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."