Dec 1, 2014

More on The Long Shadow -- Of World War I

In November members of the club met to discuss The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. (Here is a summary of what went on.) Norm sent us this follow up to the discussion:

I wasn’t able to articulate my thoughts very well in the last book club meeting, so I send this afterthought trivia if anyone is interested:

It is often said that WW1 interrupted a prolonged period of peace, but that would be erroneous.  There was 50 years of industrial growth undermining social growth; Victorian morality in England, with disdain for the masses and Poor Law regulations that broke up families unable to pay their debts; serfdom in a Prussia only recently incorporated into Germany.  But simultaneously there was striking tactical development of artillery: the ‘creeping barrage’ of shellfire that preceded troops in the Boer war (1899-1902); the Boer’s use of similar artillery to mow down British soldiers in shallow trenches at Spion Kop; roughly 17,000 shells from Japanese 28-cm. howitzers dropped on Port Arthur and the Russian Fleet there in 1904.  The French and Belgians depended on rings of massive fortresses around strategic towns, which – both fortresses and towns – were destroyed in a few days by Krupps’ ‘big bertha’ 42-cm. transportable howitzers.   Volunteers manned the British army, many to relieve lower class families of poverty. Wounded British officers were offered huge comfortable estates to recuperate in, but over 300 British enlistees who suffered PTSD after two or three years of constant engagement were executed to teach the others to “buck up”.

During the industrial surge of the late nineteenth century, they and other European powers had been rivals in the resource-driven colonization of Africa and Asia.  By the turn of the century, having created overlapping spheres of influence, the major European powers turned increasingly to military competition – and then created an entangling web of military alliances fashioned on the Napoleonic “balance of power” concept that they believed would prevent armed conflict.  But it was that web of alliances that escalated a minor incident of Serbian nationalism against the waning Austro-Hungarian Empire into a global conflict.

The senseless slaughter of World War I provoked a mocking, nihilistic protest among European artists.  If the most powerful and highly regarded leaders of Europe’s most advanced and cultured countries could take Europe into its most beastly war ever, they reasoned, then its society, culture, art and sophistication represented only a cover for its underlying violence and trauma.   Ergo, contemporary culture and art were worthy only of ridicule and rejection.  

Many of those artists fled to Zurich, a neutral haven for war refugees, where they published and exhibited bold assaults against war, jingoism, and conventional aesthetic values.  Hugo Ball, former stage director of the Munich Kammerspiele, and his wife Emmy Hemmings, a poet and vocalist, were magnets for the most audacious protesters.   Twenty months into the war, Ball and Hemmings rented a tiny café, which they suggestively named Cabaret Voltaire (in honor of the blasphemy in “Candide”), and opened as an artists' club, exhibition room, pub, and theater.   There they launched an abstractionist attack on the political, social and cultural institutions and leaders they saw as responsible for war.

Performances in the Cabaret Voltaire scorned and mocked conventional society with a balalaika band, bizarre masked dances, incantations of Lao Tse as well as local mystics, abstruse or “chance” art, poetic readings made by randomly assembling individual words cut from a newspaper – all reflecting dissociation with the rationalism they blamed for the war.  Richard Huelsenbeck, newly arrived from Berlin, introduced simultaneously recited “sound poems” (a technique borrowed, oddly enough, from early 20th Century Italian and Russian Futurists).  His “sound poems” were gibberish syllables untranslatable in any language, intended to deride the propagandistic babbling of Europe’s wartime elite as they sent their troops into slaughter.  You can hear Huelsenbeck reciting sound poems at:

Ball decorated Cabaret Voltaire with the works of artists now famous but little known at the time, such as Hans Arp, Paolo Buzzi, Max Oppenheimer, Francesco Cangiullo, Marcel Janco, August Macke, Amedeo Modigliani and Pablo Picasso.  Three months after its opening, the group published the single issue of a periodical that Ball initially said would known as “DADA Dada Dada Dada Dada” but later titled "Cabaret Voltaire" like the café – a collection of artistic and literary contributions from vocal pacifists such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Arp, Ball, Hennings, co-founder Richard Huelsenbeck, Janco, Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, and painters Wassily Kandinsky, Modigliani, Oppenheimer, and Spanish cubists Francis Picabia and Picasso.   However, the original “Dada” label remained to identify the entire pacifist movement.

Within a year the café owner closed Cabaret Voltaire as being too weird and raucous.   Tzara and other Zurich Dadaists re-opened as "Galerie Dada" at No. 19 Bahnhofstraße.   Huelsenbeck returned to Berlin, where pacifist ferment was less anti-art than political and social; i.e., more concerned with issuing corrosive manifestos and biting satire, and forming large public demonstrations.  There Huelsenback delivered a Dada manifesto championing communism, then opened Club Dada, a much larger café-gallery than Cabaret Voltaire –  decorated on its ceiling with a life-size pig-headed puppet in German military uniform entitled Prussian Archangel, the whole effigy wrapped in a poster bearing the words of a well-known German Christmas carol – which got its creators indicted for defaming the German army.   Here too were exhibited photomontages that decried the violence of war, including George Grosz’s photographic image of then German president Friedrich Ebert (a revisionist Social Democrat) with the face disfigured by machine parts to depict mutilated bodies of soldiers – in effect, “a victim of his own mechanized aggressions”.

In Cologne, Dada painter Max Ernst also experimented with photomontage intended to reveal disturbed psyches of war makers as well as war wounded, so to memorialize the destructive and devastating capability of modern combat technology.  His 1920 photomontage Untitled, for example, bonds a photo of human arms with the fuselage and wings of a warplane, while in a corner below three humans demonstrate an arm-hold used to carry wounded soldiers.  His increasingly provocative exhibits aroused the public notoriety he craved, but resulted in Cologne police closing his show and arresting him for “obscenity”.   By 1922 Ernst had moved to France and into surrealism (The Equivocal Woman; Eve, the Only One Left to Us).   His Angel of Hearth and Home (1937) mourned the death of Republican Spain and expressed helplessness against the sweeping fascist tide.   With the Nazi occupation of France, Ernst was arrested by the Gestapo but escaped and eventually fled to New York with the help of the U.S. heiress and art patron Peggy Gugenheim.

Dada’s influence spread to other parts of Germany, and to Holland and Italy. Tzara created a particularly active postwar Dada group in Paris.   The influence of Dada extended to Italy, newly formed Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, Spain and Russia.  As early war refugees in New York, French artists Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia teamed with photographer Man Ray to become the center of radical anti-art activities in the United States.  (Another of Duchamp’s accomplaces in New York was the poverty stricken and completely outrageous Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven.)  Much of their activity centered in Alfred Stieglitz's gallery, “291”.   During this time Duchamp began exhibiting "readymades" (found objects) including the now famous Fountain, actually an upturned urinal he signed “R. Mutt” (a pun to which he gave several possible meanings).

Composer Erik Satie was another Dadaist with a wicked sense of humor.   Early into the war he published “Genuine Flabby Preludes (for a dog)", which a music critic trashed for “having no shape”; whereupon Satie wrote “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear”.   The latter caught the attention of Jean Cocteau, who persuaded Satie to reset the music to a scenario called Parade.  Léonide Massine choreographed it for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with costumes and sets designed by Pablo Picasso.   Satie’s music was scored for typewriter, foghorn, rattles, milk bottles, and revolver shots.  A riot at its 1917 premier testified as to its success.

From 1919, Satie was in contact with Tristan Tzara, who was now leading the French Dada movement; and with Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray, among others.  (On his first meeting with Man Ray, the two fabricated the artist's first ironic “readymade” – The Gift – actually a non-gift consisting of a clothes iron with thirteen nails attached to its sole.)   Satie also contributed to Tzara’s Dadaist publication 391.

In collaboration with Picabia, Satie then composed the ballet Relâche for Les Ballets Suédois, and adapted the score to René Clair’s surrealist film Entr’acte (1924, with cameo appearances by Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, composer Darius Milhaud and Satie himself).  You can see it on YouTube at:

Meanwhile, Picasso carried his cubist sets from Parade into another ballet for Diaghilev, this time choreographed to an 18th Century fable and scored by Manuel de Falla to purely standard Spanish flamenco, entitled Tricorn  (The Three-Cornered Hat).  Then, Picasso and Diaghilev collaborated one last time for Le Train Bleu  (1924; scored by Darius Milhaud with costumes by Coco Chanel), a satire on post-war British aristocrats who rode a new luxury overnight express to equally luxurious Mediterranean resorts.  (A period restaurant of that name serves to this day 3-star dinners in the station in Paris where British passengers changed trains.)

Dada expired as it began, not with a whimper but with a screaming cacophony.   Its siren song (pun intended) was Ballet Méchanique, composed in 1924 by 23-year-old George Antheil from Trenton, New Jersey, resident at that time above Sylvia Beach's legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on the Rue de l'Odéon, in Paris's Latin Quarter.   Ballet Méchanique was to have accompanied a Dada film of the same name created by the artist Fernand Léger with director Dudley Murphy and photographer Man Ray.*   Léger was as strong-minded as Antheil, having spent two years at the front in Argonne (and another in hospital after a German mustard gas attack at Verdun, where he painted The Card Players whose robot-like, monstrous figures reflect the ambivalence of his experience of war).   So there was no attempted coordination, resulting in a score half again longer than the film; and as neither was willing to alter his creation, they were presented separately.  The film premiered in Vienna in 1924; while the Antheil composition took on a life of its own.  Its premiere in 1926 – scored for 16 player-pianos, 2 regular pianos, 7 electric bells, 4 base drums, 3 xylophones, 3 airplane propellers, a tam-tam and a siren – caused a bare-knuckle riot in the Paris concert hall and nearby streets, a sure sign of its success. **

In its original release, the film's French title was "Charlot présente le ballet mécanique", referring to showman André Charlot who financed this film's French distribution. In France, Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character was also known as Charlot; the combination of the producer's name and Chaplin's screen image, represented by a Cubist-style paper puppet, is only the first of many visual puns in the film.

Trivial Post-Script: George Antheil’s patron gave up after a few years, and he became as jaded about anti-war activities as his patron had about him.  He returned to the States and a job writing film scores in Hollywood, and in composing music that bear the influence of Igor Stravinsky.  It was there he met the actress Hedy Lamarr, who found Hollywood boring and Antheil interesting. She had enjoyed an early acting career, but a disastrous marriage to Austrian munitions manufacturer Friedrich Mandl, a control freak who supplied munitions for Mussolini’s war in Ethiopia.  (Her memoire tells of lavish parties attended by Hitler and Mussolini in her home, Schloss Schwarzenau.)   Leaving him for Hollywood, she took as well his concern about torpedoes and the problem of their being sent off course by a target’s radio frequency jamming.  With World War 2 underway, she designed a method for spectrum-hopping but lacked a control method until – voila! – George Antheil dusted off his piano rolls from Ballet Méchanique sixteen years earlier.  With a piano roll in the control center shifting signals at short coded bursts to another aboard the torpedo, the target was helpless.  The frequency range of the signals was, naturally, 88 – the number of keys of a piano, so the number of channels in a piano roll.  Subsequently electromagnetic improvements spread the signal across a larger range.  The Navy was wary about using this technology until the Cuban Missile Crisis; but later it was also the basis for Bluetooth and cell phone communication.

      *    Storyline of the film:  A kaleidoscope of images set to an energetic soundtrack. A young women swings in a garden; a woman's face smiles. The rest is spinning cylinders, pistons, gears and turbines, kitchen objects in concentric circles or rows - pots, pan lids, and funnels, cars passing overhead, a spinning carnival ride.  An Art Deco cartoon figure appears, dancing.  Over and over, a heavy-set woman climbs stairs carrying a large bag on her shoulder, a 20th century Sisyphus.  It is world in motion, dominated by mechanical and repetitive images, with a few moments of solitude in a garden.

      **  An excerpt from Ballet Méchanique the film may be seen on YouTube at:
 A partial performance of the Antheil score at the National Gallery of Art is on
            YouTube at:
The two are recreated artificially at:

German artist Walter Trier’s “Map of Europe in 1914.”


  1. One of the members made this comment: "It was great. I would just add a note that Picasso and Braque broke their friendship over the war. Braque fought in the war. "

  2. I am reading The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham. In the chapter about the horrors of King Leopold's Congo Pakenham mentions that England and France signed the Entente Cordiale as a deal giving France Morocco and England a free hand in Egypt. Germany was not pleased by this new alliance of France, England and Russia (as Russia was already allied with France). Thus the roots of World War I go back to the scramble for Africa by European imperial powers.