Seldom had spring brought forth more flowers
than in 1914: the days
were blue and soft and the air balmy. Inhabitants of the European capitals
enjoyed the coffeehouses and parks. At seaside resorts crowds danced under
chestnut trees to the strains of promenade concerts. And in their offices
the diplomats were calculating and worrying. In the Balkans the vital
interests of the Austrian, Russian and Turkish Empires were balanced: but
it was an unstable balance and many nationalists were convinced that their
nation would benefit from its overthrow. When the Austrian Archduke was
assassinated in Sarajevo by a Slav nationalist the Austrian government
calculated that it was then or never for their interests in the Balkans.
Encouraged by their German allies, who believed that a war with the French was nearly inevitable and that Germany's chances were
better in 1914 than they would be in 1918, the Austrians issued the Serbs
a humiliating ultimatum. But the Russians had appointed themselves the protectors of the Serbs and were
closely allied to the French. No one knew how seriously the British took
their alliance to the French....
The pressure rose slowly at first, but then rapidly. The levy of a war
tax on one side was answered with the lengthening of the term of military
service on the other; partial mobilization on one side was answered on the
other by full mobilization. The German commanders were convinced that to
prevail against France and Russia they would have to destroy France
quickly before the slow Russians could assemble their armies. But that
meant they had to strike first: they could not allow the Russians to
mobilise. Human will seemed powerless in the face of unfolding events,
long-determined plans, strategic necessities, the requirements of national
prestige — for the most terrifying thing about this, the most bloody war
Europe had ever known, was that no one had wanted it.
In Paris the twenty-six-year-old painter
Giorgio de Chirico was filled
with the sense of the meaninglessness and madness of life.
The son of an Italian railway engineer, he was born in Greece and grew
up familiar with ancient legends, with myth, tragedy and a strong sense of
fate. He believed in signs and in predestination, magical places and the
astrology and studied ancient Greek religion. He was also a student of
Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.
feelings about the senselessness and terror of his time were worked
through these symbols and ideas. He was one of the most truly "disturbing"
of modern painters.
De Chirico conjures up menacing Italian
piazzas which seem to conceal the key to a looming catastrophe. His
colonnade-lmed facades seem to be the surface of an isolated world; to
reflect the hot light of a shuttered noon. The purpose of his
"Metaphysical Painting" was to reveal invisible forces, fears, emotions
and shadows concealed behind the world of visible things. He played with
allusions and like the ancients delighted in riddles and enigmas, such as
the Sphinx, the oracle at Delphi and the Sybilline Books. What is the
significance of the painting of 1914,
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street? Could it signify anonymity, the solitude and menace
of a great city? The work seems to evoke a mood which many of us have
sensed before, of doom and evil, and of the senseless and unavoidable,
bearing down on us. It is difficult for us not to see the work as a
prophecy of what at the time was called "The Great War".