Article Index



Jeremy Braddock.
Collecting as Modernist Practice.
Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2012.

review by Alexander Howard





braddockThe art and practice of collecting has proved an enduring source of fascination and inspiration for many a major modernist writer and thinker. One need only recall the shorter fictions of Virginia Woolf to appreciate this. Consider, for instance, some of the more curious predilections exhibited by the character John in Woolf’s well-known “Solid Objects” (1920). An up-and-coming—if easily distracted—Parliamentarian, John is also an inveterate collector of various trinkets and trophies. We first see him on a beach. John is, Woolf tells us, moving inexorably toward a “stranded pilchard boat” (96). It soon becomes apparent that he is also engaged in a passionate verbal debate with his friend, Charles.

Upon reaching their destination, John and Charles, almost as if possessed, launch “themselves down by the six ribs and spine of the pilchard boat” (96). Casting political discussion aside, John begins to burrow “his fingers down, down, into the sand” (96). Before long, his fingers happen upon and curl “round something hard – a full drop of solid matter – and gradually dislodged a large irregular lump, and brought it to the surface.” Woolf describes the object in John’s hand thus:

It was a lump of glass, so thick as to be opaque; the smoothing of the sea had completely worn off any edge or shape, so it was impossible to say whether it had been bottle, tumbler or window pane; it was nothing but glass; it was almost a precious stone. You had only to enclose it in a rim of gold, or pierce it with a wire, and it became a jewel; part of a necklace, or a dull, green light upon a finger. Perhaps after all it was really a gem; something worn by a dark Princess trailing her finger in the water as she set in the stern of the boat and listened to the slaves singing as they rowed her across the Bay. Or the oak sides of a sunk Elizabethan treasure-chest had split apart, and, rolled over and over, over and overs, its emeralds had come at last to shore (97).

Quickly slipping this indeterminate glass object into his pocket, John sets off for home. He then places the object “upon the mantelpiece, where it stood heavy upon a little pile of bills and letters” (98). There it “served not only as an excellent paperweight, but also as a natural stopping place for the young man’s eyes when they wandered from his book” (98).  

And wander from his book the young man’s eyes indeed do. Woolf emphasises as much in the following passage:

Looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain when we least expect it (98).  

At this point things begin to get a little strange. John now finds “himself attracted to the windows of curiosity shops when he was out walking, merely because he saw something which reminded him of the lump of glass” (98). It seems that the mere presence of the previously salvaged lump of glass has triggered some sort of obscure, yet profound reaction in him. “Anything,” Woolf writes, “so long as it was an object of some kind, more or less round, perhaps with a dying flame sunk in its mass, anything – china, glass, amber, rock, marble – even the smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird would do” (98). Not long after this, John begins “to haunt the places which are most prolific of broken china, such as pieces of waste land between railway lines, sites of demolished houses, and commons in the neighbourhood of London” (99). Taken aback at first “variety of shapes to be found in London alone,” John soon amasses quite the collection of solid objects. As Woolf notes, “The finest specimens he would bring home and place upon his mantelpiece, where, however, their duty was more and more of an ornamental nature, since papers needing a weight to keep them down become scarcer and scarcer” (99).    

As this quote suggests, John increasingly compulsive search for solid objects precipitates a loss of professional control. He begins now to neglect his duties as a career politician. At the same time, John’s extra-professional obsession takes on what might well be described as a feverish quality:  

Provided with a bag and a long stick fitted with an adaptable hook, he ransacked all deposits of earth; raked beneath matted tangles of scrub; searched all alleys and spaces between walls where he had learned to expect to find objects of this kind thrown away. As his standard became higher and his taste more severe the disappointments were innumerable, but always some gleam of hope, some piece of china or glass curiously marked or broken, lured him on (100).

All the while time continues to pass: “He was no longer young. His career – that is his political career – was a thing of the past. People gave up visiting him. He was too silent to be worth asking to diner. He never talked to anyone about his serious ambitions; their lack of understanding was apparent in their behaviour” (100). John’s erstwhile colleague Charles is one such figure lacking in understanding. Shocked by the disordered appearance of John’s living room, Charles prepares to take leave of his friend for what will prove to be the final time. As he does, he notices something fixed, distant, and finally alarming in John’s expression.


By this point you might be asking yourself what, if anything, Woolf’s disquieting tale of compulsion has to do with the ostensible critical focus of this particular book review? The answer is simple. Like Woolf before him, the contemporary critic Jeremy Braddock is greatly interested in the “serious ambitions” of the collector. Unlike Woolf, however, Braddock is not concerned with fictional collectors, but real people of significant historical standing. This becomes abundantly clear in the opening pages of Braddock’s important Collecting as Modernist Practice (2012). Braddock begins by acknowledging that a critical survey “of the collection within modernism might simply start by observing how many modernist artworks themselves resemble collections” (1). Of course, as readers of Make It New will have already guessed, Ezra Pound’s name features prominently here, alongside those of equally familiar suspects such as Eliot, Joyce, and Flaubert. Listing canonical creators such as these, Braddock then moves to suggest that “what might be broadly named a “collecting aesthetic” can be identified as a paradigmatic form of modernist art” (2). So far, so unsurprising. Yet this is precisely where things begin to heat up. In Braddock’s reckoning, “to isolate the collection as an available form for art obscures the constitutive role of collecting practices that the works invoke: archiving, ethnography, museum display, anthologization” (2). In an attempt to avoid such a potential critical shortcoming, Braddock seeks not

to reveal and interpret a range of canonical works according to their secret affinity as collections but rather argue that if a collecting aesthetic describes a salient form of modernist art, it is because it bears witness to a larger set of crises and possibilities that the collection could both represent and address (2).

We soon discover that these crises and possibilities have much to do with a number of the familiar buzzwords that crop up time and time again in new modernism studies. I am thinking here specifically of terms such as patronage, consumption, the public sphere, and the institutionalised counterspace—each of which pertains in some way to the study of modernism’s historical reception. Referring back to the theoretical work of Jean Baudrillard and Lawrence Rainey’s influential Institutions of Modernism (1998), Braddock reminds us that seemingly innumerable figures associated with early twentieth-century avant-gardism viewed the public sphere that surrounded them as hopelessly degraded. In response, as is commonly known, many of these figures sought to beat a tactical retreat into the interwoven realms of patronage and speculation, of private investment and collecting. Braddock argues that this “powerful thesis” accounts “for certain key figures, such as the patron and collector John Quinn” (3). In Braddock’s estimation, however, the typical modernist collection was not, in fact, “a form of retreat, but instead a means of addressing the work of art to the public, modelling and creating the conditions of modernism’s reception” (3).

What exactly is Braddock getting at here? In short: the explanation has much to do with noted American art collectors and private galley owners such as Duncan Phillips and Albert C. Barnes. Braddock argues persuasively that these two collectors (both of whom rose to cultural and collecting prominence in the 1920s),

believed that the radically innovative work of modernism provided a broad transformation of institutional culture and even social practice at this inaugural moment of reception. Rather than constructing a regressive “institutional counterspace,” the modernist collection was figured as what I will call a provisional institution, a mode of public engagement modelling future—and often more democratic (although the meaning of this word would be contentious)—relationships between audience and artwork (3).

Bearing the wide-ranging implications of this assertion in mind, it comes as no surprise to find that a significant portion of Braddock’s fascinating study is given over to the detailed investigation of the various ways that collectors like Philips and Barnes were loosely bound together “in a general project of popularizing modernism, as well as competing for influence over the mode of its reception—competing, in other words, for the meaning of modernism itself” (71). According to Braddock, “it was Duncan Phillips who most successfully anticipated the dominant cultural position that modern art would occupy by the 1950s, even though his canon of artists would not be identical to the one that would be enshrined at the Museum of Modern Art” (71). This comes to the fore in a chapter tellingly entitled “The Domestication of Modernism: The Philips Memorial Gallery in the 1920s.” In this chapter, Braddock demonstrates how the D.C.-based Phillips, who first began collecting modern art in 1916, and who started out from a position that associated modernist creativity with, in his mind at least, deeply suspicious notions of collectivity and anarchism, “was able to anticipate and help shape the rhetoric for a later apparatus of reception in which—almost but not quite antithetically to his original conception—abstraction could be construed as the language of the individual” (105).

If we were to try to put this into simpler language, we might say that modernism, for a discerning collector such as Phillips, represented something of an inspirational doubled-edged sword, or, in Braddock’s words, “a promise and a threat”—one which demanded careful curating and regulation, and which also “required the active mediation of an institution that would fashion an appropriate canon for modernism, regulate the production of new works, and foster a critically engaged public sphere” (110). By way of direct contrast, for a collector such as Albert C. Barnes, “modernism seemed to announce an inevitable and more unambiguously democratizing moment of social transformation” (110). That is to say, he believed that modernism had the potential to perform specifically pedagogical and social functions. Barnes was of the opinion that modernist art, when placed in the service of a collector and gallery owner possessed of a suitably pragmatic philosophical outlook, could serve, to borrow from Braddock once again, “to demythologize the activity of artistic creation while also placing new and specific obligations upon the viewer; artist and audience would now be collaboratively engaged in the activity of creating meaning” (113). Reading this, one is immediately struck by the sheer scope of Barnes’s vision, which found physical manifestation in the form of the Philadelphia-based Barnes Foundation. This is something that Braddock acknowledges at the end of his chapter on Barnes and the deeply idiosyncratic Barnes Foundation—a provisional institution which, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to John’s living room at the close of Woolf’s aforementioned short story, veritably brims over with solid objects. Braddock suggests that as a direct result of such serious ambitions, “Barnes has often been portrayed by acolytes and enemies alike as a brilliant outlier, utterly distinct and isolated from the prevailing trends of the culture of American modernism” (155). Having said that, in equal measure, Braddock is quick to point out that

it is possible to argue, on the contrary, that Barnes’s practices were in fact paradigmatic of the farthest reaching aspirations of modernist culture in the United States, resembling in a more intensified way Pound’s understanding of the literary collection as an object in itself, or Phillip’s efforts to use the collection as a means of both inspiring and regulating aesthetic production (155).

Pound’s appearance in this passage is in no way surprising. After all, he was well aware of Barnes’s presence on the cultural scene. Indeed, Pound responded positively to Barnes’s published remarks on the inherent cultural value of artistic labor, which the latter gathered together in his 500-page volume, The Art in Painting (1925). Pound’s appearance in Braddock’s discussion of the Barnes Foundation is sure to be of interest to subscribers of Make It New. But there is far more to recommend Braddock’s volume to parties interested in Pound. Tracing as it does the historical trajectory of the evolving conceptions of the interventionist literary anthology, the modernist art collection, and the academic archive, as well as featuring detailed readings of seminal journals such as Alfred Kreymborg’s Others, Alain Locke’s The New Negro compendium, and Pound’s Des Imagistes anthology, Braddock’s comprehensive Collecting as Modernist Practice serves as a veritable treasure trove of information to those who care about the cultural history of modernist arts, letters, and solid objects.