Monday, May 4, 2009

Forces and Counterforces: A Review Essay on Several Recent Books

Forces and Counterforces: A Review Essay on Several Recent Books

Jerry Cullum

One of the difficulties in the generation-old discussion of centers and margins in the global artworld is that the centers continue to generate the terms of the discussion. The centers tend to be a bit more decentered these days, in that the centers’ movers and shakers now congregate in agreeable vacation spots to organize global biennials and art fairs; but by and large the spokespersons for the margins, if they wish to have their voices heard, had better have the wherewithal to get themselves to the places where the power brokers congregate. Otherwise, even in the era of the Internet, they are out of luck.

The centers still speak for the margins, and about the margins, and bring what they consider to be enlightenment to the benighted and culturally unsatisfactory margins. The margins are expected to be appropriately grateful, and sometimes they should be; as Frederic Spotts wrote recently about the budding Abstract Expressionists in World War II era New York who encountered the exile artists from France, they “suffer[ed] a sizeable inferiority complex—for the good reason that they were inferior.” (We’ll return later to Spotts’ productively outrageous new book from Yale, The Shameful Peace.)

But this has always been the case, and one way of overcoming our habitual Eurocentrism and America-centrism might be to look at the history of art in traditionally marginal places in Europe that have gone through periods of systematic cultural humiliation, and at major European centers that underwent transient moments of humiliation of their own.

Poland might be a good place to start. Tate Britain has just published a small catalogue for a small show, Symbolist Art in Poland, with the announced goal of looking at the cross-national impact not just of the Arts and Crafts Movement (which really did span continents) but of Pre-Raphaelitism, which viewed from the perspective of a politically and culturally suppressed Poland circa 1900 could be viewed as a “modernist lodestar,” because, in the terms suggested by Andrzej Szczerski, it represented a form of art that was simultaneously “nationalistic and cosmopolitan,” and echoed a strong Symbolist strain in Polish culture.

Now, it so happens that we have from the University of California Press a new internationally focused as well as psychologically sophisticated view of Symbolist art, Michelle Facos’s Symbolist Art in Context, and from Palazzo a rather attractive Arts and Crafts Companion by Pamela Todd that doesn’t cover the movement’s global reach as extensively as the magisterial catalogue from the Arts and Crafts touring exhibition of some years ago, but that sets a context for the Tate Britain catalogue’s reference to the Arts and Crafts societies in Kraków that found the movement a useful framework within which to consider the development of a national style out of surviving folk and vernacular styles of design and construction.

These revisionist efforts are struggling against prevailing currents in their attempt to establish once critically marginalized art movements as contributors a century ago to the creation of a global modernism that was, at its geographic edges, simultaneously internationalist and locally inflected. (As we are reminded by the major Kandinsky retrospective currently in Paris and headed for New York, by 1909 the proto-modernists were moving out of their own phase of exploring vernacular styles such as glass painting, and had begun to create the sorts of non-objective painting and sculpture that would come to dominate the twentieth century.)

Nonetheless, the insistence is certainly defensible that the Pre-Raphaelites might, in spite of our currently prevailing opinion, have been part of the larger cultural currents that created “the universal formalist language of modernism,” and it might be interesting to follow up on the offhand remark by Bernd Roeck in Yale’s recent Florence 1900: The Quest for Arcadia (mostly about Aby Warburg and other expatriates encountering Renaissance art up close and re-inventing art history in the process) that the stylistic perfection of artists such as Sargent in a rare Florentine exhibition of international contemporary art in 1896-97 reflected “the need for something different. Paintings such as Sargent’s demonstrate the historical necessity of the work of Cézanne and Kandinsky and of Malevich’s Black Square.”

Movements such as Symbolism were diametrically opposed to what (as Roeck reminds us) Carlyle had earlier called the “steam-engine intellectuals” in love with technological progress, who would shortly generate such things as the Futurist Manifesto that recently celebrated its centenary. But they may have had a greater impact on proto-modernism than we think.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the productive collision of vernacular styles and international modernism, it might be more useful to look at a book such as Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen’s new volume from Yale, Alvar Aalto: Architecture, Modernity, and Geopolitics. Aalto could be geometric when it suited, and organic when that seemed appropriate to the task at hand, and overall was deeply concerned with expressing the distinct sensibility of Finland within a context that could stand up to global competition. For the artists and architects of the newly emerging countries on the margins of Europe, the task was to create an internationally inflected regional style that resisted the temptations of popular but ultimately self-defeating localisms.

The post-1918 creation of the newly re-emerging countries out of the colonial turf of the newly fallen European empires set up regional instabilities that resulted, two decades later, in a fresh colonization of Europe. Frederic Spotts’ sprightly but scholarly The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation (Yale University Press) gives us a fresh look at the years in which the French were intended to surrender their notions of their mission civilisatrice and accept once and for all the intrinsic superiority of German culture. (At the same time, the French were to be kept quiet by being allowed to pursue their own high-cultural entertainments as they saw fit: except for Jews, Freemasons, and a few troublesome modernists such as the Russian émigré Kandinsky, French painters, sculptors, and composers were left pretty much free to present new work, and even writers were less attentively suppressed than elsewhere in Hitler’s Europe—though mainstream publishers engaged in considerable self-censorship.)

As Czeslaw Milosz noted in his autobiography, the economic dependence of the cultural life of Paris on the wealth wrested from the sweat of variously colored colonial peoples proved such an excellent model that others chose to bring it home to Europe. And from 1940 to 1944, the self-declared center of world culture suffered under the arrogance of those who considered their own culture self-evidently superior, while the global center’s exiles unknowingly set up the conditions for their own supplantation by the postwar art of New York (let us leave aside the issue of whether the idea of modern art was “stolen” thanks to postwar commercial and geopolitical shenanigans…the AbEx generation took French ideas and ran with them).

While we are reconsidering centers and margins, it might be interesting to combine Bernd Roeck’s study of Florence 1900 with a book like Ilaria Dagnini Brey’s forthcoming The Venus Fixers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, August 2009), a contextual history of the American and British painters and art historians who found themselves, as military Monuments Officers, engaged in preserving and repairing the artistic and architectural heritage of Italy endangered by the tides of war as the Allied armies advanced and Allied bombers carried out air strikes on military targets in artistically rich cities.

Brey looks at the nonpolitical efforts of Italian cultural officials (regarding the official Fascist exploitation of medieval and Renaissance culture, one ought to look at the older book Donatello Among the Blackshirts) but looks even more at the scholarly reverence the so-called Venus Fixers brought to their task, a reverence stemming from the visions and revisions studied in Roeck’s book. These were scholars of the old school and connoisseurs of the new school alike, and their personal conflicts are as illuminating as their cooperation and improvisation as they tackled an unprecedented task of cultural rescue.

Brey also offers a touching portrait of the last remnants of the “fragile sophistication” of the world of aristocrats and American and British expatriates whose Renaissance art collections were sequestered in secluded villas…it was a world already under siege forty years earlier amid the emerging modernist currents visible in Florence circa 1900. The cosmopolitan multinational community that found common ground in discussions of beauty represented, not the “trial run for the Europeans of tomorrow” that Isolde Kurz saw it as being (as quoted in Florence 1900), but what Roeck describes as a fast-disappearing world that “wanted to keep the wheel of time from turning, seeking an artificial past and in the process inventing a city beyond the oppressive burden of history.”

Aby Warburg considered that particular version of trans-European culture “claustrophobic” and fled for wider horizons, and at more or less the same time Ezra Pound was already in the process of re-inventing the Renaissance and Greece and China on behalf of a cross-cultural British and American modernism (even if he was soon enough bamboozled by Fascism’s seductive mix of Renaissance culture with making the trains run on time).

So even the history of seemingly stultified traditions of connoisseurship could do with some brushing against the grain. But that topic needs to be reserved for another time.

For now, after we have journeyed through a new way of looking at the margins of what used to be called Western culture, perhaps those of us who grew up in Europe and the United States will be ready to consider a book like Rebecca Brown’s Art for a Modern India, 1947-1980, recently published by Duke University Press. (I don’t yet own a personal copy of the book and have only been able to peruse the text superficially, so my remarks here are based largely on my prior knowledge of the topic.)

India never surrendered its own sense of cultural self-respect, thanks to a combination of vigorous nationalism and awareness of a long history that was studied as much by the scholars among the Victorian occupiers as by the nationalists. (What the Victorian occupiers made of Indian culture, and how they valued it vis-à-vis the burgeoning forces of Victorian art, is another story.)

Brown’s book illustrates the difficulties and the promise of inserting a local aesthetic vocabulary into a global conversation that was at the time still insistent upon the superiority of its own way of doing things and thinking about things. The challenge of presenting an aesthetic that would interpret the modern for and by a freshly re-emerged nation was a separate but related one.

And simply because of the limitations of our own starting points and best methods for defamiliarization and de-exoticizing of topics, some of us in the United States or the United Kingdom may still find it productive to approach the problems of art in the Delhi or Bombay of what is now yesterday by beginning in Kraków 1900, or by changing planes in Prague.


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