Robert Brain

The Pulse of Modernism

Physiological Aesthetics in Fin-de-Siecle Europe

University of Washington Press 2015

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“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” Oscar Wilde famously observed. Wilde’s waning romanticism can be read in stark contrast with Nietzsche,...

“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” Oscar Wilde famously observed. Wilde’s waning romanticism can be read in stark contrast with Nietzsche, who argued around the same time, “art is nothing but a kind of applied physiology.” Robert Brain’s The Pulse of Modernism: Physiological Aesthetics in Fin-de-Siecle Europe (University of Washington Press, 2015) unveils a fascinating world of exchange between artistic studios and physiology laboratories concealed by such pithy aphorisms. Brain argues that the influence and stature of physiological aesthetics have been overlooked in accounts of modernism in science and art, and seeks to recover experimental systems that were incredibly influential and fertile in their cultural situation.

Brain first sets himself to chart the development of physiological recording in the sciences, first as experimental technique, then as ontology, in a fascinating chapter on the protoplasm theory of life and on to its application to the human qua human problems of linguistic analysis. He then describes the experimentalization of visual art (Georges Seurat, Edvard Munch) and poetry (Gustave Kahn, F. T. Marinetti). The influence of Charles Henry, who inhabited both artists’ circles and physiology laboratories in his work as a preparateur, becomes a key pivot in Brain’s narrative through his creation a scientific aesthetic that could be deployed as a kind of productive black-box. The Pulse of Modernism is a rich portrait of fin-de-siecle material and intellectual culture, and challenges the pride of place given to Victorian sensibilities in the fashioning of the late modern (early modernist) scientific subject.

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