Between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, which laid the foundations of the German Empire, and the First World War of 1914, stretches a period of peace which Cassou called the period of Balance of Power in Europe. (Cassou, 7) During the XIX century the efficiency of the capitalism was proving a source of people’s satisfaction. The XIX century had been torn by war and revolution, but it had also seen the birth of a great dream, the triumph of science and of constant progress. This dream was now in process of realization. The end of the XIX century was marked by the enormous rise in technology progress. Photograph, cinema, motor car and many other novelties established a firm base for optimistic world view and belief in human reason. It was a time so rich in prodigies, a time which perceived no limit to its own potentialities.
Brilliant philosophical and scientific theories founded this confident enthusiasm on new representations of Cosmos. The Origin of Species, the basic work of Darwinism published in 1859, had spread the idea of evolution. Things changed after the Europe and North America experienced the horrors of the World War I. The First World War was in fact one of unprecedented massacre in which ten million people died, nine million of them on the battlefield. One million consisted of civilians, mostly in Eastern Europe. (Cantor, 130) This could bring nothing but pessimism and disillusionment. Some critics relate the Modernist Cultural Revolution to the World War I. Thus, Cantor admits that “Modernism had played an unconscious role in the cause of First World War.” He substantiate this opinion by statement that “the old culture in 1914 was threatened by cultural revolution, which was very much underway in the first decade of the twentieth century, involving philosophy, the social sciences, the arts and literature as much as the sciences themselves, developing in all fields new ways of perceiving the world that radically contradicted nineteenth century modes of thinking”. (131) But by resorting to such extreme step the old culture discrediting itself and gave renewed rise to Modernism. The literature of the post-war period stands as proof of this profound disillusion with the old order. The famous lines of William Butler Yeats, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” written in 1919, reveal the new pessimism and despair. The works of art and literature point towards a sense of loss and, in particular, they accentuate the loss of conventional respect for human life. Modernism eroded traditional humanism. It allowed for the expression of moral relativism, the recognition of sado-masochistic feelings as a genuine and inevitable component of the human personality.
In German Expressionism, French Surrealism and Dadaism, and even in some tendencies of the English Modernism, particularly as manifested in the writings of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, Modernism gave validity to cruelty, accepting cruelty not as something to be simply resisted, but as a human act that was to be understood as an inseparable part of life. We shall see that psychoanalysis also recognized the centrality of sado-masochism in the human psyche. This is Freud and Freudian thought that followed the course of Modernist cultural change. In the early twenties, when Modernism reaches its climax, Freud the Modernist thinker too reaches his high point. The traces of Freudian theories can be found in numerous literary works of his contemporaries as well as the successors. Thus, Conrad shared with Sigmund Freud the awareness of a human existence based on repression and restraint, insecure beyond human control. Much has been written concerning the possible influence of Sigmund Freud on James Joyce, but one thing is explicit: Joyce denied that he borrowed the interior monologue from Freud.
His profound interest in dreams has led some of his critics and biographers to see a strong Freudian element in his work, but, as his biographer Richard Ellmann notes, Joyce actually had distaste for Freud (Ellmann, 546). Most of works of Tennessee Williams seem to be impacted by Freud principle three-fold division of the psyche into the id, the ego and the superego where id consists of sexual desire and is a driving force for human actions. Williams certainly defines sexuality as the “primal life urge” (Asselineau, 157).
Speaking about literature of modernism it was characterized by epistemological rejection of the conventions, assumptions, procedures, and perceptions of the classical and realist art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—a rejection typical of a range of related art movements such as impressionism, imagism, symbolism, futurism, and expressionism. Modernist literature is characterized by profound concern with themes of alienation, fragmentation, and the loss of shared values and meanings, and its concomitant search for alternative systems of belief in myth, mysticism, and primitivism. Modernist writers considering questions of ambiguity, relativity, and subjectivity, widely employ linguistic experimentation and formal experiments in disordered chronology and shifting points of view. The works of T. S. Eliot, J. Joyce, E. Pound, etc. are exemplary modernist works. Thus, Eliot’s poems contain all of the modernist obsessions: thwarted erotic love, personal failure, death, the impossibility to say just what one means, and modern decay. The Waste Land, with its inclusion of an exegetical supplement is the first self-consciously hypertextual work of art in Western literature. (Poplawski, 92) Joyce’s works are also typically modernist in their awareness of cultural relativism and of the workings of the unconscious mind, in their persistently experimental display of linguistic self-consciousness, and in their use of myth as a structural principle.
In visual art of the twentieth century the preference was made for abstraction. The painters turn to their own private visions and insights in a search for new values. The urgent need for meanings that felt truer to their experience gave rise to new ways of seeing — to formal innovations. Abstract painters lost credibility in realistic images. Abstraction helped artists penetrate external appearances to reveal a hidden truth beneath; they believed that this art would lead to a society in which life would be governed by a visual harmony, which was in great need at those days. The works by Dali, Pollock, Picasso and many other painters constituted a considerable heritage of abstract art. Dali had worked in a variety of styles, influenced by Cubism, Futurism, and Metaphysical Painting, but eventually he turned to Surrealism. In his pictures expand, change identity and decompose before viewer’s eyes in a series of exotic transformations which have the coherence of a nightmare. The reason for using such conventions is the painter’s desire to make his work function in the space between known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar. The cause of it was a popularity of the human unconscious as subject matter. The use of abstraction allowed him greater freedom to explore the possibilities inherent in distortion.
The abstract style is characterized by spontaneous, free expression, as in the Action Painting of Jackson Pollock, the representative of American Abstract Expressionism. Pollock did not always use conventional paintings tools to produce his works. He often worked with sticks rather than brushes and even poured the paint right out of the can to keep his control of it to a minimum. The idea was to let the materials to respond naturally to the motions of the artist’s hand. Pollock achieved a convincing visual re-creation of a body in a motion. He wanted to be like an active participant in a drama of his picture rather than an omniscient creator. Pollock wished to enlarge the parameters of modern painting beyond the easel scale of Picasso, the brightest representative of Cubism. The aim of cubist was to reinvent the world of painting through a decidedly twentieth century temperament. Picasso gradually returns to the flatness in depiction. He moves away from depiction of volume. He often combines the part of face in his portraits so that they are depicted both in frontal and profile position, or the side of a nose and two eye share the same façade, creating the hybrid kind of representation unlike anything that had come before in the Western art. Cubism dismantled all conventions and methods. Its radical posturing and disregard for established truths was part of general cultural and intellectual overhaul taking place in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Asselineau, Roger. (1980) The Transcendent Constant in American Literature. New York: New York University Press.
Cantor, Norman F. (1988) Twentieth-Century Culture: Modernism to Deconstruction. New York: Peter Lang.
Cassou, J., Langui, E. and Pevsner N. (1962) Gateway to the Twentieth Century: Art and Culture in a Changing World. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Ellmann, Richard. (1982) James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press
Poplawski, Paul (2003) Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.