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 naïve 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.

1 comment:

Hels said...

I read Exiles and Emigres and found your post very insightful. I have created a link to my post on the 1938 German Art Exhibition in the New Burlington Galleries.

You wrote "Given a climate where, in 1939, 83% of Americans supported curtailing immigration, assimilation and politicisation did not go hand in hand." I am not sure that much has changed, even in 2009.

Many thanks
Hels
Art and Architecture, mainly