'Late Victorian Little Magazines and the Invention of the Avant-Garde' - Dr Koenraad Claes, Ghent University

The term ‘little magazine’ is largely used to describe those short-lived vehicles of independent thought which published modernist literature and art.

Wyndham Lewis’ BLAST (1914) typically comes to mind as the sort of publication which represents the category: visually loud, unapologetically opinionated, and presenting the work of recognisable modernist artists, the bright-pink first issue is, according to the Modernist Journals Project, ‘the quintessential modernist little magazine’.

So what do periodicals with medieval-looking woodcut lettering and figures of knights on the front covers have to do with the aggressive modernism of BLAST? A lot, says Dr Koenraad Claes of Ghent University, who came to the University of Birmingham on 14 November 2018 to discuss the influence of Victorian little magazines on the development of the avant-garde. His recent book, The Late Victorian Little Magazine (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), is a study of 13 periodicals which Claes believes to be the first little magazines, and his talk focussed on a handful of these publications and the qualities which justify their categorisation as avant-garde.

Claes began his talk with a helpful reminder of the definition and function of a magazine. Each magazine is a storehouse of information (the word comes from the Italian magazzino, meaning ‘warehouse’), and although the categorisation of certain magazines as ‘little’ stems from Hoffman et al.’s The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography (1946), they existed for decades before Hoffman’s study was published. The first, Claes suggested, was the Germ, the four-issue Pre-Raphaelite periodical published in 1850. The magazine paired visual and literary material which was created by a group intent on furthering a common cause – a situation which, if the magazine were modernist, would be considered avant-garde. However, Claes said, because the magazine is Victorian, the term ‘avant-garde’ is not – perhaps cannot be – applied.

But Claes’ talk was less focussed on how the Victorian little magazines were themselves avant-garde – although he presented convincing similarities between these early magazines and later modernist periodicals – and instead highlighted how the late-Victorian little magazines facilitated the growth of the avant-garde. Periodicals such as the Germ, the Century Guild Hobby Horse (1884/86-92), and the Quest (1894-96) promoted a closed aesthetic community, Claes said, which could be classified as an avant-garde subculture. Yes, these periodicals presented art which looked to the past for inspiration, but their concerns were with current problems, such as industrialisation. As Claes said, the founders of and contributors to these magazines addressed the past in order to change the present to work towards a better future. This forward-looking attitude distinguishes these Victorian periodicals as embodying the same sort of social concerns and artistic identities as are exemplified in BLAST, Rhythm (1911-1913), or the Little Review (1914-1922).

While Claes pointed out that there is a difference between the avant-garde attitude of the Victorian magazines and the more recognisable avant-garde content delivered by the modernists, his work on the late-Victorian little magazines draws attention to a crucial shortcoming of much modernist periodical research: the disregard for the tradition of avant-garde-minded publications that came before what we consider to be the start of little magazines. Claes’s talk exhibited the importance of developing an awareness of those magazines which, because they are not considered typically avant-garde, are largely forgotten.

Brittany Moster, University of Birmingham