Obscure Modernism Conference

Obscure Modernism

Birkbeck, University of London

27 February 2016

Keynote speakers:

Prof Esther Leslie (Birkbeck College, University of London)

Dr Ian Patterson (Queens’ College, Cambridge)

Supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities.


This one-day conference explores modernism, its practitioners and cultural products, under the aspect of their obscurity, understood in a variety of ways.

In one sense, obscure modernism denotes those artists and writers who have been forgotten or neglected by scholarship to date and whose full meaning and significance we are only now beginning to appreciate. This conference will focus attention on a number of such figures, participating in the ongoing critical recovery of the less prominent or valued aspects of modernist culture under the auspices of the New Modernist Studies.

It is however important to understand this kind of obscurity not only as the passive result of artistic failure or critical misapprehension, but as an active act of resistance to the incorporation of the modernist avant-garde within the institutions of art. The conference aims to explore its topic in relation to the dynamics of the field of cultural production, stimulating debate around the connected notions of recovery and recuperation.

Obscure modernism can also signify the result of an intentional act of obfuscation on the part of the artist or writer, aimed at creating an impression of complexity, intractability or utter senselessness. In modernist texts which resist legibility and in forms of modernist cultural production which are for whatever reason challenging to access, obscurity might be seen as an underlying structural principle of the work itself.

This claim will be put under pressure in papers exploring the relationship between difficulty and form in the practice of more canonical modernists and late modernists. In addition, there will be a particular focus on one site of obscurity, pseudoscience and the esoteric, and its place within the institutional landscape of modernism.



One thought on “Obscure Modernism Conference

  1. John Goodby

    Oooh, I wish I’d known about this! When was your CFP? Could have given you a paper on ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ based on the recently-discovered Dyaln Thomas notebook sold at Sotheby’s last December, and now in my sweaty clutches. Still, I’ll try to be there – it’s an exceptionally good line up of stuff.



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