World War I Era in France

The belle époque of the early 20th century served as a gaudy puberty for modern Paris, as all levels of society developed and dissolved at alarming and very different paces. European avant-garde rejected the ornate formality of the nineteenth century in favor of primitivism, abstraction, and myth-making works such as Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. “Modern” artists focused on childlike viewpoints, a sense of absuridity, dream-states in the waking world, and an overarching sense of ambiguity. For men like Rousseau, Satiem Jarry and Guillaume Appollinaire, art was not simply an object or a composition that was conceived, begun and finished; rather, they embraced the idea of being their own best works, living their art as much as creating it.

As modernism erupted in the art world, technology overturned the old social order of the past, which had depended on a large population of rural farmers supporting an elite few in the urban centers. Radio, automobiles, phonographs, telegraphs, subways and railways all broke geographic restrictions of ideas and populations, leading to massive urbanization and stratification of class. Upperclass property holders lived a leisurely life of pompous display, frivolity, cultivated taste, and relaxed morals without the confines of the extensive working hours of the brutally poor. Destroying the boundries between art and reality as well as between social classes may have prefigured the mass psychology and militarism necessary to wage World War I, but nothing fully prepared the French psyche for the damage it wrought.

Nearly one-tenth of the French population either died or went missing between 1914 and Paris Peace Conference in 1919, dealing an irreconcilable blow on national confidence. Fighting largely on their own soil, French soldiers were the first ones to experience a new sort of warfare – the astonishing efficiency of machine guns, chemical weapons, airborne artillery and the century’s first genocide. Internalizing the newfound horrors of the trenches, those French soldiers lucky enough to return to civilian life remained disenchanted of their national and cultural identity and haunted the avant-garde’s sense of moral ambiguity. Post-war works such as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front revealed the inner emptiness and identity crisis faced not only by veterans but the country itself. While European nations tried to become economically self-sufficient by building high tariff walls, the French welcomed cultural or social imports, including the African-American community, in a desperate attempt to purge tradition and re-define what it was to be French.