Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, September 16, 2013

A New Series:
The Great War and Modernism

The Great War and Modernism: An Introduction

By Jane Mattisson

You might ask, “What is modernism and what has it got to do with the Great War? Isn’t it primarily a cultural movement that is more to do with art and literature than war?” Unfortunately there are no clear-cut answers to these questions, but as I hope to show over the next few months, the Great War and modernism are much more closely intertwined than has previously been thought.  As a period, modernism refers to the 1910s and 1920s, and as a set of cultural characteristics it includes formal experimentation and innovation, rupture, ambiguity, disorder, crisis, fragmentation, cultural pessimism, and moral relativism.

Modernism continues to be hotly debated by historians and art/literary critics alike. This has given rise to a growing number of publications, some of which will be reviewed on Roads to the Great War over the next few months. As Vincent Sherry (author of The Great War and the Language of Modernism, 2003, to be reviewed in our series later) argues, the mass technological warfare of the Great War put an end to the prewar faith in science and material progress, thereby paving the way for what we refer to today as the modernist movement.

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Four Influential Modernist Art Works

Clockwise from top left: Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I, Gustave Klimt, 1907; Fountain, 1917, Marcel Duchamp; Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, Pablo Picasso; Composition IV, 1911, Wassily Kandinsky.

Traditionally, modernism has incorporated the avant-garde, which strove toward freedom in almost all areas of human endeavor — political, cultural, and intellectual — and included the emancipation of women, homosexuals, the proletariat, youth, and people in general. Modris Eksteins (author of Rites of Spring, 1989, also to be reviewed in our series) claims that it was the Great War that was the psychological turning point for modernism. After the war, he argues, “The urge to create and the urge to destroy had changed places.”

At a forum of world-renowned historians held in Kansas City in 2008, Robert Wohl and Jay Winter discussed the impact of the Great War on European history. Wohl claimed that “the war seemed to support the modernists’ claim [that] there was going to be a cultural break in Europe and that everything was going to be different in the future . . . The war was a spectacular example of that” (Winter, The Legacy of the Great War: Ninety Years On, 2009). This notion of difference, so vital to understanding the modernist movement, is subtly captured by the novelist Virginia Woolf:
Nothing was changed; nothing was different save only — here I listened with all my ears not entirely to what was being said, but to the murmur of current behind it. Yes, that was it — the change was there. Before the war at a luncheon party like this people would have said precisely the same things but they would have sounded different, because in those days they were accompanied by a sort of humming noise, not articulate, but musical, exciting, which changed the value of the words themselves (A Room of One’s Own, 1928; emphasis added).

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Four Influential Modernist Literary Works

Modernism represents a rupture with the past, a break in values and perception that infused all areas of life: social, political, economic, and cultural. The Great War was not “great” merely because of its magnitude but also because of its revolutionary effects. It is these which are so clearly encapsulated in the modernist movement that continue to exercise the minds of historians and literary critics to this day. Our series of reviews on this blog will include some of the most important works on the subject published in the past thirty years, looking at the Great War both as history and as narrative. As a result we will gain a clearer understanding of what modernism is and how we have all in one way or another been influenced by it. In this vein, tomorrow’s post will look at Pearl James’s book The New Death: American Modernism and World War 1.


  1. The Great War had such an influence on the modern world and our lives. I am glad to see the exploration and reporting of this.

  2. Thank you for this comment, Dennis. We felt it was important to highlight the link between the War and the Modernist movement. It helps us to understand why the War had, and continues to have, such an impact on our lives. Jane.