Shattered Objects: Djuna Barnes’s Modernism
(Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019)
Djuna Barnes (1892–1982) remains one of the most important lesser known modernist figures. A true Renaissance woman, Barnes was a literary pioneer of modernism, writing queer novels like Nightwood (1936) and Ladies Almanack (1928), in addition to plays, poems, and her work as a New York-based journalist. She was also an active artist, often illustrating her books and journalism with drawings, and collaborating with her partner, the artist Thelma Wood. Barnes’s creative output is astonishing, even more so when one considers that hers is not a household literary name. Shattered Objects: Djuna Barnes’s Modernism, edited by Elizabeth Pender and Cathryn Setz, is a collection of academic texts that maps the strands of Barnes’s literary and visual output against the history of modernism, expanding the existing literature on Barnes’s work in four distinctive ways. Of the sections, “Modernism in Print,” “Human and Beast,” “Barnesean Style,” and “Modernist Afterlives,” the first and second are particularly interesting in the context of art books, exploring Barnes’s illustrated journalism and the “grotesque” imagery in her fiction and artwork. These explorations of the visual and the verbal in her journalism and literary output—Ryder (1928) and Ladies Almanack (1928) are fully illustrated with Barnes’s drawings, and Creatures in an Alphabet (1982) is illustrated with found imagery, making them art book adjacent, if not art books themselves—prove her to be a unique figure that has been long left out of visual arts circles, until now.
In the introduction, Pender and Setz outline some reasons Barnes is not a household name alongside Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, with whom she shared an interest in innovative nonlinear storytelling as well as a more expansive view of gender norms. Like Stein and Woolf, Barnes was a part of a milieu that included writers, poets, and visual artists—many of whom were welcomed into the academic fold through modernism, once a low form associated with trashy novels. “Rather than being left out entirely, Nightwood troubled literary projects,” explain Pender and Setz. Her hyper-literary status made her work a marker of literary difficulty—oft mentioned, but rarely discussed in detail. “In some of the period’s landmark critical interventions, it seems, Nightwood was being read thoughtfully but was eluding sustained commentary.” When the welcome came for her friends like T.S. Eliot, without the bolstering of critical writing about her work, Barnes’s literature “was not included in the narrowed canons of individual modernists that were gradually confirmed from the interwar period to the academy of the 1960s.” She was left off the syllabus and out of the canon. With Shattered Objects, we at last get a full look at her broad range of artistic achievements.
Critic Alex Goody surveys her journalism, which she began publishing as early as 1913 and continued into the 1930s, in his essay, “Djuna Barnes and the Page.” “Key to my argument are the circumstances of Barnes’s publishing across what was once seen as the insuperable gulf between elitist, aesthetic modernism and the popular, mass-circulation press.” Goody does the work of seeking out Barnes’s original newspaper spreads in the more literary ‘little magazines’ such as Little Review and Bruno’s Weekly, in addition to pulp periodicals and dailies such as New York Morning Telegraph and Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “From her very first feature article, Barnes employs visual forms—drawings and occasionally photographs—in her journalism in an active way,” Goody explains. Her methods “establish a dialogue between the written and the verbal that enriches the semantic texture of her work but also diverges from a singular meaning.” Shattered Objects includes several fully reproduced newspaper pages, showing her writing and drawing alongside ads and other articles. Goody points out her awareness of the full contents of the page, including advertisements, particularly the Synol Soap ads that ran frequently in the paper, juxtaposing these with her drawings of middle class people at the public baths. In 2012, the Brooklyn Museum organized Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913 – 1919 (reviewed in this paper), a small exhibition that presented her illustrations alongside the newspaper spreads in which they originally appeared. The exhibition emphasized her approach of “personal as political,” and focused on her hyper-local stories within New York. Goody’s contribution to Shattered Objects continues this necessary examination of archival material and adds a rich texture to the book, which also includes black and white photographs of Barnes throughout.
Joanne Winning takes a close look at what she calls the “lesbian modernist grotesque” imagery used by both Barnes and Thelma Wood. “Together, working across visual media—pen and ink illustration, oil portraiture, sculpture, and silverpoint—and textual media through the 1920s, they developed a shared (perhaps eventually insular) vocabulary or organic corporeality and human-animal hybridity with which to describe experience, subjectivity, and sexuality.” Winning highlights the images in Barnes’s The Book of Repulsive Women (1915), which include figures that seem to slither, with animal ears and tails. She argues that the adoption of these beastly, grotesque, human-animal hybrids, among other things, suggests a break from established forms and labels, which Winning suggests is a queering (though it is worth noting Barnes’s own resistance to the label “lesbian”). Julie Taylor takes up this complex revisiontist history of Barnes in her essay, “Making Contact: Affect, Queer Historiography, and ‘Our Djuna,’” noting, “Not only did Barnes refuse to be identified as a ‘lesbian’ or even a ‘woman’ writer; her antiessentialist texts question all ontological stability, refusing to provide any lesbian identity that one might celebrate or detest accordingly.” To this, Winning suggests her resistance is "a repudiation of belonging or identification with any fixed identity, a refusal to succumb to a narrative of identity formation. And in that implicit allusion to bestiality—so typically Barnesean in a sense—the repudiation takes on the strain of the abject, the disavowed, even, perhaps, the grotesque." Her images—grotesque and otherworldly—push against established categories of identities, sexual and otherwise.
I’ve noted just a few of the arguments in Shattered Objects that reexamine Barnes’s art and uncommon approach to pairing text and image. From her caricatures of authors for the New York Tribune to her journalism that calls for empathy for her subjects and their circumstances, Shattered Objects, though a book targeted towards an expanded critical study of her work, reveals the wealth of archival resources and illustrations still in need of examination. I look forward to continued study that welcomes Barnes into the fold of art book artists who plunge into the myriad ways that words and pictures can combine to tell richly layered stories.