From Avant-Garde to Kitsch: Modernism and Miss Morn

Avant Garde, Kitsch, and September Morn

In a famous essay, Clement Greenberg describes the emergence of "avant-garde art" and Kitsch from the same culture. Avant garde art includes figures like "Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miró, Kandisky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cézanne" in painting, and "Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Valéry, Éluard, Pound, Hart Crane, Stevens, even Rilke and Yeats" in poetry (7). Kitsch, by contrast, is "popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc. etc." (9). Moreover, for Greenberg, all academic art is also essentially kitsch; "The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition . . . . Self-evidently, all kitsch is academic; and conversely all that's academic is kitsch" (10 - 11).

As an academic painting that has been reproduced in nearly all of the formats Greenberg mentions, September Morn seems to exemplify Greenberg's definition of kitsch. And many, indeed, have called September Morn kitsch. Walter Kendrick, in his study of modern pornography The Secret Museum, calls September Morn a "classic piece of kitsch" (147).

Hugh Kenner, in his introduction to the Signet Classic edition of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, also describes September Morn as kitsch. Kenner mentions September Morn in the context of another girl bathing—the so-called "bird girl" seen by Stephen Dedalus in the novel's fourth chapter:

A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane's and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and softhued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips where the white fringes of her drawers were like featherings of soft white down. Her slateblue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was a bird's soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some darkplumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.

For Kenner, this passage demonstrates the extent to which Stephen's consciousness is saturated in the popular culture of his time, in images like Chabas's September Morn. Kenner writes,

What the girl is doing is natural: enjoying the water, cooling off. What Stephen is perceiving, though, is (as often happens, when teenage Stephen perceives) an utterly conventional stereotype of the moment, camouflaged by a gush of language. In his day, cards with images like that came packed with cigarettes. A high-kitsch analogue would be the 1912 "September Morn" of Paul Chabas, where the girl wears notably less but is similarly posed. (Was it Art? Was it impropriety? Opinion was mixed. New York's biggest art museum owns it, if that helps).