AN AMERICAN CENTURY GIVES WAY TO THE GLOBAL YEARS; Arts Editor Terry Grimley Looks Back on the Significant Artistic and Cultural Trends of the 20th Century, and Thinks Things Can Only Get Even More Interesting

By Grimley, Terry | The Birmingham Post (England), January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

AN AMERICAN CENTURY GIVES WAY TO THE GLOBAL YEARS; Arts Editor Terry Grimley Looks Back on the Significant Artistic and Cultural Trends of the 20th Century, and Thinks Things Can Only Get Even More Interesting


Grimley, Terry, The Birmingham Post (England)


At midnight last night a lid was put on the arts of the 20th century; nothing more can be added, and nothing taken away.

This does not mean, however, that 20th century art will not change. It will continue to be shifted and moulded by changes in critical perspectives and public taste, just as happens with the arts of previous centuries.

For example, Vivaldi's Four Seasons is now said to be the most popular piece of classical music in the world. Yet until the Second World War Vivaldi was an obscure composer, known only to devotees of 18th century baroque music. Even Bach, Shakespeare and Mozart have had to be rediscovered by previous generations.

But whether or not individuals whom we would regard as obscure will emerge as 20th century giants to future generations, the outlines of the cultural century already seem broadly fixed.

It is a century which has spanned change on a previously unimagined scale, from Queen Victoria to the Internet, and the arts have inevitably reflected this. Much of this change has been technological, and some of the innovations which have shaped 20th century experience, including the cinema, sound recording, the motor car, aircraft and radio, made their debuts roughly alongside the century itself.

They help to explain one of the striking characteristics of 20th century art - its earnest and selfconscious desire to be modern. This is most clearly demonstrated in the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, which extolled the superior beauty of a speeding motor car over a piece of classical sculpture - an attitude more concisely summed up by Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows, published the previous year, in his admiring exclamation: "Poop-poop!"

The decade or so leading up to the First World War represented the first flood tide of 20th century modernism.

In 1907 Pablo Picasso began work on a large picture of a scene in a brothel, where students and sailors mingled with the resident girls. The eventual result, from which the male figures have disappeared, is arguably the greatest single painting of the 20th century.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is generally regarded as heralding a new movement, Cubism, which would dismantle pictorial space as it had been understood for 500 years since the Renaissance. What makes it, for me, still the most exciting painting of the century is the powerful sense it gives of Picasso rushing headlong and instinctively into the unknown, conveyed as much as anything by its stylistic contradictions and inconsistencies.

While the influence of "primitive" sculpture (Iberian in the figures on the left, African in those on the right) is the most immediately striking aspect of the painting, its main inspiration lies in Cezanne's late painting of bathers.

If primitivism and dynamism were parallel ingredients of early modernism, Les Demoiselles found its musical equivalent in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which caused one of the century's most celebrated artistic scandals when it was premiered by Diaghilev's Ballet Russes in Paris in 1913.

Simultaneously the sculptor Jacob Epstein was creating his Rock Drill, in which a robot-like figure crouched on a real giant drill of the kind used in quarries.

This was easily interpreted as an image of the mechanised warfare about to be unleashed on Europe, and Epstein's decision to break up the piece (a reconstruction, dating from the 1970s, is now on view in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery's 20th Century Art exhibition) reflects a reaction against modernism, provoked by the war, which can be seen across the cultural world. Both Picasso and Stravinsky retreated into neo-classicism in the 1920s.

It was at about this period that another striking characteristic of 20th century Western culture began to be evident - that this was to be the American century.

Before 1900, American art - leaving aside a handful of great literary classics - was either provincial and folksy or provincial and European. …

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AN AMERICAN CENTURY GIVES WAY TO THE GLOBAL YEARS; Arts Editor Terry Grimley Looks Back on the Significant Artistic and Cultural Trends of the 20th Century, and Thinks Things Can Only Get Even More Interesting
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