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A CRITICAL HISTORY
OF 20TH-CENTURY ART

by Donald Kuspit
 
Chapter 4, Part 1
Esthetics Against Barbarism: The Fourth Decade

The Soviets were the first to tyrannize art. While at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, modern art also was seen as a revolution and therefore was accepted, soon afterward it was rejected as not being "real." They did not see modern art as freeing itself from passing events and feelings, capable of establishing a more true reality. It is evident that when art is forced to be a representation of daily life in its common aspect -- directly understandable by the mass -- then modern art's free vision is not acceptable.

. . .Later than the Soviets, Nazi rulers exercised an analogous tyranny in Germany. Before the Nazi dictatorship, art in Germany was as free as anywhere else. Modern art was appreciated according to individual feeling and conception -- just as in the rest of the world. . . . Then tyranny cut all off.

. . .Nazi leaders dictated the way art had to go. Whereas its way is continual progress, art had to retrogress.

. . .Never before has art known such constraint as Soviet and Nazi domination imposed.

Piet Mondrian, "Art Shows the Evil of Nazi and Soviet Oppressive Tendencies," 1939-40(1)

The outer world, the world of contemporary events, always has an influence on the painter -- that goes without saying. If the interplay of lines and colors does not expose the inner drama of the creator, then it is nothing more than bourgeois entertainment.

The forms expressed by an individual who is part of society must reveal the movement of a soul trying to escape the reality of the present, which is particularly ignoble today, in order to approach new realities, to offer other men the possibility of rising above the present. In order to discover a livable world -- how much rottenness must be swept away!

If we do not attempt to discover the religious essence, the magic sense of things, we will do no more than add new sources of degradation to those already offered to the people today, which are beyond number.

The horrible tragedy that we are experiencing might produce a few isolated geniuses and give them an increased vigor. If the powers of backwardness known as

fascism continue to spread, however, if they push us any farther into the dead end of cruelty and incomprehension, that will be the end of all human dignity.

Joan Miró, "Statement," 1939(2)

1
I think the best way of understanding what the art of the '30s was about -- or at least what its main thrust was -- is to look at two works by Paul Klee, one made at the beginning of the decade, the other at its end, in the year that was the last of his life. Mask of Fear (1932) and Death and Fire (1940) are two of Klee's most famous works. There had always been a morbid, pessimistic streak in Klee's work, however balanced by comic irony -- both are evident in the sardonic etchings made between 1903 and 1905, especially Comedian II (1904) and Senile Phoenix (1905) -- but now the morbidity becomes dominant, in response to social events beyond his control. In 1932, Hitler came to power in Germany: The mute, blank face of the mask -- fixed mask and expressive face are conflated -- is Klee's castrated response. It is the face of defeat.

In 1940, Hitler quickly conquered France, completing his domination of Western Europe: It was the latest Triumph of Death, as Death and Fire announces. Klee's ghostly, grimacing figure is burned alive -- the smoldering red in the upper left corner of the picture symbolizes the flames of war -- but it is also an abstract representation of Death, exulting in the surrounding chaos and destruction. The figure looks like a quick graffiti sketch, but he is a grotesque apparition from hell. Indeed, he seems to personify the Blitzkrieg, and the lightning speed with which it brought death, as is suggested by the lightning speed with which the work seems to have been made.

Klee's pessimistic little figure, with its outsized face-mask and schematic form (Klee's Comedian II shows how fascinated he was by the interplay between face and mask, suggesting the two-facedness or two-sidedness of human beings, each side showing the feelings the other denies, and thus suggesting inner conflict) has been understood to represent the spiritual bankruptcy and creative sterility of Nazi Germany. But it also represents Klee's state of mind. As he said, all his works are about "what weighs upon my soul," influenced, no doubt, by external events, but fundamentally about his own feelings. Thus, the fear depicted is his own fear, not only for Germany, but for himself and ultimately for modern art.

His concern was well-founded. He had taught in the Bauhaus, leaving in 1930 to become a professor in Düsseldorf. He was dismissed in 1933 when his art was attacked as degenerate by the Nazis. Klee once wrote: "I want to be as though newborn, knowing absolutely nothing about Europe, ignoring facts and fashions, to be almost primitive"(3), but Europe caught up with him, and outdid his primitivism with its barbarism. The new esthetic primitivism that had flourished since Cézanne, becoming explicit in Expressionism and abstraction, was no match for the age-old forces of inhuman barbarity; like a frail flower, it was easy to stamp out, which is what Hitler's boots attempted to do.

Klee was not alone. The work of many other prominent German artists -- Otto Dix and Emil Nolde among them, to mention two who represent the objectivist and subjectivist extremes of German avant-garde style (ironically, Nolde had been an early member of the Nazi party, and could not understand why his work was regarded as degenerate, as he wrote in a letter to Joseph Goebbels) -- was declared "degenerate," that is, spiritually diseased.

It was the beginning of what climaxed in the "Degenerate Art" exhibition of 1937, the most important art event of the decade, for it was the largest single show of 20th-century avant-garde art ever held until then, and gave more people than ever a chance to see it, even if the works they saw were presented as symptoms and specimens of cultural degeneracy. The Nazis staged an Augean stable of avant-garde lunacy that they hoped to clean up and replace with their supposedly healthy quasi-classical art, also on view. But the crowds -- the exhibition toured many cities -- seemed to prefer the degenerate art to the new pseudo-heroic Nazi art. If Klee's gentle, coy, witty modern art -- an art celebrated for its childlike, fey character -- could be regarded as degenerate by the Nazis, nothing that had any hint of artistic difference could escape their clutches.

In 1956, visiting an exhibition of children's drawings, Picasso remarked: "When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them."(4) But Klee drew like a self-absorbed child from the beginning to the end of his career, with a child's idiosyncratic, innocent, impulsive vision, however much his idiosyncrasy and impulsiveness came to seem ritualistic, even stylized, and his innocence arch. He also drew many children throughout his career, maintaining his identification with them. The inner child always remained alive and active in Klee, however esthetically sophisticated it became, as his heavy investment in Cubist planarity and Orphic color -- many works have a Synthetic Cubist look -- indicate. The flatness of his intimate, concentrated pictures and the hieroglyphic, cryptic look of his figures suggest an austere, abstract sensibility, despite the fantastic character of his imagery. Stamping out avant-garde art, the Nazis were stamping out the child in modern man, and with that modern imagination.

Klee left for Berne, Switzerland (his original home) in ill-health, and no doubt Death and Fire is fraught with a sense of impending death. But, more broadly, like Mask of Fear, Klee's 1932 painting is about the crisis of avant-garde art itself. It is a crisis of faith: How could avant-garde art believe in itself when the society in which it existed no longer did? Klee had come full circle: He began his career depicting, with scrupulous realism, sinister, menacing, brutish adults, each an allegorical personification of society -- the grotesque figure in Pessimistic Allegory of the Mountains (1904) is a climactic example -- and ended it making equally pessimistic allegories, now with a different import, for in Mask of Fear and Death and Fire, the primitive, emblematic, abstract figures represent avant-garde art. What had been latent all along in Klee's art now became explicit: Klee had always felt that harsh adult society posed a threat to the delicate artistic child in him -- to avant-garde art, which was new and innocent of the ways of the world, like a playful child -- and now the threat was real. It was no longer just a subjective reality, conveying Klee's feeling of being out of place in society -- indeed, too sensitive to live in it -- but an objective reality. Both pictures are pessimistic allegories of avant-garde art: The former shows its unhappy state of mind, the latter its unhappy fate -- the Nazis made the underlying oppressiveness and destructiveness of adult society transparently clear. The child is full of foreboding, the burning figure full of anguish -- persecuted by Nazi tyranny, avant-garde art inevitably became paranoid: It is this paranoia -- a very realistic paranoia -- that is also personified by Klee's troubled figures. Its life threatened, the avant-garde child experiences annihilation anxiety, which becomes actual annihilation in Death and Fire. Avant-garde art was incinerated by Nazi fire, like the books and, not much later, the Jews the Nazis committed to the flames: It is as though Klee prophesied the Holocaust and, more broadly, the bombing and burning of Europe. Passive despair becomes the terrifying anguish of death: What the child foresaw happens. The works are the systole and diastole of the same suffering.

Ironically, European avant-garde art came under siege just when it began to achieve social success and consolidate its ideas. As the opening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929 indicated, it was on the verge of international recognition. The Bauhaus brought together, in a cooperative spirit, such radically different avant-garde practitioners as Gropius and Klee -- an architect oriented to "the outer world," a painter concerned only with his own "inner drama," to use Miró's language -- indicating that avant-garde art was no longer a revolutionary cause but had matured into an established ideology. It now had two major organizations behind it, one to produce it -- indeed, mass-produce it, as Bauhaus design made clear -- and one to disseminate its ideas. It was no longer a loose-knit network of competing individualists, but a vested interest with enormous power. It was on the verge of becoming Modern Art, Inc.: What had only a few short years before been speculative and outrageous, now became standardized and respectable. What once seemed like an attack on tradition, now became a tradition of its own -- the "tradition of the new," as the critic Harold Rosenberg called it. What had seemed "outsider art," indeed, beyond the pale of art, now became insider art. Avant-garde art no longer had to defend itself, but slowly but surely was becoming de rigueur. Differences remained, both in point of view and method, but the avant-garde began to codify, integrate, and stabilize its ideas, most obviously in the theories of John Graham and Hans Hofmann. In the '20s, Hofmann opened the first school of modern art in Munich, moving it to New York in 1932, where it had great influence. The avant-garde had become a school of thought, and had a school to propagate its ideas. It had in effect become academic, indeed, the official art of the establishment, the way classical art once had been. Its various strands synthesized -- however much the narcissism of small differences remained, to use Freud's phrase -- it had become a new form of esthetic tyranny.

If Klee's 1932 painting, which marks the beginning of Hitler's ascent, heralds the beginning of the end for European avant-garde art, then the 1940 painting marks the end, for the world war that devastated Europe also devastated European avant-garde art. It would not recover for a long time -- its members dispersed, many of them going into exile in the United States -- and in fact after the war the baton of avant-garde art would pass to the United States. Klee's visionary pictures did not anticipate this, but they do depict, with angry mourning as well as stunned disbelief, the death of European avant-garde art. It was destroyed by the outer world, which initially made it aware of its vulnerability and helplessness -- how else should a child feel when victimized by "the world of contemporary events"? -- and then burned it alive. Klee's fear painting is about living death, his fire painting about violent death, with death implicitly coming from the outside world, vaguely in the background of Death and Fire. But, unwittingly, Klee also showed death coming from the inside, growing like a hidden disease within avant-garde art: His witty paintings show avant-garde art at its wit's end, indeed, in an esthetic dead-end. Abstract drama -- the drama of autonomous forms -- is toned down in Klee's works, whatever the inner drama his figures express. Primitive esthetics has been stylized, losing the subtle unintelligibility it had in Cubism and the sharp emotional edge -- the sense of being cut to the quick by unexpected feelings -- it had in German Expressionism. In Klee's two pictures, abstraction and figuration smoothly synthesize, as though their fit - compatibility -- was foreordained. Earlier abstract figures -- for example, those by the Cubists -- are much more awkward and forced, as though acknowledging their incompatibility while struggling to make them work together. Indeed, primitivizing abstraction was initially regarded as a healthy esthetic antidote to classical decadence. Heroically pure forms were an exciting challenge to the stale classical figure -- but Klee classicizes the primitive abstract figure, destroying the transcendental import and subversive potential of the pure forms out of which it is constructed.

Klee's works raise a problem: How move beyond the stasis that the new harmony of abstraction and figuration -- already evident in Picasso's grand Three Musicians and Léger's equally grand, stately Three Women (Le Grand Déjeuner) (both 1921) -- brought with it? It is in effect a new classicism -- a new formalism of the figure, and a convenient way of configuring pure form -- and, like all classicism, an expressive dead-end, eventually leading to creative sterility. Indeed, it is even an esthetic dead-end, becoming purely decorative in effect. The paintings by Picasso and Léger look like decorative luxuries -- high abstract (Cubist) design, with each detail an esthetic gem in the setting of the familiar figure. Neither seems necessary to the other, however seamless the dialectic between them. The everyday figure becomes a way of making the abstract forms more emotionally accessible and socially acceptable than they would be in their pure state. And abstraction becomes a way of making the figure more novel than it otherwise is, indeed, more mysteriously alive and intriguing -- a cross between a robotic mechanism and organic body. Looking at Picasso's and Léger's paintings, and those of Klee, it is not clear whether we are looking at applied abstraction or applied figuration. The question, then, is raised: What is the next creative step, now that an old avant-garde problem has been solved? What is the way out of the new avant-garde's smugness? Klee's figures, however uncanny -- however much they get under our emotional skin -- are too clever for their own esthetic good.

Only a new creative sword -- a new creative rawness -- could cut the slickly tied Gordian knot of abstraction and figuration, and it arrived right after the end of the Second World War in the form of Jackson Pollock's all-over Abstract Expressionist paintings. Their fragmented drips and clotted shapes are suggestive of the war's destructiveness, indeed, they seem like an abstract representation of the flames of war, even of the charred ruins of the Old World the war left in its wake -- however highly personal they undoubtedly are, as Pollock's troubled personality suggests. As Willem de Kooning said, they "broke the ice," coming down decisively on the side of abstraction rather than figuration. But the breakthrough was short-lived, for in the early '50s, Pollock returned to abstract figuration, which had been his main interest in the early '40s. His post-all-over abstract figures are not as innovative as his completely abstract all-over paintings, nor for that matter his pre-all-over abstract figures. Pollock himself seemed to realize the problem, for Portrait and a Dream (1951) splits figuration and abstraction without saying anything new about either.

The painting is a dialectical stalemate: It pictures a stand-off between opposites that no longer enrich each other. On one side is a self-portrait, in a stale Cubist style. On the other side is an Abstract Expressionist rendering of a nightmare Pollock had, its violence and torment conveyed in the chaotic gestural style that had quickly become a popular cliché. This was in part because of the publicity accorded it as the "American breakthrough" -- "Jack the Dripper," as Life magazine called him, became the first American success story in postwar avant-garde art, living proof (though soon to be dead, in an automobile suicide that made him into the American van Gogh) that America had what it takes to make radical, cutting-edge art -- and in part because Pollock, having climbed the peak of pure gesturalism, had nowhere to go but down. Where there had been recklessness and vision, there was now predictability and convention.

Apart from the fact that Pollock had run out of creative steam after the short-lived spurt of the all-over paintings -- his later samples of it are a decadent epilogue -- it was clearly time for avant-garde art to go somewhere else, that is, away from its cocooning itself in purity and back toward the outer world, which it did in Pop art and, in a different way, in Minimalism. The all-over paintings made the expressionistic best of social and personal ruin and disorder as well as the avant-gardes past, but Pollock's abstract figuration, both pre- and post-all-over painting, was, however more dynamic, stuck in the same rut as Klee's. Both addressed an old problem that was no longer to the avant-garde point, and, above all, because it no longer seemed equal to the catastrophic events of history -- to an outer world that seriously impinged on art, as the "Degenerate Art" exhibition made clear, rather than simply responded to it with indifference and mockery. The "Degenerate Art" exhibition was the revenge of the masses, as Mondrian implied. The question is whether avant-garde art could revenge itself on the world by bearing esthetic and expressive witness to "the powers of backwardness known as fascism," as Miró called them. That was the only way it could preserve its own dignity, and find a way out of the impasse of its new establishment-oriented classicism.

The '30s were about the attempt to reconcile the outer world and the artist's inner drama -- public reality and private reality -- and the most successful reconciliation is Picasso's spectacular, mural-sized Guernica (1937). Even more than in Klee's intimate little pictures, figuration, emblematic of external reality, and abstraction, emblematic of internal reality, seamlessly merge in Guernica, with much greater rhetorical -- not to say oratorical (and oracular) -- impact than Klee's pictures, and with much more differentiated abstract figures.

Nonetheless, Guernica is a failure, for it shows that avant-garde esthetics is not equal to barbarism. In the end, it is about Picasso's inner drama rather than the outer world. His esthetic matters more than the "horrible tragedy" of Guernica, which in fact is not really represented. It involved the bombing of the old Basque capital of Guernica by Nazi airplanes, in support of Franco in the Spanish Civil War -- it was a trial run for the Blitzkrieg, a turning point in the war, and a demonstration of the important role that air power, and more broadly, technology would play in this most modern of wars -- but there are no airplanes in Guernica. The only bit of technology is an old-fashioned light bulb -- next to an even more old-fashioned kerosene lamp -- in the upper part of the picture. Instead we have a statue with a sword, another bit of old-fashioned technology. The "hero" of the picture -- it is clearly an allegory of Picasso's turbulent love life, that is, his dominance and power over women, who are the victims in the picture -- is a bull, that familiar Spanish symbol of death and masculinity, and a Surrealist symbol of the artist, with whom Picasso clearly identified, as his Minotaurmachy (1935) indicated. The bull has clearly won the battle with the toreador -- the statue broken to pieces on the earth. The bull is the invincible Picasso, smashing his artistic competitors, and men in general -- other male artist toreadors. The clusters of women in Guernica are his trophies, and they cry in pain at being conquered by him. In the Minotaurmachy, the female toreador is vanquished by the bestial man. The conflict between them -- a fight to the death, like the bullfight -- suggests Picasso's conflicts with the women in his life. 

Both pictures, along with many others from the same time, were made under the auspices of Surrealism -- the latter revives Picasso's realistic, "classical" style, but it uses symbols in a Surrealist way, that is, to suggest unconscious meaning. The claustrophobic crowding and abrupt juxtapositions of both works (to give two examples: In Guernica, the bull's head next to the woman's head; In Minotaurmachy, the little girl holding a candle and the Christ-like figure climbing a ladder behind her) create an effect of Surrealist incongruity and incoherence. They convey inner conflict, suggesting they have more to do with Picasso's feelings than with the Spanish Civil War. Its conflict triggered his inner conflicts, epitomized by the life and death conflict between bull and toreador. No doubt the Spanish Civil War was also a conflict between life and death, but there are no signs of it in Guernica . It is not clear that the fire was caused by bombing. Perhaps it was accidental -- maybe the old-fashioned electric wiring caused it, or a kerosene lamp spilled. (We seem to be in a primitive village rather than modern city, which Guernica was. The whole environment looks decayed, as though it was ripe to become a ruin.)

Guernica is officially an allegory of the devastation caused by the bombing of the town, and more broadly of the self-destruction of Spain, and Picasso's sense of outrage at the event. But it is subliminally -- and not-so-subliminally -- an allegory of Picasso's subjective rage at the world and pursuit of personal and artistic power, with the women that come with it, as Freud reminds us. Even the abstract Surrealist comic strip of Dream and Lie of Franco (1937) has more to do with Picasso's feelings -- his inner drama -- than it does with Franco. While his contempt for Franco -- satirically reduced to a weird growth -- is clear, the work makes no particular political point, although it does suggest Picasso's support of the existing Republican government which Franco eventually defeated. However modern Guernica's style, it is anti-modern -- indeed, altogether antithetical to the modern world, symbolized by the bombing, a technological triumph -- in spirit.

Guernica is a gray, grim, dismal work, which integrates Expressionistic figures, Cubist planarity and Surrealist absurdity. But its drama seems forced -- it is clearly staged and theatrical -- and beside the point of the bombing. It tells us absolutely nothing about its world-historical meaning. It was simply a ready-made occasion for the expression of feelings and concerns that had long been a staple of Picasso's art. Guernica, like Klee's two paintings, is an endgame avant-garde work, not only because it subtly calibrates abstraction and figuration in a stable new esthetic harmony, but because it shows the difficulty avant-garde art has when it tries to engage the outer world rather than articulate the artist's inner drama -- especially when the outer world is more dramatic than the artist's inner world, and for that matter than his art.

(Predictable harmony, that is self-sameness, seems to be the kiss of death for avant-garde art, for it has always been at its most innovative when it lacks harmony and is unpredictable -- as if to acknowledge the inner reality and uncertainty of the modern world. More particularly, it is at its best when it deals with emotional disequilibrium, however much it struggles to turn it into a dynamic esthetic equilibrium. Avant-garde art, after all, is ultimately about the destabilization of the very idea of art -- or at least the demonstration that it is an eccentric, protean idea, with no fixed identity. When avant-garde art becomes a stable art it is no longer avant-garde. Maturity never agreed with avant-garde art, which had to remain a child to be genuinely creative, that is, spontaneously innovative.)

Picasso may master his inner conflicts by embodying them in Guernica, but they are nowhere near as complex and dramatic as the world-changing event of the town's bombing. Picasso has turned a social trauma into an individual trauma, ostensibly in sympathy for the victims, but really to exhibit his own feeling of being wounded and victimized by the world -- the same feeling Klee had, however different their artistic response to the narcissistic wound. While Picasso's picture may symbolize what occurs in everybody's inner life, its effect on people's lives, inner and outer, is limited compared to the effect of world-historical events. The picture is fascinating, but it changes nothing in society, however much reproductions of it were sold to raise money for the Republican cause.

Picasso's picture sidesteps Guernica, and became famous more for his celebrity, and its important place in his oeuvre, than because it tells us something important about the bombing of Guernica. Guernica is about tragedy, but the tragedy of Picasso's own life, not of Spanish society. It is about Picasso's own barbarism, not the barbarism of war. Like Massacre in Korea (1951) and War (1952), Guernica has more to do with the war within him, and within his style, than with social reality.

Notes
  (1) Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James, eds., The New Art -- The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian (New York: Da Capo, 1993), pp. 321-22
  (2) Margit Rowell, ed., Joan Miró: Selected Writings and Interviews (New York:  Da Capo, 1992), p. 166
  (3) The Diaries of Paul Klee, 1898-1918 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964, p. 232
  (4) Quoted in Roland Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work (New York: Schocken, 1962), p. 275


DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here



 



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