The author of the celebrated book 1913: The Year Before the Storm chooses two works from the Tate collection that reflect the cultural contrasts and complexities of the twelve months leading up to the outbreak of the Great War
The year 1913 was the year of the most synchronous asynchrony. It was the last year of Old Europe and the first of modernism. It was a year of explosive cultural creativity. Music was blazing a trail with legendary premieres by Schoenberg and Stravinsky in Vienna and Paris; the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time appeared; Thomas Mann was starting work on The Magic Mountain; Robert Musil conceived his The Man Without Qualities; and James Joyce was working on Ulysses in Trieste. Meanwhile, H.G. Wells in London coined the term ‘atomic bomb’ – and Niels Bohr was developing his model of the structure of an atom. In early January 1913, Hitler and Stalin, as their friends recalled, both enjoyed afternoon walks in the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Elsewhere, Kazimir Malevich was painting his first Black Square and Marcel Duchamp was coming up with the first ever readymade. At the same time, Picasso was driving synthetic cubism forwards and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was painting Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. A year of epoch-making works.
It was also the year when David Bomberg painted Ju-Jitsu and Philip Connard produced the domestic idyll Jane, Evelyn, James and Helen – two works in the Tate collection which demonstrate that 1913 was one of the most striking crossroads of what we call the traditional and the modernist.
In the latter, we have a scene in the kitchen of a well-to-do English family. A domestic servant is preparing a meal, the children are killing time. Jane, on the left, is leaning on the table a little sulkily; Helen, clearly the more sensible of the two, is musing on something as she plays with the cat. It is very quiet. The only sound is Evelyn peeling potatoes. It is the situation of Old Europe in 1913: oblivion and apparent calm, with art providing the only cause for excitement – in this case a painting of flowers daringly teetering on the cusp between impressionism and expressionism, shouting out into the surrounding space with its pinks and light blues. It almost seems that Connard would dearly love to let go like the artist who created the picture he has included in his own composition. The maid has lowered her gaze in some indignation, as though by ignoring the painting she could stem the tide of what is bursting into life on the wall. The little girl on the right is staring wistfully back at the nineteenth century, when everything was still so well ordered and pictures of cats were considered avant-garde. But her sister – her impatient, bare knees visible under the table – is looking straight ahead into the twentieth century. Her elbows are planted on the table as though she senses that she may need to steady herself at some point in the near future. This was also the year when D.H. Lawrence published Sons and Lovers and Virginia Woolf finished her first novel and tried to take her own life. That is the atmosphere; that is the static air in this interior by Connard.
And then there is Bomberg’s Ju-Jitsu, where we see futurism cavorting in London’s East End and finding a tone all of its own. Bomberg studied with Walter Sickert and had been John Singer Sargent’s assistant. He had become so intimately acquainted with the art establishment in England and with high English painting that he felt a compulsion to do something very different. In 1913 he finished his studies and travelled to France, where he met Derain, Modigliani and Picasso. Here, he also succumbed to the formal language of Futurism, which seemed the best way to express his own personal experience of the world around him: the breakneck pace of change, the overwhelming metropolis of London, the splintering of traditional images. Or, as Bomberg himself put it:
The new life should find its expression in a new art, which has been stimulated by new perceptions.
And yet, as one gazes at Ju-Jitsu, figures start to emerge from the seemingly random pattern. At the lower edge of the composition there are feet, and above them the zigzags of arms, forming a group of three or perhaps four people. Human figures were the starting point for this composition. As in the painting by Connard, there is a ‘Helen’, an ‘Evelyn’ and a ‘Jane’. Bomberg was also aware of the dynamics of acceleration. But unlike Connard, who was trying to hold back time and attempting in his art to take refuge once more in the safe haven of the nineteenth century, he was keen to forge ahead.
These are two artistic responses to the same exceptional historic and cultural situation. It is tempting to see Bomberg as the modernist and Connard as the traditionalist. That would certainly fit the nature of their paintings. But if we take into account the title of Bomberg’s work – Ju-Jitsu – it becomes clear that this is a depiction of people engaging in an unarmed, Japanese martial art. However, it was to be of no avail – his art, like Futurism, was to be swept aside by the reality of the disastrous future, the First World War, which broke out just a few months later. Bomberg’s painting does not shed any light on the war. Was it, one might well ask, that everything had already dissolved into abstraction and forms by 1913 and that self-defence had already become the domain of art? Yet if we contemplate Connard’s painting from the perspective of the twelve months in question, it becomes clear that this idyll had to be destroyed. Because the conflicting forces of modernism and traditional art could not be contained within the same confines, be it cubism, futurism or suprematism, for they all existed at the same time in an uncanny synchronicity. As in Jane, Evelyn, James and Helen. Together, these two paintings tell their own story of the monstrousness of the year 1913.
Florian Illies is the author of 1913: The Year Before the Storm, published by Clerkenwell Press
Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott