Spaces of Abstraction, Abstractions of Space: Modernist Science at the Crossroads of Philosophy, Literature and Art

Organiser: Nicolas Michel (Bergische Universität Wuppertal); Chairs: Nicolas Michel (Bergische Universität Wuppertal) & Cedric Van Dijck (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

Recent scholarship has forcefully argued that modernism, as a cultural phenomenon writ large, cannot be fully grasped without an account of its multifaceted interactions with the sciences – understood here concurrently as cultural images circulating across social and artistic collectives; as institutionalised practices to be found in universities and laboratories; and as collections of theories, concepts, and methods (Bruce 1996, Albright 1997, Sleigh 2011, Morrison 2016). The sciences of space(s), in particular, have provided ample avenues to connect developments in the arts (e.g. cubism, modernist sculptures, or literature) to ideas coming from mathematics, astronomy, or theoretical physics (Henderson 1983, Parkinson 2007, Drouin 2014, Engelhardt 2018). Taking stock of and contributing to this multi-pronged foray into the connections between the sciences of space (geometry, cosmology, astronomy, etc.) and contemporaneous cultural, philosophical, and artistic movements at the turn of the 20th century, this panel will interrogate the relevance, limits, and value of the concept of “modernism” in describing them. The papers in this panel do so on a variety of historical and social terrains, from elite universities in Imperial Germany and opera houses of St Petersburg to popular discourses in French and German periodicals and marginalised Viennese prose writing. More importantly, however, they do so with an eye for the methodological, historiographical, and conceptual hurdles one must overcome to rigorously bring together cultural life to technical developments in the sciences and in mathematics; and to do so in a way that promises to shape up larger explanatory frameworks for the constitution, transformation, and circulation of modernist culture. Together, these papers shall interrogate the value of the category of modernism in analysing contemporaneous developments in the sciences and the arts, and in capturing cross-cultural trends and invariants at the core of this cultural moment.


Tom Hedley (Trinity College Dublin) – Transforming Empty Spaces: Modern Mathematics, Metamorphosis and «die neue Frau» in Mela Hartwig’s Bin ich ein über flüssiger Mensch? (1931)

Abigael van Alst (KU Leuven) – A New World in n Dimensions: Aleksei Kruchenykh, Velimir Khlebnikov, Kazimir Malevich and Mikhail Matiushin’s Victory Over the Sun (1913)

Adele Guyton (KU Leuven) – Open and Closed Spaces: Narrating Pseudoscience, Fiction, and Scientific Authority in the Periodical Das Neue Universum

Nicolas Michel (Bergische Universität Wuppertal) – Geometry as Symbolic Fiction: On Hermann Schubert’s Modernist Mathematics

Michael H. Whitworth (University of Oxford) – Popular Astronomy Writing at the Edges of «Modernism»

Anne Regina Grasselli (University of Edinburgh) – Kandinsky’s Early Notebooks on Optics and their Relationship to Abstraction

Chiara Ludovica Maria Nifosi (University of Lisbon) – Seen from Above: Aerial Imagination in French War Poetry