The early twentieth century saw many changes taking place. Is it any wonder that it is known as the age of anxiety? The world started to get smaller and smaller as progression was made in technology with the invention of the airplane, television, and radio broadcasting. People and news started to move faster and farther. Within a thirty-nine-year span, the world experienced great technological advances and a major war felt around the globe.

Paramount to these changes was the first modern war. World War I was tagged as the first “modern” war, known as the “Great War.” War at this time moved from the primitive rifles, sabers, and cannons to machine guns, poison gas, and tanks. This modernization brought unprecedented carnage; bringing the death toll to more than 9 million soldiers in four years.

War supporter boasted the war that would end quickly and gloriously. As it dragged on, sentiment gave way to disillusionment. Disillusion bred cynicism. As the artists, poets, and musicians returned from the front they tried to make sense of this new reality.

As Friedrich Nietzsche announced God’s death in the late 19th century, the world started to lose its spiritual center. Without this foundation, there seemed to be no meaning to life. Traditions were in flux and were questioned. In Europe, artists and writers started a protest against everything. They named the protest Dada. In Dadaism, everything was nonsense and absurd.

The Chinese Nightingale
Max Ernst, The Chinese Nightingale, 1920

Take Max Ernst’s The Chinese Nightingale. Ernst, an artillery soldier during the war, created collages of illustrations of artillery with human limbs and various accessories to create nonsensical hybrid creatures. A British bomb comprises the body of the nightingale, while the limbs are composed of the arms of an oriental dancer and her fan acts as a headdress. An eye was added above the bracket to create a bird-like creature. The collage exemplifies the mixed emotions and heightened anxiety that war creates. It conveys a feeling of a loss of reality with everything, as we know it.

Dadaism laid the groundwork for surrealism. Surrealism borrowed from the psychotherapists of the times, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, that in our unconscious state our minds are free from reason. Many artists used fantasy and symbolism as a theme to understand their works within a dreamlike state. Salvador Dali is one of the most well-known of this art form.

Salvador Dali, Shirley Temple, The Youngest, Most Sacred Monster of the Cinema in Her Time, 1939

Dali’s “Shirley Temple, The Youngest, Most Sacred Monster of the Cinema in Her Time” is a sartorial piece on the sexualization of child stars in Hollywood. The use of paint and pictures creates a collage that tells an unflattering story of how children with power can be perceived. There is such destruction surrounding her with the bones of her victims and the bones of the shipwreck in the background.

The use of mixed media creates an air of anxiety and confusion. I am sure that not everyone viewed these pieces as pleasing pieces as they may have of Francois Boucher. Artists were not the only ones feeling and expressing their anxiety during this time. Musicians were pushing the limit to try to define their feelings of anxiety within musical notes. Igor Stravinsky was quite noted for pushing the limit from the tame traditional music for the stage to one that conveyed one’s angst.

His The Rite of Spring was a new piece of music that was unusual for a ballet piece. The accompanying dance was more violent in nature than ballets previous. The emotions with in the audience were divided between traditionalists and modernists. The modernists wanted their theater experience to mimic how they viewed the world. Unconstructed. Violent. Tension filled. These differing views caused a near riot in the premier of The Rite of Spring.

The artists and musicians of the early twentieth century, through the abandonment of tradition, displayed their discontentment with western civilization. They dared to innovate new art that exposed everything that was wrong in society. Exposing things that aren’t so pretty to look at can cause a bit of anxiety.

Sources Cited:

Unknown. History Channel. World War I. Accessed March 24, 2016.

Unknown. The History Guide: Lectures on Twentieth Century Europe. Lecture 8, The Age of Anxiety: Europe in the 1920s (1). Accessed on March 21, 2016.

John MacTaggart. Artyfactory. Dada – Art and Anti Art. Accessed on March 24, 2016.

Amar Toor. 100 years ago today, ‘The Rite of Spring’ incited a riot in a Paris theater. The Verge. May 29, 2013. Accessed on March 24, 2016.

4 thoughts on “The Early 20th Century: The Age of Anxiety

  1. Your short bio of Max Ernst struck my curiosity. I can only think that his surreal collages of insanity come from a place of mental trauma because of the war. He must have seen many gruesome things. It is disturbing art like his that comforts the disturbed.
    I found a website which states that he was in trench warfare. Anybody who has studied WWI knows how terrible and unspeakable this warfare was. I can’t wait to find more of his artwork.
    Here is the website I referenced:


  2. i think this blog is really well written and interesting. I also recognize that WWI greatly influenced everything that came after the war. I think of Ernest Hemingway, who was an ambulance driver, and the effect hat had on his writing. An interesting side note is the story of the WWI veterans who made up the George Mallory expedition to climb Mt. Everest. Wade Davis wrote a very interesting book about that, and in it mentioned how the veterans wanted to go anywhere but home and that the silence of the mountains might have been the big draw to them. Here is a link to an article about the book. It’s really a good book with a lot of interesting photos.
    I kind of love Salvador Dali. I probably wouldn’t buy prints of his paintings to hang in my house, but I’m glad he went the direction he did with his art. People like him break down barriers for those who come after them.


  3. The title of your blog really caught my attention because I think the affects of stress on the human mind and body are really fascinating, especially when it comes to the stresses of war. Between WWI, The Great Depression and WWII, society at the beginning of the 20th century endured some of the greatest hardships mankind has ever known. All of this chaos in one lifetime non the less, its no wonder that the world of art looked for a Surrealism escape. I was very intrigued by Max Ernst’s work, the way you mentioned he “created collages of illustrations of artillery with human limbs and various accessories to create nonsensical hybrid creatures.” In a time long before PTSD was as recognized diagnosable condition I could not help but wonder if this was the artist’s way of coping with the mental stresses of war. I thought that your blog had a great flow to it, leading the reader into Dadaism and Salvador Dali who has always been one of my personal favorites. There is always so much more then meets the eye when it comes to his work. In my opinion Dali was a master of being able to take the viewer on a journey into their imagination while still conveying messages. I listed below a link to an article specially discussing the benefits of art therapy to help cope with symptoms of PTSD in military veterans.

    Liked by 1 person

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