How artists at the turn of the twentieth century broke with traditional ways of posing the bodies of human figures to reflect modern understandings of human consciousness.
Modern Art & the Remaking of Human Disposition brings a new formal and conceptual rubric to the study of turn-of-the-century European modernism, analyzing a hitherto unexamined formal phenomenon. In the decades around 1900, artists working in different countries and across different media began to present human figures in strictly frontal, lateral, and dorsal postures, breaking with the centuries-old tradition of rendering bodies in torsion, with poses designed to simulate the human being’s physical volume and capacity for autonomous thought and movement. This formal departure destabilized prevailing visual codes for signifying the existence of the inner life of the human subject.
The book examines the motivating circumstances and expressive consequences of this repudiation of inherited conventions of pose. Its broadest and most basic ambition is to show how new concepts of subjectivity were materialized in works of art by means of new dispositions of the body. Exploring major works by Georges Seurat, Gustav Klimt, and the dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, Modern Art & the Remaking of Human Disposition combines intensive formal analysis with inquiries into the history of psychology and evolutionary biology. In doing so, it restores to view a highly tangible dimension of an epistemological transformation: how modern understandings of human consciousness and the relation of mind to body were materialized in art through a new vocabulary of postures and poses.
“Butterfield-Rosen provides an unprecedented and compelling exploration of how the representation of the human body was re-conceptualized and reimagined in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries. A lucid and exhilarating book.” —Jonathan Crary
“Butterfield-Rosen’s strategy of examining the disposition of poses in order to contribute to histories of the self is nothing short of brilliant, and her discussion of the trafficking between abstract concepts and concrete practices is rigorous, original, and convincing. This is an area in which the discipline of art history is in a privileged position to contribute to a broader history of ideas, and she makes skillful use of the weapons in an art historian’s arsenal, including formal and iconographic analysis.”
—Zeynep Celik Alexander
“What is most distinctive about Butterfield-Rosen’s important study is the scope of its ambition, joining fascinating close readings with a genealogy of the very foundations of art-historical analysis. It turns to the basic claim of European art history that it is of deep cultural significance how the human body is represented. While demonstrating the epistemic and artistic productivity of this assumption, Butterfield-Rosen offers a critical account of its emergence and crisis around 1900.”
“Right at the helm of new writing about the twentieth century body stands Butterfield-Rosen’s brilliant, precise, meticulous study of gestures and stances, dispositions, movements and postures. In Seurat, Klimt, and Nijinsky, she identifies a veritable feedback loop between viewer and work, between modernism and the science and beliefs it drew on and reshaped. This book is a dazzling achievement whose scope and importance reach far beyond art history.”
“Modern Art & the Remaking of Human Disposition is original, creative, erudite, soundly argued, and convincingly substantiated. It constitutes an important intervention in the history of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century European art, offering a subtle linkage between aesthetic theory and socio-psychological conceptions of selfhood.” — Juliet Bellow