Enormous rips appeared in the social fabric of Europe in the wake of the First World War, the invisible equivalent, perhaps, of the ubiquitous nightmare landscapes of shattered trees and once-productive fields destroyed by trenches and brutal shelling. Not surprisingly, these disagreeable changes were often reflected directly in the art produced after the war’s end. In Germany, embittered painters such as Georg Grosz and Otto Dix pilloried the war’s double legacy of economic woe and maimed bodies; Max Beckmann’s images became more mysterious and angry as a result of his bleak experiences as a medical orderly. Elsewhere, artists consciously ignored the war’s upheavals and unpleasantnesses. The Dadaists retreated into a nihilistic version of the absurd and the Surrealists emigrated to the unpredictable terrain of the unconscious.

While all of these strategies were obviously reactions to the destruction and...


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