Friday, 28 November 2008

FLEEING DIRE ENCUMBANCIES: EXILES AND EMIGRES

FLEEING DIRE ENCUMBANCIES
"Exiles & Emigres” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1997-98 and the catalogue: Exiles and Emigres by Stephanie Baron (LACMA 1997 ISBN 9780875871783)

Hitler’s 1937 exhibition of “degenerate” art declared war on artists threatening the Aryan purity of the Master Race. They got the message; Max Beckman left for London the day after it opened. Yet artists proved remarkably lucky in avoiding the worst fates of Hitler’s other targets. “Exiles and Emigres”, follows the paths of artists exiled from Nazi Europe, first to Amsterdam, Paris, and London, and then to the United States. In detailing their fates in contrast to the displacement of most refugees, it raises some unsettling questions about the west’s response to the Nazis, and in gathering the work of these exiled artists it questions to the core our basic belief in art’s power in the face of unspeakable horror.

Stephanie Baron, who curated this show for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it opened, had already organised the ”Degenerate Art” exhibition at LACMA in 1991. That served as a springboard to the wider themes now on display. “Although few artists made it as far as California, there were many German exiles in the film industry who faced similar problems of assimilation, and the same questions of how political their work could be,” says Baron. Given a climate where, in 1939, 83% of Americans supported curtailing immigration, assimilation and politicisation did not go hand in hand.

Unusually for art galleries, but perhaps not for Los Angeles, “Exiles and Emigres” makes its most vivid impression on video. The centrepiece of the show, and the harshest evidence of the world’s indifference to the fate of Hitler’s victims, is a moving 15 minute documentary, “America and the Refugees”, produced by Chana Gazit. Unlike the audio-visual portion of many exhibitions, this is essential, unsettling viewing, as it sets out the refusal of shelter to those threatened by Nazism. The villain is not so much Hitler as Breckinridge Long, Roosevelt’s State Department official who used bureaucratic stalls to ensure nearly half the US’s available quota places for refugees went unused. Sympathy for mere Jews was still dangerous politically.

Long is counter-balanced by the exhibition’s hero, Varian Fry, who was sent by a group of American art collectors, the Emergency Rescue Committee, to aid some 200 intellectuals and artists, including Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, and Max Ernst, in escaping through Marseilles. Fry proved a remarkable secret agent, and managed to save more than 2,000 other people, “ordinary” refugees, before being forced to return to America. Ernst’s wife, Peggy Guggenheim, also fled to America, and when she was back she staged “The Art of This Century” exhibition in New York. A model of the surrealist gallery from that show leaves one wondering if she had any idea a war actually was in progress. Ernst at least attempted to parody Hitler in “Napoleon in the Wilderness”. “Compared to ordinary refugees, artists had it easy,” admits deputy curator Teri Bernstein. Easy, of course, is a relative concept. Britain interned John Heartsfield and Kurt Schwitters on the Isle of Man as enemy aliens. Strangely enough, Heartsfield is the only artist in this show who produced explicitly anti-Nazi work.

Shows of “free” German art were staged in Paris and London in 1938. Stephan Lackner’s essay written for Max Beckman’s exhibition at the Burlington Gallery describes a Germany where “genies of the dark execute unperturbed their dire encumbancies“. Beckman’s own work, like “Self-Portrait with Horn” seems strangely inward looking in its struggles, as if he found himself powerless to make any meaningful action against the horror

Isolationist America was far different from London and Paris; modern art had still not been totally accepted by the mainstream of the collecting world. Despite an atmosphere where, in Baron’s words, “the impulse toward political art was deadened”, the modernists give a sense of trying desperately to “fit in” to the New World. Only Andre Kertesz, barred as a potential spy from taking photographs outdoors, challenges the American mainstream. The shadows on his wartime photographs speak eloquently of personal, as well as political, isolation.

The work of Georg Grosz is particularly poignant. Grosz left Germany just before Hitler came to power, and wanted to become a “genuine” American. Contrasting his “Lower Manhattan” with the architectural images of the German-raised but American-born Lionel Feninger, reveals his lack of a innate sense of na├»ve optimism. His “Manhattan II, Manhattan Night” echoes Sheeler or Demuth, but turns the thrusting modern city they celebrated into an expressionist film noir set, an almost abstract recoiling from the sheer dangerousness of unfettered power.

The freedom America offered liberated many artists. The reconstruction of Mondrian’s New York studio shows the impact that jazz music made on him, literally setting free his painting. But there is no sign of the chaos from which he’d been rescued. Reflecting British anger at Auden and Isherwood’s moves to America, or French suspicion of Picasso, this show questions the idea that an artist’s first responsibility is to his art. Does that responsibility carry with it a freedom from any further action? We may think differently about Menhuin playing with Furtwaengler, or Pound in Italy, after we’ve glimpsed how irrelevant many artists considered the horror they’d escaped to be. Perhaps the reality is art, “Guernica” notwithstanding, realised that, in such circumstances, it could have little impact. Or perhaps, dependent on patronage from those who wish not to rock the boat, most of the exiled artists simply refused to make waves. Jazz playing in the background, Mondrian assimilated himself all the way into American isolation.

Assimilation inevitably produced self-censorships. Chagall, for example, bizarrely used the figure of Christ on the cross to symbolize the martyrdom of the Jews. “He felt that explicit Jewishness would alienate a Christian audience that had refused to allow Jews escape from Hitler,” says Bernstein. Tellingly, only three of artists included in this show are Jewish. And one of them, Mies Van Der Rohe, supported Hitler, at least until der Fuhrer soured on the Bauhaus. Still, Van Der Rohe and his Bauhaus colleagues were acceptable enough to America's upper-crust to encounter little trouble dodging the quota system and grabbing plum jobs at top US universities.

Yves Tanguy, born in Paris, died in Connecticut. His moving “The Prodigal Son Never Returns” serves as a metaphor for the real story of the exile of modern artists from Germany. They were soon absorbed into the American mainstream, as was their art. They thrived in the boom economy of America’s postwar golden age. Within a decade of the end of Nazism, New York was the art capital of the world, and they were world-renowned. But there is a different coda to this tale of moral indifference, obliviousness, or compromise. Varian Fry would also die in Connecticut, an unknown high school teacher, ignored and forgotten by those whose lives he saved.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

ARS GRATIA ARTIS: SAM TAYLOR-WOOD 24/7

From your soaraway Guardian yesterday:

'She's an art superstar--she spends much of the film being photographed herself as she goes to awards ceremonies and parties--but vehemently refutes any suggestion that she got where she is because of her marriage to Jay Joplin or her showbiz mates' -Pick Of The Day

'Her work includes David, a video of David Beckham asleep, and Pieta, in which Taylor-Wood cradles Robert Downey, Jr' -Guardian magazine Q&A

Sam Taylor-Wood: The South Bank Show. A year in the life of the photographer. Includes an interview with Taylor-Wood conducted by Elton John -TV listings

'Her new exhibition is at the White Cube Gallery...She has two daughters with the art dealer Jay Jopling, from whom she has recently separated' -Q&A

-If you could go back in time where would you go?' 'Straight into Elvis's bed' -Q&A

Yes, it's all Sam all the time! The Sadie Frost of the art world meets Melvyn Bragg on the South Bank, and I can't help but thinking Mel is going to be cast as Warren Beatty to Sam's Madonna...

And, by the way, unlike any work by Franz Kline (see the item preceding this one) the Guardian judged Sam Taylor-Wood's David one of the 1,000 works of art you must see before you die. Probably while you're on life support.


Tuesday, 4 November 2008

BEFORE WHO DIES? GUARDIAN'S 1,000 WORKS TO SEE....

I have two words for the compilers of the Guardian's week-long list of '1,000 artworks to see before you die':
Franz Kline.

There are ten Pollocks on the list. You think Jack was ten times the artist Kline was? Even Yves Klein gets one. Pissarro gets only one. This is why I hate lists like that; you get forced into making artificial value judgements, while the overall perspective of the poll drives you crazy anyway (almost like no Faulkner in Waterstone's millennial top 100 novelists).

I'm not insisting on my favourites. I'd have included one Diebenkorn too, but I'm not surprised he's out. But Kline? His early death doesn't seem to have given him a romantic image, like Pollock, but to his AbEx colleagues, he was the real deal, and in some ways the prototype: Pollock's macho crossed with Rothko's intensity.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

GEORGIA ON HIS MIND: Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe

AN ALMOST VIOLENT PURITY OF SPIRIT
Georgia O'Keeffe portraits by Alfred Steiglitz

Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings have become commercial icons. Animal skulls dried by the desert, adobe chapels, lush sexual flowers, tall thrusting cityscapes, all part of an instantly recognisable and popular style. O’Keeffe herself has become part of that iconography, just as recognisable. Her face, with its strong sharp features, piercing intelligence, and deep eyes, echoes the visual images of her work. Yet,as this exhibition shows, that image is itself a work of art, a construct that arose from the unlikely artistic partnership of one of the major figures of modernism in America with an unknown student. Over thirty years, it would produce nearly 400 prints.

In 1916 Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery was the centre of modern art in America. His journal Camera Work was almost singlehandedly turning photography into an art form. O’Keeffe was a 28 year old unsuccessful artist who had taught in South Carolina and Texas and was taking classes at Columbia. A friend had passed O’Keeffe’s drawings on to Sieglitz because she knew how much she admired him and his immediate reaction was “at last, a woman on paper!” He exhibited the drawings at 291, getting the state wrong as he billed her as “Virginia O’Keeffe”, but over- whelming O’Keeffe’s protestations at being taken up with his understanding of her art. And his understanding of its impact. The gallery which had introduced America to Brancusi, John Marin and Marsden Hartley was now causing a bigger stir. The powerful erotic energy which Stieglitz recognised in O’Keffee’s abstract drawings disturbed many of New York’s critics, even those in the would-be avant-garde.

Stieglitz was keen to introduce women into the modernist movement (Camera Work gave Gertrude Stein her first appearance in print), but where on the one hand he was promoting O'Keeffe's work, encouraging her as an artist, on the other he also began using her as a model, and it is difficult to avoid the sense of her romantic, as well as artistic, objectification.

At the beginning, Stieglitz was taken by the abstract possibilities of O’Keeffe’s remarkably strong, sharp features. He is particularly attentive to her hands. Her long fingers both frame other objects to give them a geometric quality, and provide an abstract shape of their own. If modernism was about isolating the pure geometric volume from forms, Stieglitz was already beginning to move past that abstraction with O’Keeffe. But his photos quickly came to reflect the growing intimacy between photographer and subject. The quest for abstract shapes recedes, as Steiglitz becomes more and more fascinated with O’Keefe’s body, its combination of grace and power, of stark angles and edges softened by deep curves: her breasts against her shoulders, her hips balanced by her legs. And the same qualities he had originally captured in her hands he would continue to reveal in her face.

The stark force of her face was muted somewhat by O’Keeffe’s wonderfully expressive eyes. This expressiveness turns Steiglitz’s modernism transcendental: he had discovered a human form in nature which could both generate and convey the equivalent of his deepest inner experiences. Original as it seemed to him, he was also recapitulating what O’Keeffe had already made the central aim of her own art.

By 1919-20, the photographs have become more intimate, even obsessive. Abstract nudes give way to extreme sensuality, O’Keeffe setting her hair, squeezing her breasts, displaying her feet. They caused a scandal when exhibited, and even today there is something almost fetishistic about them. The scandal was intensified, no doubt, by the fact that they were living together openly, despite the fact that Stieglitz was married. Eventually, Steiglitz would take these 'scandalous' shots off the market.

After Stieglitz was divorced in 1924, he persuaded O’Keeffe to marry him. She saw no point in the added respectability of marriage, and perhaps predictably, Stieglitz’s camera at this point appears to lose its fire. He begins producing more mundane portraits, as if the very idea of being Mr. and Mrs. Stieglitz were the antithesis of their conception of modernist art and modern life. Reflecting their increasing time apart,the pictures become almost chaste. O’Keeffe began to spend more time travelling, while Stieglitz preferred the familiar environs of New York City and his house upstate on Lake George. Some of his passion transferred to his other major series of prints, shot at Lake George, of abstract shapes from nature, particularly clouds. These correspond with emotions, in much the same way that parts of O’Keeffe’s body once had, but they never recapitulate the total emotional involvement of the 1920 portraits.

But as their relationship, and his photographs of her became less intimate, Stieglitz began to portray O’Keeffe as an artist, rather than a model. He now seems more involved with the work than its creator, and he begins to reveal the iconic O’Keeffe so familiar to us today. Now the sharp angles of her face, the deep gaze of her eyes, the dynamic power of her body reflect what the artist and poet Marsden Hartley called the “almost violent purity of spirit” in her work.

Although Dorothy Norman took O’Keeffe’s place in the passionate intimacy of Stieglitz’s life, and O’Keeffe began to winter far away in New Mexico, they spent summers together each year at Lake George. By now she was travelling through New Mexico in an A Model Ford, with the back seat removed and converted into a mobile art studio. Her freedom seems to have fascinated Stieglitz, who photographed O’Keeffe’s hands, once again almost as abstract framing, caressing the wheel-covers of a V-8 car. The triumph of man over the energy of machines is an important part of both their work, but O’Keeffe’s hands give the picture its impact, inserting a human dimension to keep the powerful shape of the machine in its place, in fact, turning it into something to be caressed, if not an item of fashion.

There is a wonderful 1932 portrait of O’Keeffe in a head-scarf, looking out the front window of her car as if auditioning for the Bonnie Parker role in BONNIE AND CLYDE. As she gets older, her face seems to grow deeper, its angles more involving, stronger and more shadowy at the same time. What is clear from these photos is that a relationship which may have started very much as pupil and teacher, and soon deepened into romance, eventually extended beyond romance and into art. After the passion faded, they transcended the bounds of artistic or romantic definition. If Stieglitz’s images of her helped mould our perception of her as an artist, her vision as an artist helped Stieglitz find new means of expression through his camera.

“When I look at the photographs Stieglitz took of me, I wonder who that person is,” O’Keeffe wrote for a 1978 retrospective, some 60 years after those first pictures had been taken. Whoever that person was then, she is now the figure whose features, as captured by Stieglitz, reflect perfectly Marsden Hartley's perception of her work's violent purity.

NOTE: This piece was written for the FT, after an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, back (I think) in 1997. My memory says it bounced between the magazine and the weekend arts pages. These things happen. Here it is now. The exhibition's catalogue is still available...