1913: The Year Before the Storm, Florian Illies
A month-by-month cultural portrait of 1913 reveals a world that was about to change forever
1913: The Year Before the Storm
The Clerkenwell Press
“In the first days of January, we don’t know exactly when, a slightly scruffy 34-year-old Russian arrives at Vienna’s Northern Station from Krakow . . . He is limping. His hair hasn’t been washed this year, and his bushy moustache, which spread like rampant undergrowth beneath his nose, can’t conceal the pock-marks on his face.” He had already failed to master riding a bike but he had defeated Lenin at chess. His name was Djugashvili, soon to be changed to Josef Stalin.
Explosion of poverty and wealth
Proust and Joyce were hard at work, as was Robert Musil on The Man Without Qualities. Illies is involved with the art world so it is not surprising that visual artists tend to dominate the entries. “Georg Grosz is in Berlin, sketching the incomprehensible. The explosion of poverty and wealth. The noise. The traffic. The building sites. The cold of the streets and heat of the brothels . . . The obese men in hats, the fat women whose flesh is bursting from their clothes . . . His sketches scrape, as if he’s carving tattoos into skin.”
Picasso and Matisse go horse-riding together but other horses attract far more attention. They are ones painted by Franz Marc. The Blaue Reiter and other art movements feature throughout, shifting between defiance and defeat, according to the circumstances of their members. By August, Marc has taken to the saddle and is presented with a tame deer. While Kafka moans about love, the poet Rilke complains about just about everything. Egon Schiele is young and eager to work; it is sad to know, with hindsight, that he will be dead at 28, a mere five years later. Gustav Klimt holds court, content to have sex with all of his models.
Otto Dix spent 1913 painting various self-portraits, including Self-Portrait as Smoker. “How sad and unpleasant always having to spend time with oneself. Sometimes one would be glad to be free of oneself,” confided Max Beckmann, the great self-portraitist to his diary in March 1913. Feeling misunderstood in Vienna, composer Arnold Schonberg had moved to Berlin and become famous. Back in Vienna for a concert of his chamber music, he encountered a riot, whereupon he stopped the orchestra and warned trouble-makers he would summon the police. The conductor was even challenged to a duel; it was that kind of audience.
Illies is content with his conversational voice, informed, never overbearing and well supported by a six-page selected bibliography. Yet there are also moments of beauty, usually when he is evoking one of his cities, each as much a central character as are any of the humans: “It was icy cold that February, but the sun was shining, which was and is rare for the Viennese winter, but it made the new Ringstrasse gleam all the more in its snow-white splendour. Vienna was bubbling over with vitality: it had become a world city, and this could be seen and felt all over the world – everywhere except in Vienna itself, where, through sheer joy in self-destruction, people hadn’t realised that they had unexpectedly moved to the apex of the movement which called itself Modernism.”