November 25, 2014
This week in 1913: Kaiser Wilhelm finds the tango vulgar, Kafka weeps, Duchamp creates an art work that is not an art work
by Alex Shephard
1913 is now available in paperback.Just before one of its darkest moments came the twentieth century’s most exciting year . . .
It was the year Henry Ford first put a conveyer belt in his car factory, and the year Louis Armstrong first picked up a trumpet. It was the year Charlie Chaplin signed his first movie contract, and Coco Chanel and Prada opened their first dress shops. It was the year Proust began his opus, Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring, and the first Armory Show in New York introduced the world to Picasso and the world of abstract art. It was the year the recreational drug now known as ecstasy was invented.
It was 1913, the year before the world plunged into the catastrophic darkness of World War I.
November 28: In the small garrison town of Zabern in Alsace-Lorraine, which has been part of the German Reich since 1871, something horrendous happens on 28 November. In the evening a few dozen demonstrators turn outside the German army barracks, protesting that the regiment commander Baron Günter von Forstner has declared that all Frenchmen are “Wackes”—a term of abuse for the Alsatian French—and that “you can shit on the French flag.” These words had reached the local newspaper and provoked shock among the population. When the demonstrators hold up placards and ask for respect, the commander of the regiment has three infantry units advance with live ammunition and bayonets at the ready. Panic breaks out among the demonstrators, but the German soldiers lay into them and arrest more than thirty people, including some innocent passers-by. They are locked in a coal cellar without light and toilets. Then commander Baron Günter von Forstner says the following words: “I consider it a great fortune if blood flows now… I am in charge, I owe it to the army to create respect.”
Five days later he is recognised with a troop of soldiers, and some workers at a shoe factory call him “the Wackes Lieutenant,” whereupon he loses his temper and brings the saber down on the head of a disabled hostage.
The very next day the Reichstag in Berlin discusses events in Zabern. The “Zabern Affair” threatened peace between France and the German Reich more than any previous event.
November 20: In mid-November the fun-loving countess of Schwerin-Löwitz, wife of the president of the state parliament, or Landtag, issues an invitation to a tango tea-dance in the Prussian Landtag. On the floor: dancers in a close embrace with dignitaries and serious military officers. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who finds the tango vulgar, cracks down. On 20 November an imperial bill is passed, henceforth banning officers in uniform from dancing the tango.
Franz Kafka notes in his diary: ‘Went to the cinema. Wept.’
Marcel Duchamp still doesn’t feel like making art, but he has an idea. “Can one,” he wonders, “create works that are not art works?” And then, in the autumn, in his new flat on Rue Saint-Hippolyte in Paris, the front wheel of a bicycle suddenly appears, and he mounts it on an ordinary kitchen stool. Marcel Duchamp mentions it quite casually: “It was something I wanted to have in my room, the way one has a fireplace or a pencil sharpener, except that it was not in any way useful. It’s a pleasant device, pleasant because of the movements it made.” Duchamp finds it so calming to spin the wheel with his hand. He likes its endless rotation on its own axis. While in Paris and Berlin and Moscow artists are still fighting about whether Cubism, Realism, Expressionism or Abstraction is the royal road, the young Duchamp just puts a bicycle wheel in his kitchen and thus creates the first “ready-made.” It’s the most casual quantum leap in art history.
Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.