The Artistic Legacy of the Great War

The global impact of World War I changed the arts forever. Its effects are still felt a century later

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.”

Cultural losses were severe. Spain’s most successful composer, Enrique Granados, was drowned at sea in a U-boat attack while returning home from a Metropolitan Opera premiere. The German Expressionist Franz Marc, renowned for blue horses, was killed at Verdun. The inspirational French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska died at Neuville. Saki, the English short-story writer, fell to a German sniper. The British war poets—Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen, who declared “my subject is war, and the pity of war”—earned a posthumous fame.

Poetry turned surprisingly popular, a tendency easily explained. A poem could be written in a trench on a single sheet of paper; a slim book of poetry slipped easily into the pocket of a combat jacket. War was kind to terse verse, cruel to the longer forms. There was no fiction of quality for almost a decade, until Ernest Hemingway, Robert Graves and Erich Maria Remarque published frontline novels of gritty realism. 

In Russia, the Diaghilev Ballet was suspended and composers emigrated en masse. The poet Boris Pasternak returned home from Germany, expecting to die. His teacher, Alexander Scriabin, miserable in Moscow, died of a casual infection. Stravinsky went hungry in Switzerland. Prokofiev, perpetually self-absorbed, wailed “I am on neither side,” when revolution broke out. 

In Britain, D.H. Lawrence spent the war being harassed for having a German wife. He finished Women in Love, but could not publish it until 1920. On the Sussex Downs, the Bloombsury circle philandered away, while Henry James awaited the postman thrice daily for news of fallen youths. No artist was immune to intimate loss. 

On the German side, Rainer Maria Rilke’s enthusiasm for the “God of war” and Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s unfettered “joy” gave way within a combat year to Arthur Schnitzler’s “horror upon horror, injustice upon injustice, madness upon madness”. To Vienna’s leading playwright, war was a colossal “failure of imagination”. 

Schnitzler’s admirer Sigmund Freud veered likewise from being a “proud Austrian” (letter, July 26, 1914) to a sombre realisation that “science is apparently dead, but humanity is really dead” (letter, November 25, 1914). In Paris, Claude Debussy struggled to make an opera out of the martyrdom of St Sebastian. “It is strange,” he wrote in the last letter of his life, “that in 3,995 lines there should be such little substance. Just words, words . . . “

Everywhere, the Great War precipitated a cultural paralysis the like of which had not been known since medieval times. The causes of this precipitate ice age are elusive. Its consequences endure. A pattern of cultural response and expectation in wartime was set for the next world war and beyondto Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. 

The freeze was the more remarkable since it followed hard upon the breakthrough to Modernism. In the Parisian decade before the outbreak of war, Pablo Picasso had gone successively blue, pink and Cubist; Debussy had perfected a form of musical Impressionism; Guillaume Apollinaire invented Surrealism.

In St Petersburg, Sergei Diaghilev turned classical ballet into progressive art, harnessing the finest talents in music and design. His company scandalised Paris in May 1913 with Stravinsky’s percussive Rite of Spring, announcing the birth of a rebarbative epoch in music, a shift of emphasis from melody to other elements. The search for solutions to a musical “crisis” furnished multiple solutions. Arnold Schoenberg legitimised atonality. Italian anarchists promoted a noisy Futurism. Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodaly roamed remote parts of the Balkans with a recording machine, collecting organic fragments of folk heritage as fodder for new musical forms.

That all of this adventure and fertility should have been choked off in August 1914 is the clearest available indicator of just how traumatic the Great War was to the makers of the modern world. Some saw the war as a crushing defeat for the purpose of modern art. “If there had been more Cubism,” wrote Apollinaire in 1915, “that is to say modern ideas, the war would not have taken place.” Arnold Schoenberg, sent to the front at the age of 42, was assailed by a sergeant demanding to know if he was “that terrible Modernist composer”. Schoenberg shrugged, and came clean. “Somebody had to be,” he sighed, “and, since no one else wanted to, I took it upon myself.” In stark contrast to Apollinaire’s defeatism, Schoenberg believed that Modernism would emerge hardened and enhanced by the cataclysm.

The necessities of life occupied artists more than ever before. The day before the war broke out, Picasso withdrew all his money from the bank and hid it under his bed. He sent Gertrude Stein a picture postcard of men being marched off to war down the Tuileries and went home to tend his dying girlfriend. A natural pacifist, Picasso kept neutral. He went to Rome, married a dancer and reverted, for the duration, to realism.

For those prepared to serve a cause, there were well-paid stimuli for propaganda art. But when conscientious artists tried to express patriotism the result often backfired. A 1914 violin and piano sonata by Leoš Janáček, supposedly welcoming a war of Slav liberation, struck a moroseeven maudlinnote, as did Edward Elgar’s 1918 sonata for the same instruments. Freud, had he been asked, might have concluded that these artists had lost control of their unconscious, perhaps also of their libido.

Nevertheless, against the overwhelming impression of collective impotence, something stirred. The writers Stefan Zweig and Romain Rolland founded a peace movement that could have seen them shot for treason. Frontline composers stored abominable artillery noise for future use. Artists reflected and redefined. Modernism, in abeyance, was transformed. No longer a rebellion against a bluff old order, it acquired logic, dignity and a steady, inevitable tread. Modernism would emerge from the war more diffuse but also more powerful, replacing late Romanticism as the mainstream, heralding an era of experiment and anything-goes. Mona Lisa, in 1919, grew a moustache.

One of the most significant byproducts of world war was a globalisation of art. In the trenches, what moved a German artist would also inspire a Russian or a Czech. The writers Joseph Roth on the eastern front and Carl Zuckmayer in the west devoured books in the lull of battle. Zuckmayer was gripped by “a kind of intoxication, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, culture, insight, learning and understanding . . . I spent a large part of my lieutenant’s pay on books . . . I read like a man obsessed.” 

Small wonder that, when the shooting stopped, there was an explosion of new works in all genres, more than a depressed market could bear, some of it flickering between passion and mortality. “I want you,” wrote the Hungarian poet Deszö Kosztolányi, “as life wants death.” A new amorality was in the making. The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova married a colleague she did not love and started affairs with two others. “I thought it would be like a cleansing,” she explained, “like going to a convent knowing that you are giving up your freedom.” 

Zuckmayer, chaste with his fiancée, was drawn to a “female underworld in which the problem of fidelity or infidelity never crossed the threshold of consciousness: a world of vague, nocturnal, lewd and nymphomaniac creatures . . . the fashionable cocottes of Brussels, the officers’ girls of Lille, Ghent or Douai.” 

The war shattered the formal rules of social relationships. To a generation that lost its moral anchor between 1914 and 1918, art became both refuge and beacon. The next decade proved to be among the most nervous and fertile in human civilisation, a fertility complicated by external insemination.

The United States came late into the war. For three long, sideline years, it made do with domestic entertainments, augmented by the spread of new technologythe gramophone, the silent film, the motor car, the urge to fly. Popular music, a hybrid form, flourished in the absence of imports. Jazz became the bedrock music of dance and romance. When America entered the war, it took command of mass culture.

The chronology is compelling. Ragtime reached Europe in February 1918. Sidney Bechet came to London the following year, buying his first soprano saxophone and catching the ear of the influential Swiss conductor, Ernest Ansermet, who proclaimed him “an artist of genius”. By November that year, Ansermet’s friend Igor Stravinsky was writing Piano Rag Music, while Erik Satie and Ravel were syncopating sonatas. 

Everyone went to the new movies; even the austere Schoenberg was a fan. American dances and fashions established new courtship rituals. Josephine Baker danced, Bessie Smith sang. Louis Armstrong blew his trumpet. The end of war gave rise to a glimmer of a future multiculturalism, a tolerance gently evoked in the blackface Ernst Krenek opera Jonny spielt auf, more so perhaps than in Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer

The American in Paris was born. Three generations of composersfrom Aaron Copland to Ned Rorem and Philip Glasssailed over to attend Nadia Boulanger’s finishing school. Ernest Hemingway and his friends, aimless in the aftermath of war, found a centre of gravity in Gertrude Stein. Artists flocked to the sexy squalor of Montparnasse where, as Jean Cocteau quipped, “poverty was a luxury”. Racism, Prohibition and the return of puritanism provoked a flight of young artists from America, just as American culture was ascendant in Europe. The more American art engulfed the European continent, the more Americans looked to Europe for cultural legitimacy. In Hollywood, the biggest male star was English, the female Swedish. The preferred accent in American talkies was British. 

These transferences and transformations were a direct outcome of the paralysis and mayhem of the First World War. More than just a transient response, they provided the template by which art would respond to war ever after.

Those gaping mouths of George Grosz’s grotesques, made in the aftermath of the First World War, become Francis Bacon’s three screaming popes after the Second. The anarchic fatalism of Jaroslav Hašek’s Good Soldier Svejk is repeated in Joseph Heller’s Yossarian in Catch-22. The crashing cluster tones of Bartók’s piano sonata, struck with the full forearm on the keyboard, anticipate the heavy metal amplifications of Vietnam and Apocalypse Now. Art had delivered a response to war, appropriate and unmistakable.

Schoenberg emerged from the trenches dissatisfied with free atonality. He replaced it with the strict discipline of a 12-note serial rowa method, he said, “that will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years”. His synthetic serialism, augmented by Anton von Webern to include intervals, dynamics and every other musical element, became the fundamentalist benchmark for the avant-garde that arose in the aftermath of the Second World War-the ascetic tendency of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and the pleasure-hating Darmstadt school. In much the same way, the Californian nihilism of John Cage, incubated  between 1939 and 1945, would become the template for the repetitive minimalism that arose during and after America’s Vietnam War. Art was no longer impassive. 

The Great War was the first in which stage celebrity played a leading role. Sarah Bernhardt toured the trenches, one-legged. A signed picture of Charlie Chaplin was said to have revived an American soldier from deep shell shock. The violinist Fritz Kreisler regaled America with his frontline experiences.

More than 20 million people in Britain watched a government documentary, The Battle of the Somme, establishing film culture at the heart of propaganda warfare. Saving Private Ryan was born in the First World War.

This was the first war in which women took over men’s jobs; afterwards, most were restored to hearth and home. Not, however, in the arts. Louise Wolff kept control of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Ninette de Valois founded British ballet. Coco Chanel, Stravinsky’s mistress, came up with the notion of couturier brand. A feminist academic, Rosa Luxemburg, led Berlin’s postwar Communist revolution. Of all the trends born in war, the equality of women was the most profound for the future of human relations. In the Second World War, women knew how to respond and, second time round, did not relinquish their gains. 

Social attitudes also softened toward sexual minorities. Gay men, postwar, found freedoms beyond the dreams of Oscar Wilde. Noël Coward, Jean Cocteau, Karol Szymanowski, Samuel Barber and many more ceased to disguise their sexual orientation. The Great War cleared the decks for the growth of egalitarianism.

Yet, reflecting on those events almost a hundred years later, what strikes one most of all is how small, how very small, the cultural world and its political alliances must have seemed at the time. The Bloomsbury poet Rupert Brooke died of an infected mosquito bite on a French hospital ship heading for Gallipoli on April 23, 1915. The sad news was brought to the French novelist André Gide as he lay in the bed of Elisabeth van Rysselberghe, who had been Brooke’s lover in 1911. 

Gide promptly wrote to Winston Churchill, First Sea Lord at the British War Office, seeking permission to translate Brooke’s war poems into French. Churchill’s private secretary, Gide must have known, was Edward Marsh, another of Brooke’s ex-lovers and his likely executor. Art and politics, in 1915, were self-selecting elites united in their helplessness in the face of the forces they had unleashed.

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