‘Migration, Modernism, Fascism’

Without migration, modernist art, literature, and culture would look very different. Indeed, many key modernist figures were migrants in some respect: we might think of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Edna O’Brien, Jean Rhys, Tristran Zara, Leonora Carrington, and Max Ernst. But what role did fascist ideology play in the shaping of the modernist migrant experience in the early-to-mid 20th century? This specific question galvanised ‘Migration, Modernism, Fascism’ (April 2015), a public-facing seminar that sought to present two very different faces of modernist art and literature: Ezra Pound and Kurt Schwitters. Even though both were migrants, the lives and works of both artists were shaped by fascism in very different ways: on the one hand, there is Pound the giant of literary modernism, who was also a Fascist; on the other, Schwitters, the giant of visual modernism who was branded a ‘degenerate artist’ by Hitler’s ideologues and forced into exile. To debate the many, and often disquieting, links and connections between migration, modernism, and fascism, Dr Jeannette Baxter was joined by Professor Matthew Feldman and Dr Ian Hunter, whose respective work on Ezra Pound and Kurt Schwitters has helped to shape contemporary understanding of the literary-political legacies of these two modernist artists.

Here are some audience responses to the evening:

‘Hugely useful, stimulating and enjoyable. Learnt a lot about the history of modernism and around modernism, and made lots of conceptual connections with migration. Fascinating and important work in both talks.’

Dr Elizabeth Barry, Warwick University.

‘Excellent work presented and fascinating interrogation of the ethical implications of approaches to literature and history.’

Melissa Chia, University Of Cambridge

‘It is astounding just how prolific Ezra Pound was (a migrant artist) for the fascist agenda. What this means for modernism, I’m not sure.’

Clive Thompson, ARU.

‘Fascinating and stimulating. Informative introduction to new areas of discourse for me.’

Chris Lyon, ARU.

‘This event has made me want to think more about the role of migration and modernist thought. I’m also curious about the question of a fascist return to the epic. To what degree can we think of the Cantos in its entirety as a fascist epic? It makes me want to look into Pound’s relationship with H.D.’

Dr Amy Crawford, ARU

‘How far are the archives used to inform Pound biographies? If little, why is this evidence left out. Is an ‘archival turn’ overdue on Pound?

Dr Sue Wilson, MPA, ARU.

‘I enjoyed the two very interesting talks, especially the talk about Kurt Schwitters, who I previously knew very little about. The presentations also led to some very interesting discussions that raised questions about the expansion of modernism beyond the first half of the C20th.’

Thomas, Cambridge

‘The idea of poetry having the ability to manifest itself as ‘emotional’ propaganda is fascinating and very useful for my current work. Also the question of why it is we expect poets and artists to be different from other people. Really important.’

Rose, Cambridge

‘Very interesting. It has helped to reinforce the importance of historicising literature, and the study of the past to better understand the present. Personally, what fascinates me is that something detestable (fascism) could help give birth to some of the most beautiful artwork in the Western world.’

Phillip, ARU

‘A lovely and important evening. Theoretically informed and very well contextualised. It would be good to look at anti-fascism as well. Thank you all so much for organising this.’

Professor Mary Joannou, Cambridge.

The session of the event on Migration, Modernism, Fascism, held my attention from start to finish. I was glad to be part of a series event such as, New Routes Old Roots: Literatures of Migration and Exile, which promises to be a continuous dialogue on an important topic in this 21st century, as well as becoming an archival site of human knowledge. This, for me, is the most enduring sense of it that one cannot give away too quickly. It’s a huge privilege for me to join my voice with the voices of many others on this platform that always affords us the opportunity to discuss our human experiences, regardless our race, class, tribe, religion, creed, gender, and etcetera. More of it I look forward to!

Joshua Cambridge

‘Insightful. The most significant impact left with me after this event was the actual drawing of connections between migration, fascism and modernism. Thank you!’

Ela, Cambridge.