 'orts, scraps and fragments' of modern experience. Yet these trends did not arise in a vacuum of avant-garde modernity. Designated by the term 'modernism' to reflect its novelty, the modernist movement in art and literature, so strongly marked by its fragmentary aesthetics, was, in fact, crucially shaped by a striking turn to the fragmentary remains of antiquity.

This project takes as its starting point the crucial realisation that the period in which some of the most radical literary and visual experimentations with fragmentation took place also witnessed a series of paradigm-shifting developments in the discovery and dissemination of classical antiquity in fragments. Bringing together archaeology, museology, philology and epigraphy with modern literature and art, it provides the first integrated picture of the combined impact of classical scholarship on the literary and visual aesthetics of modernism and its legacy.

'Fragmentary Modernisms' reaches across disciplinary and institutional borders to bring to light the multiple networks of influence between classical scholarship (broadly conceived) and the literary and visual arts. In doing so, it aims to fundamentally change the story of the reception of the classical fragment that we are able to tell. Fragmentation - the most pervasive characteristic of modernist aesthetics - was essentially a function of classical reception, and the seismic shift the modernist reception of classical fragments and their dissemination by classicists produced in the ways in which we imagine antiquity continues to shape contemporary artistic, scholarly and museological practice.

Planned Impact

Encompassing classical scholarship, museology and modern artistic production, 'Fragmentary Modernisms' - by its very nature - offers highly fruitful opportunities to capitalize on strategies for impact generation. Drawing on significant previous experience (I am currently the departmental Impact lead for the ERC-funded 'Living Poets' project), considerations of impact will be written into the project's leadership activities from the outset.

The project's impact goals are geared to individual groups of beneficiaries:

1) Museums, Libraries, Galleries

The libraries, galleries and museums in which many of the materials are held constitute the most immediate impact beneficiaries. Representatives from many of these institutions will be key participants in the project's leadership activities: Workshop I, for example, will involve dialogues with British Library manuscript curators, archivists, and historians, shedding light on the ways in which even twentieth-century library collections can be seen not just as artefacts in themselves, but as books and papers embedded in a cultural history of reading and reception; reconceptualising aspects of the history of the library's collections will allow the institution and its users to see the books, manuscripts, and even the history of the institution's buildings as a dynamic part of the emergence of the trend in fragmentation in the literary and artistic culture of the twentieth century, a trend which still persists today. Similarly, Workshop II will engage participants from the museum and gallery sector (including the British Museum, Petrie Museum, and Ashmolean Museum, as the Great North Museum in Newcastle), encouraging these bodies to think about - and present to the public - existing collections as part of the wider cultural contexts of the development of modernist fragmentation which shaped the shifts in taste affecting what collectors value (potsherds as opposed to whole pots, for instance) or how they have been displayed.

2) Creative Sector

The workshops are also designed to actively involve the creative sector, with targeted representatives from dance, poetry, and visual art among the invited participants. Forging links with practitioners and scholars on the conference theme will bring to life the multiple layers of reception written into the cultural history of the texts and objects we work with, opening up important impact possibilities with the creative sector.

3) Education

Several of the key artists and writers studied in this project overlap with A'Level curricula for English, History of Art, and Classical Civilisation. I have concrete strategies for reaching teachers and students, including school talks and articles in magazines aimed at teachers (see 'Pathways to Impact' for details). These would bring to the fore (for students and teachers of English and History of Art) fresh ways in which antiquity and its reception can help us understand key modernist authors and artists working in fragments, and (for those studying antiquity) how these artists and the cultural contexts in which they worked can, in turn, help us to understand the filters through which we still look at many of the canonical works of ancient art, architecture, and literature we study.

4) Wider Public

From Palmyra to the Elgin Marbles debate, the fragments and ruins of antiquity have been the subject of an upsurge of recent public interest and exposure. Building on my experience with working with BBC Radio 3 (who have a recording studio in Newcastle) I aim to tap into this growing appetite, showing how the various layers of reception and transmission have haunted how the fragments of the past have been (in T. S. Eliot's words) 'lost/And found and lost again and again'. During the tenure of the fellowship I plan to expand my skills and contacts, undertaking training to enable me to develop my media profile as a pathway to disseminating the project's findings to a wider audience.


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Description 'Fragmentary Modernisms' sought to change the story of the reception of the fragment that we are able to tell by looking at the networks of interaction between classical scholars and modernist writers and artists in the first half of the twentieth century, and the legacy of those dialogues today. It took its starting point from the realisation that both groups were centred on the object of a shared obsession - the fragment - and sought to investigate the different ways in which that obsession criss-crossed over disciplinary and professional boundaries to co-create the idea of the classical fragment that still filters how we interpret and present the past.

The project's main output, a monograph currently in production with Oxford University Press and due to be published in December 2023, has been central to fulfilling that aim. Modernism and classical scholarship are traditionally seen to be divided by what one scholar has called 'a traumatic breach'. But as the monograph shows, particularly when it comes to the fragment, this was far from the case. Not only were the main proponents of Anglophone modernism deeply engaged in classical scholarship on fragmentary texts and objects; the direction of influence also worked in reverse. Classical scholars responsible for disseminating the fragments of the past in an apparently 'neutral' way were, in turn, influenced by the radical aesthetic of the fragment unfolding around them. From the Chicago Professor of Classical Philology who famously declared that if Ezra Pound were a Professor of Latin his only recourse would be suicide (but who was writing in one of the most cutting-edge literary magazines published in the period), to the classical archaeologist Bernard Ashmole, who built the first modernist house in Britain even as he counselled the removal of plaster additions to classical Greek statues on display in the modern museum.

What has been called the 'apotheosis of the fragment' in the first half of the twentieth century, in other words, was not peculiar to modernism: it was a joint cultural production shared between modernists and classical scholars engaged in bringing the fragments of antiquity to light in modernity. As the project workshops have also brought to the fore, the result has shaped the ways in which we still think about, present and consume the classical fragment now.
Exploitation Route The academic impact of the project has already started to become apparent. Its reach is broad and could - and in some cases already has - been taken forward in several disciplines.

Firstly, by highlighting the interventions of modernism in the ways in which we present the fragments of the past, it will have an impact within Classical studies. The project findings are not simply relevant to those working on classical reception; by laying bare the interventions of modernism in how we see, present and disseminate the fragments of the past in modernity, they will have an impact on the work of all those (papyrologists, epigraphers, philologists, and museum curators) responsible for curating and disseminating ancient fragments to modern audiences.

Secondly, in the disciplines of modern literature (especially English and Modern Languages) the project findings open up pathways of further investigation that allow for a more detailed understanding of modernist engagements with the materials of classical scholarship than has recently been conducted. I have already had fruitful conversation with colleagues in Modern Languages and English Studies about ways in which the methods and results of the projects could be used in those disciplines, and I hope to open up more interdisciplinary dialogues on these lines in the future.

Finally, in an inter-professional conversation which began in the workshops I organised for the project, the findings of 'Fragmentary Modernisms' will be of interest to creative practitioners, who - like their modernist counterparts - are transforming the remains of antiquity into new art forms in modernity (this last point is treated further in the section on 'Impact Narrative').
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

Description Two workshops, Talking Fragments I and II, were held in Durham in June and September 2022, respectively. The aim was to break the perceived boundaries between academic research, museum practice, and creative practice by bringing together participants from multiple spheres of activity. During two stimulating one-day workshops, we gathered together in Durham to explore - from multiple angles - the conceptual issues and practical challenges involved in working with fragments. The workshops featured not only academics from Classics and Archaeology, but museum curators (from the Petrie Museum in London and from Durham's own collections), librarians (from the British Library), and creative practitioners, including the poet Josephine Balmer, (author, among other things, of 'The Paths of Survival' and 'Ghost Passage'), the artist Catrin Huber (who has produced installations at Pompeii), and the writer and director, Helen Eastman, who, among other things, has been working with young people in a filmed production inspired by a surviving fragment of Euripides' Phaethon. Crossing disciplinary and professional boundaries, the workshops themselves aimed to replicate the kinds of inter-professional conversations investigated in the project monograph. My research demonstrates how apparently unlikely conversations between, for example, papyrologists and modernist poets, had helped to redefine the classical fragment as we know it on both sides of the perceived divide, and it was thrilling to see just such conversations enabled in the here and now by the project workshops. Feedback made it clear that the workshops opened new avenues of thought and practice for many of the participants, too: 'The workshop completely transformed how I think about fragments', one participant commented, while another 'found much to take away for my own practice ... and will certainly be returning to my notes on the various talks over the coming months'. It was a pleasure and a privilege to share my research with such a fascinating range of creative and dynamic individuals, particularly after a long period of lockdown, and the dialogues we opened up have influenced many of them as well.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Description Classics for All article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Article for "Ad Familiares", the outreach magazine for 'Classics for All', an organisation which supports state schools across the UK, many in areas of socio- economic disadvantage, to introduce or develop the teaching of classical subjects.

I was invited to write on a topic which relates to my latest monograph, but I consider this an important step in developing my public and outreach profile.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Modernity and the Classical Fragment, Classical Association/Literary and Philosophical Society Newcastle 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An audience of interested members of the general public and some academics attended a talk organised by the Classical Association in association with the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Talking Fragments I 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Talking Fragments I was the first of two workshops designed to bring together academics and practitioners to think about the implications of working with the fragments of antiquity in the present from multiple perspectives. It was held in Durham on the 24th June 2022, in hybrid form. Participants included poets, playwrights and museum curators as well as academics working on ancient fragments and their reception. The workshop also hosted an object talk from the Durham collections, looking at an example of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of 'repairing' broken pottery, from the Oriental Museum.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Talking Fragments II 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Talking Fragments II was the second workshop of a pair designed to bring together academics and practitioners to think about the implications of working with the fragments of antiquity in the present. It was held in Durham on 8th September 2022. Participants in this workshop included practising artists and museum curators, as well as academics from various fields including classics and archaeology. The workshop also involved an object talk from the Durham collections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022