The turn of the century in Europe was an exciting time, with significant advances in technology and industry. The world was changing, and quickly. In 1900, the German physicist Max Planck proposed the theory of quantum mechanics. In 1905, Albert Einstein proposed the theory of relativity, and by 1915 he finished his book General Principles of Relativity.
From 1900 to 1907 Paris went from producing 3,000 cars a year to 30,000 a year. In 1903 the first airplane was successfully tested by the Wright brothers. This was a time of rapid innovation and invention in Europe. The art and artists of avant-garde Paris were at a triumphant height of inspiration. Unfortunately, this optimistic mood could not last. The dark shadow of war lay on the horizon.
With the outbreak of World War One European avant-garde movements went through dramatic changes. The horrors of the War ultimately marked the lives of many European artists, destroyed major art movements, and brought other movements to prominence. The war would also permanently influence the work that surviving artists produced. As Henry Sayre put it, “The spirit of optimism that marked the era of invention and innovation in the years before 1914 evaporated. In its place, the art and literature of the period reflect an increasing sense of the absurdity of modern life, the fragmentation of experience, and the futility of even daring to hope.”
Before World War One European avant-garde movements were optimistic and inspired by the exciting time of innovation and change. Cubism was led by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and inspired by the painter Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). Cubism aimed to break the visual world down into simple geometric shapes, such as Picasso’s Famous Les Demoiselle d’ Avignon from 1907, which was painted in the height of the contemporary pre-war artistic flow in Paris. It depicts five prostitutes in a brothel; some of their faces are distorted by African-like masks. The subdued colors and angular lines that Picasso used are difficult to look at, while the unsavory scene forces the viewer to look on. The exciting and forceful compositions of the Cubists can be looked at as a metaphor for the expressive mood of pre-war art in Europe.
It is no question that artists are deeply influenced by the world around them and that a nation’s artists tell the story of that nation. The art movements and the artists affected by World War One were many and the effect profound. So it is no question that if World War One had not been, European art from the early 1900s would not be the same. Art movements such as German Expressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism would move out of the popular spot-light while other war inspired movements took precedence, such as New Objectivity, Dada, and Futurism.
Some artists coped by joining the fight, such as C.R.W. Nevinson who brought his art to the battle field. Other brilliant artists met their death in World War One, while some went into seclusion and painted the years away. One thing is clear across the spectrum of artists and movements; they were all deeply affected by World War One: their art, style, and mood would be forever marked by the presence of war.