Monday, 3 September 2012

Kraut-Bashing After The Berlin Wall

A series of art exhibitions and symposia has convinced me that the American art history agenda is seriously mis-skewed toward the French and British art traditions. Covert kraut-bashing has been going on since World War I. And the tragedy of the Holocaust hasn’t endeared Jewish scholars to German modernist art (despite notable exceptions, such as Philadelphia’s Mark Rosenthal with his pioneer explications of Anselm Kiefer).

In 1988, I’d gone to Berlin to see “Landmarks of (German) Modernism” at the Martin Gropius Bau, a prĂ©cis of crucial exhibitions in 20th-Century Germany from Die Bruecke to Fluxus—and the single most illuminating art show I’ve ever seen.

My growing conviction of structural—if unintended—mendacity at the heart of our critical enterprise moved me to go to Atlanta early this year to see the High Museum’s “Art in Berlin: 1815-1989.” It was not, like the “Stationen Modernen” exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau, a synoptic view of almost two centuries of German art, but rather an exploration of how art functioned in the emergence of the Prussian city as Germany tried to play catch-up with Britain and France as Europe’s leading industrial powers.

I can’t remember when I’ve seen the complex ecology between art and political, social and industrial developments so subtly explained.

This narrow focus made one thing perfectly clear: how Berlin released tremendous energies in every sector of modern experience—before American intervention in World War I and the Versailles vindictiveness led to the outrages of Nazism.

Unknown (to me) topographical artists like Hintze and Taubert doubled as instructors at the Berlin Porcelain manufacturing complex while executing on their own time meticulously realistic canvases of the emerging particulars of the industrializing city. They are as useful to our tuition (and delectable in their diverse ways) as, say, Rowlandson and Caillebot are to our comprehension of British and French industrialization.

And my favorite discovery of the exhibition, one Eduard Gaertner (1801-77), had two luminist masterpieces that gave as much lively evidence of the impact of photography on modern painting as the canvases of Bonnard, Degas and Vuillard do.

There was even an Armory Show-type turning point. The Berlin Art Association (an artists’ cooperative) mounted one of the first exhibitions of Edvard Munch outside Norway in 1898. The BAA membership split irreconcilably over the controversy generated by the show. A minority, in fact, split literally when a vote of the membership closed the show.

I was so euphoric from the instant raising of my consciousness that I sought out High Museum director Dr. Gudmund Vigtel for what turned out to be an equally illuminating conversation.

He had been working on the show for three years and feels an understandable rue that the Berlin Wall didn’t do its Humpty Dumpty earlier, so that his $600,000 investment might have traveled. It’s both an achievement and a frustration that this brilliant once-in-a-century assemblage will have been seen by only something more than 75,000 viewers in its three-month Atlanta run.

The High’s outreach mini-museum at the Georgia Pacific Center brandishes the largest Nevelson ever executed, stark white, a paean to the forests which under gird GP’s paper business. There were two photo shows there, no less, for the Photography Sesqui—“Lasting Impressions”—a potted history of the daguerreotype, of great charm and curatorial moxey—and another on the anti-documentarian strain in contemporary photography.

Back at the main High, there was another discovery for me: the photography of John McWilliams, a teacher at Georgia State, who has documented his locale with great skill and verve.

Finally, there’s the ubiquitous Ted Turner. He announced in the morning Constitution—which I read in regal splendor, breakfasting on country ham at the Westin Peachtree—a foreign film series he inaugurated for his superstation. That ought to mollify the anti-colorizers a bit.

I used to have a submotif in my course on American literature—that the great thing about our national literature was that you never knew when or where the next surge of creativity would come from.

New England at first, then an efflorescence in San Francisco, followed by Chicago’s renaissance at the turn of the 20th Century. Then WASPishness derided by Catholics like Theodore Dreiser and Eugene O’Neill. Then the continuing Southern glory. Jewish, black and Catholic voices after World War II. App Lit, Gay Lit, Clit Lit. O many-splendored, multi-splintered thing. Walt Whitman would have glowed with satisfaction.

Brace yourself for the impending Atlanta Renaissance. And this isn’t mere ad hominy grits talk. The dawn is already breaking. It’s High in the sky.

This doesn’t mean, to end on a graceless note, that I recant my firm conviction that High designer Richard Meier is a creator of walk-through sculptures rather than a proper architect. As I descended from Berlin on the fourth floor to the McWilliams photos on the third, I discovered that his ramp has no off-ramps! No romp here. An expensive monument to his quirky muse is all.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 14, 1990

1 comment:

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