Reflections of War in Early 20th-Century Art

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  • 00:00 Art and the First Great War
  • 1:22 Anti-War Sentiment
  • 2:05 The World Gone Mad
  • 3:48 The New Objectivity
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the way in which the culture of early 20th century art reflected and interacted with the political setting of the first World War. Discover how the art movements of Dada, Futurism, and Neue Sachlichkeit reacted to and reflected their cultural moments.

Art and the First Great War

We know it as World War I, but at the time, it was the first Great War. The period before World War I was characterized by an art that reflected the optimism and idealism of a new century headed toward a bright future. The innovations of Expressionism and Cubism brought a new abstract language to art and a rebirth of style and the language of painting. Fauvism and Post-Impressionism infused the art world with the bright colors and gorgeous landscapes we remember from the innocent days before the outbreak of war.

But in 1914, that all changed. The first Great War, which brought about unprecedented loss of life, also saw the destruction that could be incurred through the use of technology and science, such as mustard gas and military weaponry, and aircraft.

Mass deportations broke up art circles. Artists were drafted to the front and many were either killed or maimed. The artists who remained at home represented the changing attitudes toward war on their canvases. A new art emerged out of Europe around this time, reflecting the misery, devastation, and cruelty of war.

British artist CRW Nevinson painted some of the most recognizable and famous reflections of the first Great War using the style of Futurism, such as Returning to the Trenches. The Futurist style accentuated the violence of war against the sharp angles and aesthetics of automobiles, airplanes, and military machinery.

Anti-War Sentiment

Art historians consider the outbreak of World War I as the beginning of the end for Cubism, though artists continued to practice the style roughly until 1922. Fauvism and Cubism waned, with Futurism, Dada, and the New Objectivity in Germany taking their place.

They heralded a move away from abstraction toward the production of art critical of war, modern rationalism, and the role of science and technology in moving society into the future. Anti-war sentiments were at the foundation of both Dada (originating in Switzerland) and the New Objectivity in Germany.

The World Gone Mad

Aside from the artwork it produced, the Dada movement was as much a protest against the war as an aesthetic style. They revolted against the rationality of the modern age with an attitude of absurdity. They drew attention to the underlying irrationality of scientific and technological progress, propelling civilization into an uncertain and dangerous future.

Another way to look at the irrationalism of a rational system is through the examples offered by Lewis Carroll. Alice and Wonderland and The Jabberwocky show how chaos underlies logic.

In Alice in Wonderland, the author, trained as a mathematician, revealed how the mind can play tricks on itself, seeing patterns in ordered systems. He showed how rationality pushed to its extremes can turn back upon itself. Like the Dada artists, Carroll used absurdity and irrationality to reveal the underlying disorder nascent in civil society. He asked, 'Why is a raven like a writing desk?' The question has no logical answer.

'Dada' is a nonsense word, like Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky, made up mostly of nonsense words. The combination of words that sound like they have meaning but that don't appear in the English dictionary reveals the underlying disorder of a seemingly rational system, language, and, therefore, thought.

'The slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…'

Dada artists used the technique of juxtaposition, which means to place images alongside each other to create the effect of contrast, to draw attention to the relation between chaos and logic. In these collages, figures are shown distorted, combined with other images to cause the viewer to question which part is natural, which is the appendage.

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