The Modern Period
Portraits, Political & Personal
In this course, we’ll study portraits of artists, “conversation pieces,” and experiments in collective self-portraiture. What does it mean to create a portrait in words or in moving images rather than through painting, drawing, sculpture, or photography? And why do conventional portraits, with their clear outlines and easily identifiable subjects, come to seem inadequate in so much fiction, poetry, autobiography, and film in the twentieth century?
We’ll begin the semester with a careful reading of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We’ll see that, although it’s often read as a novel of individual self-celebration, Joyce’s Portrait also depicts the formation of a “fledgling political consciousness” and so opens onto a collective world. As we proceed to study a range of later efforts to render collective experiences and to represent political and social crises of various kinds, we’ll ask how writers and filmmakers respond to the challenge of portraying groups—peoples, nations, social scenes, political factions, generations, and sets of friends—as opposed to individual lives. What formal strategies do these writers and filmmakers develop, and what happens to individual characters or poetic speakers in the process?
We will study works by some of the following writers and directors, among others: John Ashbery, Roberto Bolaño, Lucille Clifton, Harryette Mullen, Luisa Passerini, Gillo Pontecorvo, José Revueltas, Muriel Spark, Gertrude Stein, Leon Trotsky, and Luchino Visconti. Students will also experiment with a range of collective and collaborative practices in their own writing.