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10-08-2015, 16:39


The mass destruction brought on by World War I precipitated a general disillusionment with Western civilization on the part of artists and writers throughout Europe. Avant-garde art, which had sought to discover alternative techniques to portray reality, now gained broader acceptance as Europeans began to abandon classical traditions in an attempt to come to grips with the anxieties of the new age. Although there were many different schools of artistic expression during the postwar era, a common denominator for all modernist art was its unrelenting crusade for absolute freedom of expression. Some artists opted for open revolt against the past, while others wished to liberate the darker impulses of the spirit from rational constraints to reveal the whole individual underneath. Others still, renouncing the apparent chaos of Western civilization, sought refuge in a new world of abstract painting. Some abandoned painting and sculpture altogether, preferring to focus on ameliorating social conditions through utopian architecture and interior designs for everyday living. A number of the artistic styles that gained popularity during the 1920s originated during the war in neutral Switzerland, where alienated intellectuals congregated at cafés to decry the insanity of the age and to exchange ideas on how to create a new and better world. One such group was the Dadaists, who sought to destroy the past with a vengeance, proclaiming their right to complete freedom of expression in art (see the box on p. 83). While Dadaism flourished in Germany during the Weimar era, a school of Surrealism was established in Paris to liberate the total human experience from the restraints of the rational world. By using the subconscious, Surrealists hoped to resurrect the whole personality and reveal a submerged and illusive reality. Normally unrelated objects and people were juxtaposed in dreamlike and frequently violent paintings that were intended to shock the viewer into approaching reality from a totally fresh perspective. Most famous of the Surrealists was the Spaniard Salvadore Dalí (1904 –1989), who subverted the sense of reality in his painting by using near photographic detail in presenting a fantastic and irrational world. Yet another modernist movement born on the eve of World War I was Abstract, or Nonobjective, painting. As one of its founders, Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879–1940), observed, “the more fearful this world becomes, . . . the more art becomes abstract.” 4 Two of the movement’s principal founders, Wassily Kandinsky (1866 –1944) and Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), were followers of Theosophy, a religion that promised the triumph of the spirit in a new millennium. Since they viewed matter as an obstacle to salvation, the art of the new age would totally abandon all reference to the material world. Only abstraction, in the form of colorful forms and geometric shapes floating in space, could express the bliss and spiritual beauty of this terrestrial paradise. Just as artists began to experiment with revolutionary ways to represent reality in painting, musicians searched for new revolutionary sounds. Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874 –1951) rejected the traditional tonal system based on the harmonic triad that had dominated Western music since the Renaissance. To free the Western ear from traditional harmonic progression, Schoenberg substituted a radically new “atonal” system in which each piece established its own individual set of relationships and structure. In 1923, he devised a twelve-tone system in which he placed the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale found on the piano in a set sequence for a musical composition. The ordering of these twelve tones was to be repeated throughout the piece, for all instrumental parts, constituting its melody and harmony. Even today, such atonal music seems inaccessible and incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Yet Schoenberg, perhaps more than any other modern composer, influenced the development of twentieth-century music. Other fields of artistic creativity, including sculpture, ballet, and architecture, also reflected these new directions. In Germany, a group of imaginative architects called the Bauhaus School created what is widely known as the international school, which soon became the dominant school of modern architecture. Led by the famous German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1881– 1969), the internationalists promoted a new functional and unadorned style (Mies was widely known for observing that “less is more”) characterized by high-rise towers of steel and glass that were reproduced endlessly throughout the second half of the century all around the world. For many postwar architects, the past was the enemy of the future. In 1925, the famous French architect Le Corbusier (1877–1965) advocated razing much of the old city of Paris, to be replaced by modern towers of glass. In his plan, which called for neat apartment complexes separated by immaculate areas of grass, there was no room for people, pets, or nature. Fortunately, it was rejected by municipal authorities. During the postwar era, writers followed artists and architects in rejecting traditional forms in order to explore the subconscious. In his novel Ulysses, published in 1922, Irish author James Joyce (1882–1941) invented the “stream of consciousness” technique to portray the lives of ordinary people through the use of inner monologue. Joyce’s technique exerted a powerful influence on literature for the remainder of the century. Other writers, such as Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945), and Sinclair Lewis (1885–1951), reflected the rising influence of mass journalism in a new style designed to “tell it like it is.” Such writers sought to report the “whole truth” in an effort to attain the authenticity of modern photography. For much of the Western world, however, the best way to find (or escape) reality was in the field of mass entertainment. The 1930s represented the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, which in the single year of 1937 turned out nearly six hundred feature films. Supplementing the movies were cheap paperbacks and radio, which brought sports, soap operas, and popular music to the mass of the population. The radio was a great social leveler, speaking to all classes with the same voice. Such new technological wonders offered diversion even to the poor while helping to define the twentieth century as the era of the common people.