Modernismo derived from French symbolism and the Parnassian school. However, too much stress can be laid on the French influence, for modernismo was spontaneous, and it borrowed from many sources, including the Spanish classics, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman. Modernist poetry often created an exotic tapestry of distant landscapes dotted with symbolic swans, peacocks, lilies, and princesses. In some of its aspects it represented, like contemporary movements in other literatures, a rejection of the materialist world of the day.
Modernismo is now usually said to have first appeared in the poetry of the Cuban leader, José Martí. Julian del Casal, Salvador Díaz Mirón, José Asunción Silva, and Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera were also writing fin de siècle verse in the modernist vein before modernismo became an acknowledged world event with the publication, in Chile, of Azul [blue], a volume of poetry by Rubén Darío, in 1888. The Nicaraguan Darío was the great genius of the movement. His exotic, highly colored, and finely wrought verse made a sensation, and soon a host of little magazines and literary groups were forwarding his ideas of elegant form, carefully chosen images, and subtle word music.
The modernists were supremely conscious of their art, and there was more than a hint of artificiality in their works. Among the leading figures of the movement were Leopoldo Lugones, Julio Herrera y Reissig, Ricardo Jaimes Freyre, Guillermo Valencia, José Santos Chocano, and Amado Nervo. Modernismo had an extraordinary prose writer in José Enrique Rodó. The movement constituted a sudden and vigorous intellectual awakening in Latin America and had profound repercussions even in politics and economics. Manuel Ugarte, Francisco and Ventura García Calderón, and Rufino Blanco-Fombona all had their roots in modernismo.
The movement had a powerful effect in remolding Spanish literary ideas and language and was the first Spanish-American movement to affect peninsular Spain deeply. The Spanish writers of the Generation of '98, notably Miguel de Unamuno, Ramón del Valle Inclán, and Juan Ramón Jiménez were influenced by modernismo. The force of the movement began to wane after 1914 as many writers became increasingly concerned with the consideration of the social and economic problems of a changing world. Other more extreme aesthetic movements arose, such as ultraísmo (see Borges, Jorge Luis), but in general the social and political strains grew stronger.
After World War I the writers of the new generation revolted against the mannerisms and hollow elegance of early modernismo, and in the words of Enrique González Martínez they
wrung the neck of the deceitful swan. The Brazilian artistic renaissance, which began in 1922, was regional in nature and is also termed modernismo: its principal theorizer was Mário de Andrade and most vocal proponent was Oswald de Andrade, both from São Paulo.
See G. M. Craig, The Modernist Trend in Spanish-American Poetry (1934, repr. 1971), an anthology; study by W. Martins (1971).
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