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

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Recommended: The Artistic Legacy of the Great War

Woman with Mustard Pot, Picasso 1910
 (Shown at the NY Armory Show 1913)

by Norman Lebrecht, 
Published in Standpoint magazine, Jan/Feb 2013

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 preeminent 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."

Large Blue Horses, Marc, 1911

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 realization that "science is apparently dead, but humanity is really dead" (letter, 25 November 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 beyond—to 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 scandalized 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 legitimized 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.

Continue reading the full article here:


  1. A fascinating argument.
    Right after 1918 culture picks right back up at a fever pitch.

  2. While the expectation of "proof" is irrelevant, that is, in the production of art, it is important to repeat that WWI was an utterly unexpected shattering, blood-drenched series of events. Nothing in Western culture was the same afterwards.

    Another excellent post.



  3. A very interesting read. However, the writer is an avid name dropper and focuses almost entirely on artists, composers, novelists, and poets who already had international reputations before the war.

    What of the many poet soldiers? Men from the rank and file not just the 'officer class' who perhaps would never have expressed themselves through the written word, least of all in the form of poetry, had they not been exposed to the chaos of war. Even today it is only the occasional anthology of 'war poetry' that reveals the works of these rare poets. Families are only recently realising the treasures possibly held within collections of letters or journals and perhaps too many have come to light through avarice. Women too put their emotional responses to the losses they endured as mothers, sisters, wives, lovers, on to paper in one form or another.

    The full article brings up the 'war artists' men commissioned to portray the war on canvas. For the most part sketches in the field became water colours or oils 'back home' far from the trenches. In many cases artwork that truly and realistically portrayed the horrors of the trenches were set aside for works that showed gallant men going in to battle gloriously rather than the aftermath; or devastated landscapes with not a corpse in sight; the ruins of cathedrals, or heroic stretcher bearers transporting a neatly bandaged and not too bloody or muddy casualty. There are of course exceptions which particularly in the last few years have been brought out and put on display, possibly for the first time ever as they were not considered 'good for moral' when they were produced.

    While the pre-war greats may have dried up during the war other artists of all kinds were born in the battlefields (or on the home front). They returned to their regular lives, which could never be the same, and got on with living. We say 'Lest we forget' but that is what most who were there hoped (and no doubt struggled) to do.

    1. I agree with Kara. This is an interesting article to chew on, but since artists were patriots back then, a lot of the young artists were fighting the war and the older ones were writing propaganda. Something of the same thing happened in the Civil War and World War Two. The author also cherry picks his examples. He ignores writers like Henri Barbusse and Ford Madox Ford whose best works were produced during the war. Sargent's extraordinary painting "Gassed" was completed in 1919 but begun during the war.