Thursday, 19 August 2010

Touring German Art

I have just received a crash course in twentieth-century German art. I went to Berlin in October to see the astonishingly instructive “Landmarks of Modernism” exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau. The forty-eight Deutschmarks they nicked me for the catalog is one of the best investments I’ve made in a long time.

(It will soon be shareable in the art library of the University of Pennsylvania, to which I am donating my international art catalogs.)

This show recapitualtes the history of German modernism by giving the gist of the major exhibitions from Die Brucke and Die Blaue Reiter down through Documenta at Kassel and Fluxus wherever. Especially interesting were the shows of Nazi art and Degenerate Art (the latter attracted 2 million visitors—the largest audience for any art show in German history—showing you what clods the Nazis were when they were putting down their “degenerate” betters!).

And there were the usual imbalances—Robert getting much more space than Sonia Delaunay, and Gabriele Muenter was eclipsed by her lessor lover Kandinsky. But that’s no the Germans’ fault—that was the systemic blindness of patriarchal Europe.

In Bern, just after Berlin, I saw a show of the couple Hans Arp and Sophie Taueber, in which the logo photo for the catalog shows Sophie hiding her own head behind the Dada kopf she had just made for her lover Hans. Boy, those women sure knew how to debase themselves.

Shortly after that, in Ascona, I went to see “Marianne Werefkind i amici”—Klee, Muenter, Kandinsky, the Bauhaus gang who summered there in Italian Switzerland.

I came upon the sad story of her horrible abuse by Alexei Jawlensky. The show was memorializing the 50th anniversary of her death. She might have been as good as Muenter, had she not immolated herself in the perfidious bed of Jawlensky.

Well, between Berlin, Bern, and Ascona, I was getting a vivid picture of the German art scene—until I arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a month later to see “German Expressionism: The Second Generation.” These peers of Otto Dix and George Grosz had somehow been blipped completely from the Berlin survey. Hmmm.

Then I got a theory. They were described as Spartacists, “involved in Rosa Luxembourg’s and Karl Liebknecht’s failing Communist uprising of 1919. I get it. A kind of German McCarthyism. (If you want to check it out, that show is now at the Fort Worth Museum of Art.)

So when I went to the opening of the Guggenheim’s major survey of recent German painting, “Refigured Painting: The German Image 1960–1988,” I was eager to test my Spartacist theory on the German curators.

My best informant turned out to be Heinrich Klotz, director of the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt. First he surprised me by asserting that the Germans were as surprised as we Americans had been by “German Expressionism: The Second Generation.”

His explanation for the amnesia is less political than mine. He argued that the second generation had barely gotten going when the Nazis stamped all of them as degenerate. And after the war, the art community had so many new fish to fry that they didn’t get around to filling out their view art before Nazism.

It’s a plausible hypothesis, given how American art expunged its consciousness of the figurative traditions of American regionalism when the tsunami of Abstract Expressionism broke over the gallery/seminar/museum complex. But there’s a “Spartacist” side to that American amnesia as well.

Most of the ideologues and practitioners of abstract art had been Communists or fellow travelers, and under the heat of McCarthyism they not too gracefully dove under the bed of “apolitical” abstractionisms of one kind of another. Thank God we’re finally getting a fuller view of what went before.

The artists in “Refigured Painting” could have used a little more history of their own national traditions in art. With the notable exceptions of heavyweights like Kiefer, Polke, and Baselitz, I found the Guggenheim gathering pretty thin stuff. Set beside the “landmarks of Modernism” as precis-ed in Berlin, they strike me as fingerpainting poseurs.

They quote a lot—Friedmann Hahn’s “Head After Van Gogh” and Thomas Hartmann’s “The Potato Harvest” would never carry their own weight, minus the art history allusion. And Rainer Fetting’s “Winter—Tompkins Square Park” and “New York Streetworker” are so obviously journalistic grandstanding to the American engaged viewer that one wishes he’d leave our problems to our painters.

There is an aura of prefabricated catastrophe in these “refigured” images: Auto accidents, natural disasters, a pervasive chaos that strikes me as laid-on. It surely doesn’t look like the Germany I’ve been visiting the past few years.

I can hear them saying, “Yes, but beneath the surface ours is the real Germany.” I don’t believe it. This is the Germany of a small cadre of professional whiners. Their anxiety-ridden images sell for humongous prices to the new BMW elite. Sound familiar?

Actually, if you want to see the real Germany—and I’m not kidding—you’d be better off listening to Harmut Esslinger, the head of FROG (for Federal Republic of Germany) Design, the industrial designers who have shaped the forms of over 1,000 mass-produced objects throughout the world in their twenty years of existence.

When Esslinger gave the keynote address in Philadelphia at the University of the Arts’ symposium on international industrial design, he expressed the kind of humanism that these dime-store Diogenes’ Teutonic forebears first formulated. These bargain-basement calamity howlers are pissing into the wind. The time has come to ask whether painting and sculpture are really the matrix of humanism in our time.

They once were. The Berlin “Landmarks of Modernism” makes that abundantly clear. But my guess is that the subsidized upper-middlebrow culture of the advanced democracies encourages poses rather than authentic postures.

At least they don’t touch the heart the way their predecessors did—and still do. And at its cheapest, and hippest—as in Martin Kippenberg’s “In case the bitch gets mouthy, break glass”—I say, rid us of such rubbish. Better a handful of well-made industrial objects than a Guggenheim full of second-raters.

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