Modernism in Europe By Gammel, Irene; Waszczuk, Cathy
We are living in a very singular moment of history. It is a moment of crisis, in the literal sense of that word. In every branch of our spiritual and material civilization we seem to have arrived at a critical turning-point. This spirit shows itself not only in the actual state of public affairs but also in the general attitude towards fundamental values in personal and social life.
German physicist Max Planck’s sense of crisis, as expressed in his 1932 book Where is Science Going?, echoes William Butler Yeats’s famous lines from ‘The Second Coming,’ written in 1919 (Haughey 2002: 161) and published in 1920: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’ (466). German feminist and radical socialist Rosa Luxemburg articulated this experience of crisis as the preexisting condition for political revolution, demanding action and progress and rejecting the status quo. In a 1904 letter to a friend she insists: ‘for a revolutionary movement not to go forward means – to fall back. The only means of fighting opportunism in a radical way is to keep going forward’ (Luxemburg 2011: 183). ‘Red Rosa’, as Luxemburg was known, was a fierce proponent of revolutionary activity in Europe; her brazen state-sanctioned murder in 1919 by a group of paramilitary men shook Weimar Germany’s fragile democracy. These three instances show how varied and widespread the intellectual and cultural responses to the modernist groundswell were, spread across the fields of science, politics, economics, and the arts, giving rise to the formation of diverse modern identities.
With the Second Boer War and two World Wars punctuating the period of European modernism examined in this article, the era encapsulates an unparalleled sense of bouleversement and sweeping change rendered even more turbulent by the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Spanish Civil War (1936–9). The Second Boer War (1899–1902) indicated the first faltering steps of an era of rapid industrialization, preceded by the Berlin Conference (1884–5), which focused on the colonial distribution of Africa and spoke to Europe’s atavistic exploitation of the world. But it was the First World War (1914–18), also known as the Great War or ‘the war to end all wars’, which marked the fundamental untenability of the old sociopolitical models. Triggered by the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia, the war’s unprecedented scale involved virtually every European nation in the hostilities. For the first time in recorded history, military belligerence and aggression involved mass-manufactured killing machines and chemical warfare.
Against this cataclysmic backdrop, European modernism offers a remarkable level of philosophical, intellectual, ideological, scientific, technological, political, and aesthetic development. Distinct from the values, mores, and relative peace of the Victorian era, the pace and intensification of radical thought and action during the modernist years provided the breeding ground for the proliferation of new dissenting -isms, schools, movements, and coteries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Amongst numerous other debates, the intellectual and cultural atmosphere of Europe was shaped by a wide spectrum of ideas ranging from socialism to Keynesian macroeconomics; suffragism, subjectivity and fashion; psychoanalysis and formalism; urbanism and primitivism; quantum theory and science; Nietzschean vitalism and the avant-garde; and communism, fascism, and National Socialism.
Economic Crises and Modern Economic Thought
Austrian filmmaker Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis offers a striking cinematic depiction of the treacherous monotony of the modern labourer in the throes of alienation, estranged from nature, self, and society by means of modern industry, technology, and politics. As traditional ideologies like religion ebbed, new political and economic allegiances (liberal, reactionary; capitalist, Marxist) gained traction. The first few decades of the twentieth century saw the marked increase in the number and frequency of economic transactions made between individuals, resulting from more wage-earners being employed. Labour agitation won important improvements for workers, such as fair wages and legal regulations on the number of hours one could work. In turn, these developments increased the availability and circulation of capital. The surge in expenditure and consumption was proudly displayed through colossal public spectacles celebrating the triumph of commodity culture in the World Expositions of London (1851), Paris (1889, 1900), and Chicago (1893, 1933). The expositions, which Walter Benjamin called ‘places of pilgrimage to the commodity fetish’ (Benjamin 2002: 7), featured dizzying achievements in architecture and industry, allowing visitors to enjoy escapist fantasies by trying out the latest consumer goods or visiting mock ethnographic villages, trenchant examples of colonial exoticism.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels expounded on the nature of the commodity and commodity fetishism in revolutionary terms that would be adapted by the theorists and activists of the modernist era. ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism’, Marx and Engels wrote presciently in Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848 (Marx and Engels 1986: 33); by 1917, the Russian Revolution not only dealt the death blow to Russia’s monarchy (quite literally by executing the Romanov family) but ushered in the Communist system with the October Revolution. Led by Vladimir Lenin, the ‘red’ Bolsheviks defeated the ‘white’ Mensheviks (monarchist and liberal forces). Adapting orthodox Marxism, Marxism-Leninism proclaimed ostensibly anti-capitalist concepts of communal ownership of lands in the newly minted Soviet Republic (USSR). The revolutionary state first encouraged, then brutally repressed, anarchist avant-gardists such as the constructivists Aleksandr Rodchenko and Aleksei Gan, and the suprematist Kazimir Malevich.
Numerous theorists and philosophers during the modernist era expanded and critiqued Marxist positions, perhaps most notably the Frankfurt School (Institut für Sozialforschung, Frankfurt Institute for Social Research) theorists, such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. Adorno and Horkheimer, for example, used Marx’s insights to analyze the context and arrangements of social systems to identify their latent flaws, internal contradictions, and subterranean structures through what is now commonly known as critical theory. In ‘The culture industry: enlightment as mass deception’ (1944; Adorno and Horkheimer 2002), they denounce the mindless production and repetitive consumption of manufactured ‘cultural’ entertainment and media, detecting within it the tailspin of the rational ideals that had fuelled European development since the Enlightenment.
In contrast to the Frankfurt School’s neo-Marxist critical methods, British economist and founder of modern macroeconomics John Maynard Keynes sought to address the problems of modern market economy through concrete interventions in the system. Prompted by the Great Depression (originating in 1929 in New York and spreading to Europe with soaring unemployment that crippled the Weimar Republic and facilitated the spread of Nazi ideology), Keynes argued for public investment, with government interventions ending both austerity measures and the laissez faire free market economy. Keynes’ modern macroeconomy was a rejection of both the unbridled capitalism that accompanied Victorian industrialism, and the Victorian belief that capitalist excesses could be regulated through acts of charity by the captains of industry.
Gender and Modern Radical Politics
European intellectual currents also facilitated important economic and political advancements for women. The first wave of feminism, lasting roughly halfway through the 1800s and into the 1900s, coincides with the turn-of-the-century ‘New Woman’ who ardently challenged conventional attitudes towards sex, gender, and social propriety. Women enjoyed proliferating opportunities for self-expression through consumption, dress, and politics. Major reforms, such as increased access to education, the elimination of restrictions imposed upon women in the workforce, recognition of women’s personhood before the law, access to divorce, and moderate progress in sexual and reproductive rights appeared as a motley patchwork across Europe.
Limited women’s suffrage was achieved in Britain in 1918 and extended in 1928. The British suffrage movement, with iconic leaders Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, consisted of numerous groups and affiliates such as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). These two groups also exemplified the split between suffragists and more radical suffragettes who deployed violent and self-destructive means to demand the voting franchise. Suffragettes scandalously smashed windows and slashed paintings, the most public instance being Mary Richardson’s assault on Diego Velázquez’s The Toilet of Venus in 1914.
Marxist feminist Alexandra Kollontai was the Commissar of Social Welfare after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and introduced sweeping reforms offering unprecedented recognition of and support for women’s reproductive labours (pregnancy and child-rearing). By overthrowing conventional sexual mores through discrediting marriage and granting access to divorce and abortion, Kollontai aimed to bring more women into the productive economy. In Germany, the cause of women was also very closely aligned with socialism, at the head of which were Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, co-founders of the Spartacist League with Karl Liebknecht and other German Marxist revolutionaries. Fanning the flames of a radical socialist movement in Weimar Germany, they furthered the cause of women alongside the cause of the labouring classes, ultimately winning the vote for women in 1918.
Women were unable to vote in France until 1944. However, modernist Paris, with its comparatively relaxed social mores, bohemian enclaves, and influxes of expatriates (including numerous American modernists), offered women artists, writers, and luminaries previously verboten opportunities for the expression of sexual and artistic identities prior to extending suffrage to them. The City of Lights was also an important centre for modernist design, where French designer Coco Chanel, praised for her use of angular modernist lines, and her Italian rival Elsa Schiaparelli, with her Surrealist-inspired garments, set up their practices. Whether in the salons or amongst the couturiers, women’s self-fashioning was emblematic of modernity’s transient change. Clothing not only covers but also exhibits the body, as British psychoanalyst and dress reformer John Flugel theorized in The Psychology of Clothes (1930; Flugel 1950: 21–2). The new designs allowed women to construct new and modern public identities.
Crisis of Psyche, Language and Society
The psychoanalytic revolution propelled the power of the unconscious and irrational drives (Trieb) into the vocabulary of modernist art and thought, revising the understanding of human personality. Whereas the Victorians relegated sex to the illicit underground, Austrian psychoanalyst and physician Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on Theory of Sexuality (1905; Freud 1962) posited the centrality of sex in human development, which occurs in psycho-sexual phases: oral, anal, and genital. Freud’s model of development emphasized the tension in human make-up (id, ego, superego), as well as the force of dual drives of sex and aggression in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920; Freud 1922). The clinical practice of psychoanalysis made use of the ‘talking cure’ (developed by fellow Austrian Joseph Breuer in the case of Anna O.). As Freud argued in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900; Freud 1913), the unconscious enters discourse through dreams, fantasies, and free associations – concepts that would become influential for Paris surrealists (such as Louis Aragon, André Breton, and Georges Bataille) as well as modernist writers and artists (from Dorothy Richardson to Salvador Dalí), and some of which had been anticipated by the profoundly modern split and double-personalities in the fiction of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Robert Louis Stevenson. Neo-Freudians such as British object-relations psychoanalyst Melanie Klein extended Freudian concepts far beyond the modernist era, while fellow Viennese language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein critically pointed to its limits, redirecting attention to word meaning generated through use and context. In contrast to Freud, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget proposed a cognitive model of development that places the agency on the child and downplays the parental relationship, while a slew of experimental psychologists in the wake of German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt (who launched the first psychological laboratory at Universität Leipzig in 1879) used empirical methods and pioneered experimental psychology as we know it today.
In much of Communist Eastern Europe, psychoanalysis was banned during the modernist era. The state-sanctified doctrine of materialism facilitated the rise of Russian formalism, which advocated analysis of language and literature with a focus on form rather than the biography or social context of the author. Major proponents included Roman Jakobson, founder of the Moscow Linguistic Circle in 1914; Boris Eichenbaum, founder of the Society for the Study of Poetic Language in 1916; and Viktor Shklovsky, whose concept of de-familiarization (ostraneniye) signalled the ostensible distinction between literary and everyday language; as well as Vladimir Propp. Their influence on structuralism, and on Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin in particular, was enormous, leading to the ‘linguistic turn’ in literature and the social sciences by mid-century. The French neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan would ultimately conjoin psychoanalysis and structuralism.
Modernist-era philosophers and scientists also turned their attention to theories of society and social cohesion. Influenced by positivism, French sociologist Émile Durkheim was interested in the consciousness of both individuals and societies (the conscience collective, or collective consciousness). In The Division of Labour in Society (1893) he differentiates between societies with ‘mechanical solidarity’ (little division of labour resulting in a recognition of similarity or kindred-ness) and ‘organic solidarity’ (highly differentiated labour in industrialized societies that fosters interdependence with fellow labourers) (1997: 85 passim). Durkheim believed that society benefits from cultivating individualism through mutual interdependence, and he developed the theory of anomie to describe when individuals remained unintegrated with their peers during cultural and historical upheaval, as theorized in his landmark book Suicide (1897; Durkheim 1951).
In contrast, anti-positivist German sociologist Wilhelm Dilthey considered human action to be understood experientially (Verstehen, understanding) through the mind and body, rather than by explanation through cause and effect (Erklärung, explanation). This was the principle difference in the functioning of the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) from the positivistic accounts of natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften). German sociologist Max Weber modified these distinctions through his interpretive methodology. In his most famous text, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905; Weber 1930), Weber postulates that through gradual secularization, the asceticism of Protestantism gave way to the work ethic that dominates the ‘spirit of capitalism’, which ‘determines the lives of all individuals who are born into this mechanism’ (1930: 181). He continues: ‘The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so’ (181–2).
The relationship between the individual psyche and the community gains additional drama and poignancy in the rapidly expanding metropolis, the icon of modernity for many theorists and artists. Having grown up in Berlin, German sociologist Georg Simmel knew firsthand of the city’s ability to produce modern subjectivities, but also knew of the disorienting affect that capitalism held for individuals in the urban environment, which he discusses in ‘The metropolis and mental life’ (1903). Focusing on the city’s atomizing effects on the individual psyche, Simmel theorized the city’s excessive stimuli brought to bear on city dwellers who protect themselves with the armour of blasé attitudes (Simmel 1971). In contrast, Berlin architect and theorist August Endell embraced the supposed ugliness and chaos of the big city, asking city dwellers to immerse themselves in the transitory beauty of quotidian city existence. These concepts of urban modernity influenced the modernist thinkers and artists of the next generation, including Benjamin, Le Corbusier, Franz Hessel (Heimliches Berlin), and Wassily Kandinsky. In The Arcades Project (originally Das Passagen-Werk, 1940), an influential though fragmentary work of cultural criticism, Benjamin delves into Paris as the world city of the nineteenth century. Benjamin describes the flâneur or city stroller, immersed in the theatre of material ephemera – advertisement, fashion, prostitution – who observes city life from a distance, a concept of dandyism and modernity first introduced by Charles Baudelaire (2002: 37).
Against the transient complexities of the modern metropolis was the opposite lure of ‘the primitive’, witnessed in the launching of the Musée de l’homme (1937) in Paris and other ‘primitive art’ collections in major European cities. Large-scale expeditions to the Trobiand Islands, undertaken by Polish-British anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, and the Dakar-Djibouti Mission of French ethnographers Michel Leiris and Marcel Griaule, promulgated new theories of human existence beyond Europe. French scholar Lucien Lévy-Bruhl investigated ‘primitive’ societies in How Natives Think (1910; Lévy-Bruhl 1926), exploring, in particular, the importance of ritual, mysticism, and mythology to the social makeup of the community. Lévy-Bruhl’s work reverberated through the arts in analyses of so-called ‘primitive’ elements in art and design, hearkening also to Wilhelm Worringer’s theories regarding the difference between ‘empathetic’ and ‘abstract’ art and the cultures that produced them in Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style (1907; Worringer 1997). Of course, primitivism was (and remains) a controversial concept, criticized by ethnologists and anthropologists such as Marcel Mauss, nephew of Durkheim. Mauss’s enduring The Gift (1925; Mauss 1966) theorized indigenous rituals of gift-giving, positing that these rituals reflect reciprocal rather than monetary exchange economies, presenting a compelling alternative to capitalism that inexorably leads towards alienation, or anomie, and cultural crisis.
Against the relentless pursuits of mechanization and science flowed the counter-currents of vitalism and occultism. With its focus on life-affirming Dionysian energy, Nietzschean vitalism influenced the literary and artistic avant-gardes throughout Europe, such as the turn-of-the-century George-Kreis, a coterie that developed around German poet Stefan George to embrace pagan and gender-bending erotics. French philosopher Henri Bergson’s text Creative Evolution (1907; Bergson 1911), and his notion of élan vital, had enormous influence on the European avant-garde and on European theorists beyond the modernist era, such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the 1970s. Bergson’s opposition between intuitively lived time (la durée) and mechanical clock time (le temps) was immensely influential. With the decline of traditional religious beliefs (in the wake of Darwin), occult experimentation in spiritualism flourished, tapping experiences beyond the domain of reason with neo-pagan thought and practice as well as with theosophical revivals and magical societies. Occultism, spiritualism, and biomorphism presented a critical reaction to the all-encompassing triumphs of technology and science.
Revolutions in Technology and Science
A proliferation of new technologies evolved alongside European modernism: the motor vehicle, powered by the newly discovered internal combustion engine, itself powered by oil and petroleum (and before that the railway car, propelled by steam); electricity, which began to circulate for the first time; the first telephone, whose ring announced the noisy near-future of the telecommunication age; and mechanized recording technologies, which produced analogue material copies of pictures and words written, spoken, or sung. These innovations, along with cinema, photography, and x-ray, decisively altered the modern experience, inaugurating profound shifts in perceptual abilities and providing new ways to see, hear, and think. The theoretical advancements in science and atomic and subatomic physics, especially the unpredictability of quantum theory, were profoundly disruptive to physical existence as it had been understood thus far.
Immediately before the turn of the century, British physicist J.J. Thomson first suggested that the atom was composed of smaller particles known as electrons. Several years later, Thomson’s observations were modified by British nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford, who hypothesized that the structure of the atom consisted of electrons circling a positively charged nucleus, as planets orbit the sun. Quantum theory introduced a new paradigm of physical existence that did not cohere with the dominant worldview. Max Planck proposed that light, rather than moving in waves, as previously thought, emitted quanta, or infinitesimally small individual measures of energy. This was further revised by Danish physicist Niels Bohr and German Werner Heisenberg, who investigated the mechanics of subatomic particles, and concluded that such particles need not behave according to classical physics. And, in another blow to the Newtonian model of the universe, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (Unschärfeprinzip, literally the principle of lack of sharpness) suggested that physical phenomena are not properly subject to the definite, material, and empirically observable principles that had dominated investigation in the natural sciences. Rather, the behaviour of atoms and subatomic particles, the very building blocks of physical life, can be observed and known, but never with absolute certainty.
German physicist Albert Einstein also famously revolutionized Newtonian physics by developing a macro-model of four-dimensional space-time, which he detailed in his special (1905) and general (1916) relativity theories. Einstein’s groundbreaking discoveries transformed configurations of the known universe and the perception of the ‘real’ far beyond the realm of science. The destabilization of time and experience and the destruction of theories of matter were responded to by the increasing fragmentation deployed within literature and the arts. T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and, notably, Wyndham Lewis, considered Einstein’s work an affront to logic, reason, and objectivity. On the other hand, modernist and avant-garde art also frequently drew upon the very destabilization of time, and the fragmentation, deconstruction, extension, and compression of matter and experience that these revolutions in physics brought into the cultural consciousness. In literature, British poet Mina Loy composed a panegyric to Gertrude Stein, who, like ‘Curie / of the laboratory’, ‘crushed / the tonnage / of consciousness’, making manifest the infinitely small but infinitely dense ‘radium of the word’, invoking the language of radioactivity and science to discuss Stein’s experimentation with language (Loy 1996: 94). Visually, the syntactic and poetic reconstitution of language, a dispersal of the basic atomic units of written language – words, letters, syllables, and strokes – would explode across the page in dadaist typographical flurry. And the modernist sense of crisis reverberated back through society to the physicists. Physics, ontology, and philosophy all coalesced, forcing a very radical destabilization of matter, being, and knowing across the arts.
Crisis of Intellectualism
Amongst the most malignant facets of the European modernist era was the pervasive mistrust and scapegoating of Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whereas anti-Semitic and anti-Judaic attitudes predate the modernist era, the chilling, systematic attempted annihilation of the European Jewish population under Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich stands as witness to the latent barbarism of modernity and marks the end of European modernism.
The establishment of formal principles of anti-Semitic thought brought together key intellectual currents of the period. The growth of commercial banking, one of few industries in which Jews were allowed to prosper (due to religious restrictions against Christians loaning money for interest), caused the historic condemnation of Jews as usurers. The achievements of middle-class Jews as merchants, business owners, lawyers, doctors, and intellectuals, and the increasing rates at which Jews were attending universities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resulted in a backlash that charged Jews with a clannish usurpation of political power and economic interest. This was exacerbated by the historical self-administration of Jewish populations in urban ‘ghettos’ or enclaves in which Jewish families clustered by choice or by forced segregation. Lastly, the credence given to ethnographic and scientific thought at the beginning of the century held theories of race in tension with theories of identity and nationhood, characterizing European Jews as the threatening, at-home Other that plagued the normative Western self. This misappropriation of Darwinian evolutionary theory was the eugenic complement to Hitler’s Aryanism during the Second World War.
Nazi ideology emerged within the rising tide of ultra-right wing politics throughout Europe, with a mythologized backwards view of history and a fiercely biological theory of race. Benito Mussolini, like Hitler, was a master of rhetoric. The militaristic bravado of Mussolini – also known as Il Duce (‘The Leader’) – seemed to arrive on the wings of Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Umberto Boccioni’s manifestos and Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce’s (early) fascist sympathies. Mussolini was an ally to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s Nationalist faction during the Spanish Civil War (1936–9) and Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The international scope of the Spanish Civil War effectively prefaced the catastrophic events of the Second World War, with Germany and Italy supporting Franco’s authoritarian Nationalist regime while the Soviet Union supported the anarchist and unionist Republicans.
While anti-Semitism was certainly alive within the modernist arena in Europe, as seen in the examples of poet T.S. Eliot and vorticist Wyndham Lewis, the ultimate crisis that marked the brutal end of European intellectual currents in modernism coincides with the arrival of the Nazis to power. The Nazis’ first measures included a violent suppression of modern art as entartete Kunst (degenerate art). The books of numerous anarchists, communists, Jews, and pacifists were publicly burnt as ‘undeutsch’ (Un-German), among them figures as diverse as German expressionist playwright Georg Kaiser, Polish-German socialist Rosa Luxemburg, Czech-Austrian writer Franz Kafka, and popular German children’s fiction writer Erich Kästner. Meanwhile, the new proponents of ‘Aryan physics’ attacked Einstein and Planck (Planck’s son was executed by the Nazis for his role in plotting Hitler’s assassination in July 1945). Modernist art and thought was censored and replaced by the bombastic and propagandistic realism of Nazi architecture, film, and art. Women were relegated to the pre-modern realms of Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). Forced into exile, numerous Jewish and non-Jewish intellectuals including Einstein and the members of the Frankfurt School, as well as artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Kandinsky, and Thomas Mann, emigrated to the United States, the dramatic exodus of modernist talent also shifting the focus of European intellectual thought from Europe to America.