Our first dedicated non-fiction Book of the Month is Florian Illies‘ 1913: The Year Before The Storm. Read the opening of the book and an interview with the author…
“The first second of 1913. A gunshot rings out through the dark night. There’s a brief click, fingers tense on the trigger, then comes a second, dull report. The alarm is raised, the police dash to the scene and arrest the gunman straight away. His name is Louis Armstrong.
The twelve-year-old had wanted to see in the New Year in New Orleans with a stolen revolver. The police put him in a cell, and early on in the morning of 1 January they send him to a house of correction, the Coloured Waifs’ Home for Boys. Once there, his behaviour is so unruly that the only solution the institution’s director, Peter Davis, can come up with is to hand him a trumpet. (What he really wants to do is slap him.) All at once Louis Armstrong falls silent, picks up the instrument almost tenderly, and his fingers, which had been playing with the trigger of the revolver only the previous night, feel the cold metal once again, except that now, still in the director’s office, rather than a gunshot, he produces his first warm, wild notes from the trumpet.”
In 1913, Florian Illies reveals a world on the brink of war. A world where we not only encounter Rilke, Kafka, Freud, Stalin and Hitler, but also one where Ecstasy is first synthesised and Prada opens its first boutique. We spoke to Florian about the year and the writing of the book…
What is it about the year 1913 that’s so special?
Its peculiarity is partly down to the year that comes after it: 1914, the year in which the First World War began. But actually 1913 is much more than just the year before the war. That year the long nineteenth century ended, and the new century begun. There were two things that piqued my curiosity: Marcel Duchamp‘s first “readymade” – an inverted front wheel of a bicycle, which he mounted on a stool – and Malevich’s first black square. With this in mind, and after a lot of reading, I realised it was a year with which no other really compares.
Do you think the significance of 1913’s cultural legacy has been neglected?
The cultural history of 1913 is often overshadowed by the events of 1914, but you can look back on the year and look for signs of foreboding that came before the thunder that announces the First World War.
Why did people not expect the great disaster that awaited them?
There were farsighted artists who were convinced that there was going to be a war. At the same time respected economists said that a world war was impossible, because the economies were entangled and globalised. This should give pause for thought today. Of course there were signs in the military sector, which I mention in the book: the upgrade of the German Army, the Saverne Affair, the skirmishes with France and the war in the Balkans. If you read newspapers from the time, you get a good feel for the extent and proximity of the war for people. From these and from the letters of artists I think you can say that in 1913 war was seen as a possibility, but not inevitable.
In Germany your book was subtitled “The Summer of the Century”…
Yes, the summer of 1913 was awful, a kind of ‘anti-summer’. In August the average temperature in Vienna was sixteen degrees, making it the coldest August of the twentieth century. At the same time, in the unseasonal weather, the art world was experiencing a unique heyday.
It’s said that modernity was made possible by the horrors of the First World War, but was 1913 the true beginning of modernity?
For me, this is the main argument of the book. In art, the break with tradition happened long before the war. Look at what Schiele, Kirchner, Malevich and Duchamp had been doing in the visual arts or Joyce, Kafka and Benn in literature.
It is true that 1913 saw some of the most exciting developments in the visual arts?
Visual art plays a central role in 1913. The advances of modernism were in the spotlight as the first German Autumn Salon in Berlin took place, where among others Franz Marc’s The Tower of Blue Horses appeared. In general, modern art as an incredibly rich and diverse form of expression is represented by artists such as Klimt, Schiele, Kirchner, Duchamp, Picasso, Matisse, and many others. On the other hand, the year is marked by the excitement of the Mona Lisa – which was stolen from the Louvre in 1911- reappearing in Italy. It was restored to Paris in an absurd triumph of Rome, travelling in its own train carriage.
If you could time-travel back to 1913, who would you most like to meet?
Tough question. It would probably be Marcel Duchamp. It was very cool of him to stop painting at the moment when he made a breakthrough and simply said, “art is what I say it is”. He is fascinating. Duchamp would be my first choice. Apart from him, so many exciting people were around that year that I couldn’t decide between them.
Several of them -Trakl, Kafka and Else Lasker-Schüler – cope with many difficulties in their lives. What would become of them now?
Hard to say. Neither Rilke or Trakl lived off welfare, but off their patrons. Rilke had many admirers, who allowed him time and again to live in their castles, and they supported him financially. We have to remember that we only know of the artists who made it into our cultural memory – many gifted talents are forgotten.
Was it your intention to include similar types of artists?
Yes. I focus mainly on members of a bohemian culture who live at the poverty level. An extreme case was Else Lasker-Schüler, who at times was so hungry and poor she only ate nuts. A benefit auction was held for her, where the painter Ludwig Meidner said he could contribute nothing, because he had nothing to eat. These are people on the margins of society, artists who sacrificed everything for their art.
Throughout 1913, another artist flits about, earning his living as a postcard painter…
Yes, Adolf Hitler, who lived in a Viennese men’s hostel and at that point found his life was falling apart. He was dismissed from the Academy and was painting postcard pictures which he sold to tourists. In May 1913, he moved to Munich, where the two-year-old Eva Braun was pushed in a pram through the city. In Munich he shared a room with his friend Rudolf Häusler, which they rented for three marks per week.
Is the concept of coincidence in 1913 important do you think?
This is my way of looking at the year. It also shows how impossible it was to predict the monstrosities to come. For example, that the unemployed postcard painter Hitler and Stalin, were both in Vienna in 1913 and these two would both determine the outcome of the 20th century.
How hard was it to select from the plethora of people and events?
That was actually really difficult. A tremendous amount of things are not included in the book for various reasons. It took ages to decide how to organise everything – but suddenly everything became very clear and I found a way to tell the stories of people of that year.
1913 tells us about famous people in literature, art and music, but also reveals curious facts and anecdotes…
These short anecdotes intercut to allow the reader to take a breath: the fashion business Prada was founded in 1913, Willy Brandt and Gert Frobe were born, the drug Ecstasy was synthesised for the first time. These small things for me are more like a stylistic method so that the book does not tire the reader. I have a missionary zeal to inspire readers to make them want to read more about my subjects – I wanted to make them curious about Gottfried Benn, Thomas Mann, Kokoschka, Stravinsky and Marcel Duchamp. There’s a huge amount of cultural history, but to be readable, it had to be brought to life. The year should be lit in colour – not in black and white images that are already familiar to us.
Interview by Eckart Baier. This interview was originally published online at www.buchjournal.de.