PAINTING BETWEEN THE WARS
As we examine painting between the
wars, we shall find anything but an orderly progression. World War I had
totally disrupted the further evolution of modernism, and its end
unleashed an unprecedented outpouring of art after a four-year creative
lull. The responses were correspondingly diverse. Because they were
already fully formed artists, the founders of modern painting—Picasso,
Braque, Matisse, Kirchner, and Kandinsky—followed very different paths
from those of younger ones who had not yet emerged into maturity by
1914. They broke the "rules" they had established earlier, responding
only to the dictates of their sovereign imaginations; hence, their
evolution transcends ready categorization. Rather than a simple linear
development, we must therefore think in terms of multiple layers of
varying depth that bear a shifting relation to each other.
following a period of intensive cultivation. Three Musicians
(fig. 1062) shows the
fruit of that labor. It utilizes the "cut-paper style" of Synthetic
Cubism so consistently that we cannot tell from the reproduction whether
it is painted or pasted.
We begin with
Picasso, whose genius towers over the period.
As a Spanish national living in Paris he was not involved in the
conflict, unlike many French and German artists who served in the
military and even sacrificed their lives. This was a time of quiet
experimentation that laid the foundation for Picasso's art over the next
several decades. The results did not become fully apparent, however,
until the early
By now, Picasso was internationally famous.
Cubism had spread throughout the Western world. It influenced not only
other painters, but sculptors and even architects. Yet Picasso was
already striking out in a new direction. Soon after the invention of Synthetic Cubism, he had begun to do drawings in a
realistic manner reminiscent of Ingres, and by
1920 he was working simultaneously in two quite
separate styles: the Synthetic Cubism of the Three Musicians, and
a Neoclassical style of strongly modeled, heavy-bodied figures such as
his Mother and Child (fig. 1063).
To many of his admirers, this seemed a kind of betrayal,
but in retrospect the reason for Picasso's double-track performance is
clear: chafing under the limitations of Synthetic Cubism, he needed to
resume contact with the classical tradition, the "art of the museums."
The figures in Mother and Child have a mock-monumental quality
that suggests colossal statues rather than flesh-and-blood human beings,
yet the theme is treated with surprising tenderness. The forms, however,
are carefully dovetailed within the frame, not unlike the way the
Three Musicians is put together.
A few years later the two tracks of Picasso's style began to converge
into an extraordinary synthesis that was to become the basis of his art.
The Three Dancers of 1925
shows how he accomplished this seemingly impossible
feat. Structurally, the picture is pure Synthetic Cubism. It even
includes painted imitations of specific materials, such as patterned
wallpaper and samples of various fabrics cut out with pinking shears.
The figures, a wildly fantastic version of a classical scheme (compare
the dancers in Matisse's The Joy of Life, fig.
1036), are an even more violent
assault on convention than the figures in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
Human anatomy is here simply the raw material for Picasso's
incredible inventiveness. Limbs, breasts, and faces are handled with the
same sovereign freedom as the fragments of external reality in Braque's
Le Counter (fig. 1051).
Their original identity no longer matters. Breasts may
turn into eyes, profiles merge with frontal views, shadows become
substance, and vice versa, in an endless flow of metamorphoses. They are
"visual puns," offering wholly unexpected possibilities of expression—humorous,
grotesque, macabre, even tragic.
Pablo Picasso. Three Musicians.
Pablo Picasso. Mother and Child.
Pablo Picasso. Three Dancers.
Three Dancers marks a transition to Picasso's experiment with
Because he did not practice automatism, he never
developed into a true adherent of the movement. Nevertheless, the impact
of his fellow Spaniard Joan Miro
can be seen in the biomorphism of his mural Guernica
(fig. 1065). Picasso
did not show any interest in politics during World War I or the
1920s, but the Spanish Civil War
stirred him to ardent partisanship with the Loyalists. The mural,
executed in 1937 for the
Pavilion of the Spanish Republic at the Paris International Exposition,
has truly monumental grandeur. It was inspired by the terror-bombing of
Guernica, the ancient capital of the Basques in northern Spain. The
painting does not represent the event itself. Rather, it evokes the
agony of total war with a series of powerful images.
The destruction of Guernica was the first demonstration of the
technique of saturation bombing that was later employed on a huge scale
during the course of World War II. The mural was thus a prophetic vision
of doom—the doom that
threatens us even more in this nuclear age. The symbolism of the scene
resists precise interpretation, despite its several traditional
elements: the mother and her dead child are the descendants of the
Pieta (see fig. 497),
the woman with the lamp recalls the Statue of Liberty (see fig.
923), and the dead
fighter's hand, still clutching a broken sword, is a familiar emblem of
heroic resistance. We also sense the contrast between the menacing,
human-headed bull, surely intended to represent the forces of darkness,
and the dying horse.
These figures owe their terrifying eloquence to what they are, not to
what they mean. The anatomical dislocations, fragmentations, and
metamorphoses, which in the Three Dancers seemed willful and
fantastic, now express a stark reality, the reality of unbearable pain.
The ultimate test of the validity of collage construction (here shown in
superimposed flat "cutouts" restricted to black, white, and gray) is
that it could serve as the vehicle of such overpowering emotions.
Pablo Picasso. Guernica.
Henri Matisse.1911 on
was influenced increasingly by Cubism, but after the war he,
like Picasso, returned to the classical tradition. The lessons he
absorbed from Cubism nevertheless had far-reaching consequences for his
style. We see this in Decorative Figure Against an Ornamental
background (fig. 1066),
which has a new luxuriance. At the same time, there is
an underlying discipline resulting from his study of Cubism. The carpet
provides a firm geometric structure for organizing the composition, so
that everything has its place, although the system itself is entirely
intuitive. Only in this way could Matisse control all the elements of
his elaborate picture. It is among the finest in a long series of
odalisques that Matisse painted during the 1920s
In them the artist emerges as the titular heir of the
French tradition, which he had absorbed through his teacher Moreau. The visual
splendor would be worthy of Delacroix himself. Yet in the calm pose and
strong contours of the figure, Matisse reveals himself to be a
classicist at heart, more akin to Ingres than the Romantics (compare
figs. 885 and
889). The picture has overtones
of Degas (see fig. 955),
who had been trained by a disciple of Ingres and thus formed an
important link in the chain of tradition. It breathes the classical serenity of Seated
Woman by Matisse's friend Maillol (see fig.
1009), who early in his career had likewise been
inspired by Gauguin. Nevertheless, Matisse's is a distinctly modern
1911, when he joined the other
members of Die Brucke in Berlin. Four years later he was drafted
into World War I, which ruined his physical and mental health. Released
from the army after six months to recuperate from tuberculosis, he moved
to Switzerland, where he turned increasingly to landscapes, as did many
other German Expressionists following the war. Winter Landscape in
Moonlight (fig. 1067),
painted in the Swiss Alps, resounds with a sense of
peace and wonderment before nature. The painting rivals the ecstatic
rhythms of the young Kandinsky (compare fig.
1045), whose work Kirchner came to know while
participating in the exhibitions of Der Blaue Reiter following
the dissolution of Die Brucke.
an Ornamental Background.
Kirchner, too, was affected by Cubism after
Landscape in Moonlight.
and soon accepted an invitation from Walter
Gropius to teach at the Bauhaus.
Although he had begun to experiment with a more
geometric style in Russia under the influence of Constructivism and
other related avant-garde movements, some of which shared his mystical
tendencies, his output was surprisingly-small, and it was only after he
assumed his position at Weimar that he adopted geometric abstraction once and for all. The lessons
and exercises he developed for his students no doubt helped to
crystallize his theories of form and structure. These he set out
systematically in Point and Line to Plane, published in
1926, which elaborates concepts
that were only nascent in his earlier book Concerning the Spiritual
His development was perhaps reinforced by the presence
at the Bauhaus after 1923
of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who came from a Constructivist
background, although his approach was otherwise the opposite of
Looking at a typical example of his work from this time
(fig. 1068), we seem to
have entered a different world from that of his earlier work (fig.
1045). Only when we
analyze the painting do we realize that it embodies the same titanic
clash of forces. The artist has clarified the shapes and lines of force
that had been buried in a sea of swirling forms. Yet the attitude is
still the same, and he admitted that he remained a Romantic to the end.
Kandinsky himself spent the war years in Russia, where he
participated enthusiastically in the Revolution and played an important
role in shaping artistic policy. When his pedagogical reforms met with
growing hostility, he returned to Germany in
Wasily Kandinsky. Accented Corners.
No. 247. 1923
Picasso's abandonment of strict Cubism signaled the broad retreat of
1920 because the Utopian ideals
associated with it had been largely dashed by "the war to end all wars."
In retrospect, abstraction can be seen as a
necessary phase through which modern painting had to pass, but it was
not essential to modernism as such, even though it has been perhaps the
dominant tendency of the twentieth century.
1069) by the Frenchman
Leger (1881-1955) conjures
up a mechanized Utopia. This beautifully controlled industrial landscape
is stable without being static, and reflects the clean geometric shapes
of modem machinery. In this instance, the term abstraction applies more
to the choice of design elements and their manner of combination than to
the shapes themselves, since these are "prefabricated" entities, except
for the two figures on the staircase.
The Futurist spirit nevertheless continued to find adherents
on both sides of the Atlantic. Buoyant with optimism and pleasurable excitement, The City (fig.
The City. 1919
A member of the Stieglitz group, he had been friendly
with Duchamp and exiled Cubists in New York during World War I. A few
years later, under the impact of Futurism, he developed a style known as
Precisionism to depict urban and industrial architecture. We can detect
influences from all of these movements in I
Saw the Figure 5
in Gold (fig.
1070). The title is taken from a
poem by Demuth's friend William Carlos Williams, whose name also forms
part of the design as "Bill," "Carlos," and "W. G. W." In the poem the
figure 5 appears on a red
fire truck, while in the painting it has become the dominant feature,
thrice repeated to reinforce its echo in our memory as the fire truck
rushes on through the night.
The modern movement in America proved shortlived. One of the
few artists to continue working in this vein after World War I was
1071) by the
Joseph Stella (1877-1946).
To Stella, who emigrated to America as a young
man. the bridge became a symbol of his adopted land, which provided his
boldest theme. He wrote in his autobiography: "To realize this towering
imperative vision in all its integral possibilities
... I appealed for help to the
soaring verse of Walt Whitman and to the fiery Poe's plasticity. Upon
the swarming darkness of the night, I rung all the bells of alarm with
the blaze of electricity
I Saw the Figure
5 in Gold.
Poetry was central as well to Brooklyn Bridge (fig.
scattered in lightnings down the oblique cables, the dynamic pillars
of my composition, and to render more pungent the mystery of the
metallic apparition, through the green and red glare of the signals I
excavated here and there caves as subterranean passages to infernal
recesses." His painting achieves what a contemporary critic perceptively
called the apotheosis of the bridge, through a synthesis of Futurism,
which he had been exposed to during a visit to Paris in
1912, and Precisionism, which he
experimented with as early as 1917.
With its maze of luminescent cables, vigorous diagonal
thrusts, and crystalline cells of space, the painting is a striking
visual counterpart to Hart Crane's famous hymn of
1930, "To Brooklyn Bridge":
O harp and altar, of the fury fused, —
(How could mere toil align thy
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge.
pariah, and the lover's cry,
Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path—condense
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.
The most radical abstractionist of our time was a Dutch painter nine
years older than Picasso,
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944).
He arrived in Paris in
1912 as a mature Expressionist in the tradition of Van Gogh and the Fauves. Under the impact
of Analytic Cubism, his work soon underwent a complete change, and
within the next decade Mondrian developed an entirely
non-representational style that he called Neo-Plasticism. The
short-lived movement as a whole is also known as De Stijl, after
the Dutch magazine advocating his ideas, which were formulated with Theo
van Doesburg (1883—
1931) and Bart van der Leek
(1876-1958). Mondrian became the
center of the abstract movement in Paris, where he returned in
1919 and remained until the onset
of World War II. Indeed, the School of Paris in the
1930s was made up largely of
foreigners like him—especially
the Abstraction-Creation group, which included artists of every
persuasion. As a result, the differences between the various movements
soon became blurred, although Mondrian himself consistently adhered to
Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow (fig.
1072) shows Mondrian s style at
its most severe. He restricts his design to horizontals and verticals
and his colors to the three primary hues, plus black and white. Every
possibility of representation is thereby eliminated. Yet Mondrian
sometimes gave to his works such titles as Trafalgar Square, or
Broadway Boogie Woogie,
that hint at some degree of relationship, however
indirect, with observed reality. Like Kandinsky, Mondrian was affected
by theosophy, albeit the distinctive Dutch branch founded by M. J. H.
Schoenmaekers. Unlike Kandinsky, however, he did not strive tor pure,
lyrical emotion. His goal, he asserted, was "pure reality," and he
defined this as equilibrium "through the balance of unequal but
For all of their analytic calm, Mondrian's
paintings are highly idealistic: "When we realize that equilibriated
relationships in society signify what is just, then we shall realize
that in art, likewise, the demands of life press forward when the spirit
of the age is ready."
Composition with Red,
Blue, and Yellow. 1930
Perhaps we can best understand what he meant by equilibrium if we
think of his work as "abstract collage" that uses black bands and
colored rectangles instead of recognizable fragments of chair caning and
newsprint. He was interested solely in relationships and wanted no
distracting elements or fortuitous associations. By establishing the
"right" relationship among his bands and rectangles, he transforms them
as thoroughly as Braque transformed the snippets of pasted paper in
Le Courrier (fig. 1051).
How did he discover the "right" relationship? And how
did he determine the shape and number for the bands and rectangles? In
Braque's collage, the ingredients are to some extent "given" by chance,
but apart from his self-imposed rules, Mondrian constantly faced the
dilemma of unlimited possibilities. He could not change the relationship
of the bands to the rectangles without changing the bands and rectangles
themselves. When we consider his task, we begin to realize its infinite
Looking again at Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, we
find that when we measure the various units, only the proportions of the
canvas itself are truly rational, an exact square. Mondrian has arrived
at all the rest "by feel," and must have undergone agonies of trial and
error. How often, we wonder, did he change the dimensions of the red
rectangle to bring it and the other elements into self-contained
equilibrium? Strange as it may seem, Mondrian's exquisite sense for
non-symmetrical balance is so specific that critics well acquainted with
his work have no difficulty in distinguishing fakes from genuine pictures. Designers who work with nonfigurative shapes, such
as architects and typographers, are likely to be most sensitive to this
quality, and Mondrian has had a greater influence on them than on
rigorous abstractionist, he bent Mondrian's rules without breaking them
in his painted reliefs (fig. 1073).
which also show the inspiration of his wife, the
sculptor Barbara Hepworth.
The overlapping shapes violate the integrity of the
rectangle and overcome the tyranny of the grid maintained by Mondrian.
The geometry is further enlivened by the introduction of the circle. Yet
his work, too, relies on the delicate balance of elements. The effect is
enhanced by the subdued palette and matte finish, which create harmonies
of the utmost refinement. Indeed, compared to Nicholson's, Mondrian's
primary colors seem astonishingly bright and exuberant.
Mondrian nevertheless did produce a number of followers among the
painters. By far the most original was the English artist
Dada preached nonsense and antiart with a
vengeance. As Han Arp wrote, "Dadaism carried assent and dissent ad
absurdum. In order to achieve indifference, it was destructive." Marcel
Duchamp once "improved" a reproduction of Leonardo's Mona Lisa
with a moustache and the letters LHOOQ, which when pronounced in French,
make an off-color pun. Not even modern art was safe from the Dadaists
assaults: one of them exhibited a toy monkey inside a frame with the
title "Portrait of Cezanne." Yet Dada was not a completely negative
movement. In its calculated irrationality there was also liberation, a
voyage into unknown provinces of the creative mind. The only law
respected by the Dadaists was that of chance, and the only reality, that
of their own imaginations.
Out of despair over the mechanized mass killing of World War I.
a number of artists in New York and Zurich simultaneously launched in
protest a movement called Dada (or Dadaism), which then spread to other
cities in Germany and France. The term, which means hobbyhorse in
French, was reportedly picked at random from a dictionary, although it
had actually been used as the title of a Symbolist journal. As an
infantile, all-purpose word, however, it perfectly fitted the spirit of
the movement. Dada has often been called nihilistic, and its declared
purpose was indeed to make clear to the public at large that all
established values, moral or aesthetic, had been rendered meaningless by
the catastrophe of the Great War. During its short life (c.
Dadaists adopted the collage technique of Synthetic Cubism for their
purposes. Figure 1074
by the German Dadaist
Max Ernst (1891-1976),
an associate of Duchamp, is largely composed of snippets
from illustrations of machinery. The caption pretends to enumerate these
mechanical ingredients which include (or add up to)
"1 Piping Man." Actually, there
is also a "piping woman." These offspring of Duchamp's prewar Bride
(see fig. 1060) stare
at us blindly through their goggles.
Although their most characteristic art form was the ready-made
after Duchamp's retirement from Dada, a group led by the poet Andre
Breton founded Dada's successor. Surrealism. They defined their aim as
"pure psychic automatism . . .
intended to express . . .
the true process of thought. . .
free from the exercise of reason and from any
aesthetic or moral purpose." Surrealist theory was heavily larded with
concepts borrowed from psychoanalysis, and its overwrought rhetoric
cannot always be taken seriously. The notion that a dream can be
transposed by "automatic handwriting" directly from the unconscious mind
to the canvas, bypassing the conscious awareness of the artist, did not
work in practice. Some degree of control was unavoidable. Nevertheless,
Surrealism stimulated several novel techniques for soliciting and
exploiting chance effects.
process we all know from the children's pastime of rubbing with a pencil
on a piece of paper covering, say, a coin). In La Toilette de la
Mariee (fig. 1075),
he has obtained fascinating shapes and textures by another technique:
"decalcomania" (the transfer, by pressure, of oil paint to the canvas
from some other surface). This procedure is in essence another variant
of that recommended by Alexander Cozens (see fig.
864) and Leonardo da Vinci. Ernst
certainly found, and elaborated upon, an extraordinary wealth of images
among his stains. The end result has some of the qualities of a dream, but it
is a dream born of a strikingly Romantic imagination.
Max Ernst, the most inventive member of the
group, often combined collage with "frottage" (rubbings from pieces of
wood, pressed flowers, and other relief surfaces
(1904-1989). The most
notorious of the Surrealists because of his self-promotion, Dali used a
meticulous verism to render a "paranoid "
dream in which time, forms, and space have been
distorted in a frighteningly real way.
Copper Plate 1
Rubber Cloth 2 Calipers I
1 Piping Man. 1920
La Toilette de la Mane'e
of the Bride).
The same can be said of The Persistence of Memory (fig.
Dali. The Persistence of
(1898-1967) also employed detailed realism, but
for completely different ends. Although he found his early inspiration
in the work of De Chirico, his naturalism stems from the tradition of
Magic Realism that flourished in Belgium in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries. Magritte's goal was "poetic painting":
illusionistic pictures that transform objects into images having
completely different meaning through astonishing transformations,
changes in scale, juxtapositions, and the like. Les Promenades
d'Euclid (fig. 1077)
shows one of his favorites devices, the picture within a picture. The
title, added after the fact through free association, only compounds the
mystery of the painting by failing to explain it. This divorce of word
and image prevents us from finding any literal (or literary) meaning.
The painting's charm lies not simply in this visual and verbal puzzle
but in the presentation itself: the beautifully simple, abstract design,
and the artist's way of subtly heightening reality while ultimately
denying its plausibility.
The Belgian artist
, were associated with the
Surrealist movement. Today the best known is
(1910-1954), who was first
discovered by the poet Andre Breton during a visit to Mexico in
1938 and then rediscovered in
recent years by feminist art historians. She owes her reputation
as much to her troubled life as to her work, for they are inseparable.
Her paintings are frankly autobiographical, yet so laden with personal
meaning and couched in such enigmatic terms that the exact circumstances must be
known in order to decipher their content. Self-Portrait with Thorn
is similar in style to traditional Mexican devotional images. It was
painted in 1940, when her
tempestuous marriage to the painter Diego Rivera
1957) was interrupted for a year by divorce. The
necklace, an allusion to the crown of thorns worn by Christ during the
Passion, is a symbol of her humiliation by her husband. From it hangs a
dead hummingbird, a traditional amulet worn in Mexico by people seeking
love. On her shoulders are two demons in the guise of the artist's pets:
death, who appears as a black cat, and the devil, seen as a monkey. In
context, it is clear that Kahlo must have been contemplating suicide:
she has been a martyr to love while hoping for a resurrection like the
Lord's, as signified by the butterflies overhead.
Magritte. Les Promenades
A number of women, including Meret Oppenheim
Self-Portrait with Thorn
1064), have affinities with it, and its
greatest exponent was also Spanish:
Joan Miro (1893-1983),
who painted the striking Painting (fig.
1079). His style has been
labeled "biomorphic abstraction," since his designs are fluid and
curvilinear, like organic forms, rather than geometric. Actually,
"biomorphic concretion" might be a more suitable name, for the shapes in
Miro's pictures have their own vigorous life. They seem to change before
our eyes, expanding and contracting like amoebas until they approach
human individuality closely enough to please the artist. Their
spontaneous "becoming" is the very opposite of abstraction as we defined it above, though Miro's formal discipline is no less
rigorous than that of Cubism. (He began as a Cubist.)
Surrealism also has a boldly imaginative branch. Some works by
Picasso, such as Three Dancers (fig.
(1879-1940) was decisively influenced early in
his career by Der Blaue Reiter, and shared many of the same ideas
as his friends Kandinsky and Marc. He was, for example, fascinated with
music and was himself a talented violinist. His theories of art also
have much in common with those of Kandinsky- (They were colleagues at
the Bauhaus.) He nevertheless went in the opposite direction. Instead of
a higher reality, he wanted to illuminate a deeper one from within the
imagination which parallels nature but is independent of it. Thus
natural forms are essential to his work, but as pictorial metaphors
filled with hidden meaning rather than as representations of nature. He
was affected, too, by Cubism and Orphism. but ethnographic art and the
drawings of small children held an equally vital interest for him.
The German-Swiss painter Paul Klee
During World War I, he molded these disparate elements into a
pictorial language of his own, marvelously economical and precise.
Twittering Machine (fig. 1080),
a delicate pen-and-ink drawing tinted with watercolor,
demonstrates the unique flavor of Klee's art. With a few simple lines, he has created a
ghostly mechanism that imitates the sound of birds, simultaneously
mocking our faith in the miracles of the machine age and our sentimental
appreciation of bird song. The little contraption is not without its
sinister aspect: the heads of the four sham birds look like fishermen's
lures, as if they might entrap real birds. It thus condenses into one
striking invention a complex of ideas about present-day civilization.
The title has an indispensable role. It is characteristic of the way
Klee worked that the picture itself, however visually appealing, does
not reveal its full evocative quality unless the artist tells us what it
means. The title, in turn, needs the picture: the witty concept of a
twittering machine does not kindle our imagination until we are shown
such a thing. This interdependence is familiar to us from cartoons, but
Klee lifts it to the level of high art without relinquishing the playful
character of these verbal-visual puns. To him art was a "language of
signs," of shapes that are images of ideas as the shape of a letter is
the image of a specific sound, or an arrow the image of the command,
"This way only." He also
realized that in any conventional system the sign is no more than a
"trigger." The instant we perceive it, we automatically invest it with
meaning, without stopping to ponder its shape. Klee wanted his signs to impinge upon our awareness as visual facts, yet also to share the
quality of "triggers."
Toward the end of his life, he immersed himself in the study of
ideographs of all kinds, such as hieroglyphics, hex signs, and the
mysterious markings in prehistoric caves—"boiled-down"
representational images that appealed to him because they had the twin
quality he strove for in his own graphic language. This "ideographic
style" is clearly articulated in figure
Park near Lu(ceme). As a lyric poet may
use the plainest words, these deceptively simple shapes sum up a wealth
of experience and sensation: the innocent gaiety of spring, the clipped
orderliness peculiar to captive plant life in a park. Has it not also a
relationship, in spirit if not in fact, with the Romanesque Summer
Landscape in the manuscript of Carmine Burana (fig.
442)? Klee's attitude soon
changed. Shortly before his death, the artist's horror at World War II
led him to abandon this lighthearted vein in favor of a bleakly
pessimistic manner that drew close to Miro's darkest fantasies of the
Paul Klee. Twittering
Paul Klee. Park near Lu(cerue).
consists almost exclusively of prints and
drawings that parallel those of Kokoschka, whose work she admired. Her
graphics had their sources in the nineteenth century. Munch, Klimt, and
the German artist Max Klinger (1857-1920)
were early inspirations, as was her friend Ernst Barlach. Yet Kollwitz pursued
a resolutely independent course, devoting her art to themes of
inhumanity and injustice. To articulate her social and ethical concerns,
she adopted an intensely expressive, naturalistic style that is as
unrelenting in its bleakness as her choice of subjects. Gaunt mothers
and exploited workers provided much of Kollwitz's thematic focus, but
her most eloquent statements were reserved tor war. World War I, which
cost her oldest son his life, made her an ardent pacifist. Her
lithograph Never Again War! (fig.
is an unforgettable image of protest.
The experience of World War I filled German artists with a
deep anguish at the state of modern civilization, which found its
principal outlet in Expressionism. The work of
a painter and graphic artist who had studied in Paris in
1913, joined the Dadaist
movement in Berlin after the end of the war. Inspired by the Futurists,
he used a dynamized form of Cubism to develop a bitter, savagely satiric
style that expressed the disillusionment of his generation. In
Germany, a Winter's Tale (fig. 1083),
the city of Berlin forms the kaleidoscopic and chaotic
background for several large figures, which are superimposed on it as in
a collage. They include the marionettelike "good citizen" at his table,
and the sinister forces that molded him: a hypocritical clergyman, a
general, and a schoolmaster.
Never Again War!
a robust descendant of Vie Brticke artists, did
not become an Expressionist until after he had lived through World War
I, which filled him with such despair at the state of modern
civilization that he took up painting to "reproach God for his errors."
The Dream (fig. 1084)
is a mocking nightmare, a tilted, zigzag world as
disquieting as those in Bosch's Hell (see fig.
553). It is crammed
Germany, a Winter's
with maimed, puppetlike figures that reflect his experience in the
army medical corps: the handless swimmer, carrying a fish, who climbs a
ladder that leads only to another ladder on the ceiling; the crippled
clown whose open hat protects his eyes but not his head from the
nonexistent sun; the woman singing ecstatically to herself as she plays
a stringless cello; and the beggar frantically cranking his hurdy-gurdy
and blaring his trumpet to this unreceptive audience. AH are blind
except the blond girl in the center. (Note the mirror that reflects
nothing and the lantern that illuminates nothing.) Evidently a recent
arrival, to judge from her trunk, she observes everything with
detachment and gestures as if to say, "Behold this Ship of Fools," while
the puppet she holds mockingly applauds the absurd performance. Her
innocence is underscored by the plant, which rudely pushes aside her dress as she tries to stop its
advance with one foot. The forms show the inspiration of early German
prints, which Beckmann shared with the members oiDie Brticke
(compare figs. 562-565).
The claustrophobic space, which comes from the same source, is
essential to the image, which radiates an oppressive aura. It was, he
said, "how I defend myself against the infinity of space
. . . the great spatial void and
uncertainty that I call God." Beckmann has created a powerful image, but
his evocative symbolism is nevertheless difficult to interpret, since it
is necessarily subjective. How indeed could Beckmann have expressed the
chaos in Germany after that war with the worn-out language of
traditional symbols? "These are the creatures that haunt my
imagination," he seems to say. "They show the true nature of the modern
condition—how weak we are,
how helpless against ourselves in this proud era of so-called progress."
Some elements from this grotesque and sinister sideshow recur in
altered guise more than a decade later in the wings of Beckmann's
triptych Departure (fig. 1085),
a painting that reflects Beckmann's admiration for
Grunewald. The right panel incorporates a blind man holding the fish, a
lantern, and a mad musician. The left pane shows a scene of almost
unimaginable torture. What are we to make of these brutal images? We know from
letters written by the artist and a close friend that they represent
life itself as endless misery filled with all manner of physical and
spiritual pain. The woman trying to make her way in the dark with the
aid of the lamp is carrying the corpse of her memories, evil deeds, and
failures, from which no one can ever be free so long as life beats its
drum. The center panel signifies the departure from life's illusions to
the reality behind appearances. The crowned figure seen from behind
perhaps represents the legendary Fisher King from the legend of the Holy
Grail, whose health and that of his land is restored by Parsifal.
In the hindsight of today, Departure acquired the force of
prophecy. It was completed when, under Nazi pressure, the artist was on
the verge of leaving his homeland. The topsyturvy quality of the two
wing scenes, full of mutilations and meaningless rituals, well captures
the flavor of Hitler's Germany. The stable design of the center panel,
in contrast, with its expanse of blue sea and its sunlit brightness,
conveys the hopeful spirit of an embarkation for distant shores. After living
through World War II in occupied Holland under the most trying
conditions, Beckmann spent the final three years of his life in America.
Max Beckmann. The Dream.
Max Beckmann. Departure. 1932-33.
Arthur G. Dove.1920 in the United
States, most of the original members of the Stieglitz group concentrated
on landscapes, which they treated in representational styles derived
from Expressionism. Alone among them,
Arthur G. Dove
1946) consistently maintained a form of
abstraction, one based loosely on Kandinsky's style. The difference
between the two artists is that Dove sought to reveal the inner life of
nature, whereas Kandinsky tried to rid his images of readily
recognizable subject matter. Dove's paintings possess a monumental
spirit that belies their typically modest size. Foghorns (fig.
intelligence and economy of his mature landscapes. To evoke the
diffusion of sound, Dove utilized the simple but ingenious device of
irregular concentric circles of color that grow paler as they radiate
the center of Expressionism in the New World was Mexico.
The Mexican Revolution began in 1911
with the fall of the dictator Porfirio Diaz and
continued for more than two decades. It inspired a group of young
painters to search for a national style incorporating the great native
heritage of Pre-Columbian art. They also felt that their art must be "of
expressing the spirit of the Revolution in large mural cycles in public
buildings. Although each developed his own distinctive style, they
shared a common point of departure: the Symbolist art of Gauguin, which
had shown how non-Western forms could be integrated with the Western
tradition. The flat, decorative quality of this art was particularly
suited to murals. However, the involvement of these artists in the
political turmoil of the day often led them to overburden their works
with ideological significance. The artist least subject to this
imbalance of form and subject matter was
(1883-1949), a passionately independent artist
who refused to get embroiled in factional politics. The detail from the mural cycle at the University of
Guadalajara (fig. 1087)
illustrates his most powerful trait: a deep humanitarian sympathy with
the silent, suffering masses.
Arthur G. Dove. Foghorns.
1923 the director of the Mannheim
museum organized an exhibition with the title Die Neue Sachlichkeit
(The New Objectivity; sometimes also known as Magic Realism). This,
he explained, was "a label for the new realism bearing a socialist
flavor. Cynicism and resignation are the negative side of New
Objectivity; the positive side expresses itself in the enthusiasm for
immediate reality." Its principal representatives were George Grosz, who
by this time had abandoned his slashing style tor a more realistic
manner no less biting in its sarcasm, and Max Beckmann, whose naturalism
was simply a vehicle for expressing his disillusionment. But it was the
meticulous verism of
Otto Dix (1891-1969),
another Expressionist who had also been a member of
Dada, that defined the essential characteristics of the New Objectivity.
Its roots lay in German Renaissance art and the Romanticism of Runge,
which Dix used to expose the ills of modern Germany with obsessive
detail. Dix's best works are his portraits, such as that of Dr.
1088). The image
has a supernatural clarity that lends an almost nightmarish intensity to
this seemingly straightforward image of the doctor seated impassively
before his instruments, which echo his bulbous shape. In the process,
they have acquired the alien character of the devices in Max Ernst's
I Piping Man (fig. 1074),
so that they become strangely menacing. For a comparably
overwhelming portrayal, we must turn to Ingres' Louis Berlin
(fig. 886). That Dix fares
remarkably well in the comparison is testimony to his powers of
The New Objectivity soon succumbed to realism for its own
sake tinged with Romantic nostalgia as part of a widespread conservative
reaction on both sides of the Atlantic. The naturalism that
characterized American art as a whole during the
1920s found its most important representative in
Throughout her long career, she covered a wide range of
subjects and styles. Like Arthur Dove, she practiced a form of organic
abstraction indebted to Expressionism, but she also adopted the
Precisionism of Charles
that she is sometimes considered an abstract artist. Her work often
combined aspects of both approaches: as she assimilated a subject into
her imagination, she would alter and simplify it to convey a personal
meaning. Nonetheless, O'Keeffe remained a realist at heart. Black
Iris III (fig. 1089)
is the kind of painting for which she is best known. The image is marked
by a strong sense of design uniquely her own. The flower, however, is deceptive in its
decorative treatment. Observed close up and magnified to large scale, it
is a thinly disguised symbol of female sexuality.
1930s signaled the retreat of
progressive art everywhere in response to the economic depression and
social turmoil that gripped both Europe and the United States. Often
realism was linked to the reassertion of traditional values. Most
American artists split into two camps, the Regionalists and the Social
Realists. The Regionalists sought to revive idealism by updating the
American myth, defined, however, largely in midwestern terms. The Social
Realists, on the other hand, captured the dislocation and despair of the
Depression era, and were often concerned with social reform, But both
movements, although bitterly opposed, drew freely on the Ash Can School.
Black Iris III.
AMERICAN SCENE PAINTING.
The dominance of realism during the
He focused on what has since become known as the
"vernacular architecture" of American cities—store
fronts, movie houses, all-night diners—which
no one else had thought worthy of an artist's attention. Early Sunday
Morning (fig. 1090)
distills a haunting sense of loneliness from the all-too-familiar
elements of an ordinary street. Its quietness, we realize, is temporary; there
is hidden life behind these facades. We almost expect to see one of the
window shades raised as we look at them. Apart from its poetic appeal,
the picture also shows an impressive formal discipline. We note the
strategy in placing the fireplug and barber pole, the subtle variations
in the treatment of the row of windows, the precisely calculated slant
of sunlight, the delicate balance of verticals and horizontals.
Obviously, Hopper was not unaware of Mondrian.
The one artist who appealed to all factions alike, including that of the
few remaining modernists, was a former pupil of Robert Henri,
brought about a cultural revival among African-Americans known as the
Harlem Renaissance. Although its promise was dashed by the economic
catastrophe of the Depression, this brief flowering did produce the
first black artists to gain national recognition. By far the most famous
(born 1917), who
rose to prominence around 1940.
Motivated by rage at the injustices inflicted on
African-Americans, Lawrence treated historical themes and the major
social issues of the day. His series "From Every Southern Town
..." (see fig.
1091) focuses on the great exodus
of blacks from the South. Despite its small size, our panel has an
impressive monumentality, thanks to the simplified forms and flat color,
which express his intent with admirable directness. So powerful was
Lawrence's impact that his art continues to define the prototype of
African-American painting for many people, although he retired in
Hopper. Early Sunday
The Migration of
the Negro, panel 3,
"From Every Southern Town Migrants Left
by the Hundreds to Travel North." 1940-41