Friday, 27 March 2009

Overcoming International Provincialism

Before I began to visit Eastern (and Northern) Europe in the 90s, I discovered I had been an unwitting victim of what I have come to call trilateral (Paris/London/New York) undernational parochialism. Market-driven art criticism narrowed normal exposure to the artists who dominated those three markets. And ethnocentrism played no little part: I learned to relish German Expressionism later than necessary because the graduate schools (covertly influenced by those monopolizing markets) didn't get onto it as fast as they promoted Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism et al. Wars have a dampening effect--even on so-called objective intellectuals.

Perhaps the last laugh in this charade was played out at the Tate Modern in London last summer when we were urged to decide who was the Bigger Biggie of this Cultural Entente: Picasso or Matisse! (That artistic vaudeville act is now playing the Grand Palais in Paris.) When at last year's CULTURA in Basel, I delightedly discovered two galleries from Hungary, I knew the exclusionary attitude was slowly but surely disappearing. And when I visited at Munich's Kunsthaus! AVANTGARDEN: In Central Europe, 1910-1930 I realized that an aesthetic Maginot Line had been breached for once and for all.

This exemplary exhibition originated in Los Angeles, where the legendary Stephanie Baron had organized groundbreaking shows on the Nazi obsession with so-called degenerate art as well a cliché-dispelling take on the lost second generation of German expressionism. Her acolyte Timothy O. Benson is the eye behind a shorter version circulating in Europe, just opened at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. Like the new Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz, whose genius was long hidden by the double whammy of Nazi and Communist apparatchiks, this body of work was intellectually as well as physically inaccessible. It is the greatest of pleasures to be able to relish it.

And the museology is as creative as the work it so cogently displaying, using constructivist architecture to let you traipse delightedly through the fourteen urban scenarios (in this order, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, Weimar, Dessau, Bucharest, Zagreb, Belgrade, Ljubljana, Krakau, Warschau, and Lodz.) The catalog itself is a glory, melding maps of the cities cited with splendid color repros of the art and black and white images that create a three-dimensional feeling for where these creative activities were taking place.

For example, we see Jiri Kroha's interior of the Montmartre Café, its cubistic exuberance reminding the eye of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. (There is considered speculation on the idiosyncratic nature of Czech Cubism. I like the theory that it is a spin off of the Baroque facades of Prague streetscapes.) Equally delectable black and whites of Vlastilav Hofman's design for a graveyard entrance and Antonin Pfeifer's cubist frame for the monument to St. John Nepomuk, from avant-garde café to liturgical monuments, you can't get more ecumenical than that. And these old photos only prepare you for the visual joy afforded by Pavel Janak's coffee set and jewelry boxes, as fresh today as they must have felt in 1912.

And Josef Gocar's writing table and chair of 1915 makes the dining room set that Marcel Breuer made for Wassily Kandinsky look merely goofy, as displayed last summer at the Centre Pompidou's Bauhaus exhibition, severely distorted for being too dependent on the widow's gift to the museum. If it does nothing else, these forays into the terrae incognitae of Eastern Europe reminds of how tight ass the purported Weimar Creators were: Heh, Josef Albers, I've seen enough of those obsessive squares; and the yellow, blue, red/ square, triangle, cube tabula rasa esthetic of the Home Team has blighted our landscapes for a century, culminating in that reductio ad absurdum of the Bauhaus in the Plattenbau.

Karel Teige was never so tight in his socially conscious architectural visions, and marvelously clear in his typography. Strangely, I find his cover for Devetsil/The Revolutionary Almanach (1922) much more appealing after all these years than much of the fine art. And his title page for ReD (1927) is as scintillating as Constructivist art can be.

Not that the fine art is negligible. Otto Gutfreund's bronze, Concert (1912-13), is as kinetic a display of the collaborative energy in musical performance as that stolid medium allows. And Josef Capek's oil on canvas, Head (1914-15) is as sly a riff on that part of the human anatomy as ever I've seen. Otakar Kubin's Still Life with Box (1912-13) melds a Fauvist palette with Cezannish perspectives.

Underpinning these individual achievements is a lively picture of the groups and exhibitions in Prague which mediated these interactions from the melting pots of Berlin, Vienna and Paris. I can only record my delight at discovering so many new facets of European culture, more and more to be seen its its Euro totality. Like the marvelous traveling Mannheim show last season on the Year 1000, collaboratively deployed by Czech, Hungarian and Polish curators, this exhibition not only preens itself credibly, but foreshadows an era when we will all share a fully inclusive European heritage. (Down with the Undernationals!)

An added pizazz comes from recreating the Constructive architecture of Friedrich Kiesler, the Rumanian/Austrian visionary. And save at least an hour for the delicious chrestomathy of documentary films that is the High (and Exit) Point of the exhibition. I still relish the proto-Feminist Hungarian flick of three women pianists being led by a lady conductress! Perhaps it's its LA origins that accounts for its demotic appeal. Serious but not condescending. And don't forget if you get hooked as I have been, a much more extensive commentary (two fat volumes) in English from the Los Angeles County Museum is available on If only Disneyland could be as solid and substantial!

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