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A centre of artistic gravity after 1918: “Gertrude Stein” by Pablo Picasso (1905-06)

Proverbs can be misleading. The old Russian saying "when the guns talk, the muses fall silent" is generally disproved by history. Wars tend to stimulate a creative response from artists, as well as a public appetite for cultural reassurance. Goethe, Jane Austen and Beethoven flourished through Napoleon's campaigns, Verdi composed during the Risorgimento while Victor Hugo vividly recorded the 1871 siege of Paris. Sales of books and music rise in wartime. Theatres, where open, are packed.

The Great War is the great exception. Amid mass mobilisation, trench misery and millions of fatalities, artists were unable to respond. Between 1914 and 1918, barely one lasting opera was born, the symphony stalled and literature dried up.

George Bernard Shaw, the foremost English-language dramatist, wrote only minor works for the stage between Pygmalion (1913) and Heartbreak House (1919). Thomas Mann, Germany's major novelist, published no fiction between Death in Venice (1912) and The Magic Mountain (1924). Richard Strauss, the pre-eminent German composer, yielded an overblown Alpine Symphony and little else.

Jean Sibelius managed one symphony, his fifth, but it was so flawed that he had to revise it twice after the war. Giacomo Puccini moped in Lucca. Henri Matisse withdrew to a safe style in the south of France. Edith Wharton became a social worker, Maurice Ravel an ambulance driver, Oskar Kokoschka a casualty, Rachmaninov an exile. The painter Max Ernst, conscripted to the German Army, wrote: "On August 1, 1914, Max Ernst died. He was resurrected on November 11, 1918 as a young man who wished to find the myth of his day."

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January 20th, 2013
10:01 PM
If you picked any 4 years of the 20th century, you could say the same thing. In fact, WW-1 was the genesis of and largely the inspiration for ... Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism, all of communist art, and ... well, most of modern Art. In literature we have Ernst Junger, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Wilfred Owen, Sassoon, the Bloomsbury group... Modern physics was invented the year after the tumult of WW-1. Classical music did die a sort of death then, but then, what is the great classical music of the Franco-Prussian war, or the Spanish Civil War? In fact, WW-1 had pretty much the expected artistic effect of a world wide cataclysm.

December 26th, 2012
7:12 AM
But the "Great War" was itself the inevitable outcome of the European Renaissance. The Renaissance was the collapse of the "God"-civilization that preceded it. The civilization based on the mythologized presumptions of what was traditionally CONCEIVED to be spatially and temprally "behind" and "above" the world. The Renaissance destroyed that earlier form of civilization. With the Renaissance, "God"-myth based civilization was replaced with human-based civilization, or ego-civilization - or the civilization based on the myth of the separate and alwats separative ego. That ego-civilization came to its essential end in the twentieth century. That ego-based civilization idealized the presumed separate ego-"I", and it ended up with a world of egos destroying one another. That course, in fact, is still happening, and must be stopped - but it cannot be stopped merely by force. A transformation of human understanding and of human processes altogether must occur - on every level, including the artistic level. The current civilization is characteristically secular, superficial, materialistic, entirely outward directed, and object directed. It constitutes a form of propaganda that has driven humankind to the point of self destruction. The civilizing principles that allow human functioning to demonstrate the disposition of prior unity have already been destroyed - especially as a result of the terrible course of the twentieth century, and beginning with World War I in particular. World War I and World War II were, effectively, the self-destruction of global civilization (such as it was). Now nothing but narcisstic ego-culture remains, and the consequent human devastation.

December 25th, 2012
11:12 PM
Please stop promoting the Nazi collaborator opportunist Coco Channel as some sort of model of progressive feminism.

December 24th, 2012
4:12 AM
This reads like a college freshman's essay -- full of oversimplified, cursory observations.

Ann Martin
December 24th, 2012
1:12 AM
Yes, great art was produced during the Great War. James Joyce spent those years writing Ulysses, the first war novel, and the first post-war novel. The last words in this novel are, in fact, the real dates of World War I. "Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921"

John Borstlap
December 24th, 2012
1:12 AM
Things become clearer when 'modernism' is defined more clearly. 'Modern artists' before 1914 were the artists who wanted to transcend the bounderies of a conventionalized and academic culture as it had taken form in the 19C. But they still intended to imbue their work with psychological and expressive values, with inspiration, ideals, aspirations to higher levels of being. After the war, art became much more materialistic: belief in the spirit, in civilization, in the worth of expression had suffered a severe shock: irony, coldness, nihilism and materialist experimentation took the place of inspiration. Rational approaches offered more 'grip' upon inner and outer reality than the 'movements of the soul'. The German musicologist W.A. Schultz wrote perceptively about the link between war and, in this case, music, in his essay 'Avantgarde und Trauma'in Lettre International', issue winter 2005 - highly recommended. If post-1918 modernism is defined as explorative materialism, then it was only one trend among others: the picture is much more pluralistic than post-1945 (as far as 'official art' is concerned). The wars hardened people's heart and soul, and this is reflected in artistic production. The great waves of popular culture, instead of an 'enrichment', did the rest: they exercised an erosive force on art and its understanding and appreciation. The egalitarian nonsense which we now see and hear all around us in the name of 'art' and 'music' seems to be a last stage of decline that began with the 1st World War, which was the first death-blow of European culture.

December 23rd, 2012
6:12 PM
Wilfred Owen. No further comment needed.

David A
December 23rd, 2012
3:12 AM
As well-informed as the author is in cultural matters, I am somewhat surprised how uninformed they are about the obvious impact of that era's military activities. Except for the last Union campaign during the ACW, the world had not seen total warfare until WW1. Before 1914, despite what happened on the battlefield, civilians were (except for the inevitable collateral damage) largely unaffected. The purpose of organised warfare was to gain control of them, not destroy them. But that changed in 1914. The real strategic battle rapidly became the battle between the Royal Navy starving the German civilians and the Kriegsmarine trying to starve the British civilians. Despite the enormous resources expended, the land forces were stalemated pretty much the entire war, despite the German strategic victory in Russia. The Germans sued for peace because their civilians were starving, not because her military had been defeated. One consequence of total war is that it is difficult for a civilian to be inspired by "the Muses" when they are uncertain about when they will next eat, or a soldier when their next breath might be their last (due to machine gun fire or poison gas).

December 22nd, 2012
6:12 PM
how did the author overlook siegfried sassoon. churchill was never first sea lord, he was first lord of the admiraly, a position to which neville chamberlain restored him in 1939. it may be helpful to make the distinction for americans. the first sea lord is the equivalent of the cno, while the first lord of the admiralty is the equivalent of the secretary of the navy.

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