Human character changed: the Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1910 and the revolution in the arts immediately preceding World War One

The text that follows is an edited version of a lecture I gave some years ago to introduce a series of Ferens Fine Art lectures at the University of Hull on the topic of Post-Impressionism. The initial focus was on the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London in 1910, what it contained, and how the reaction to it was symptomatic of what was going on generally in the arts at this time. I have always thought that the period between roughly 1910 and 1914 was one of the most remarkable periods of creativity in the arts ever, and it was to be the topic of my PhD, but a book on Billy Wilder intervened; the thesis was never finished; and my career took a very different direction.

To begin with the quotation that provides the title of this essay, a famous quote from Virginia Woolf in an essay entitled ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ published in 1924. “In or about December 1910,” she wrote, “human character changed.” Virginia Woolf was often deliberately playful and provocative in her artistic pronouncements; she was never, however, frivolous. The date she cited was carefully chosen: a conscious allusion to the first Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Grafton Gallery in London, which was the first extensive viewing that the public in England had been given of the work of artists such as Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Picasso. The change in human character that Virginia Woolf was suggesting was not so much of a change of personality per se but a way of perceiving personality (1910 was also the year when Freud was giving a famous lecture on the origins and development of psychoanalysis) and also of the way of portraying character, in paint and in print. In the early years of the 20th century, artists in different fields were seeking a new language or mode of expression to render what the art critic Roger Fry called “the sensibilities of the modern outlook”.

It was Roger Fry who had organised the Exhibition, which had actually been opened to the press on November 5th (Virginia Woolf had allowed a little time for its impact to be felt). Needless to say, some critics seized on the date of bonfire night as symbolically significant, Robert Ross, for example, immediately suggesting that what these painters were up to was roughly analogous to what Guy Fawkes had planned for the Houses of Parliament, revealing the existence, as he put it, “of a widespread plot to destroy the whole fabric of European painting.” The Exhibition attracted huge publicity, and was widely denounced as being pornographic, degenerate and evil.

Whether Fry had anticipated such a response is difficult to say. The Exhibition had been organised in something of a rush. Desmond McCarthy wrote the introduction to the catalogue and he was terrified that, because of the last-minute changes, the numbers of his entries would get mixed up, and a portrait of a nude, say, would be catalogued as ‘station master at Arles’. Even the title was opportunistic rather than any carefully considered artistic statement. When they were stuck for a title, Roger Fry said: “Let’s call them Post-Impressionists – at any rate they came after the Impressionists.” It is worth recalling that, although the Exhibition was widely greeted as the latest outrage of the new century, most of it was taken up with works by painters already dead and with paintings that had been done in the 1880s and 1890s. It is also worth bearing in mind the identity of some of the paintings put on show which caused such an outcry – Cezanne’s ‘Madame Cezanne in Armchair’, Matisse’s ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’, Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, Gauguin’s ‘Christ in the Garden of Olives’, Picasso’s ‘Nude Girl with a Basket of Flowers’: i.e. some of the paintings that were to become amongst the most popular, and priceless, of the century. So why the outrage? Why did the Exhibition strike the critic of The Times as “the equivalent of anarchism in politics […] the rejection of all that civilisation had done?” Why did the critic Wake Crook say “the whole show was made to look like the outpouring of a lunatic asylum”? To account for this, the Exhibition must be characterised in a little more detail, indicating how far what the painters were doing seemed to differ from convention and expectation.

One characteristic, evident particularly in the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin, was an unrestrained, un-Edwardian emotionalism, expressed in striking, often lurid, colours, that were themselves expressive of the painters’ emotional intensity and suffering. Their contemporary equivalent in music would have been Gustav Mahler, who was to die in 1911 and whom, even as late as the 1930s, the critic Basil Maine was dismissing as a composer “totally foreign to our English temperament – it is as likely that we would take up Mahler in England as the French would take up Elgar”. (Times have changed: nowadays there is barely a major symphony orchestra in the land that has not performed the whole cycle of Mahler’s nine symphonies; he is performed as often as Beethoven.) Their equivalent in literature would be a novelist like Dostoyevsky, who in 1910 (nearly thirty years after his death) was virtually unknown in England, although in two years time, his novel The Brothers Karamazov is to be translated into English for the first time and is to be rapturously acclaimed. (It is tempting to speculate whether the acclaim would have been quite that intense if English sensibilities had not been stirred up, as it were, by the Post-Impressionists.) In 1910, though, emotional expressiveness in art of that extremity was still often viewed with alarm. For example, Van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ – now one of his most famous and admired works – was looked on at the Exhibition with considerable puzzlement and even downright hostility. Robert Ross described it as “the visualised ravings of an adult maniac” (which is true, up to a point, though the sentiment could have been expressed with a little more artistic sensitivity and human compassion). Other interpretations of it ranged from its being a representation of a prairie fire or that of a smoking ham omelette. A clue to interpretation might have been given by the credo of Paul Gauguin who complained about “nobody being astonished anymore” and who sought in his art an increasing subjectivity. “Before the easel the artist,” he said, “is slave neither to the past, the present, nature nor even his neighbour. Himself, always himself…. I am content to search my own self and not nature.” Such art frequently portrays a mind on the rack, a personality with Freudian symptoms of psychological abnormality or hypersensitivity: only recall Gauguin’s portrait of Van Gogh as he painted sunflowers and how Gauguin got behind the physical surface. “It’s me, Paul,” Van Gogh is said to have observed when he saw it. “But it’s me already gone insane.”

Another controversial feature of contemporary art highlighted by the Post-Impressionist exhibition was its non-representational nature. “What is one to think of Paul Gauguin’s idea of oxen?” queried one critic who was reviewing modern French art at an exhibition in Brighton that had preceded the more famous one at the Grafton gallery. “They are wooden-looking beasts akin to those of the nursery Noah’s ark variety, and their landscape environment is innocent of any attempt at perspective.” The poet Wilfrid Blunt wrote in a very similar vein about the Post-Impressionist exhibition in a diary entry of 15 November 1910: “The drawing is on the level of that of an untaught child of seven or eight years old, the sense of colour that of a tea-tray painter, the method that of a schoolboy who wipes his fingers on a slate after spitting on them…” Implicit in those comments was the assumption that the artists were aiming for naturalistic representation but failing through poor technique. On the contrary, as Roger Fry was later to argue, the Post-Impressionists were in the process of re-considering the very purpose and aim as well as the methods of pictorial art. As Fry wrote: “Where once representation had been pushed to the point where further development was impossible, it was inevitable that artists should turn round and question the fundamental assumption that art aimed at representation.” It might well be that the achievement of the Impressionist painters had been so great as to leave the modern artist feeling impotent, and believing that the future could only be a search for an alternative mode of expression rather than a continuation along a trail which these masters had effectively exhausted. It was a problem facing other early 20th century artists in different fields: where could musical Romanticism and tonality possibly go after the titanic operas of Wagner and the epic symphonies of Mahler? Where could narrative realism go after Middlemarch and Anna Karenina?

It might well be too that a different philosophical cast of mind was also present. As John Rothenstein said in his book The Moderns and their World (1957): “Yet there would seem to be other deeper and non-painterly causes at work. Whereas once it was taken for granted that an unremitting scrutiny of appearances might enhance both understanding and delight…in our own time it is the opposite that is taken for granted…. The radiance of human beauty and the majesty of the oak…are but constructions of the human mind…. What the eye sees is not what our forbears confidently thought that they saw.” One might link that with something that Picasso was saying at the time: “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them…. If a painter asks me what was the first step for painting a table, I would say measure it.”

What one is seeing, then, is a shift towards an inner rather than outer landscape in painting, a more symbolic and private form of representation. Picasso’s picture of 1910, ‘Girl with a Mandolin’ was more accessible and shapely than most Cubist paintings of the time but it still had that harsh geometric edge characteristic of Cubism- in an age which was felt to be becoming increasingly mechanised, technological, industrialised, regulated, and the individual increasingly dominated by machinery (the novels of D. H. Lawrence during the second decade of the century are to pursue that idea with a passionate urgency). If Van Gogh’s musical parallel, in terms of tortured extreme romanticism, was Mahler, Picasso’s analogous musical counterpart, in terms of a kind of steely harshness, was Stravinsky – whom Picasso was later to draw.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Picasso was to be as controversial a figure during this period as any other of the Post-Impressionists. When his picture ‘Mandolin, Wine Glass and Table’ was reproduced in the New Age magazine of 23 November 1911, there was a storm of protest. G. K. Chesterton, for example, dismissed it as “sodden blotting paper” and chastised critics who sought to defend Picasso after the artist “has had the misfortune to upset the ink and tried it to dry it with his boots.” On the other hand, Middleton Murry, who confessed he did not ‘understand’ Picasso, was more prepared to be open to the experience, approvingly quoting the response of a woman friend to Picasso: “I don’t know what it is – I feel as though my brain has been sandpapered.” Once again it was Roger Fry who most eloquently responded to the spirit of what the artist was attempting, recognising that such art gave up all resemblance to natural form in favour of a purely abstract language of form – in Fry’s phrase, ‘a visual music’. “Such a picture as Picasso’s ‘Head of a Man’”, Fry wrote, “would undoubtedly be ridiculous if, having set out to make a direct imitation of the actual model, he had been incapable of getting a better likeness. But Picasso did nothing of the sort.” The critic of The Times in 1912 interpreted Picasso’s method as essentially a reaction against the limits of photography. Why should an artist attempt to duplicate what a photograph can do now – and the film camera?

The impact of the Post-Impressionist exhibition was not only immediate and powerful but also wide-ranging. It touched creative artists in fields other than painting. For example, when Katharine Mansfield saw Van Gogh’s paintings at the Exhibition, she told a friend that “they taught her something about writing…a kind of freedom, a shaking free.” Similarly, amid the derision of fellow writers like Chesterton, Arnold Bennett saw what these contemporary painters were doing as profoundly significant, with enormous implications for the future of literature. “Suppose some writer were to come along and do in words what these men have done in paint,” he wrote, “I might conceivably be disgusted with the whole of modern fiction and I might have to begin again….Supposing a young writer turned up and forced me and some of my contemporaries to admit that we had been concerning ourselves with inessentials, had been worrying ourselves to achieve infantile realisms? Well, that day would be a great and disturbing day for us.” Ironically, it is precisely on those grounds that Bennett is later going to be attacked by Virginia Woolf in the essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ – that he, and writers like him, such as H. G .Wells and John Galsworthy, had indeed been concerning themselves with “inessentials” and “infantile realisms”. Bennett’s observation is a premonition of the direction modernist writing is about to take. Between 1910 and 1914, we have the publication of the first novels and stories of arguably the three most original writers of the century – James Joyce, Marcel Proust and D. H. Lawrence – all of whom are, to a different degree, experimentalists, who turn away from the novel of externally observed reality to the subtle dissection of mental states, who eschew the novel of plot in favour of a more overt preoccupation with language and form. In her essay ‘Modern Fiction’, Virginia Woolf defined a new era, and area, for fiction: what was needed, she argued, was a form that reflected the uniqueness of the individual mind and found a way of articulating the previously unexpressed and inexpressible. It was a call for a new kind of novel driven not by plot and the progress of man in society but by psychological experience, by sensory association, and driven less by prosaic incident than by poetic impulse and imagery.

The four years prior to the Great War are a golden period for literary discovery, experiment and achievement. As I mentioned, one of the discoveries was Dostoyevsky, interest in whom was fuelled by Constance Garnett’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov in 1912, the novel which Freud was subsequently to call “the greatest novel ever written” and whose intense psychological analysis and spiritual torment would find a readier reception in a world where Freud’s ideas were starting to take root. Appearing in 1913 was Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, inspired by the death of Gustav Mahler two years earlier: that extraordinarily potent, prophetic story of a decaying Europe heading for imminent disaster, symbolised through a dying artist and a plague-ridden Venice, both of whose inner diseases are not to be discovered until they are beyond cure.

Conversely, though equally significantly, it’s also the period of the English Nature poet, celebrated particularly in the runaway success of Edward Marsh’s anthology, Georgian Poetry, published in 1912 and which, as W. H. Davies was to put it, “performed a wonder – it made poetry pay!” D. H. Lawrence is said to have earned as much for his one poem included in the anthology, ‘Snapdragon’ as he earned from some of his novels. It is the era of Rupert Brooke, of Walter de la Mare, of John Masefield. George Orwell was to attribute a certain social accuracy to the Georgian phenomenon – as he put it:

Most middle-class boys grew up within sight of a farm and naturally it was the picturesque side of farm-life that appealed to them- the ploughing, harvesting, and so forth…. Just before the war was the great age of the ‘Nature poet’: Rupert Brooke’s ‘Grantchester’, the star-poem of 1913, is nothing but an enormous gush of ‘country’ sentiment, a sort of accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names. Considered as a poem, ‘Grantchester’ is something worse than worthless, but as an illustration of what the thinking middle-class young of that period felt it is a valuable document.

Allowing for the fact that Orwell under-rates Brooke’s comedy and irony in the poem, one can agree that he puts his finger on a notable aspect of that poem’s appeal and that of Georgian poetry generally at that time: namely, its nostalgia. As the critic V. de S. Pinto commented: “Nobody would guess from Georgian poetry that there had been a Russian Revolution or that Germany was preparing to dominate Europe.” Closer to home, nobody would guess either from the poetry, or from Marsh’s subsequent anthologies, that the nation was experiencing an unstable period politically (an absence all the more remarkable since Marsh was Winston Churchill’s private secretary for the best part of 20 years). It is a period when the suffragettes were on the march; and when there was trouble in Ireland, almost boiling over into civil war at the beginning of 1914. In 1912, even the Titanic had sunk, for some artists an event of considerable symbolic significance, most memorably in Thomas Hardy’s poem, ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ which seemed to see the event as perverse Divine intervention to undercut modern Man’s technological arrogance. However, the Georgian poets are still writing of a tranquil leisurely England in which W. H. Davies, in his 1911 poem, ‘Leisure’ can muse, ‘What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare’; and where Rupert Brooke, at the end of ‘Grantchester’ can be asking: ‘Stands the church clock at ten to three;/ and is there honey still for tea?’ Not exactly a dynamic, forward-looking image, but it is possible to sense an underlying unease about all this, almost a desire for time to stand still out of a fear of what the future holds. Brooke’s image of wanting time to stand still and of the motionless clock-face, incidentally, is brilliantly picked up in a film version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, not the famous 1935 Hitchcock version but the 1978 version starring Robert Powell – a story which is set on the eve of World War One (Buchan had begun writing the story in 1914) and where, at the film’s climax, the hero is clinging to the hands of Big Ben and trying to prevent the hands moving forward to noon, because there is a bomb planted there that will go off if the clock strikes and plunge Europe into chaos. Nevertheless, in a period of social and political uncertainty, the idyllic platitudes of Georgian poetry were probably so popular because they were profoundly reassuring. After all, as George Orwell said in a different context, if you were fighting in the First World War, which poetry would you prefer to read – that of Owen and Sassoon, say, which agonisingly evokes the awfulness of your situation, or a poem like T. S. Eliot’s ‘Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’, which does at least take you away from the battle-field and remind you of some of the more commonplace anxieties of modern living?

What is intriguing about the Georgians in this regard is that their pastoral, paradisal vision is shared by others from a quite different artistic background. A number of artists at this time are preoccupied with the theme of the search for the lost paradise. You find it in Alain-Fournier’s great, one-and only novel of 1913, Le Grand Meaulnes, a heart-breaking tale of lost innocence and the search for the land of lost content (the author was tragically to be killed in the early years of the war); also in the contemporaneous and exquisite ‘Enchanted Garden’ movement that concludes the orchestral ‘Mother Goose Suite’ by Ravel, who coincidentally was once planning to set Le Grand Meaulnes to music. 1912 is also the year of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. It is almost as if they sense there is some mighty convulsion about to take place and they are trying to assert enduring values or find some private escape before the crunch comes. This sense of apprehension has been delicately caught in Edmund Blunden’s poem, ‘The Sunlit Vale’, a gentle rebuke to what one might call the ‘Greensleeves’ sentiment in the English temperament (and even Vaughan Williams had done a famous arrangement of ‘Greensleeves’ in 1912):

I saw the sunlit vale and the pastoral fairy-tale
The sweet and bitter scent of the may drifted by;
And never have I seen such a bright bewildering green,
But it looked like a lie,
Like a kindly meant lie.

We are also entering the film age. Between 1910 and 1914, an area of California called Hollywood will establish itself as the centre of the American film industry. The cinema is still in an age of innocence, being taken to its hearts by the masses but frowned on by some (not all) of the intelligentsia not simply because it is a popular mass art but also because it is a mechanical one, the product of a developing technology. Yet for artists in the Futurist movement, for example, with their embrace of modern apparatus, their love of speed and industrialisation and their rejection of tradition, this is all to the good: the cinema is a new art that has the potential of fulfilling their aims, and also the potential, as the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio declared, of surpassing all other art forms in terms of spectacle and fantastic visions. Indeed in 1916 the Italian film theorist, Ricciotto Canudo will refer to film as “the seventh art”, joining dance, poetry, music, sculpture, architecture and painting. And while some deplore film’s mass appeal, and feel it represents the contamination of art by crude commercial obligations and constraints, a great writer like Tolstoy, for example, is completely unfazed by the cinema’s connection with industry and commerce and indeed has a wonderful little parable about it. “In the reeds of film art,” wrote Tolstoy, “sits the toad, the businessman. Above him hovers the insect – the artist. The jaws of the businessman devour the artist. But that doesn’t mean destruction. It is only one of the methods of procreation. In the belly of the businessman is carried on the process of impregnation and the development of the seeds of the future…which will begin their brilliant, beautiful lives all over again.” Even a century later, there has been no more positive account given of the fruitful tension between art and commerce which has given us some of our greatest films.

In fact, a lot of artists will grow to love cinema’s earliest manifestations and its spirit of adventure, admiring the pluckiness of Chaplin, the mania of the Keystone Kops, the trials and tribulations of Pearl White, early silent Italian epics such as Quo Vadis (1912), which so inspired D. W. Griffith ,and Cabiria (1913), whose inter-titles were written by D’Annunzio. Like Post-Impressionist art, film will cause some writers to re-evaluate how they write. Innovative writers like Joyce and Virginia Woolf express interest in the cinema, perhaps for oblique reasons i.e. the novel’s reliance on narrative and representational realism, neither of which is of primary concern to Joyce and Woolf, can be taken over by film, which will displace the novel as the primary narrative form of the century, leaving the novelist free to explore new and different aspects of the form. Yet the opening chapter of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is dazzlingly cinematic in its manipulation of time without traditional transitions and its use of literary equivalents of flashback, flash-forward, parallel sequences, jump cuts, subliminal cuts etc. No wonder that a decade later, the master of Soviet montage, Sergei Eisenstein will be going round waving a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses under the noses of his film-making colleagues and declaring, “This is the Bible of modern cinema!”

The same tensions felt in painting and literature immediately before 1914 were also apparent in the music of the period – what one might cautiously characterise as a breakdown of order leading towards either new forms or disintegration. This is felt most strongly in the last-gasp Romanticism, early Modernism of Gustav Mahler, particularly his last completed work, the Ninth Symphony (“the most important symphony of the century”, as the critic Richard Osborne has called it, a judgment with which many great conductors would agree); and also in the work of Mahler’s pupil, Arnold Schoenberg, whose dissonances might come out of a reaction against an exhausted nineteenth century tonality or out of a response to a society on the verge of breakdown. How could a sensitive artist, he might ask, be expected to write romantic, harmonious music in such a situation? Nevertheless, even Richard Strauss, who was regarded as a modernist at that time, found Schoenberg a bit extreme: after looking at the score of Schoenberg’s ‘Five Orchestral Pieces’ of 1912, Strauss had written to Mahler’s widow, Alma that “only a psychiatrist could help poor Schoenberg now…he’d do better shovelling snow.” Still, like Mahler, Schoenberg was very conscious of his historical moment. When someone criticised him for writing such ugly and atonal music, he replied: “Somebody had to be Schoenberg, and no one else volunteered, so I was.” In 1908, in the vocal finale of his second String Quartet, a soprano voice sings the words of Stefan Georg: “I feel air from another planet…” The observation could be both musical and social, in the same way as Charles Ives’s ‘The Unanswered Question’, composed in the same year, poses similar questions: whither tonality? whither harmony? whither humanity?

The most striking musical event during the period – and the most notorious premiere in musical history – was the premiere in Paris on 29 May, 1913 of Stavinsky’s ballet score, The Rite of Spring, which provoked a riot. Indeed ‘striking’ might be the operative word: one observer has written that he felt an incredible throbbing in his temples which he thought must have been the effect of the score but then realised that the man behind him had stood up and started pounding out the rhythm of the music on the top of his head. According to Stravinsky’s own account, protests against the music were underway even before the curtain had risen and they exploded into uproar when the ballet started, the dancers being described by Stravinsky in his autobiography as “a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”. He had stormed backstage to deal with the choreographer Nijinsky but then had to restrain him from running onto the stage to remonstrate with the audience. The scandal had the effect of validating the newness of the work and the authenticity of Stravinsky’s modernist credentials, and converting it into an instant classic. Indeed for a while afterwards, people would turn up for a performance in anticipation of a riot and were most put out when it failed to materialise. Siegfried Sassoon expressed his disappointment at this in his poem, ‘Concert Interpretation’:

No tremor bodes eruption and alarms.
They are listening to this not-quite-new audacity
As though it were by someone dead- like Brahms.

However one interprets the subject of the Rite of Spring (as the sound of the cracking of the Russian spring, or the necessity of conflict, or the primitivism within us all, which would link it with other key texts of modernism, like Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough or Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) or however one interprets its mood – brutal, barbarous, mechanical, destructive, vital, joyous – it remains one of the landmarks of twentieth century art, being musically to the 20th century what Beethoven’s 9th was to the 19th. T. S. Eliot was to say that he heard in it the sounds of the new century – the motor horn, the beating of metal, the roar of engines – but felt that Stravinsky had “transformed those despairing noises into music”. There will be something Stravinskian about Eliot’s great poem of 1922, The Waste Land, with its rigorous objectivity and anti-romanticism and its underlying theme of sacrifice and rebirth. I also think of Stravinsky when I read D. H. Lawrence’s great novel of 1915, The Rainbow and that remarkable scene of the pregnant Anna’s naked dance, as if she is seeking some kind of mystical experience or release – a desire to feel life in the body more than the mind. It’s a sort of Stravinskian dance of life. Her husband looks on, bemused and appalled, rather like the audience on Stravinsky’s opening night, but from another perspective, it could appear beautiful, different, liberating. Stravinsky always claimed the music came to him in a dream, hearing it in his head even before he had any precise idea of how to write it down in conventional musical notation. “I didn’t compose ‘The Rite’,” he would say, “I was the vessel through which it passed.”

These, then, are some (not all) of the most famous artistic highlights of the pre-First World War period; and, in conclusion. I would like to emphasise two points about them. One of the features of the arts at this time is its interconnectedness. A writer was as much likely to be influenced in his work by a painter or composer as by another writer, and this was true of artists in other fields. It is an extraordinary period of artistic cross-fertilisation. I have already noted the impact on the writer Arnold Bennett of the Post-Impressionist Exhibition. The composer Schoenberg had close connections with The Blue Rider school of artists and was no mean painter. Vaughan Williams said that the magical epilogue that concluded his ‘London Symphony’ of 1914 was inspired by a passage describing the Thames from H. G. Wells’s great Condition of England novel of 1909, Tono-Bungay. Rupert Brook’s poem ‘Grantchester’ will be set to music by Charles Ives. The impact of the composer Mahler on Thomas Mann was the main inspiration behind his novella Death in Venice. Kandinsky talked in musical terms about his painting, talking of the “silencing” or the “sounding” of one colour by another; and in the catalogue for the second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912, Clive Bell claimed that “we now expect a work of art to have more in common with a piece of music than with a coloured photograph.” In his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art Kandinsky will write that “music, poetry, painting, architecture are all able in their different way to reach the essential soul, and the coming era will see them brought together, mutually striving to the great attainment.” That interconnectedness is one of the most distinctive and exciting aspects of the arts of that period and possibly one of the reasons why I love it, because I have always been deeply affected by something that Leonard Bernstein said in the first of his marvellous Harvard lectures of 1973 called The Unanswered Question about the importance of inter-disciplinary values and his belief that “the best way to “know” a thing is in the context of another discipline.”

My final point has to do with context. It is surely impossible to respond to the literature, music, painting of the period without being aware in each of a sense of crisis, collapse and a corresponding need for innovation and an affirmation of the new. The reasons for this could be artistic (the perceived exhaustion of Romanticism in music, realism in fiction, Impressionism in painting); or they could be social (the widespread political turbulence, or a premonition of impending crisis, as in that ominous second sentence of Death in Venice when Thomas Mann refers to “a spring afternoon in that year of grace 19-, when Europe sat upon the anxious seat beneath a menace that hung over its head for months.”) The Australian painter Sidney Nolan thought that Art sometimes acted as an Early Warning System, that one of the things that distinguished great artists was the gift of being able to sense something in the air. Van Gogh wrote of what he called “the miraculous regularity with which art is always the first to indicate the direction life is taking.” Leonard Bernstein thought Mahler’s 9th Symphony was the greatest of the twentieth century because of its prophetic quality; it saw into the future and, in Bernstein’s words, “in that foretelling, it showered a rain of beauty on this world that has not been equalled since.” In their book entitled Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1996), the authors Allan Janil and Stephen Toulmin posed the following question: “Was it an absolute coincidence that the beginnings of twelve-tone music, ‘modern’ architecture…non-representational art and psychoanalysis were all taking place simultaneously?” There is a danger that, with the benefit of hindsight, one can impose a schematic and convenient pattern on a period and give it a coherence that might have been far from clear at the time. Nevertheless, I continue to contend that what was happening across the arts in that period – the strains, the tensions, the rejection or revision of tradition, the sense of a breakdown of order into chaos – was not coincidence but confluence. If there is a phrase for the whole experience, I would cite something that D. H. Lawrence said was the theme of The Rainbow and it could almost come from a Futurist manifesto: “The old world is done for, crumbling on top of us: there must be a new world.”

So, when Virginia Woolf wrote that “in or about December 1910, human character changed,” she might have been outrageous, eccentric, deliberately provocative: but she also had a point.

Neil Sinyard

For anyone wishing to explore the topic further, I have attached a list of some Key Artistic events between 1910 and 1914.
As introductory reading, I can recommend the following:
J. B. Bullen (ed.), Post-Impressionists in England: The Critical Reception (1988)
Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music and Painting in Europe, 1900-18 (1994)
Ian Dunlop, The Shock of the New (1972)
Nigel Gosling, Paris 1900-1914 (1978)
Peter Nicholls, Modernisms (1995)
Paul Poplawski (ed.), Encyclopedia of Literary Modernisms (2003)
Alan Rich, Music: Mirror of the Arts (1969)
Trudi Tate, Modernism, History and the First World War (1998)
S. K. Tillyard, The Impact of Modernism 1900-1920 (1988)
Peter Vergo, Art in Vienna 1900-1918 (1975)


Art: First Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London; Picasso, Portrait of a Young Girl with Mandolin
Literature: E. M. Forster, Howards End; W. B. Yeats, The Green Helmet; death of Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain.
Music: Stravinsky, The Firebird; Elgar, Violin Concerto; Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; London premiere of Richard Strauss’s Elektra and Salome.
Film: D. W. Griffith moves his film operation to California in an area called Hollywood.

Art: Kandinsky and Franz Mark set up ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ exhibition in Munich.
Literature: Rupert Brooke poems first published; Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes; H. G. Wells, Ann Veronica; D. H. Lawrence, The White Peacock.
Music: Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier; Stravinsky, Petrushka; Elgar, Symphony No.2; Sibelius, Symphony No.4; Ravel, Daphnis and Chloe; Bartok, Bluebeard’s Castle; Debussy, Jeux; death of Gustav Mahler.
Film: The birth of the fan magazines and revealing of the identity of the Biograph girl, Florence Lawrence.

Art: 2nd Post-Impressionist in London; Kandinsky writes On the Spiritual in Art; Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.
Literature: First English translation of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past; Edward Marsh’s anthology Georgian Poetry; Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden. Death of August Strindberg.
Music: World premieres of Mahler’s Symphony No.9 and Das Lied von der Erde; Schoenberg, Pierrot Lunaire; Ravel’s Orchestral Suite Mother Goose.
Film: D. W. Griffith, The Massacre; Enrico Guazzani’s Quo Vadis; legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt is filmed in Queen Elizabeth and declares to producer Adolph Zukor ‘You have preserved the best of me in pickle for all time.’

Art: The Armory Exhibition of Post-Impressionist Art in New York; Kokoschka’s Die Windsbraut (portrait of turbulent relationship with Mahler’s widow); Emil Nolde’s The Prophet.
Literature: Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice; Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes; D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers; May Sinclair, The Three Sisters.
Music: Stravinsky, Rite of Spring; Charles Ives, Fourth of July; Webern, 6 Pieces for Orchestra; Magnard’s 4th Symphony; first gramophone recording of a complete symphony (Artur Nikisch conducts Beethoven’s 5th).
Film: Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria; Victor Sjostrom’s Ingeborg Holm; Cecil B. DeMille’s Squaw Man; Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas; Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline.

Literature: James Joyce, Dubliners and serialisation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion; Wyndham Lewis, Blast; John Buchan begins The 39 Steps.
Music: Holst, The Planets; Vaughan Williams, A London Symphony; Prokofiev, Scythian Suite.
Film: Sennett Tillie’s Punctured Romance.

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