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The World War I and the events that preceded it had significant and long lasting implications on modern art. There was an explosion of innovation and creativity both in technology and art during the period1.
The automobile and the airplane are some of the recent technologies that quickened the pace of human life and triggered a lot of curiosities and ambition among people2.
Artists from different places of the world started converging in European cities such as Paris and London where there aligned themselves with artistic movements such as cubism, constructivism, futurism, and imagism among others3. The paper aims at analyzing the role that the World War I played in shaping the modernism movements in the arts both before and after it took place.
World War I implications: how they influenced modern art
Among the modernists who prevailed before the start of the war were the futurists led by Filippo Marrinetti4. He launched the movement in 1909 in his famed Futurist manifesto5. Just like the other avant- garde artists, the futurists resented everything that was representative of the older schools of thought and expressed a sense of hope for the future through science.
Other artists such as “the painters Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carra, Giacomo Balla and Liugi Russolo later joined Marrinetti”6. The works of the futurists as evidenced by “Boccioni’s The Street Enters the House (1911) reflect their admiration of speed, technology, violence, youth, the car and the airplane which are all representatives of the technological triumph over nature by humanity”7.
This movement in modern art tried to integrate the dynamism of the machine age that contributed to the emergence of the war with art8. They bore the ‘smear of madness’9 proudly. The objected the serenity and harmony that was represented in earlier artistic pieces. They praised scientific inventions as they paralleled their worldview of the future.10
Fred kleiner11 considers Artistic excitement to have reached its peak in 1914 when the First World War began. The war was responsible for the horrors that saw a generation of young men wiped out across the European continent and those who survived left with mental conditions that completely changed their lives12.
The war triggered the catastrophic Russian revolution forming the foundation for worse conflagration that came to take place decades later. For the artists and most of the people in Europe, the time that preceded the World War I, the actual war period and the aftermath of the was presented a period of profound disillusionment 13.
The people as well as the artists were completed with the values that the great civilizations wanted a new representation of the reality as it was. Modernism depicts the break away from the Victorian bourgeois morality and the optimism that was represented by the art works of the 19th century14. They instead expressed hopelessness in a pessimistic culture in disarray15.
The modernists were opposed to the pretentious nature of the past years in that despite their being the tensions and the pressures that exploded into the war, artists kept on presenting the environment as serene and posing no threats to humanity.
Fatigued by the horrors of the First World War, artists sought other new forms of inspiration that were completely contrasting with the nature of the previous schools of thought16.
For instance, for the Southern Italian immigrant in the US; Joseph Stella, the Brooklyn Bridge ‘was a shrine containing all the efforts of the new civilization of America’17.To this artist, technology was a totally new religion as represented by the Bridge.
The mass destruction of property, the loss of millions of lives in the war as well as the possibility of the outbreak of another war of similar or even greater magnitude planted a seed of despair in the lives of many people across the world and specifically in the European continent18.
The absurdity that was presented in most artistic works of the period between the first and the Second World War can be correlated with this despair. For instance, “the Dadaists portrayed a reaction to industrial technology of the time with subversive playfulness”19.
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For instance, one of the famed Dadaism work ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ by Marcel Duchamp conveys some form of sardonic humour20. The masterpiece is an assemblage of oil, wires, lead foil, dust and glasses, which display deep-seated absurdity. The absurdity, “which forms part of the viewer’s experience, was meant to subvert their expectations”21.
The psychological trauma and the depressions that most people experienced after the First world war was expressed by most works of artists from the Surrealist school22.
Surrealism according to Smith and Wilde implies to ‘the pure, psychic automatism, through which one seeks to express the real course their thinking, without the influence of reason or any ethical considerations’23.
The experiences of the war reshaped the lives of most people with some suffering from severe psychological problems that permanently lived with them for the rest of their lives. Artists such as Max Ernst (1891-1976), Salvador Dali (1904-1989) among others were key shapers of surrealism24.
The war activities as well as the rebuilding needs that came with the aftermath of the war influenced the modernist movement of constructivism25. The movement, which was started in Russia by Vladimir Tatlin and Antione Pevsner, was also greatly influenced by Cubism26.
The modern art movement viewed art from a utilitarian perspective and as result tried to apply it to political and social issues. The main subjects included the “abstracted assemblages of metals, plastics, glass, wires in sculpture and other forms of visual arts”27.
The constructivists held the view that art provided the people with the chance to employ scientific activities for the reconstruction of their societies that had been flattened by the horrors of the First World War. Prototypes for architecture and interior designs were among other constructions28.
The desire to use machines to restore some sort of classical sense of order that was obviously lacking due to the physical and emotional destructions of the First World War is expressed in the works of artists such as Charles Steeler (18883-1965)2930 and Charles Demuth. These artists belong to the precisionist school of thought31.
The art works which were in most cases drawings and paintings lacked the influence of nature or human beings as they were in most cases images of factories, warehouses, bridges alongside others and portrayed lack of expressive gesture32.
For instance, Sheeler’s painting ‘American Landscape’ (1930)33 show this absence of human figures and nature. In addition to this, Sheeler is recorded to have said, “Our factories are our substitute for religious expression especially in this time of recovering from the great loses of the war”34.
The political and social implications of the First World War influenced the paths that were taken by most of the modernist artistic movements.
The needs to express the realities in the society, to rebuild the social, political and economic institutions as well as to express the fears that the people lived with for the possibilities of the emergence of another war were among some of the significant implications that shaped modern art35.
Some of the significant paths that modernist movements such as futurism, cubism, Dadaism, Constructivism and surrealism among others took were correlated to either the events that preceded the war, the events that took place during the war or the aftermath of the war36.
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1 Fred Kleiner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History. (London: Prentice Hall, 2008), 32.
2 Jurgen Habernas, The philosophical Discourse of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 81.
3 Richard Fishman, The Contemporary City‘in Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century (New York: MIT Press, 1982), 12
4 Nikolaus Pevsner and Richard Weston, Pioneers of Modern Design (New York: Yale University Press, 2003), 67.
5 Kenneth Frampton, The theory of the Avant-garde (Harvard, Harvard University Press, 1981), 56.
6 Matei Calinescu, Five faces of Modernity: Avant-garde, Decadence, kitsch (Durham , Duke University press), 45
7 Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine age (Mass: MIT Press, 1980), 21.
8 Anna Chyne, “New Encounters with Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon: Gender race and the Origins of Cubism” ,The art Bulletin 76, no.4 (1994): 350
9 Laurence Cahoon (ed.), From Modernism to Post Modernism: An anthology (Mass: Blackwell, 1996), 433.
10 Nikos Stangos, Concepts of Modern Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995), 46.
11 Herschel Chipp, Theories of modern Art: A source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 98
12 Timothy Anglin Burgard, “Picasso and Appropriation”, The art Bulletin 73, no.3 (1991): 47.
13 Radka Zagoroff Donnell, “Space in abstract Expressionism”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 23, no. 2 (1964): 51.
14 Liz Jackson Dawtrey, Mary Masterton, Pam Meecham and Paul Wood (ed.) , Investigating Modern Art (USA: Yale University Press, 1996),212
15 Norma Broude and Mary Garrad, Feminism and art History (New York: ICON, 1982), 142.
16 Walter Benjamin, “the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illumination, (New York: Schocken, 1999), 98.
17Stanford Anderson, “The Legacy of German Neoclassism and Biedermier, Behrens, Tessenow, Loos and Mies”, Assemblage 15 (1991): 35.
18 Timothy Anglin Burgard, “Picasso and Appropriation”, The Art Bulletin 73,no. 3 (1991): 4.9
19 Hans Richard, Dada, Art and Anti Art, (London: Thanes & Hudson, 1997), 56.
20 Marion Stokstad, Art History ( USA: Prentice Hall, 1981)
21 Fred Orton, On the Intention of Modern (ist) Art, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), 90
22 Dominic Faccini and Georges Monnet, “Picasso and Cubism”, October 60 (1962):31.
23 Nikolaus Pevsner and Richard Weston, Pioneers of Modern Design (New York: Yale University Press,)
24 John Docker, Architectural Modernism: Le Corbusier in Modernism and Popular Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 34.
25 Carl Einstein and Charles Haxthausen, “Notes on Cubism”, October 107 (2004): 79.
26 Todd Demos, “Duchamp’s Labyrinth- First Papers of Surrealism 1942”, October 97(2001): 45.
27 Andre Breton, Surrealism and Painting (Boston: MFA Publications, 2002), 67.
28 Nikos Stangos, Concepts of Modern Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 1981), 87.
29 Daniel Robbins, “sources of Cubism and Futurism”, Art Journal 41, no.4 (1981): 235.
30 Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory, 1900-1990: An anthology of changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 29.
31 Charles Harrison, Francis Franscina and Gill Perry, Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century (London: Yale University Press, 1993), 68.
32 Richard Tamas, The Transformation of the modern Era: The Passion of the Western Mind: understanding the ideas that have shaped Our Worldview (1991): 370.
33 Griselda Pollock, “Women, Art and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians”, Women’s Art Journal 4, no. 1 (1983): 42.
34 Colin Platt, Marks of Opulence: The Why, When, and Where of Western Art1000-1914 (Australia: Harper Collins, 2004), 256.
35 Francesco Passanti, “The Vernacular Modernism and Le Corbusier”, Journal of the society of Architectural Historians 56, no. 4 (1997): 45.
36 Marion Stokstad, Art History (USA: Prentice Hall, 1995), 34.