Saturday, 25 April 2009

Lord, Have Mercedes on Us

Stuttgart: Oh, those wealthy Baden-Wurtemburgers! When they collect art, it’s only the best, and their nearest and dearest they choose. Their current Hit Parade at their James Stirling designed State Gallery has the anomalous title, “Munch, Nolde, Beckmann...”, those three dots implying that “We don’t play favorites down here in the richest part of Germany”.

Talk about humble elegance. But as a Detroiter (Denby High 1944, U.S.Navy, 1944-46, University of Detroit 1949), it wasn’t the Big Names that first boggled my eyes. It was rather the first time my eyes had seen an image of my artistic godfather, the man who put the Detroit Insitute of Arts on the world Culture Map, and who thus made it possible for me to have a first class art education in my own home town. There He Was;Ludwig Meidner (1884-1966)’s “Bildnis Dr. Wilhelm R. Valentiner” (1920), the man who singlehandedly, with the support of a lot of new Auto Money, made my art education possible.

It is a pencil drawing of the then 70 year old man, living in L.A. as the director of the Los Angeles County Museum, tousled hair, dour mien, left hand sprawled to side of face, looking off to the middle distance. So that’s my artistic grandfather, I thought grandly, breathless in surprise at confronting him visually for the first time in my own years, 77 now myself, and only recently having set out to “discover” my maternal grandfather, Edward G. Fitzpatrick, a successful Northern Michigan (Oscoda) lumberman, immigrant from Ireland in the 1880’s, who died before I was born in 1927, my mother May being the last of his eight children, all of them university educated, itself unusual in those days. Finally, I settled to savor what these “new vieux rich automakers” had done with their money. Damn! Lots.

It was strange that they began with Munch, the Norwegian, however much he shook up art categories in the North. We know him mostly as the guy whose straitened (to put it mildly) relations with women were a shrieking failure! Alas, he was psychoanalyzed in Copenhagen in 1904, and his last work in the University of Oslo Aula is more Thomas Hart Benton than his angst-ridden early paintings. With all due respect to Sigmund Freud, it may rather have been the gay-friendly beaches of the Baltic that transformed Munch.

In Wernigeroda, the small seaport outside Rostock, there is a small Munch museum founded by the retired head of the German equivalent of our Annapolis--in Flensburg on the Danish border. His career is significant. The son of a Berlin butcher, he explained his rapid rise to the top of the German Navy as having more to due with too many Nazis in the Weimar Republic Navy than his special talents. By the way he got his itch for Munch while serving NATO in Norway! What this did to the interior decoration of ships in the fleet is interesting. No more stodgy Admiral portraits. Marine landscapes instead. And finally, modernist classics.

There are no fewer than seventeen Munchs, the earliest being “Vampire” (1893/1894), and the latest being the same name in 1917! (Old fears die hard, even with shrinks at hand!) God be praised, there is no Shriek, that excellent image in all its variations that came to too abruptly epitomize Munch who was much more than a one image artist.

Moving right along, as the docents were instructing a full Sunday house, we visit Fauvism and Cubism, with adequate examples from Matisse, Marquet, Bonnard, Gris, and Leger.This,of course, being mere foreplay to the emergence of “Die Bruecke”, that strange movement that grew out of the boredom of architecture students in Dresden.

Their fifteen second sketches were their way of relaxing from the rigors of architecture school! Imagine how more humane Modernism might have been if these loose feelers rather than the abysmally tight Mies and Gropius had flourished in the 1920’s. This segment is dominated by Kirchner, as it should be, with space and attention left for Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Pechstein, and Otto Mueller.

There’s a Kirchner new to me, “The Wannsee station seen from the window of the artist’s atelier” (1914/26), where the intersecting planes of the tracks and bridges and station house glow ominously in red, orange, blue, green, and yellow, all the colors in blocks that suggest an architect who has flunked his mechanical drawing class but having a ball losing it!

Erich Heckel has “A Quick Look at People Bathing” (1913), nude, in the way that liberated Munch, from where perhaps it was too cold to bathe without suits! My favorite Heckel story concerns the Anger Museum in Erfurt, near where I live in Weimar. He had done a room full of murals there, when the Nazis starting looking ever more closely for “degenerate art” for which category these fully qualified. But a canny directress built over the door to that chamber, put a statue of St.Michael guarding where the door had been. Now you can relish his Garden of Eden type walls. Bless that gutsy lady, eh?

Pechstein has a stunning overview of “Boys Bathing” (around 1917) which flaunts their agilely active bronzed bodies against the blue green sea and the yellow sands. Otto Mueller closes this chapter with two very closely joined “Two Negro Girls” (around 1928). Their lithe bodies are just simply gorgeous.

The next episode in this Stuttgart Collectors Odyssey is entitled, “Nolde, Beckmann, Meidner—three Loners”. I won’t comment on his delicious female portraits, deferring to “Peaceful See”(1936), which is hardly peaceful, its threatening black and ochre skies suggesting an imminent storm, literally the calm before the storm. It is stunning in its deployment of minimal means to a powerful effect. Alas, I’m no big Beckmann fan, but I’ve got to admit that his “Workers on the Roof” (1937) gives you the sense of hyperactivity as they repair it.

Meidner is all in black and white, his “Bridge Explosion” (1914), an earnest of the harried life he led as a Jew. Born in 1884 in Bernstadt, he studied art in Breslau as a nineteen to twenty-one year old, then he worked for two years in Berlin as a fashion designer.Then he spent two years in Paris where he became pals with Modigliani. Returning to Berlin in 1908 he helped found the group, “Die Pathetiker”. He moved to Dresden in 1914 before serving in the war, 1916-18. He moved to Cologne in 1935 where he taught in a Jewish school. He fled to London in 1939, but returned to Germany in 1953, died in Darmstadt.

The next episode centers around Murnau where Muenter and Kandinsky set up house. The so called Blue Knights. (It is now a museum you must visit before you pack it in. I love Gabriele’s work and have trouble keeping from smirking at Wassily’s breakthrough Urabstract expressionism. But he painted the furniture in this house with Russian folkthemes of unsurpassed funkiness. He shudda kept to this theme.)

Jawlensky, before he went nutsy over heads, is repped by a fine snow landscape (1912): Franz Marc scores with “The Red Dog” (1911), and his co-victim in World War I, August Macke, not only has the catalog cover, but “In front of the hat store” (1913), a splendid consideration of the newly emerging activity of shopping. It makes me sad when I consider how cruelly their war service ended their careers before they had hardly begun. What a loss to painting their death at the front were.

There are four Klees, but none that I fancy. Which is odd because I love him most of all, mainly. Heh, even geniuses have bad days, eh? There aren’t nearly enough Muenter’s to please my committed eye. (She’s my favorite German painter! So there.) But I’ll settle for “Straight Street” (1910) in which you see the street dominating a village scene, with a warm yellow dominating the scene, except for a red tile roof on a starkly white house. (Not unlike the place she and Wassily cohabited.) Incidentally, I’ve never forgiven WK for dumping GM during World War I, leaving her stranded in Stockholm where they were to foregather during the war.

Instead he opted for Nina, with whom he was terminally miserable, showing that God sometimes does the Work He assigned Himself. And boo that there is not a single square or Marianne Werefkind in this show. She coddled Jawlensky when he was a mere calvary officer in St. Petersburg, took him to Munich, all of which blessings he repaid by getting her fifteen year old charge, Helena, pregnant. Damn those patriarchal days.

Marianne didn’t have a large ouvre, but a recent exhibition at the SchlossMuseum/Murnau shows it was worth remembering, especially the one with the nuns out walking their students. I only stumbled on her in Ascona, where they summered, and where 50 years after her death, the local museum did her justice with a retrospective. Artistic reputations are a mystery I don’t even pretend to understand.

The next chapter was on Abstraction, which I found too abstruse to fiddle with. Not so,the next, on Oskar Schlemmer and his Bauhustling friends. I have just spent six years in Weimar writing a book which explains (I hope) why the Bauhaus was ultimately an overhyped flop. So I love Oskar. His staircase sculptural murals in van de Velde’s Applied Art School (now HQ for Bauhaus Uni) is one of my favorite pit stops in all Weimar. So dawdle over this chapter. And on Lyonel Feininger too.

This German American whose artistic life began in Chicago doing comic strips for the Tribune fell in love with the tiny churches in Thuringia, especially the one in Gelmeroda, 3 km south of Weimar. And architect Peter Mittmann fell in love with Feininger, so that there is a Light Sculpture on its steeple every summer night. You must visit PM’s Blue Box, his twelve story exhibition space across the road from the church, in which Peter praises the most important architect of the twentieth century, Ernst Neufert (1900-79), who lived and worked here, writing the guide to the industrialization of architecture (1938) which is still in print in thirteen languages.

And, finally, the Neue Sachlichkeit, that post-war acknowledgment that Expressionism wasn’t all there was to painting. I’m a certified Christian Schad zealot, so if there isn’t enough NS for you here, I suggest you travel to his home town, Aschaffenburg, where they guard with pride his whole ball of wax, experimental photography to boot. I got hooked on CS in Emden, where the hometown boy, Henri Nannen, founder of “Stern” magazine, the “Newsweek” of Germany, founded a museum which his widow runs, along with an art school. There some good Otto Dix in this sector, but I don’t see him as particularly NS. Incidentally, his home town of Gera, has a fine museum in his name.

Finally, a word about the James Stirling museum complex which began with the State Gallery. Latest is a History Museum, using the same eye-POPping architecture. In it is the most up to date take on a local state’s history I have ever seen anywhere in the world. A high tech interview, for example, with a Bangalore IT immigrant talking about why his likes immigrate to Germany, and why not. Its short term exhibition was on the deployment of Pershing Missiles during Ronald Reagan’s tenure as President. The kind of show we never have in America, alas. And I love the fact that their restaurant is called “TEMPUS”.

In Latin illiterate America, we’re not likely to have that kind of wit in our museology. Just musing, about being amusing! If you can’t afford the plane fare, the catalog is a ridiculous steal at 40 euros. Or Google them, and read it on the Web. And thanks, Dr. Valentiner, for turning me on to German art in an era where French and English dominated art history/criticism kept most of America ignorant of what you promoted.

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