Along with a surprising number of other artists, George Grosz thrived in the unlikely world of the Weimar Republic. His cartoons and watercolors pierce the façades of society, government, the military and the church. They exemplify the fervid bohemian moment between the wars in Germany and Austria, also remembered in such work as Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, which was later to be the source of the play Cabaret. Both Grosz's art and the writers in this issue also remind one of the surprising endurance of key elements of Modernism, despite a half-century of attempts to call it dead. Grosz's work is reminiscent of another emblem of Modernism from the Berlin of his day, G.W. Pabst's silent film Pandora's Box, starring American actress Louise Brooks. Despite moments of quaintness, it is a film that viewers today can settle in with as much interest as those of eighty years ago.
Nicknamed "the hellcat," Louise Brooks knew how to be cool, look hot and dance the Charleston with uncaged energy. She has become an archetype of the 1920s with her lacquered, razor-sharp Dutch boy cut, white, unlined skin, and large, dark eyes fringed with long lashes. Her look inspired widespread imitations and still appears contemporary. Pandora's Box is so frank in its depiction of sexuality that it was reedited in France and edited yet again before playing in New York. Its streamlined plot tells the story a young vaudeville performer whose lack of inhibition and preternatural beauty bring about her downfall as well that of the men who want to possess her. [End Page 5]
It isn't the melodramatic story—which ends with the heroine reduced to living as a prostitute in London, falling into the hands of Jack the Ripper—but the look and feel and milieu of the movie and its star that are ageless.
When a Catholic priest asked Brooks how she felt about playing the protagonist in Pandora's Box, she gaily told him, "It all felt normal to me." Pabst cast the American because she perfectly represented what in late-Twenties Germany was called Girlkultur, characterized by female sexual independence and what seemed to some to be libertine principles. The new girl was classless and democratic in her affections, as well as sexually ambiguous—slim, hipless, with short hair. Pandora's Box captured the moral coolness of the Twenties, along with its urge to live in the moment with radiant, physical abandon. Rejecting conventional religion, American and European youths were less troubled by notions of sin and retribution. After the deprivations of the War, they took authority less seriously and pursued enjoyment through a new mobility and changing attitudes toward sex, alcohol, and consumerism.
It was a remarkable period of innovation in the economy and arts, at once more expansive and international and with a vastly increased range of media. Writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound all had their times in Europe, shrugging off the familiar themes and affected orderliness of Victorianism while they developed styles that were at once tougher and richer in surprises.
Contemporary literature still has something of the old Modernist exuberance and subversiveness. Internationalism, radical changes in the roles of men and women, stylistic inventiveness, the interactive influence of "high" and "low" arts—all of these elements are as common today as in the Twenties.
The writers in this issue share Modernism's experimentalism, matter-of-fact skepticism and opposition to sentimentality and wishful thinking. They don't offer easy answers. The poets especially challenge received wisdom. Jennifer Atkinson's poems peel away the old ideas of nature, exposing more complex truths and the darker realities of the physical world. Joanne Diaz deals evocatively with the body, its extreme pain and bliss, and its miraculous contradictions, while Kerry Hardie looks back at a younger self from a distance of years, through the dimension of experience.
Our fiction also reveals harsh truths told brilliantly—dramatic shifts in peoples' lives due to things finally being recognized that were being denied or missed. In Gary Fincke's story "The Worst Thing," a teacher on the...