To get a global perspective on war, look no further than P. S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens. The current group of exhibitions there, "Disasters of War: Francisco de Goya, Henry Darger, Jake and Dinos Chapman," presents three takes on murder and mayhem.
Goya's always-unnerving set of 80 etchings "Desastres de la Guerra," created during 1810-16 and inspired by Napoleon's occupation of Spain, prove that "atrocity" is a time-tested concept. Among the dehumanizing dramas on and off the battlefield he portrays are:
A peasant with an ax attacks well-armed troops.
A woman holding a naked child under one arm drives a spear into a regular's stomach with the other, while another woman heaves a rock at him.
A military man castrates a naked and strung-up male.
A man vomits over a pile of corpses.
Hysterical faces, desperate skirmishes and their bloody aftermath -- piles of limp dead bodies -- are everywhere.
Goya notes the surreal aspects of the scene, too, and lets no one, especially the church, escape his wrath. Revulsion spills from every sheet. The "Desastres" were printed in 1892, long after Goya's death in exile in Bordeaux, France, in 1828. To experience them fully, bring a magnifying glass and plan on spending some time with them. This show is a great opportunity to explore these classic works.
After Goya comes the Chapman brothers, Young British Artists known for tableaux of naked, grotesquely mutated and deformed children with phalluses sprouting from odd places on double- and triple-headed conjoined bodies -- an adolescent fascination with sexual organs that successfully stirred up a lot of insecurities related to the ongoing revolution in genetics.
Over the last three years, Jake and Dinos Chapman have been working on a new body of work combining video, sculpture, and photos. Focusing on an incident in WWII in which the German army slaughtered 10,000 Russian soldiers, they created more than 10,000 hand-modeled and painted toy figurines and arranged them into blood-drenched scenes of execution in the overall shape of an inverted swastika. This sculpture, jovially titled Fucking Hell, is on view at the "Apocalypse" show at the Royal Academy in London. At P.S.1, a series of nine (eight because of space limitations) large photographs with the figures are to be seen in a room all to themselves.
Whether you registered the Chapman's earlier work as shock, schlock or both, What the Hell, I-IX should register... as not much of anything. Shock value -- puerile, adult or otherwise -- is utterly lacking. Having seen far too many tabletop photography set-ups recently, a little red paint on tiny action figures, even Nazi action figures, doesn't do much but elicit a sigh of boredom. Especially after seeing Goya's "Disasters."
Down another corridor is a suite of 83 new etchings by the Chapman brothers called "Gigantic Fun," cartoony riffs on Goya's masterpiece. Nothing can trivialize Goya's "Disastres," though the Chapman brothers do their best. While it is admirable for the Chapmans to look for new directions, so far their immense ambition has overreached their talent.
This much of the current exhibition was shown at the Kunst-Werke Berlin this summer. For its appearance in this country, P.S.1 senior curator Klaus Biesenback has added 27 large horizontal watercolors by the self-taught American artist Henry Darger (1892-1973). After Darger's death, several thousand pages of manuscript describing a savage war waged against children, specifically seven blond-haired Vivian Girls, were found along with about 300 collage-and-watercolor drawings to illustrate his story. His Chicago landlord, the late photographer Nathan Lerner, thankfully saved these works and his widow, Kiyoko Lerner, has lent previously unseen works from her own collection for this exhibition. They are spectacular works of art, and also rather scary. Do not bring the kiddies.
Darger spent his days huddled in his room (when not working at menial jobs or attending Mass several times a day) manufacturing titanic battles between good -- symbolized by little girls like his sister, born when his mother died in childbirth, and the flashpoint for all his art -- and evil -- the adult world he found threatening.
Unsure of his own drawing skills, Darger used motifs from coloring books, magazines, and newspapers that he enlarged with a copy machine at a local drugstore. He borrowed images of little girls, plants, butterflies and World War I military men to illustrate his 15,000 page manuscript The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal or the Glandelinian War Storm or the Glandico-Abbiennian Wars, as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. (Darger also produced an 8,500-page sequel and other written works, plus massive collections of twine and other junk.)
These motifs, repeated in many sizes and variations, form the basis of his art. His watercolors, usually multi-scene taped-together panels covering both sides of cheap paper, are often augmented with collage and free-hand additions. Although only measuring one to two feet tall, his panels are often four to 12 feet in length.
For this show, the emphasis is on scenes of battle and carnage. The bloody remains of naked little girls -- disemboweled, crucified, strangled with tongues hanging out -- manage to be both repulsive and beautiful at the same time. Darger is a great colorist no matter what the subject, and the action always serves the story, however gory.
Darger's panoramic backgrounds are wonderful, too. They are often realistic, which is not surprising since another of Darger's obsessions was the weather. Others are surreal with giant tree-ferns and tree-toadstools. A few include some of his fantasy creatures, dragon-like Blengins that love children as fiercely as Darger.
Startling sexual ambiguity, à la the Chapman's earlier work, can be found in Darger's drawings as well. The little girls in and out of battle are often shown naked with penises -- which is arguably more alarming than anything the Chapman brothers have cooked up. Darger may or may not have known anything about female sexuality, being a recluse and never having married. In early life, he lived with his father before being placed in a home "for feeble-minded" children before running away for good. Who knows?
In this show, I was struck by the intensity of the color in several drawings. Most of the works I've seen in the past seemed done mostly in pastel shades. His use of black, for instance, is quite different when contrasted with brighter versus lighter shades. Are most of Darger's works only pale remnants of more dramatic images? His use of poor quality, fugitive materials may have already taken its toll.
We will definitely be seeing a lot more of Darger in the future, so perhaps all this can be sorted out. The Museum of American Folk Art is preserving much of his old apartment and its contents as part of a Henry Darger Study Center due to open in their new building in 2001.
The exhibition is on view through Feb. 25, 2001 at P.S.1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue, Queens.
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War is also the theme of a show of watercolors that will thrill history buffs at the New-York Historical Society. A Union private from Brooklyn, who served as a mapmaker during the Civil War, wrote a 5,000-page journal and illustrated it with almost a thousand small watercolors, sketches and maps. Lost until the 1990s, the memoir and watercolors were bought in two separate lots by the Virginia Historical Society and reunited. They have produced a handsome traveling show featuring 400 of the works assembled on scrapbook pages, accompanied by captions and background material.
"Eye of the Storm: The Civil War Drawings of Robert Knox Sneden" contains scenes of fighting, depictions of everyday life in the military, architectural and topographical drawings, and many illustrations of prison life. Sneden was captured and spent time as a prisoner-of-war in several Confederate prisons, including Andersonville.
A new book based on Sneden's memoir and drawings would make a fine Christmas present for anyone with an interest in Americana. "Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey" by Private Robert Knox Sneden, published by the Free Press, is available at the Society.
The exhibition is at the New-York Historical Society through Dec. 31, 2000. Then, it travels to the Atlanta History Center, Jan. 23-Mar. 20, 2001; the Chicago Historical Society, May 30-Sept. 30, 2001; and the Huntington Library, San Marino, Ca., Oct. 24-Jan.24, 2002.
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Enough of mutilation and murder. This is the season of peace, love and joy, so try one or more of these three shows to help get you the mood.
"Gunnar Norrman: Sixty Years of Visual Poetry" at Fitch-Febvrel expands an exhibition of prints by this Swedish artist that the gallery presented at the IFPDA Print fair in November. Known primarily for his exquisite small-edition drypoints, the artist, now in his late 80s, has continued to produce drawings his entire life. Many are here along with a generous sampling of drypoints and some lithographs.
Norrman's devotion to nature, from his early training as a botanist to his famous home garden near Malmö today, comes through in drawings like Efter Stormen (After the Storm) with its blacks against delicate silvery tones, its plants monumental in their quiet resistance to the elements. At only $1,600, it's bound to appear under someone's Christmas tree. His shimmering view of river reeds in Vid Krankesjän would be welcome under mine.
Norrman more often uses conté crayon (or charcoal) for architectural works like Stolpar, an eight by 12 inch wonder for only $2,250. Many are reminiscent of Seurat's drawings, which he discovered after producing his own works. Their stately tranquility is reassuring and calming.
Through Dec. 31, 2000. Fitch-Febvrel Gallery, 5 East 57th St.
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How about nudes ready for bed, not battle? "Chamber Works by Frederick C. Frieseke" at Hollis Taggart Galleries is just the thing. This expatriate American Impressionist who was part of the artist colony at Giverny is best known for large dreamy pink and blue bedroom scenes. He works his magic on a smaller scale in oils and drawings that span his career in this show. One of his smaller signature nudes, Nude behind Red Curtain (ca. 1920) will set you back $195,000. The Blue Dress, Giverny, a delightful watercolor from around 1917-19, is only $55,000. The most expensive piece in the exhibition is one of the best child's portraits from the period, Child at Piano (1923) priced at $225,000.
Also on display is "Uneventful Reminiscences: A Childhood in Florida," a set of 16 watercolors detailing a trip to, and time spent in, Florida after the death of the artist's mother. Frieseke was seven when he went to Florida with his father and sister. He executed the watercolors from memory in France in 1934. They are accompanied by a brief text dictated by the artist to his daughter. The set is filled with lots of action, alligators, and fishing. The sixteen are being offered for sale as a group, at least until the end of the year. It would be a shame to break it up, but if no taker appears, individual drawings will be $18,000 each come January.
Both shows through Jan. 13, 2001. Hollis Taggart Galleries, 48 East 73rd St.
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And what would the holidays be without toys! Paul Kasmin in Chelsea has a group of never-seen-before "Andy Warhol: Toy Drawings."
Thirty-four of the 36 known "Drawings for Children" are in pencil with two others in black acrylic paint. All are on handmade French rag paper and date to 1983. They are large studies (about two feet by 2 ½ feet) for small paintings of toys, a theme suggested to the artist by Zurich gallery-owner Bruno Bischofberger. He exhibited the paintings in his gallery in 1983 around Christmas.
While the paintings are supposedly bright, these drawings are spare. They are images of toys sucked up and spit out, stripped down to their essentials. Never having had many toys in his childhood, here the mature artist sits back to ponder the Moon Explorer Robot and the "Roll Over" Mouse. Now you can, too, or take one home for $16,000 to $25,000. And to all a goodnight!
Through Dec. 22, 2000, at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 Tenth Avenue @ 27th St.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.