I’m inspired to make sure a bold claim following BBC Culture’s assertion that 1925 was “the greatest year for books ever” – this was based upon analysing twelve-month periods of publishing, and determining which landmark books clustered in any one year that had a lasting impact. 1925 saw the publishing of Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. A compelling case to say the least.
But why 1925? Why do historical confluences like this occur? Anyone interested in film will be familiar with a similar pattern – Oscar contenders rarely outshine each other greatly, and rarely do distinct gaps in quality emerge within one year at the top level. Art is a product of the cultural climate, and of the competition, and so a poor year artistically is by-and-large a poor year for everyone.
Analysing that further, we have to understand 1925’s cultural climate. 1925 was a world overwrought after World War One; a world in upheaval, coming to terms with tremendous loss and pain and brutality. Hemingway famously called those who came of age in this time the ‘Lost Generation’; the sons and daughters who did not know how to lead a normal life without the presence of war.
This generation’s legacy was in its art – while the war’s influence is clearly traced in Mrs Dalloway, with its veteran protagonist, there were stylistic shifts which emerged that resonate more with a paradigm shift in the way literature was approached. Mrs Dalloway traces one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway preparing for a party, written in a flow of consciousness, woven together with fantastis, dreams, and disjointed thoughts. Mrs Dalloway is the seminal modernist novel.
The post-war period say the crux of optimism and years of economics depression converge in artistic expression. While literature firmly segmented itself on the side of grandeur, fantasy, and indulgence, be it through the narrative as in The Great Gatsby or in literary style as in Mrs Dalloway. What Hemingway called the Lost Generation, across the pond, Fitzgerald described as the Jazz Age – both the same time frame, both similar frames of reference, but a different approach to economic hardship and the prospect of new beginnings fighting against one another.
This fight is not more evident than in the architecture of the time – while modernism is often used as a neutral descriptor for literature, it is somewhat of an insulting term for architecture, as it has come to be used. The 1920s saw the first experimentations into modernist architecture; a utilitarian, resource-scarce aware means to create buildings. The intention of architecture under a modernist manifesto was to create buildings suited to their function; Le Corbusier is the most famous proponent of this school of thought, setting out the five key principles of architecture in his Villa Savoye (1929) building. According to Le Corbusier, architecture must have the bulk of the structure off the ground to increase outdoor space owned by that property, a free facade and an open floor plan, so function could be determined without being constrained by walls, and finally, long strips of windows to maximise light and minimise the use of unecessary artificial lighting and a roof garden to compensate for the green area taken over by building the structure. This move towards function and purpose was a response to a post-war need for practical, high density housing – and continued throughout the Cold War, best exemplified by Germany’s Bauhaus movement, Le Corbusier’s The Athens Charter, the de-facto modernist manifesto, and Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia as well as other similar communist structured living projects.
Understanding how history and art intertwine is essential to tracing literary and artistic movements throughout history. Inspiration is not a vaccuum, but nor is it a signpost; understanding how art responds to history, how it grows from it, is never clear-cut. Rather than a mirror, art should be perceived as a prism; understanding that the light of history enters it but the refraction is different than a mere replication.