Sutherland: World War I and The Rise of Modernism

BlaueReiterThe Nelson-Atkins Museum has another landmark exhibition to its credit…

Not since the 1977 sensation, “Sacred Circles,” a tribute to the art of the American Plains Indians, has there been such a stand-out success that is entirely the Nelson’s doing.

Conceived and executed by Curator of Modern Art Jan Schall to mark the centennial of the First World War, the show pulls together five dozen works of art, with many important pieces on loan from museums and galleries around the world. Originally set to run through July 19th, it has been extended through October 17th.

When I first viewed the exhibition in January, I thought of an article from 1997 by author and presidential speech writer David Frum.

In his “1917 And All That,” published in The Weekly Standard, Frum vividly described how the carnage and suffering from World War I led to the discrediting of the very idea of respect for authority. In his words; “When it was all over, the war turned out to have killed not just millions of men. It killed, or left terminally wounded, the idea that deference to authority can have any legitimate role in modern society.”

The Nelson exhibition does a good job explaining the back drop to the conflict, with disruptive social and technological change undermining the culture consensus that had marked the Western World for the century that preceded the war. All it took was the war as a catalyst to sweep away the established order, and with it the faith in the institutions of which it was comprised. 

The disillusionment took a variety of forms.

maxresdefaultIn a January 22, 2015 lecture at the National World War I Museum, Curator Schall did a masterful job through a power point presentation of describing one such response, the Dadaist Movement.

Originating in Zurich in neutral Switzerland in 1915(where the war’s victims found refuge), that movement’s founders sought expression for their anger and despair in absurdist art that mocked the Establishment which had sent so many to their doom.

Many, if not most, of its creators were veterans who had suffered terribly. As I sat in the darkened auditorium, hearing heart-rending tales of War’s terrible cost, I was struck by the fact that I’d attended the Kansas City premier of the Iraq War movie, “American Sniper,” that afternoon.

I was probably the only person who attended both events but the subject of each was exactly the same. “War is one of the most evil things to which we sacrificed ourselves.” –Artist Franz Mark, d. 1916, Battle of Verdun. See the Nelson’s show and think of its somber implications.

It’s not easy but it is necessary.

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7 Responses to Sutherland: World War I and The Rise of Modernism

  1. chuck says:

    This week, the Smithsonian Channel presented hours and hours of WWI history. It has been excellent. The Liberty Memorial has a peerless, world class history of “The Great War” that I think, we in K.C. take for granted. I do admit, that I am somewhat disappointed in the only slight mention of The Battle of Belleau Wood, where my Grandfather Charles, a Marine, was mustard gassed and gut shot. That said, I have taken the women in my family, who used to be, metaphysically uninterested in History and it is hard to get them to leave. They are mesmerized and amazed by, in turn, the exhibit, it’s artifacts and, of course, because the exhibit is done so well, the horror. The horror.

    Like most of us, I have read R. Kipling. His efforts prior to the Great War, in support of that coming conflict, left him in later years, after the death of his son in battle (The body was never found, Kipling spent years searching for it after the war.), a spiritually damaged man, who, no doubt shouldered the blame for his son’s death. Testimony from those who saw him wounded, said that the last Kipling’s son was seen, was fleeing to the rear, holding his face in place, after his jaw was shot off.

    If any question why we died,
    Tell them because our fathers lied.


    Great article as always Dwight.

    • chuck says:

      By the way, your next piece should cover the Lights Going Out All Over America.

      • miket says:

        the museum is absolutely world class. I hear all the time locals say they were there as a kid, but not since. if I have I a free pass on me i’ll give it to them, encourage them to go again! (wife works there…)

  2. Stomper says:

    Your efforts really class the place up here Dwight. Brain cells that would otherwise lie dormant, are called into play with your offerings.

  3. william goetze says:

    Applause! and thanks!
    (is it too late to amend the date, though?)


  4. paulwilsonkc says:

    You know what? If I had your writing skills I’d throw mine away! Another great piece. We need to catch up soon.

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