Drawing on experience
The First World War was so horrific that, after it ended, it was immediately named 'the war to end all wars'. It not only left a scar on the minds of all the young soldiers who survived the experience, but it also deeply affected all the young writers, artists and musicians who worked in the 1920s and 1930s in Edwardian summer
To understand the impact of the First World War on British culture and the arts, you have to look back at what was happening before the war. Before the conflict started in 1914, if you were a teenager – especially an upper-class or middle-class child – you were brought up in the heyday of Empire.
The books you read, the plays you saw, the music you heard, the paintings you looked at and even the clothes you wore all told the same story: British was best. Having an Empire on which 'the sun never set', most Britons basked in a smug glow of superiority and complacency.
In music, a good example of this is the Pomp and Circumstance March Number One, aka 'Land of Hope and Glory', by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), first performed in 1902. But the feeling of superiority affected all the arts; it created a British culture that was very traditional, and deeply suspicious of foreign influences.
The result was the domination of the conventional. For example, although H G Wells (1866-1946) was a pioneer of science fiction, he also wrote simple novels about lower-middle-class people. The History of Mr Polly (1910) exemplifies this kind of ordinary realism. The plays of John Galsworthy (1867-1933) might deal with class issues – Strife (1909) is about an industrial strike – but they were boringly naturalistic in form. In art, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) painted conventional portraits of society ladies.
Modernism: shock of the new
If you wanted cultural excitement before the war, you had to go abroad. In Paris, you could find painters such as Pablo Picasso experimenting with Cubism, an early form of abstract art. His Les Demoiselles d'Avignon – a 1907 painting of Parisian prostitutes – was a turning point in the history of modern art. It caused outrage because its images of the women are disfigured and unnatural.
In Paris, you might hear Igor Stravinski's The Rite of Spring (1912), a piece of classical music that caused shock with its use of vigorous dance rhythms. In Milan, the Futurist modern art movement (1909) attacked artistic conventions and celebrated speed, fragmentation and modern machinery. In Vienna, psychiatrist Sigmund Freud rubbed shoulders with philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and writer Arthur Schnitzler. Each of these cities was a centre of modernism.
Modernism was an artistic movement that challenged the complacency of middle-class life by violently attacking conventional stories, plays, painting and music. In each case, the traditional realistic form of the artwork was challenged by the use of new, highly imaginative techniques.
In the novel, instead of telling the story objectively, modernists told it subjectively as a stream of ideas, sometimes disconnected. In painting, instead of showing what a person looked like, painters tried to break up images and produce collage effects. In Picasso's paintings, for example, you can see both profiles of a person's face at the same time. In music, dissonance was more important than harmony. The modernists wanted to make art uncomfortable and to provoke new ideas. Britain. If you grew up after the war, you couldn't escape its shadow.