How World War I gave birth to the modern

Updated 2:28 PM EST, Sun November 9, 2014

Story highlights

Ara Merjian: Victorian art was not adequate to express WWI's chaos; Modernism stepped in

He says Picasso's Cubism was suited to times; Futurism and Dada would spring from war

Apocalyptic imagery emerged, of prostheses, gas masks, corpses, military mechanization

Merjian: At war's end, soothing images, Surrealism ascended -- a tonic until the next war

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a series on the legacies of World War I appearing on for the 100-year anniversary of the war’s outbreak. Ruth Ben-Ghiat is guest editor for the series. Ara Merjian is associate professor of Italian Studies at New York University, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and the Department of Art History. He is the author of “Giorgio de Chirico and the Metaphysical City: Nietzsche, Paris, Modernism” (Yale University Press, June 2014).

CNN —  

The years preceding World War I in Europe are generally referred to as the “Belle Epoque” – a cultural and economic golden age. The period was hardly one of utter utopia for all citizens. But in the wake of the conflagration that would shake the globe beginning in August 1914, it came later to be seen as a period of calm before the storm. Its cultural practices, too, seem tinged with an almost naive optimism.

Ara Merjian
Courtesy of Ara Merjian
Ara Merjian

Modernism in art and literature had gathered momentum well before the First World War, which began in earnest 100 years ago this fall.

But with its eruption, those earlier Victorian forms no longer seemed adequate in the face of the period’s upheavals, the destruction to bodies, to landscape, to culture itself. New experiments took up the task.

Opinion: The promise World War I couldn’t keep

War's legacy


  • The first World War began August 4, 1914, in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary on June 28 of that year. In the next two months, will feature articles