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 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 and plan to contribute a piece on Fragmentary Modernisms in due course.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020