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A war between two nations is enough to impact the economy and political stability of both the warring nations. Considering this, it is not too difficult to understand that the collective state of mind of all the nations that were at war with each other during the First World War, would have undergone a considerable change. Whether one is talking about the economic changes or the changes that took place in the field of art and literature, every field of life was colored by the ordeal of having survived a war of a magnitude, never before experienced. What resulted from this impact was a form of defiance that was brought out in many ways.
Since World War I was followed by the Great Depression, there was no time or for that matter no energy for people to try and recoup from the numbing trauma of war. This was the plank on which artists, writers, and thinkers came forth with their own ideas of bitter and reluctant acceptance of their fate as post-war victims, struggling to exist in a world that seemed to be falling upon them from all sides.
Art between the wars
The number of isms that made their appearance after the First World War in the field of art seemed to have their origins in the minds of those who had borne witness to the horrors of war. Apart from those who were directly affected, there were quite a few painters and sculptors who were also influenced by the penury that they had to suffer after the war was over. Surrealism depicts the yearnings of the unconscious mind and an attempt to come to terms with reality. Salvador Dali is probably one of the most well-known surrealists who in his The Persistence of Memory tries to depict the ephemeral quality of time as well as his dreams.
What makes it even more intriguing is the fact that Sigmund Freud’s analysis and interpretation of dreams seemed to wend their way into surrealist art. The advent of cubism as an art form also made its appearance between the two wars. With a great amount of desolation enshrouding their entire lives, artists tried to hold on to a semblance of order in their work. For instance, De Stijl, which is the Dutch contribution to modern art (Jaffé, 1956), tried to make art as simple and straightforward as possible, by adopting basic elements of shape, space, line, and color. The advent of Dadaism, a highly debated school of thought, encouraged people to speak up against the accepted mores of culture, art, and even morality.
Literature between the wars
If there is one word that can best describe the literary scene between the two world wars, it is ‘modernism’. Righteous indignation about the economic state of affairs, on the one hand, combined with an abysmal desolation and impotence on the other lead to the outpourings of many writers of various races. Whether one talks about Langston Hughes or T.S. Eliot, there is a yearning in their writing for better times. The writings of women writers also came as a refreshing breeze into the literary scene, even though most of them wrote of despair and trial in the face of post-war poverty.
The Harlem Renaissance was probably a microcosm of the art and the literary scene between the two world wars. Though there is a lot of underlying hope in most of the works of this period, the despondency with which this has been expressed has left a lasting impression on all those writers and artists who have made their own contributions later on.
Jaffé, H. L. C. (1956). De Stijl, 1917-1931, The Dutch Contribution to Modern Art, 1st edition, Amsterdam: J.M. Meulenhoff.