Narrating Modernity tells the story of the "problem picture," a genre that, although almost forgotten today, was an extraordinarily popular feature of the annual Royal Academy exhibitions in Edwardian London. The term referred to ambiguous, and often slightly risqué, paintings of modern life which invited multiple, equally plausible interpretations.
Often depicting women in suspect situations, these paintings posed morally, as well as narratively, indeterminate "problems," and Edwardian viewers responded enthusiastically, debating possible "solutions" at the Academy exhibition, in letters to the artists, and in newspaper competitions. As viewers invented narratives to explain and solve individual problem pictures, they grappled with the unmapped social terrain of the early twentieth century, in particular the changing roles available for modern women. Over time, however, the discourse around the problem picture shifted from a serious discussion of social issues to a patronizing dismissal of the type in modernist terms, in a vocabulary laden with metaphors of commerce and femininity.
By 1914, the "problem picture" had been firmly identified as popular culture rather than high art, a redefinition that helped train audiences how to (and how not to) view modern art. A history of the problem picture thus expands our view of what counted as modern art in the early twentieth century, while the demise of the type helps explain how people learned to look at art differently, and the gendered and classed nature of that transformation.