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2008-09: "Astonish Me!"

The Turn of the 20th Century (1889-1914)

08-09 Moments of Change Calendar of Events

“The world has changed more in the last thirty years than it has since Jesus Christ,” writes French poet and essayist Charles Péguy in 1914.  The fin-de-siècle revolutionized the lives of many. How can we approach modernity, Modernism, and the avant-garde in a one-hundred-year retrospective? How do we perceive, understand, and judge the shockingly innovative steps taken at the turn of the twentieth century? How can we bracket, label, and define an era located somewhere between the heyday of colonization, the first modern Olympics, and the opening of the Eiffel Tower and Moulin Rouge on the one hand, and the beginning of World War One on the other?

Beyond the recognition of a distinct turning point in 1900, when Nietzsche died and Sigmund Freud published his groundbreaking Interpretation of Dreams, this year’s Moments of Change initiative proposes a variety of events marked by their drive toward “making it new” (Ezra Pound, 1885-1972). What happened before and after such a well-documented point in time? How did the nineteenth century end and the twentieth begin? What are the scientific, artistic, and socio-cultural dynamics that trigger ebbs and flows of ideas around 1900? What is changing in such a radical moment of shock? What is modernity, what is Modernism, and how have art and life responded to the multifaceted challenges of liberation and alienation, of progress and decadence?  “You cannot find peace by avoiding life,” writes Bloomsbury modernist Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) – a statement that makes us curious indeed about the actual causes and effects that condition this period’s ongoing drive toward performing the new, the scandalous, the taboo.

While the world has become progressively more modern, it is only toward the end of the nineteenth century that it became more decidedly of the moment. This pervasive modernity has witnessed the rise of science and technology (notably in the realms of communication, transportation, and immunology, e.g. the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, the typewriter, and the rabies vaccine), population growth and formation of nations, capitalism and individualism, as well as an intensified sense of experimentation.  A variety of “modernisms” comprise a compelling spectrum of artistic and cultural responses to such modernity: they establish new genres and media (such as photography and film), launch an array of well-known movements whose cross-disciplinary aestheticism reacts to the era’s new sensibilities (e.g. symbolism, futurism, cubism, and expressionism), and generally work at striking a blow in the face of public taste:  “A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears,” as Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) ingeniously puts it. 

“Behold how good is man’s inventiveness,” American poet Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961) reminds us, and it is in the spirit of such creative enthusiasm that Moments of Change approaches its exploration of multidisciplinary cultural forms – ranging from architecture to literature, from theater, cabaret, and film to music, art, science, and technology – which turned many major cities into vibrant cultural centers. As the Roman god Janus, who is given two faces and who is thus able to simultaneously look backward into the past and forward into the future, the year 1900 symbolizes a transitory moment, epitomizing the tensions of a turn that is present, but at the same time still past and already future.

Martina Kolb
Assistant Professor of German and Comparative Literature