It is next to impossible for us today fully to understand how painful, traumatic, and confusing the advent of modernity was to the people who witnessed it. We are the product of the enormous tectonic shift that occurred at the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century. Everything we are, do, think, and believe is defined by that watershed moment in history. All of the major conflicts in the world today – both on the global stage and within individual countries – are defined by the tensions between those who have managed to absorb the transformation and adapt to it and those who are still either struggling to do so or resisting modernity altogether. Two world wars have been fought over this, and we are not out of the woods yet in terms of the possibility of a third one fought for the same reason.
Artists were warning us way ahead of time that the shift was coming. Art tends to be very sensitive to these transformations, which is why artists begin to produce the kind of art that corresponds to the changes in the existing reality long before individuals and governments catch up. The price many of these artists paid for their creative prescience was that of being excoriated, persecuted, ridiculed, and then glorified and worshiped after their deaths.
The technological progress made profound transformations in art inevitable. The photographic camera and later the cinematographic camera changed art forever. It made absolutely no sense any longer to create a painting that would strive to depict reality as faithfully as possible. A painter could not hope to win a competition with a photographic camera. This is why artists needed to learn to do something different. They had to offer more than a representation of reality. When they started doing that, however, the rejection of their art was swift and brutal.
“A draft of a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape,” said journalist and critic Louis Leroy about the painting “Impression: soleil levant” by Claude Monet that you can see on the left. The new sensibilities that this kind of art addressed were menacing and confusing for many people. With so many changes occurring in the world around them, they found it hard to accept that art would now be completely different from what they were used to, as well.
The advent of modernity was more painful for some countries than for others. In 1914, a clash between the countries that were at different stages in their absorption of these transformations erupted. The clunky, old, outdated empires that were finding it impossibly hard to modernize were not going down without a fight. The Great War of 1914-1918 would show everybody, once and for all that modernity came at a price.
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