Vitalism in Modern Art C. 1900-1950: Otto Dix, Stanley Spencer, Max Beckmann and Jacob Epstein

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References to ‘Life’, the ‘life-force’, Lebensphilosophie and a ‘vital-principle’ have all but disappeared from our collective historical memory, wiped out by sophisticated scientific explanations of the origins of life culminating in mid-twentieth-century genetics. However, vitalism, the collective term for these various ideas, played a major role in early-twentieth-century European intellectual development, spreading well beyond professional science into the world of culture and art. Vitalism in Modern Art traces the wider history of vitalism in order to explain why it assumed such a remarkable force in the modernist period, and then refines the theme by tracing vitalism in modern art, focusing on four major vitalist artists, the German painters Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, the English painter Stanley Spencer and the London-based, Polish-American sculptor Jacob Epstein. Vitalism in Modern Art addresses modernism’s ties to Romanticism, to post-Darwinian debates about evolution and religion, to evolving categories of modernist spirituality and to their collective relationship to aesthetics and thus modern art. It complements recent work by historians who have argued that the early twentieth century saw an extensive rejection of perceived Victorian materialism, and with it a renewed upsurge in religious debate and ‘holistic science’ both in England and in Germany.


“The master narrative of the rise of modern art and literary modernism has long settled into the scholarly landscape. It has indeed come to appear as set, unproblematic, and rarely questioned. In this extensively interdisciplinary and transnational study Dr. Richard Lofthouse has set out to conduct a deep probe into that now well-traveled terrain. Whereas most previous scholars have looked to the power of French art and culture as the driving engine behind various modes of modernism, Lofthouse counter-instinctively looks to Germany and Great Britain. In the face of previous studies on the mechanical fascinations of modernists such as the Vorticists, Lofthouse rediscovers the power of European fin-de-siècle vitalism and its trajectory far into the twentieth century.Through Lofthouse's studies of Otto Dix, Stanley Spencer, Max Beckmann and Jacob Epstein a new counter-narrative of the development of modern art and modernism emerges … This study reminds us that the world of science and philosophy in l900 reflected anything but a triumph of positivist science and secularism. The minds and artists of the day confronted a much more indeterminate world of ideas in which mechanism was not triumphant and the spiritual had not been banished … This volume leads scholars to reconceptualize their approach to early twentieth-century culture. Lofthouse emphasizes the manner in which four separate artists of prominence stood determined to forge a new path that ignored the impact of French art, embraced the thought of Nietzsche or overlapping ideas derived from the post-Darwinian landscape that emerged in England by 1900, and produced lasting works of art for which this book provides new clues to understanding. Lofthouse leads his readers to understand that they must henceforth contemplate a variety of modernisms, that they must rethink their comfortable, familiar categories of interpretation, and look for new byways on what they incorrectly took to be an adequate mapped landscape of the modern.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) Frank M. Turner, John Hay Whitney Professor of History, Yale University

“Richard Lofthouse has set himself the immensely ambitious task of taking two German artists and two British artists, each of whom is often seen as peculiarly rooted in his own highly localised and idiosyncratic culture, and re-interpreting them in the light of the international modernist movement of the early twentieth century. In so doing, he draws out unusual facets in the lives and thought of each of these artists, and emphasizes both their peculiarity and uniqueness -their rootedness in a local and family setting - and their almost accidental partipation in a wider aesthetic movement of international importance. I was particularly intrigued by his account of Stanley Spencer, who is often portrayed by British art historians as an attractive but rather parochial figure, but who gains immensely in interest and significance by being placed in an international and comparative setting. Likewise the account of Max Beckmann brings alive the work of this rather isolated and solipsistic figure, both by deepening our knowledge of his inner life as an artist, and by placing him in the context of much broader movements in the history of painting. Richard Lofthouse's text also offers an original interpretation of the wider 'modernist' movement, emphasizing its affinities with mysticism, vitalism, syncreticism, and other unorthodox religious trends of the early twentieth century, rather than with purely abstract and deconstructionist modes of thought. This approach is rooted in a detailed historical knowledge of the early twentieth century period, and the whole text is remarkably successful in linking the studio work and private thoughts of the four protagonists, not just to broader movements in 'art history' but to the wider political, social, religious and intellectual history of the period.” – Professor Joe Harris, Faculty of Modern History and St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford

“This book makes a significant contribution to the history of ideas in the interwar period, by revealing the surprisingly widespread influence of vitalist thought, upon writers and artists such as Dix in Germany and Spencer and Epstein in England. It is a very enjoyable book, written with a real gusto and enthusiasm for its subject.” – Professor Christopher Butler,Christ Church College, Oxford

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1 Introduction
2 Otto Dix: An Elementary Event
3 Stanley Spencer: A Species of English Life Philosophy
4 Max Beckmann: Reality as Mystery
5 Jacob Epstein: Elemental Divinity
6 Conclusion

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