Art & the Apocalypse

Talk of the Apocalypse was heard throughout Europe in the decades around 1900,1 but it did not always betoken vengeful doom. “Today,” wrote Franz Marc in January 1912 in his subscription prospectus for the almanac of the Blaue Reiter,

art is moving in a direction of which our fathers would never even have dreamed. We stand before the new pictures as in a dream, and we hear the apocalyptic horsemen in the air. There is an artistic tension all over Europe. Everywhere new artists are greeting each other, a look, a handshake is enough for them to understand each other!

We know that the basic ideas of what we feel and create today have existed before us, and we are emphasizing that in essence they are not new. But we must proclaim the fact that everywhere in Europe new forces are sprouting like a beautiful unexpected seed, and we must point out all the places where new things are originating.2

For some years before the outbreak of the First World War a number of painters in different European countries thought of themselves as creating forms of art that could be described as prophetic: art that aimed to influence human attitudes to the present and thus to foresee a world that could be very different in the future. The futures that they envisaged varied widely. So, too, did the artistic styles that they brought into being in order to express their visions. But both to themselves and to the public that first saw them, and even to art historians writing about them generations later, all these styles seemed to mark a very important break with representational traditions that stretched back to the Renaissance. Pictures by these painters still tend to hang in galleries specially designed for modern and contemporary art rather than in the great national museums built in the nineteenth century to house masterpieces of all periods; and their reputations are still often gauged more by their perceived contribution to the birth of modernism than by any reasoned attempt to analyze their intrinsic painterly achievements (just as, in a much despised past, an artist’s standing might be measured by the importance of the subjects that he painted rather than by a consideration of his artistic gifts).

So fundamental is this aspect of their work that it is not surprising to discover that from an early date they were credited by their admirers and detractors (but rarely by themselves) with having in some way “anticipated” not only subsequent developments in the arts, but also the new world that came into being between the end of 1914 and the end of 1917. To some extent, however, the formation and later interpretation of all these artists can be associated with concepts that had first been formulated in Paris many years earlier.

It was there that artists ever since the time of David, followed by Courbet and Daumier and then Manet and the Impressionists, had been most forceful (though…

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