Note: The first issue of The Blind Man is available here.
When looking at the publications concurrent with the First World War, it may not be surprising to see a vast difference in content, subjects, and opinions from journal to journal. This is particularly prevalent when looking at an example of English, French, and American publications; though fighting on the same side in the same war, a world of difference existed between the three. We can especially see this by studying modernist journals – though they all are by definition the same, they all propagate a variety of movements, ascribe to different aesthetics, and approach literature and art in vastly different manners. By studying how they each represent themselves and their content during wartime, we can better understand both the individual and larger movements of the time, and understand how they interacted with and interpreted "The Great War."
BLAST's “War Number” from July 1915 is predictably blase on the part of Wyndham Lewis; his “Editorial,” as the first written text of the edition, sets the tone for the content to follow. Rather unsurprisingly, Lewis does not disappoint in creating controversy.
(“Editorial” from the July 1915 edition of BLAST)
He begins by relating WWI to modernism's struggle for credibility, a move that could either attract or absolutely alienate readers. This does accomplish establishing the seriousness of Lewis' claims, and at the very least attracts attention to the issue. However, what he especially accomplishes here is to stake his claim in how BLAST, and in a larger perspective, modernism, views the role of poetry in regards to their enemy, the Germans. His method of attacking his adversary lies in his criticism of their literary traditions, firmly rooted in history, particularly the Romantic movement. Because of this fixation, Lewis claims: “German nationalism is less realistic, is more saturated with the mechanical obsession of history.” This assertion is particularly poignant as nationalism is especially significant during wartime, and this criticism hits Germans on both an intellectual and patriotic level. Further in the article, Lewis makes his, and BLAST's, stance on this type of nationalism: “This paper wishes to stand rigidly opposed form start to finish, to every form that the Poetry of a former condition of life, no longer existing, has foisted upon us.” This in every way refutes the archaic worldview “of a former condition of life” supported by German literary tradition, and is overall a predictably harsh criticism of England's adversary. This is overall a rather surprising act of patriotism on Lewis' part – seeing as his feelings on his homeland were more ambivalent in the first issue of BLAST, I was not prepared to find Lewis so patriotic (and – dare I say? – amicable). However, in the very last paragraph, Lewis gives his readers a reminder. He states that “official” Germany stands for these things; however, “unofficial Germany has done more for the movement that this paper was founded to propagate, and for all branches of contemporary activity in Science and Art, than any other country.” Given that English publications were enduring a great deal of censorship during the war, particularly anything pro-German, this reminder is especially shocking.
One France's premier modernist publications, L'Élan, unsurprisingly went a different direction in their editorial piece from their May 1915 publication. The editorial, written by Amédée Ozenfant, is more emotional in its tone than that of Lewis.
(Untitled editorial from the May 1915 publication of L'Élan)
This editorial translates roughly to:
About a drawing more expressive than any letter, the beautiful design of our collaborator and friend is a added proof to the certitude that the French, even outside their framework, and despite the constant diversity of a life so new, are able to maintain, with a truly peaceful lack of concern, a perfect possession of all their means. Before the lucidity of these lines, imagine how the author is himself a soldier, how he fights and that the same hand, in consecutive moments, orders the attack and constructs this shape? “I am sending you some bad sketches that have only the merit of having been made under the wound,” Segonzac simply writes to us. Admire this strength that is the French force.
The drawing to which Ozenfant is referring is on the next page. It appears to be a pen sketch of a soldier, and is drawn by “A.-D. De Segonzac."
(André Dunoyer de Segonzac, L'Élan, May 1915)
This signature refers to André Dunoyer de Segonzac, an artist born in Ile-de-France. A celebrated artist who enjoyed critical success in the late 1900s and early 1910s, he showed in modernism exhibitions in Paris, New York, Chicago, and Boston. Upon being drafted into World War I in 1914, he saw combat in a number of units, and additionally published and showed his war drawings. Ozefant is obviously stirred by Segonzac's heroism, but what seems to truly astound Ozefant is that the same artist's hand which creates these intricate drawings also operates the bayonet-tipped gun of a soldier - and that a man wielding such a hand would be imbued with such modesty. This editorial is vastly different from that of Lewis'; their difference is reflected not just in not only page layout, but in style, as well. The layout of BLAST's editorial is all done in the same size text whereas L'Élan's style, especially the introduction, is more suited to a novel's opening text. The French publication's text size does not change again until Segonzac's quotation, which is much smaller. To me, this change was used to highlight Segonzac's modesty on his work - an element that is the polar opposite of BLAST i''s "Manifestos." Perhaps that is the inherent difference in these two texts: Lewis and BLAST aim to be loud and conflicting, while L'Élan relies on the significance of softness. This may help us understand the inherent differences in the way an English (albeit radical) and French publication address the cultural upheaval that was World War I.
Before I conclude this article, I must add one amusing element I discovered on my periodical search. In looking for American publications, I came across the May 1917 edition of The Blind Man, No. 2.
As my method of investigation was mostly to look at the first page of each magazine (or the first page of text past the table of contents, as the case may be) and The Blind Man was the last magazine I looked at, I was sure to find some sort of ode to the war effort, or something of the sort. Instead, I found this:
(May 1917 edition of The Blind Man)
Putting this in contrast against L'Élan, the French comes off as especially tongue-incheek, as does the elevated language of "Continuous Syncopations." I am in two minds about this: either the Americans were weary of the war and all that was associated with it by 1917, or their magazines' methods of coping with the war were to party. Perhaps it was a bit of both; only the editors of these publications would know.
In the May 1917 issue of The Blind Man a short poem by Walter Conrad Arensburg is accompanied by a black and white copy of a 1914 painting by Joseph Stella, titled “Coney Island” and also known as “Battle of Lights, Coney Island.” Painted three years after one of the worst fires that hit Coney Island and completely eliminated the amusement park Dreamland, and seven years after the less destructive fire at Steeplechase, the image evokes for the 1917 reader the cycle of modern extravagance and destruction. Arensberg’s poem is itself framed as a scientific exegesis that discusses the movement of two waves that ascend, “transparent to a basis, which has a disappearance of its own” (9). And, it seems we must interpret these two waves as forces of destruction and construction, fire and light, or blood and sport respectively.
The war has challenged any simple valorization of violence as a necessary part of human nature and in the process tempered the force of Futurist and Vorticist claims to truth. Although both the second issue of Blast and The Blind Man consider and define themselves by this conflict, The Blind Man, appearing two years later, in contrast to Blast and Lewis’s essay “The God of Sport and Blood,” denaturalizes this duality by bringing forward the volitional subject of culture. This is not to say that Lewis’s subject is not volitional, but it seems that for The Blind Man the very fact of choice, not the content or violence of its project, defines their project's claim to truth. Like the iconic choice of "Richard Mutt," Arensberg reduces the movement of these two waves to the “swing of a suspended lens from which the waves wash the protective coloration” (9). For Arensberg the duality of these two waves resolves itself in an identity “demonstrated in three dimensions” (9), an identity that can be none other than the disproportion between man’s acts and the mind that wields them.
In both the July 1915 “War Number” of Blast and the May 1917 issue of The Blind Man, a New York Dada publication, editorial essays address the effect of the war on art in Europe and America. A letter to the magazine titled “From a Friend,” written by American journalist and art critic Frank Crowninshield, addresses the significance of the war in the future creation of “a truly native art” for America. Throughout Blast, Lewis is similarly preoccupied with aesthetic theory in relation to modernity. Thus, texts in both magazines argue that art should necessarily "very closely embody the spirit of our time, however morbid, however hurried, however disorganized, however nerve-racking that time may be" (The Blind Man 10). According to Crowninshield in The Blind Man, "No art can live that is not an integral part of its time" (10). The work of traditional artists--like Botticelli, Corot, Fragonard--is devoid of significance, for Crowninshield, because of its absolute rupture with contemporary life.
In Blast, Lewis also advocates for modern art's break with the traditional and Romantic. Lewis' project in Blast, he states in his opening Editorial, is "to stand rigidly opposed, from start to finish, to every form that the Poetry of a former condition of life, no longer existing, has foisted upon us" (5). In "The Exploitation of Blood," Lewis also argues that Art will not move in the direction of the sentimental or weak in its reflection of the war, but rather that “The art of to-day is a result of the life of to-day, of the appearance and vivacity of that life" (24).
As is common in Blast and in Lewis' writing more broadly, his arguments periodically appear self-contradictory. Though he predicts that Art during and after the war will echo a consistent degree of vitality, Lewis also asserts at one point in "A Super Krupp--Or War's End" that “All art that matters is already so far ahead that it is beyond the sphere of these disturbances” (13). Despite this determination to exist beyond the influence of the war, the delay in Blast's publication, the more subdued tone of the War Number, and the obvious centrality of the war in the issue's content all evidence the significance the war has already had on Lewis' own art. In the piece “Marinetti’s Occupation,” Lewis suggests that the war will end in time, and Art will have to exist beyond it (26). Thus, an art like Marinetti’s Futurism is unsustainable in a climate beyond the war. Lewis' claim that "Life after the War will be the same brilliant life as it was before the War--it’s appearance certainly not modified backwards” may have some truth, but the fracturing of subjectivity (seen in Eliot's poetry and field-of-consciousness narration) and Dada's aesthetic of degeneration suggest palpable and immediate consequences of the war on contemporary Art.