Modernism, a much-contested term, generally signifies the efforts of a group of late 19th-century European painters, writers, musicians, and philosophers who consciously broke with traditional ways of creating art. But what does one do with aristocratic lineage, with backgrounds steeped in tradition, when one wants to be known as a modern painter or thinker? How does this seeming contradiction in the life manifest itself in the work itself? Charles A. Riley II grapples with such questions, challenging the way we view Modernism in this accessible look at the role of the aristocrat not as a patron, but as an artist.
Reinserting aristocrats in the account of Modernism yields a rich store of unforgettable characters. They run the gamut from the wild exuberance of Franz Liszt and George Sand to the cold snobbery of Frederic Chopin, from the rough excesses of slumming with Francis Bacon to the affected high tone of castle life with the (false) Count Balthus. Group portraits of interconnected intellectual lives emerge as Riley explores the historical encounters linking the work of these often overlooked leaders of the avant-garde. He shows that while some relied on wealth and station to nurture a Classical "retro" ideal of art, others used art and philosophy to lash back at the archaic ideals of nobility.