OF 20TH-CENTURY ART
Chapter 3, Part 3
Subjectivity and Society: The Third Decade
Giacometti was the greatest of the tragic humanist artists of the 20th century, but there were other important ones, particularly those who worked in Paris and Vienna before the first world war. In a sense, they prepared the way for the magic realism that emerged in the 20s. It was imbued with de Chirico's sense of isolation and melancholy, magically embodied in his absurd spaces. But where de Chirico abstracted suffering from its personal and social situation, so that it had nothing to do with particular individuals and thus seemed oddly unrelated to the particulars of human experience, the magic realists re-humanized suffering by showing it to be inseparable from the vicissitudes of individuality, confirming its tragedy in an existentially indifferent society. The pathetic figures that the Parisian peintres maudits and the Viennese romanticists portrayed were the soft underside of the hard instrumental society celebrated by the idealized geometry of the Constructivist art that developed parallel to it.
The peintres maudits and Viennese romanticists were incorrigible pessimists, for all the decorative and erotic élan that formed the surface of their art, whereas the Constructivists, with their vision of the artist-engineer, enlisted art in the service of the brave new geometrically correct (not to say rigid) technological society that would save us from our all-too-human selves. No doubt the abstract geometry was refined, giving their art a certain reductive elegance, but it made no sense apart from its idealistic social purpose. These artistic opposites never met; they represent the severed halves of 20th century thinking about the human condition. The tragic humanists tell the emotional truth about it, the utopian Constructivists offer technological hope in what seems like a hopeless historical situation. The former are conservatives, in that they see the failings of humanity, which they regard as inevitable, while the latter are revolutionaries, looking for social miracles in a mundane world. For the former, avant-garde art is a new way of stating old insights into human existence, and thus making them seem fresh, while for the latter avant-garde art is a fuse that will help ignite social revolution, even as it shows that art can keep up with scientific and technological revolution, the bright side of modernity.
Pathos is not a word usually associated with the sensual nudes Modigliani painted toward the end of his life, but they have the inertness of the death that ended his life prematurely. Suffering from tuberculosis since adolescence, Modigliani took to drugs, alcohol and free love, weakening an already weak body. But his real self-medication was art. His figures, with their attenuated features and slenderness, are a unique blend of modern flatness and archaic abstraction, influenced as much by the Siennese art of his native Italy as by African, Egyptian and Indian art. All were exotic (all the more so because they were traditional, with deep social and religious roots) in the context of Cubism, the dominant, entirely secular avant-garde art when he began to make his first stone sculptures, carved directly like the Archaic Greek sculpture he also admired. There is a hieratic look to his sculpture of a Head (ca. 1911-13), just as there is to his paintings of Jeanne Hébuterne, his last lover, who killed herself the day after he died (1920). In fact, Modigliani's 1917 Nude looks like an emblem of a nude, as her streamlined, flattened body -- it is as attenuated as his three-dimensional heads, if not quite as elongated -- indicates. Like the heads, the bodies of Modigliani's nudes are symbols of paradise, which he knew would soon be lost forever, for he realized that he would die young, because of his recurrent illness as well as his excesses.
Modigliani uses African mannerisms in his faces -- noses tend to splay and become long, and seem concave where they should be convex (abstraction is often achieved by contradicting nature in an attempt to discredit and defeat it) -- but this seems to make them all the more intimately personal rather than impersonal, as one might expect. There is, in fact, an odd mix of pathos, individuality and abstractness to his figures, suggesting their iconic character. They are sacred presences, schematically Byzantine and detached, as though in another realm of being. Their accessibility is an illusion. Chaim Soutine (1916) is unworldly, however ordinary his appearance and surroundings. It is a votive portrait: a martyr to art, his head the shape of a halo, facing us in quiet modesty, his devotion to art eliciting our own.
Soutine, Modigliani, Chagall, even Jules Pascin and Maurice Utrillo -- to name other "cursed painters" -- were in effect religious painters, determined to show the indomitability of the human spirit in a modern world alien to it. They are cursed because they are spiritual in a world that seems increasingly soulless, and because, like Georges Rouault, they wanted to make a modern spiritual art, although, unlike Rouault, they realized that traditional religious imagery would not work: The everyday world itself must be shown to be subliminally spiritual. It is an old idea: The secular world is secretly full of saints who don't even know they are saints. It is they who keep God from destroying it altogether. The world is evil, but there are good people in it, who redeem it for everyone. I am suggesting that the work of the peintres maudits has a theodicean subtext: It is an attempt to show that good can come of evil, that God puts evil to good use, which is why he tolerates it. It is about mercy as well as suffering, ecstatic transfiguration as well as doom.
This is perhaps most apparent in Soutine, whose landscapes seem apocalyptic and ecstatic -- damned and saved -- at once, and whose figures, for all their pathos and vulnerability, seem instinctively alive. Soutine supposedly heralds Abstract Expressionism, but this is to sell his humanism short. Soutine is a psychological realist, and his painterliness is fraught with a sense of trauma that makes it more existential than esthetic, as Greenberg complained. As he said, Soutine was trying to master in art feelings that he could not master in life, which was to misuse art. Greenberg admired Soutine's painterliness, but he thought that Soutine's attempt to use it to "maximize expressiveness," along with his interest in human beings and their feelings -- the intense "human interest" that Greenberg declared anathema to pure art -- precluded total commitment to the medium, the only salvation for art in modernity. Soutine clearly thought it was not enough to save the artist's soul.
When he began to study the Old Masters, more particularly Rembrandt, Greenberg all but repudiated him. "The great masters of the past," Greenberg wrote, "achieved their art by virtue of combinations of pigment whose real effectiveness was 'abstract,' and. . . their greatness is not owed to the spirituality with which they conceived the things they illustrated so much as it is to the success with which they ennobled raw matter to the point where it could function as art."(31) For Greenberg, the physicality of art was more to its point than its unique capacity for expressiveness. Especially for spiritual expression; it involved, after all, human interest, for spirituality was a healing response to suffering, which it attempted to undo. For Greenberg, art that could represent suffering, and through its cathartic expression attempt to repair the psyche it damaged - Rembrandt's and Soutine's art -- was inherently inferior to art that existed for its own pure sake, that is, with no spiritual purpose.
Romantically, Soutine found tortured human emotion in nature, as Village Square, Céret (ca. 1921) suggests, and even in dead animals, as La Dinde Perdue (ca. 1926) indicates. When he was dealing with human beings, he presents them with dignity while revealing, through their awkward body language -- the strange, disjointed syntax of their bodies (which he also found in nature) -- their hidden suffering. Woman in Red (ca. 1924-25), whose suffering and spirituality are implicated in each other, indeed, indistinguishable -- was it spiritualized suffering or spirituality produced by suffering, a last emotional measure rescuing the self from its suffering? -- makes the point brilliantly. So do Soutine's choir boys and page boys, symbols of his own isolation in the shtetl of his youth. It may be because Soutine was Jewish, and grew up in great poverty in a Hasidic community, that the spiritual came to him "naturally," as it were, or that he found spirituality in daily life and ordinary people - in other words, that his paintings make the spirituality latent in the lifeworld manifest. Modigliani in his way and Soutine in his way were spiritual artists, not in the sense that they had a particular spiritual belief, but because they saw the sacred in profane things, be they Modigliani's pagan bodies or Soutine's Carcass of Beef (ca. 1924), luminous in decay, that is, glowing with light even in the darkness of death. The painting, based on Rembrandt's Butchered Ox (1655) and probably also a print in which the hanging meat is emblematic of the crucified Christ, shows, in effect, the bloody body of the dead Christ transfigured, that is, spiritualized in anticipation of its resurrection.
There is an undertone of religious meaning in the peintres maudits, but nowhere more so than in Chagall's art. It revolves around two places, both personally sacred to him: his provincial hometown of Vitebsk in Russia, and cosmopolitan Paris, the capital of modern art. I and the Village (1911) and View of Paris through a Window (1913) represent these poles. The former mythologizes his native village and the latter mythologizes the great city, which he had moved to in 1910. The rural village is a fairytale place, full of bizarre folklore, with animals and human beings as equals -- they are the same size, flanking each other like friends -- and a tree of life growing in its center. In To Russia, Donkeys and Others, also painted in 1911, a cow stands on a roof, giving suck to a calf and a child, a kind of Romulus and Remus pair. The woman who has come to milk the cow has lost her head, which looks up to the light in the dark sky, as though to God. Paris is also a place of tall tales, represented by the Eiffel Tower, which Delaunay had also apotheosized.
The tension in Chagall's art is clearly conveyed by the Janus figure of the artist in the lower right hand corner of the Paris picture. One face looks beyond the picture, presumably back to Vitebsk, while the other face looks at Paris through the window. Chagall is clearly torn between them. The conflict is epitomized by the difference between the Jewish couple, dressed in traditional black Hasidic clothing, floating horizontally above his head, and, high above them, the luminous vertical figure -- an anonymous Parisian, emblematic of modern man -- parachuting from the Eiffel tower, as though into the safety net of the Vitebsk villagers. It is a colorful picture, pierced with a plane of light -- the flowers remind us of Chagall's love of life -- but haunted by the not-too-distant past, which remains an obsession. Chagall's conflict is also poignantly evident in Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers (1912-13), where we see the artist painting To Russia, Donkeys and Others. His Cubist face indicates that he is a modern artist, but he is formally dressed, with a flower -- a symbol of life -- in his lapel and flowing cravat, suggesting that he remains a romantic at heart. The Eiffel Tower is framed by the window -- another picture within a picture -- but the focus of his nostalgic attention is Vitebsk.
Jewishness was Chagall's safety net, and his identification with the Jewish characters in his village, from The Holy Coachman (1911) and The Fiddler (1912-13) to the rabbi in The Holiday (1914), saved him from the purest excesses of Cubism, as well as its tendency to reduce people, things, and nature to inhumane anonymity, depersonalizing them to the point of no return. Chagall's outwardly humble figures have a certain inner grandeur -- a nobility of spirit of which they themselves are unaware. Chagell's deep bond with his childhood world and Jewishness -- his fidelity to his Russian roots and religious identity -- must have also afforded him a certain comfort and warmth in the harshly competitive world of Parisian avant-garde art.
In an attempt to reconcile the opposites, Chagall has made Paris a cozy place, in effect miniaturizing it, so that it seems like a toy village, however crowded with buildings, and made the inhabitants of Vitebsk larger than life and above all mysterious -- miraculously floating in the sky, as though moving between heaven and earth, like angels. These holy fantasy figures are figments of Chagell's imagination, however derived from local legend. Chagall's pictures are in effect reveries on his environment and experience -- musings on his lifeworld and sense of self. He depicts his memories of Vitebsk, making an unfamiliar world seem familiar without destroying its difference -- no doubt that was part of the appeal of his pictures to Parisians -- and he makes the familiar, everyday world of Paris seem memorable, which no doubt suits Parisians' sense of the universal significance of their city.
Chagall has been accused of sentimentality -- as though that is a crime -- but there is a toughness to his art. It takes a hard look at emotional reality. He puts the flesh of feeling on the bones of Cubist planes, but the flesh, for all its fluidity, is firm. All of Chagall's Jews are remarkably self-assured, however poor and oppressed and however exotic they may look to Parisian eyes. Chagall was in pursuit of self-knowledge -- he was not interested in turning the alien into a sideshow attraction -- and his pictures are informed with the analytic intelligence that alone can make it possible. His art is a kind of magic realism, that is, fantasies made realistic or reality made fantastic, but, more importantly, it is filled with a sense of human dignity, tinged with tragedy but protected by good humor and joie de vivre. Indeed, his high spirits have rarely been commented upon. They are the reason that he ecstatically floats above his beloved wife Bella in Birthday (1923), giving her a kiss that seems much more tender than the one Brancusi carved in 1916. His crude male and female are one, but their embrace seems ritualistic rather than affectionate. Chagall is "high" on love and life, like all his figures. The room is humble, but Chagall and his wife have the luxury of love, which brightens the place. Its decorative beauty -- the bright red floor derived from Matisse, the colorful wall hangings, with their floral pattern, from Vitebsk, and the bouquet of flowers Chagall has just given his wife -- radiates their happiness. Both figures float in an aura of intimacy, conveyed by the hermetic dream space that cocoons them, cutting through the Cubist space of the room. Birthday is a spatially as well as emotionally complicated and sophisticated picture, demonstrating Chagall's remarkable ability to integrate deep feeling and pure form.
Chagall returned to Vitebsk in 1914, becoming its Commissar for Fine Arts after the October Revolution. He commissioned revolutionary banners, which were made by the town's house painters, but his upside-down animals and modern style upset the local revolutionaries, who preferred something more conservative and less fantastic. He was eventually ousted from the local art school -- ironically, Malevich was the ringleader of the opposition -- and moved to Moscow, where he made a number of extraordinary murals for the State Jewish Theater. Integrating folk fantasy and abstract geometry -- his own kind of expressionistic figures and his very personal understanding of Constructivism -- his stage designs proved too original for both leftist Constructivists and traditional representational artists. Presumably the designs compromised their antagonistic ideals, reconciling what ought to remain ideologically pure and thus irreconcilable. Chagall left Russia in 1922. His murals managed to survive the Russian civil war, and have since been acclaimed as among his most important works.
But his most characteristic works are his most physically intimate ones -- his prints. Throughout his career Chagall made wonderful etchings. Those in My Life, made in 1922 in Berlin, used the imagery of his paintings. Back in Paris in 1923, he made 118 etchings illustrating Gogol's Dead Souls (Chichikov's Journeys), 100 color etchings to accompany La Fontaine's Fables (1927-31), and, most famously, 105 etchings illustrating the Old Testament (1929-39), singled out by Meyer Schapiro as the most consummate statement of Chagall's vision. Everyday life and spiritual life seamlessly fuse; spiritual life is shown to be down-to-earth, and everyday earthly life is shown to be spiritual in every one of its details.
It may seem strange to say so, but Pascin's prostitutes, some nude, some in a state of dishabille, are also spiritual beings, for all their lethargy. They tend to be diaphanous, and all but dissolve in light. Dematerializing, they become ethereal presences. Pascin is clearly sympathetic to them, as the sensitive lines and exquisite color with which he portrayed them indicate. Young Girl Seated (ca. 1929) is a superb example of sexual mystery transformed into spiritual mystery. Again, spiritual redemption arises from personal suffering. Pascin shows that spirituality can be found in unexpected places. So does Utrillo, who finds it in the street -- the ultimate proof of the everydayness of spirituality and the spirituality of everyday life. Utrillo was the illegitimate son of Suzanne Valadon, a model for Degas, Puvis de Chavannes, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir, and a painter in her own right. Untrained and already an alcoholic in his teens -- it has been said that he paid the price for his mother's sins -- he painted the streets in the villages surrounding Paris. He was, in effect, showing the wasteland in which he lived his life.
For all its banality and dullness, the Street in Asnières (1913-15) is a sacred space -- a nondescript suburb of Paris that is nonetheless holy ground because of its closeness to that city, sacred by reason of its devotion to art. For all its emptiness, Utrillo's street has a certain ascetic integrity and monumentality. It is a very basic, honest street -- an honest, basic emptiness. Indeed, it came by its emptiness honestly -- Utrillo's paintings are ruthlessly honest -- because the street, a symbol of Utrillo's self, was never full of life. Nonetheless, it is not simply a projection of his feeling of emptiness and abandonment; the homely street, however lonely, was his home away from the home he never had, and as such he idealized it. It was a symbol of security even as its emptiness symbolized his insecurity, his feeling of being at a loss, the result of having been deserted. The street's emptiness is a shocking revelation: It represents his mother's indifference. Utrillo boldly declares it, for he never had anything to hide, indeed, never had a place to hide, which is why he was out on the street, where he was abandoned. Yet Utrillo's street is oddly reassuring. It is uncanny, paradoxical: a stable, safe, predictable space -- it was always there for him, and the firm lines that define its limits show it to be a reliable presence -- in which he felt protected from his unpredictable inner life and uncertain identity, which clung to art for stability. Utrillo's street is a necessary contradiction: Its objective shape and clear boundaries contain his feeling of emptiness, indicating his lack of a core self. The street's continuity gave his life a sense of continuity, just as the fact that it was going somewhere gave him a feeling that he was going somewhere. Perhaps even more than art, the street gave his life a sense of purpose -- which is why he frequented the streets, painting them again and again.
Thus, the street becomes a sacred terrain, and as such a quiet refuge -- Utrillo's street is profoundly still -- all the more so because it is self-contained. Sacré Coeur de Montmartre and Rue Saint Rustique (1938) -- an image of one of many churches Utrillo painted -- makes the point explicitly: Climbing to the church, the street becomes the path to salvation. It is Utrillo's Via Dolorosa. He identifies with the straight and narrow path, and perhaps with the saint for whom it is named. The luminous white dome makes it clear that Utrillo's art is about the sacred heart -- the sacredness and warmth of the loving heart in a desolate, soulless world. It symbolizes the love that Utrillo probably had little of in his childhood. The church becomes the mother Utrillo never had. The church is the symbol of his hope, just as the street is the symbol of his despair. Their juxtaposition defines Utrillo's unhappy life. At least his faith in art never failed him. Again, art spiritualizes suffering, thus redeeming life.
Indeed, the astonishing thing about Kokoschka and Schiele's portraits is that they convey suffering and spirituality simultaneously. In Kokoschka's double portrait of Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat (1909), the figures, for all the anxiety visible in their troubled gestures and furtive glances -- their quivering hands and inward-looking eyes -- are spiritual beings, as their luminous flesh, marked by golden striations, in effect radiant emanations, indicates. Kokoschka depicted madness, as in his portrait of Ludwig Ritter von Janikowsky (1909) -- in a mental hospital at the time -- but it is madness conscious of itself, and thus in a sense spiritualized. It is a face in hell, reminiscent of Munch's portrait of himself in the same infernal place, but it is also full of inner light, breaking through its gloom. It is the face of death and damnation, but also of eternal life. Light and dark mix inextricably in Kokoschka's portrait, the light breaking through the ash of the dark, the dark suffused with uncontrollable light. Something similar occurs in Schiele's portraits of Dr. Erwin von Graff and Eduard Kosmack (both 1910), where planes of light and dark are dramatically juxtaposed, as though representing the conflict in the sitter's psyche. However disturbed, the figures are radically self-conscious, as their staring eyes suggest. Von Graff's arms and hands -- they are at odds with one another, and grotesquely enlarged and elongated, especially the fingers, which seem to have an uncontrollable life of their own -- and Kosmack's hands, tightly clasped as though in desperate, repentant prayer, reveal the agony hidden behind their poise, indeed, the inner tragedy of their existences. Nonetheless, their desperate seriousness -- the sense of urgency in their distraught bodies -- suggests that they are working their difficult emotional way toward a very personal salvation.
No doubt one should refer to Freud in explaining Schiele and Kokoschka. He lived in Vienna and, by 1910, when they were emerging, he had already written about hysteria (1895), dreams (1900) and sexuality (1906), all of which are involved in their pictures. Certainly, that can be said of Kokoschka's nightmarish Tempest, also called the Bride of the Wind, in which he pictures himself anxiously awake -- an insomniac -- next to the peacefully sleeping Alma Mahler, the older woman with whom he had a passionate if also unhappy relationship. There is an uneasy balance between them, and the emotional tension is palpable. They clearly represent different states of mind, and the difference between them represents the conflict in Kokoschka's own mind. The painterly texture has a hysterical flair; it can be read as a somatic expression of sexual aggression. Schiele's sinuous nudes have a similar hysterical intensity and unbalanced character. For all their clinical clarity and candor, they also have a nightmarish quality, however subliminally: Schiele's nudes are femme fatales, teasing one with one's own frustration. For example, the Reclining Nude with Yellow Towel (1917), who has her head tilted to the side so that it becomes horizontal, seems about to fall over. The diagonals of her dark stockings draw us toward her vagina, marked by dark pubic hair, a vertical accent at odds with the horizontal accent of the dark hair of her head. She may look at us quizzically, as though we are odd, not her -- she may even be demented, as her position suggests, implying that we are demented for being interested in her nakedness -- but the sexual invitation is there.
Schiele's nudes have been wrongly understood to be pornographic. The psychoanalyst Robert Stoller points out that pornography dehumanizes the human body, while Schiele's figures never lose their humanity. Their sexuality is, in fact, inseparable from it, and makes it all the more profound by signaling its tragedy; the delicately tinted vaginal slit that is the focus of the image of a notorious 1911 nude -- she seems like an innocent child -- reclining on her front, mars the whiteness of her skin, suggesting the tragedy of being a woman, and of human life in general, which depends on sex to propagate itself. This work, like all of Schiele's drawings of female nudes, is about the tragic character of sexuality. Sexual relationships are tragic, and so are human relationships in general. The naked Man and Woman (1913) combines both. The couple is at odds, with the woman dominant -- indeed, all-powerful compared to the supine man -- and both frustrated. The clothed Seated Couple (1915) shows a limp, mentally ill man, who looks like a broken doll, embraced -- held together -- by a strong if unhappy woman. The Family (1918) is a rare picture of human and sexual harmony, although the naked figures are vagabonds exiled to a dark void. They are all deeply troubled -- the man's suffering is evident in his disjointed body, the woman keeps her suffering to herself, and the child is becoming aware of his -- however full of hopeful expectation. They look into the distance for some sign of salvation, but it is not clear that any is visible. They are a group portrait of the human condition.
Sexuality is full of disappointment for Schiele. Even the physical sexual organs are strangely tragic and disappointing. In the 1911 drawing, the vagina looks small and trivial compared to the huge circle of vivid colors that surround it. It may be the center of attention -- and of life -- but it looks marginal. It looks like an unhealed wound, still bleeding a little, but it is an emotional letdown. The nude's blouse is a grid of colors, her skirt is a rainbow of colors, but her vagina has little or no color. In general, her clothing is clearly more attractive than her pale body, with its silly slit. Woman is all deception, because underneath her gorgeous clothing there is next to nothing. Woman is a defective flower, Schiele seems to be saying: If the bright colors of the outspread skirt are the flower's petals, then the vagina must be its stigma, the part of the pistil that receives the pollen, that is, sperm. Schiele plays, however unconsciously, on the different meanings of "stigma": not only is it the female organ of the hermaphroditic flower, but the characteristic mark of a disease or defect, a small spot on an organ or animal, and a place on the skin that bleeds during certain mental states, for example, hysteria. These contradictory meanings converge on the vagina, suggesting that, for all his fascination with woman's sexuality, Schiele is afraid of it: Woman is, for all her seductiveness, a defective, diseased, hysterical animal. There is a stigma attached to her existence -- it began with Eve -- and it is associated with her vagina, which thus becomes a sign of her sinfulness, suffering and punishment, even as it suggests her Christ-likeness, for it resembles one of the marks or stigmata -- wounds of Christ -- that sometimes appear on the bodies of the holiest human beings.
Schiele's drawings of the female nude are about his profound ambivalence toward woman. His attitude is typically male: He is drawn to her outer appearance, but disappointed by her "inner" reality. To glimpse the vaginal slit that is hidden under her skirt, indeed, to boldly stare at it, is to become deeply disillusioned. To penetrate the mystery is to discover there is none -- it's all in man's fantasy. Freud writes that sustained fascination with the vagina is perverse, but while Schiele is perverse, he is also coldly realistic and descriptive -- a detached observer. His infantile sexual curiosity has been satisfied -- a kind of peeping Tom looking underneath woman's skirts, he has satisfied himself that what women have between their legs is very different from what men have, and inferior to it (they are, after all, "castrated," and the 1911 nude may be about his own castration anxiety) -- but the revelation is not as exciting as it is supposed to be. So much for woman's beauty and mystery. Schiele's images debunk these idea, showing that woman is ugly and dangerous, physically and emotionally, underneath.
But there is more to Kokoschka and Schiele's portraits of human suffering than their ironical perversity -- their unhappy scopophilia. They are about the struggle to transform the self -- an incomplete process, in which human beings struggle to free themselves from their suffering, that is, to heal themselves, but fail to because they are unable truly to relate to one another, establishing what Balint calls a "harmonious mix-up." The Tietzes have trouble relating -- establishing empathic intimacy -- as do Kokoschka and Alma Mahler. Both couples are physically together, but emotionally separate, indeed, at odds. Their highly developed individuality -- each portrait amounts to a credo of individualism -- keeps them inwardly isolated and apart even as their sexual and social needs and shared interests bring them together. Schiele makes this brilliantly clear in several of his drawings of lesbian couples, who embrace but remain emotionally neutral and unrelated. The people Kokoschka and Schiele portray are too civilized to acknowledge their need for intimacy and love, which is why they seem narcissistic, however morbidly exhibitionistic, that is, however much they show their emotions and bodies to hide their lack of commitment to one another.
Klimt's notorious allegorical murals of Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence, made between 1899 and 1907 for the University of Vienna and ultimately removed because of their blatant nudity (they were destroyed in the second world war), seem to bypass the relational ambiguity of Klimt's and Schiele's portraits -- but the figures in them remain cut off in their own emotional space. This is not only because their purpose is symbolic and they must convey their meaning unequivocally. Klimt also symbolizes the cycle of life and death, as the juxtaposition of nudes and death in Philosophy indicates. It is a recurrent theme in his art, most famously in Death and Life (1916). (Schiele also represented Death and the Maiden (1915), a traditional German theme associated with the Triumph of Death.) Various states of mind, particularly the opposites of brooding melancholy and sexual ecstasy, are also symbolized. But the figures, however entangled -- it is a device Klimt repeatedly uses -- are emotionally unconnected because of their autonomy. They are proudly who they are, whatever their symbolic meaning. Their spiritual independence allows them to rise above the physical and social fate they also represent.
Such proud individuality is especially evident in Klimt's portraits of Emilie Flöge (1902), Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein (1905), Fritza Riedler (1906), Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) and Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt (ca. 1914). The decorative beauty of these works, and the youthful beauty of several of the women -- the gorgeousness of the women's gowns, the sumptuousness of the setting, the glamour of their social position -- is deceptive. It is an ornamental frame for their resolute individuality, rendered with great psychological realism, insight and persuasiveness. Their presence transcends the elegance of their clothing and surroundings, and even Klimt's exquisite painting. Klimt's strong women stand alone not only because convention decrees they pose that way, but because they exist in a realm apart. No doubt this is because of their wealth and social class, but also because they are unique personalities -- indeed, they are modern liberated women for all their fancy dress. Their poise and cultivation is not simply a matter of their status and privilege, but a statement of sovereign selfhood. Body and spirit form a luxurious whole in them, reflected in the integration of decorative abstraction and psychodynamic representation that makes their portraits unique. Klimt's women have a strength of character and majestic presence that seems out of reach of the anxious figures Kokoschka and Schiele. They are clearly different kinds of people than Schiele's tantalizing, teasing nudes and Kokoschka's troubled intellectuals.
Alfred Kubin's drawings epitomize the nightmarish, uncanny "other side" of Viennese tragic humanism, to refer to his novel Die Andere Seite (1908). It is full of the same perverse reveries and grotesque imagery that appeared in his visual art. Kubin's work involves the same ambivalent misogyny and emotional violence that we see in Kokoschka and Schiele, even as it surpasses them in visionary extravagance. Its horrific, grim fantasies -- for example, the monstrous female arising out of Primordial Mud (1904), and as engulfing and mindless as it -- made Kubin appealing to the Surrealists. He seemed to carry Bosch into modernity, and his dream-like images were more sexually explicit and openly aggressive than those in Redon's famous portfolio of prints, "In the Dream" (1879). Klimt's heroines, on the other hand, represent the higher side of Viennese tragic humanism. However protected by wealth and status, they were self-possessed and fearless. Their stateliness is not an expression of position and power, but of sublimity.
Luxury is a sign of vitality and sublimity in Klimt's works. He uses the decorative to create a heavenly space full of magical life. The various ornamental emblems that spontaneously proliferate in his portraits, often on the dresses of his sitters, so that they seem to merge with their environment, mark them as magical higher beings. Indeed, Emilie Flöge's dress seems to be covered with starlight, as though she was a modern Danae, and Adele Bloch-Bauer's dress is covered with magical signs that seem meant to ward off the evil eye. Baroness Bachofen-Echt is protected by the Oriental warriors on the wall behind her and the mysterious aura of ornamental designs that forms a cloak around her exquisite, gossamer dress. These women in fact live a higher, cultivated life -- a life in which consciousness and the self are cultivated. Their decorative clothing dematerializes them, making them oddly ethereal. This is particularly evident in the Stonoborough-Wittgenstein, Riedler and Bachofen-Echt portraits, where the luminous gowns, meticulously detailed by Klimt, seem to dissolve and supplant the bodies supporting them, the way Gothic drapery does to the figures it covers. It is also true in the Flöge and Bloch-Bauer portraits, where the flatness of the more colorful, erotic, svelte modern dresses not only integrates the figures with the ground but sets them apart. They seem to be emerging from another realm of being to grace this earthly one with their divine presences. Flatness, the opposite of rounded reality, suggests spirituality rather than physicality, which is why Klimt's flat figures seem irreal, simultaneously materially real and transcendental. They seem made of some magical, otherworldly substance, worldly and all too human. This is clearly indicated by their nervous hands, which seem in motion, partly because of the inner tension and emotional uncertainty they express.
The sublimely decorative reaches a special climax in Klimt's remarkable landscapes. The surfaces of Beech Forest I (1902), Garden Landscape (Blooming Meadow) (ca. 1906) and Farm Garden with Sunflowers (The Sunflowers) (ca. 1905-06) are lush decorative carpets filled with the same busy ornamental motifs as Klimt's other pictures, but now the motifs are naturalistic rather than abstract, organic rather than geometrical. And yet there is an abstract flatness to the overall design, and the flickering leaves in the Beech Forest and flowers in the meadow are gestural jewels that seem to exist for their own esthetic and expressive sake. Klimt was a master of finding the sublime in the familiar, indeed, in the most transient appearances -- of showing that the everyday was latent with spirituality, which is what made it so alive.
But the basic concern of the Bauhaus was the production of modernized -- which meant geometricized -- mass products. Bauhaus products had a signature geometrical look, in which all ornament and un-standardized detail was eschewed. This made them easier to craft and mass produce. The works of the painters were handmade and idiosyncratic and, as such, insufficiently severe and anonymous; they did not readily lend themselves to reproduction as standardized designs. Above all, their art was not useful, and facilitating ease of use and efficiency were the ultimate Bauhaus ambitions. In a sense, the Bauhaus wanted to domesticate the avant-garde; its innovations were less conceptual than technical. The early avant-garde artists were too illogical in their construction and too irrational in their purpose to have much influence and, in fact, when the Bauhaus is thought of today it is such architectural "logicians" and rationalists as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe who are celebrated, rather than Johannes Itten, a mystic and philosopher who developed the basic theoretical course. Gropius was the first director of the Bauhaus, van der Rohe, the last -- but Itten only lasted until 1923. He was replaced by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, and, when he left in 1928, by Josef Albers, both of whom were more "technically" oriented -- they had the mentality of engineers (Albers eventually produced a manual on the "interaction of colors") -- and less mystically inclined than Itten. Their attitude was similar to that of the French architect Le Corbusier, who was not a member of the Bauhaus, but who developed an austere if geometricizing style of painting called Purism, a critique of early Cubism as insufficiently geometrical. The Bauhaus preferred the clear and distinct rather than the obscure (emotionally or otherwise), the ostensibly simple to the overly complex. (The Bauhaus was started in 1919 in Weimar, and moved to Dessau in 1926. It was closed by the Nazis in 1932, when Gropius and Mies as well as Moholy-Nagy and Albers, among others, emigrated to the United States.)
Mies famously said "less is more" and claimed that "God is in the details" rather than in the whole -- the gestalt whole looked boring, impersonal and static, however innovative-looking his buildings, which had a steel skeleton and glass skin (a revolutionary departure from the cave as architectural model, in use since prehistoric times). But when one looks at the works of such Bauhaus individualists as Lyonel Feininger, Schlemmer and Willi Baumeister, one finds "more" rather than "less," a dynamic whole which transcends its details. Even Moholy-Nagy's works, while Constructivist -- he called himself one in 1922 -- have a certain dynamic "excess" to them. Manipulating actual light and using transparent and translucent plastics -- the new material of the future -- Moholy-Nagy's Light-Space Modulators were complex installations rather than simple architecture. He called himself an "anonymous agent" working for society, but his works have a personality all their own. They may be mechanical sculptures incorporating space -- among the first examples of it -- but they look like strangers from another planet. They seemed to have been influenced by science fiction as well as machine ideology.
Albers, who argued that "economy of form depends on function and material" -- in effect, the Bauhaus credo -- nonetheless made a series of paintings called Homage to the Square which were mystical icons, like Malevich's Suprematist squares, to which they were indebted. (Malevich's writings were published by the Bauhaus in 1928.) Begun in 1950 when Albers was in the United States, they distilled Bauhaus ideology -- clarity, balance, proportion -- and simplified the geometric designs he used in his Bauhaus glass works (he ran the glass shop there) while exploiting the mysticism and eternity associated with geometry since Plato and Pythagoras.
Baumeister used abstraction more intuitively, but with no sacrifice of mysticism, making figural works that had a certain affinity with those of Schlemmer, whose figures resembled mystical robots. In the 1940s Baumeister made works the mystifying signs of which seem derived from cave painting, like those the Abstract Expressionists were making at the time. Feininger was also an intuitive abstractionist with mystical inclinations. The cover of the first announcement of the Bauhaus featured his Cubist-Futurist woodcut of a medieval cathedral. His thirteen paintings, begun in 1913, of the church in the village of Gelmeroda, become decisively abstract, but abstraction is used in the service of mysticism, indeed, mystical ecstasy. These works have a gnostic dimension, as their blazing luminosity, suggesting a moment of religious revelation, indicates. Feininger's later images of sailboats were also "mystified" by "illumination," and also involved a steeple-like structure, that is, the sailboat's mast (the height of which Feininger exaggerated to a mannerist extreme).
The Russian Constructivist brothers Anton Pevsner and Naum Gabo supposedly turned against the materialism and revolutionary ideology that informed the work of the first Constructivists, Vladmir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko (but not against their anti-painting stance). Nonetheless, like Tatlin's Counter-Relief (1915) and proposed Monument to the Third International (1919-20), spiraling to a utopian technological and egalitarian future, and Rodchenko's Hanging Construction (1920) -- works as revolutionary as the Russian Revolution the artists supported, and which exemplified Marxist dialectical materialism in their structure -- Pevsner and Gabo looked to technology for inspiration. Gabo's abstract Kinetic Construction (1920) used an electric motor to set a rod in motion, creating a vibration which resembled a streamlined column. His Monument for an Observatory (1922) was a three-dimensional construction of plastic that used Suprematist geometrical elements to celebrate scientific and technological progress. They would conquer the cosmos. Gabo's works eventually became stringent and subtler, fusing flat planes in what is essentially a spatial installation, as in the intricate Construction in Space with Balance on Two Points (1925). Such works as Linear Construction No. 2 (1949), with its carefully calibrated curvature and use of nylon thread -- then a novelty -- are the technocratic climax of his oeuvre.
But for all Gabo's attempt to uproot mysticism, it survives in the visionary character of his works -- each is in effect the model of a scientifically mastered cosmos -- and their complicated structure, which is perceptually mystifying, however technically precise. The nylon threads of Linear Construction No. 2 catch the light, making the whole work luminous. It seems almost immaterial -- certainly there's not much material in it. One becomes aware of how much of it is pure space. Its curves seem oddly irrational, as do those in his brother's Dynamic Projection in the 30th Degrees (1950-51). Aggressively projecting in space, it seems like a modernized Winged Victory rather than an homage to mathematics. Throughout his career Pevsner, who along with his brother published a "Realistic Manifesto" in 1920 -- the "real" had to do with their decision to use real rather than illusory timespace -- made drawings of the human head, which straddled the border between mimesis and abstraction, integrating them to mystifying effect. If one looks carefully at all their real timespace sculptures -- works that seem to move freely in both time and space, and that seem to have an inner spring-like dynamic of their own that allows them to do so -- one notes that they involve the interplay of light and shadow, transparency and opacity, emptiness and matter. This formal dialectic has a mystical effect, that is, it makes the work seem to transcend its own condition.
Light has always been a mystical substance, transcendental in import, and the sculptures of Gabo and Pevsner, for all their careful engineering -- indeed, ingenious craft -- are transcendental objects. So are those of Moholy-Nagy, which are also pure constructions. Even before the Light-Space Modulators, his photograms -- cameraless photographs similar to those of Man Ray -- reveal his fascination with light. The Light-Space Modulators make it the exclusive subject of art. Feininger, Moholy-Nagy, Gabo and Pevsner converge through their interest in light, the ultimate mystical substance. Albers belongs among them, for his squares are as radiant as suns. Unexpectedly, the Constructivists -- Bauhaus and non-Bauhaus, painters or sculptors -- offer a mystical alternative to the tragic humanists, however technologically and socially oriented they claim to be.
Notes(30) Écrit/Alberto Giacometti, eds. Michel Leiris and Jacques Dupin
(Paris: Hermann, 1990), p. 39
(31) Greenberg, p. 233
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