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Art forever changed by World War I

From the fiction of Hemingway to the savagely critical paintings of Otto Dix, WWI reshaped the notion of art, just as it forever altered the perception of war.

July 21, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

"War! We felt purified, liberated, we felt an enormous hope," Thomas Mann wrote in 1914. Only years later would the German author renounce his support of the war in his novels "The Magic Mountain" and "Dr. Faustus," which depicted wartime Europe gripped by a mass psychosis.

Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg initially drew analogies "between the German army's assault on decadent France and his own assault on decadent bourgeois values" and music, as the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross writes in "The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century." "Now comes the reckoning!" Schoenberg wrote to Alma Mahler. "Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God."

For Morpurgo, the essence of how World War I stamped modern consciousness can be found in the works of a generation of English poets and writers such as Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, all of whom served in uniform.

In the conflict's opening months, Brooke penned the wistfully patriotic "The Soldier," expressing hope that if he should die in combat he would be laid to rest in "some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England." Three years later, Owen, who like Brooke would not survive the war, wrote with blunt fury about the horrors of gas attacks and the obscene futility of battle in "Dulce et Decorum Est."

The ruinous carnage of the War to End All Wars has come to be regarded as emblematic of all misguided military action and the societies that support it. George Bernard Shaw's 1920 play "Heartbreak House" and films such as Jean Renoir's classic "The Grand Illusion" (1937) and Peter Weir's "Gallipoli" (1981) dramatize the class-based interests and divisions that drove the war. Other movies such as Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory," the peace-and-love hippie ethos of the 1966 "King of Hearts" and the grotesque music-hall choreography of the Vietnam-era "Oh, What a Lovely War!" (1969) underscore the notion that wartime signifies the taking over of the asylum by the lunatics.

But possibly the war's most enduring legacy, and one of its few positive ones, was to emphasize not the strategies of kaisers and field marshals but the personal stories of the nontitled individuals who actually fought and died in it.

The impulse to remember and honor the hardships endured by the ordinary foot soldier creates a direct link between Charles Sargeant Jagger's Royal Artillery Memorial at London's Hyde Park Corner, with its bronze figure of a dead soldier covered by a blanket, and Maya Lin's abstract, quietly dignified Vietnam Veterans Memorial inWashington, D.C.

Amy Lyford, a professor of art history and visual arts at Occidental College, said that Surrealism developed partly from artists' desires to depict the massive traumas the war inflicted on individual human beings. Meanwhile, she said, the ruling classes after World War I were trying to "paper over" those wounds with plastic surgery, both literally in the case of mutilated veterans, who were fitted with newfangled prosthetics, and culturally.

"There was a kind of aestheticization of trauma," said Lyford, author of "Surrealist Masculinities: Gender Anxiety and the Aesthetics of Post-World War I Reconstruction in France."

Today, Lyford said, some contemporary artists are exploring how "stories of reparation and therapy" are being used to paper over the actual and metaphoric wounds of 21st-century warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The fragmentation is real," Lyford said. "It's not just something you sew up with stitches and move on."

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