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The European Modern Art in the Period of WWI Essay

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The early 20th century was a period of impetuous change. The First World War profoundly altered people’s understanding of their worlds. Early 20th-century art movements powerfully reflect this new mind-set. It was a brutal reality of war that was to give abstraction its edge. To those who survived the First World War it came to embody the collapse of traditional Western culture. What had started as an exercise in honor and chivalry (for Futurists) ended as mass destruction (for Dada artists).

Moreover, the First World War forced many to reconsider the kind of value system and culture that could have permitted such an atrocity in the first place.

As the war dragged on, more and more artists felt themselves compromised by the act of making art – at least the kind of work that seemed so much a part of a larger, hypocrisy-hidden cultural machine. For many, to continue meant a drastic re-evaluation of the role of the art for themselves and their society.

The result was a radically new way of looking at the world and at art – one that survives to this day. Daringly innovatory in technical terms, movements such as Cubism and Futurism, both of which were at their height around 1910–13, neglected traditional painting to probe the structure of consciousness itself.

Though, it is to Dada and Surrealism that we should look for the most compelling explorations of the modern psyche, not least because both movements placed considerable emphasis on mental investigation. Dada partially saw itself as re-enacting the psychic upheaval caused by the First World War, while the irrationalism celebrated by Surrealism could be seen as a thoroughgoing acceptance of the forces at work beneath the coating of civilization. In this work I summarize the overlapping histories of movements of Futurism and Dada, first of all, and what common features link them. Also on particular examples of Boccioni and Jean Arp’s works I endeavor to find similarities and differences of these two movements.

Futurist painting is a fascinating example of how seemingly innocuous pictorial movement can take on political and social aspects. The Futurists were for the most part a collection of modernist Italian painters who saw the destruction of the old and the glory of the new as the hallmarks of a truly modern artist. The Futurist movement burst upon the consciousness of an astonished public in the years 1909-1910. For the first time artists crossed over the line between conventional taste and new ideas. Taking their cue from the anarchists with whom as youths they were in sympathy, the self-styled Futurists published shocking manifestoes, governing their art and thoughts, the most famous of which was the Futurist Technical Manifesto negating all past values, even art itself.

Fighting their way towards a new liberty against apathy, nostalgia, and sentimentality, they became for a very wide public the symbol of all that was new, terrifying, and seemingly ridiculous in contemporary art. As for the term Futurism, there is no mystery about its origin, nor was it a word thrust by chance upon the artists as were “Fauvism,” and “Cubism” or “Dada”. It was coined in the autumn of 1908 by the bilingual Italian poet, editor, and promoter of art, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, to give ideological coherence to the advanced tendencies in poetry.

Because the Futurist painters early adapted to their own use some of the formal language of Cubism, their painting has often been considered a kind of speeded up version of that classically oriented movement. However the significant difference consisted in Futurism’s aim to represent motion, a goal better realized in moving pictures. Motion for the Futurist painter was not an objective fact to be analyzed, but simply a modern means for embodying a strong personal expression.

In their iconoclasm and concern for the vagaries of the mind, they had not a little in common with Dada. The Italian Futurists were fighting the estrangement from the world, the lonely isolation of the individual that was not only the inheritance of the artist but a common threat to modern man. They rejected firmly the temptation to brood over man’s plight, sentimentalizing over his helplessness in the way fashionable at the turn of the century. With Nietzschean arrogance they despised the weak and the timid, the thoughtful or hesitant, and wished to feel themselves rash, bold, and capable of infinite accomplishment. They wanted their art to restore to man a sense of daring, an assertive will rather than submissive acceptance.

Perhaps the most talented Futurist artist was Umberto Boccioni, whose work and interests included both painting and sculpture. In his The Street Enters the House (Fig. 1) of 1911 it is quite apparent that he employed Cubist inventions for the depiction of a fractured space and the breaking down of forms across the picture plane.

But to this he adds something Cubists had shied away from: color – the kind which illuminated and even decomposed forms. In this work forms, light and color melt into a frenzy of simultaneous activities, each actively pursuing the other for visual authority. The result is something like a visual noise, where each gesture or diminished form takes on the personality of a boisterous shout in a turbulent crowd.

It appears that the radical Boccioni’s treatment of forms was to certain extent conservative. He never completely let go of the descriptive character of his work. In his sculptural work (Fig. 2) he maintains an awkward balance between the radical character of Cubist traditions and his desire to maintain a likeness. In this case, the piece looks like an icon to motion and progress and ironically discloses disdain for the whole history of figurative sculpture. Perhaps the greatest irony was the artist’s welcome to the First World War as a “cleansing” of culture. When the war was declared, he, like many of Futurists immediately enlisted and shortly after he was killed. Thus, with the horrors of the First World War, Futurism died too.

Chronologically, the Dada movement (1915-1922) followed the Cubist style, from which it borrowed the papier collé technique[2], and preceded the Surrealist movement for which it laid a foundation. Dada artists dismissed the canons of the traditional arts as well, considering their work to be non-art and, in some instances, even anti-art. More than anything else, Dada was an ‘avant-garde’ movement. The term ‘avant-garde’, which was first employed by the French utopian socialist Henri de Saint-Simon in the 1820s, initially had military connotations, but came to signify the advanced socio-political as well as aesthetic position to which the modern artist should aspire[3].

By the early 20th century, several key art movements – such as Futurism in Italy, Constructivism in Russia or De Stijl in Holland, as well as Dada and Surrealism – were pledged to contesting any separation between art and the contingent experience of the modern world. Appearing almost simultaneously in Zurich, New York, and Paris, the Dada movement did not represent a particular style of art as much as an intellectual rebellion of artists against the war and a general rejection of the formal traditions of culture and society. The term Dada was selected for the movement by opening a dictionary at random and arbitrarily selecting a word. This use of chance as a factor of determination and decision making would become systemized by the Dadaists in their work.

The main practitioner of the art of chance was Jean (Hans) Arp, a Dada artist less inclined to grand gesture than on establishing a liberating, and thus in his opinion moral, work method for his art. The result can be seen in his Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Chance (Fig. 3). In this particular case, the actual work method is perhaps more noteworthy than the image it produced, and it hints at much larger issue in later art making – the supposed unlocking of the unconscious. Arp strongly believed that the unconscious existed and could be triggered, but revealing it required a radically different approach to art making.

To produce this image, Arp simply dropped pieces of torn paper in a random manner onto a field of background color, and then glued the shapes down exactly where they fell. Such a method denies all possibility of craft concerns technical skills or even the simplest discretionary gesture on the part of the artist. All aspect of its production are left to chance. These pieces are seen as triggering mechanism to the unconscious, an activity in harmony with nature. The importance of Arp’s work lies in its acceptance of an uncontrollable event as at least as real as all of the intellectual conventions on which the European tradition was grounded. And at the time when many of these intellectual and cultural ideas were shattered by war, the unconscious might have seemed like the only place to hide.

So we can conclude that both movements resemble each other in their striving to abandon conventional artistic approach and methods. However, in terms of art, Dada could be said to have had the most wide-ranging post-war impact, a fact which is paradoxical given Dada’s anti-art inclinations. Dada committed itself to the deconstruction of lethal culture and its reconstruction according to more humane principles. Its success was constituted in the intensity and scope of its critique.

The attitude towards the war of each of the movement was considerably predetermined by the period of their existence. Unlike Dada artists who survived the horrors of the war and under this experience reconsidered their understanding of art, Futurist artist believed in positive effect of the war. The analysis of the two artists’ works, representatives of both movements, displays the most striking difference existent between Futurism and the Dada movement, that is, art vs non-art forms.

Figure 1. Umberto Boccioni

The Street Enters the House 1911

Oil on canvas

(100Í100.6 cm)

Sprengel Museum, Hanover


Figure 2. Umberto Boccioni

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space 1913


Height 110.5 cm

Collection, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Figure 3. Jean Arp

Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Chance 1916-17

Torn and pasted paper

(48.6Í34.5 cm)

Collection, The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Braun, Emily. “Futurist Fashion: Three Manifestoes”. Art Journal. Vol.: 54. 1995: 34-49

Hopkins, David. Dada and Surrealism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

“Papier collé.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2005. Retrieved on December 16, 2005 from

Taylor, Joshua C. Boccioni. New York: Double & Company, Inc

[1] Emily Braun in the article Futurist Fashion: Three Manifestoes presents a profound insight of Futurists manifestos.

[2] Papier collé (French: pasted paper) is a painting technique and type of collage. With papier collé the artist pastes pieces of flat material (paper, oil cloth and the like) into a painting in much in the same way as a collage, except the shape of the pasted pieces are objects themselves. (Wickipedia)

[3] David Hopkins in his book Dada and Surrealism gives detailed survey of the historical, political and social backgrounds of Dada and Surrealism, as well as examines their relation to other movements that emerged at that period, 2.

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