Ignorance by Milan Kundera (2002)

This is a really enjoyable book and feels like a return to form for Kundera. I hate to say it because it sounds like such a cliché, but it feels that the reason for this is simply to be that, after three novels set predominantly in France and in a Western consumer capitalist culture which Kundera can’t help but loathe and despise – this one returns to Czechoslovakia, to his homeland – and feels significantly more confident, relaxed, integrated, deep and thoughtful as a result.

It’s a novel about returning from exile. It’s set soon after the collapse of communism in 1989 and the liberation of Czechoslovakia from Russian rule, and describes the journeys back to newly-liberated Czechoslovakia of two émigrés, one man, one woman.

But it is a Kundera novel, so the narrative, such as it is, is routinely interspersed with digressions and thoughts and analyses, primarily about the characters’ perceptions and feelings, then of their personal situations, then of their positions as symbols of ‘the émigré’, then explanations of the broader historical background to their situation, and then, stepping right back from the present, Kundera aligns their ‘returns’ with a) the classical legend of Odysseus, maybe the greatest symbol in European literature of the Returner, and b) with passages about the different words in European languages which attempt to convey the many feelings of the returner, nostalgia, longing for home, and so on.

Ignorance

Thus we discover he is using the word ‘ignorance’ not at all in the common or garden sense of ‘lack of knowledge or information’, but in a subtler sense moderated by placing all around it words from other languages (such as the German Sehnsucht and the Czech stesk) which express ‘nostalgia’, longing, the act of missing something or someone – then by examining its Latin root, to produce a wider deeper definition:

To be unaware of, not know, not experience; to lack or miss. In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there. (p.6)

Arguably, the rest of the text is an extended mediation on the meaning of this concept, the suffering of the exile, and the bewilderment of return.

Odysseus is doubly relevant: not just as a returner, but a returner after an absence of twenty years, he is surprisingly close to Kundera’s fictional character. It was in 1968 that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed of the Prague Spring, but only in 1969 that they imposed their new government which proceeded to implement its harsh crackdown on all liberals and dissidents. So it was 20 years later that Russian communism collapsed and the Russia-backed Czech communist government fell.

And Odysseus was away from his homeland (Ithaca) for a long 20 years: 10 years fighting at Troy, three wandering across the Mediterranean and having the extraordinary adventures all children learn about; then seven trapped by the magician Calypso, who was also his lover.

Now these disparate elements – geopolitics, personal stories, etymological precision and ancient myth – could easily have hung apart and pulled in different directions. In my opinion his use of these kinds of disparate elements, or different levels, failed to gel in the previous couple of novels.

But here they meld perfectly. All four of these levels or themes naturally complement each other. The feelings and experiences of the present-day émigrés really does illuminate your understanding of how Odysseus must have felt, pitching up in his homeland twenty years after leaving it. And Kundera’s subtle insights into Odysseus’s plight really does help to amplify the bitter experiences of his émigrés in the present day.

To both of them Kundera applies his insights about memory and forgetting, namely the idea developed in Identity that part of the point of friendship it to tell each other stories about the old days and keep memories alive. Exiled to a foreign land, with no friends, those memories atrophy and die. The more intense Odysseus’s longing for his native land – the less he can remember anything about it.

Émigrés gathered together in compatriot colonies keep retelling to the point of nausea the same stories, which thereby become unforgettable. But people who do not spend time with their compatriots, like Irena or Odysseus, are inevitably stricken with amnesia. The stronger their nostalgia, the emptier of recollections it becomes. (p.33, emphasis added)

Plus (as a big history fan) I am fascinated by the light Kundera sheds on the political and social and cultural changes which took place in a communist-dominated society, how it changed so quickly after the fall of communism, and the myriad little insights thrown up as his two protagonists move among this familiar but alien world.

For me, all of these elements come together to make a really fascinating and engaging book.

The characters

Irena

The woman protagonist, Irena, fled Czechoslovakia with her husband Martin, with one little girl and pregnant with another, back in the 1970s. Émigrés from communist countries weren’t all that welcome in the Paris of the 1970s, dominated by its communist party and the fashion for left-wing students. Her husband fell ill and died, and she had a hard time bringing up the girls (cleaning houses, caring for a paraplegic, p.28).

Emigration-dreams

All the émigrés have them, both she and her husband are plagued by them, dreams in which you are wandering the streets of a strange city and the see the uniforms of the Czech police and awake sweating in panic. Dreams like that. Sometimes they came during the day, in the middle of a meeting, a sudden shaft of memory, walking through a green part of Prague, for a moment, becomes more real than the real world. The continual eruption of the unconscious.

Gustaf

Then she met Gustaf, a Swede who’s fled his homeland to get away from his homeland. They become friends then lovers, then partners. He disconcerts her by saying his company are going to open up a small office in Prague. She wants to get away from the old life, not have it hanging over her all the time. Especially her self-centred, garrulous mother. After the fall of communism his company expands this to buying a house in central Prague, with a flat in the eaves where Gustaf stays on his business trips.

Now Irena flies back to Prague and is able to stay there, while she looks up her old friends and has a sort of hen night for women friends only. This scene registers their different reactions, some jealous, some bitter, everyone keen to tell how much they suffered, the ‘suffering contests’ (p.41).

All of this is interesting and moving and subtly described – very unlike the sex comedy shenanigans of the previous novels, Slowness and Identity, which I didn’t like. When references to Odysseus’s experiences as an exile returning after twenty years are interleaved with Irena’s it doesn’t feel contrived or arch; the two complement each other really well.

Josef

In the airport Irena spots a man she knew twenty years earlier. He had been someone else’s boyfriend who she had flirted with at some party downstairs in a bar in Prague. But then she got married and left the country. But she’d always wondered what would have happened. When she introduces herself to him, he is flustered and shy.

Then we cut to his point of view and learn why he is flustered. He is called Josef and he has absolutely no memory of her whatever, can’t even remember her name. He also fled Czechoslovakia, settling in Denmark and marrying. Now his wife is dead and he is making the pilgrimage home.

The great broom

He wriggles free of her and goes on his own quest in Prague, his own odyssey. He goes to the cemetery where his parents are buried and is appalled by how cramped it is, overshadowed by high rise blocks and freeways. He reflects than an invisible broom has swept across the landscape of his childhood, wiping away everything familiar.

And it seems to be getting faster. Things changed slowly ‘back in the day’, now they change before your eyes. This is brought home in the dining room of the hotel where he’s staying and he realises spoken Czech has changed in intonation and tone in the twenty years he’s been away. Now it feels like ‘an unknown language’ (p.55)

Josef’s brother

Then Josef goes on to meet his brother and the sister-in-law who never liked him. I really liked this scene, the way his sense of the feelings of the other two fluctuate, how Kundera captures the changing mood, the sudden embarrassing silences. He realises he must have been seen as The Betrayer, the lucky younger son who ran away. His flight bedevilled his brother’s career as a surgeon, casting a blight over it. Josef had turned his back on a career as a doctor (turning his back on the family tradition pursued by his grandfather and father) in order to become a vet. The motives for his flight are examined.

Josef left in a hurry and mailed his brother the key to his apartment, saying take what he wanted. Now his brother gives him a bundle of notes and journals and diaries and letters. Back at his hotel he goes through them. He realises he has forgotten most of his childhood.

The law of masochistic memory: as segments of their lives melt into oblivion, men slough off whatever they dislike, and feel lighter, freer. (p.76)

He is disconcerted at the combination of ‘sentimentality and sadism’ (p.83) displayed by the diaries of himself as a frustrated virginal teenager.

The teenage girl

Kundera now creates ‘out of the mists of the time when Josef was in high school’ a virginal girl his own age who has just split up with her first boyfriend. She enjoys the fist pangs of ‘nostalgia’, the first teenage tryouts of that feeling of wanting to ‘go back’ (in her case to the happy days when she was going out with X; but you see how this mention of nostalgia ties in with the book’s theme).

She goes out with young Josef. He is petulant and frustrated. When she announces she is going off on a school skiing trip he has a tantrum and dumps her.

Josef tears up his diary and throws the pieces away. But,

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

Gustaf and Irena’s relationship decays

I thought the book was about Irena’s first and major visit back to Prague, but this passage makes it clear that, her partner Gustaf having opened an office in the city, she found herself spending more and more time there, watching as Prague rapidly becomes westernised, repaints itself and fills up with tourists.

Meanwhile her relationship with Gustaf peters out. They stop having sex. They stop even talking because he enjoys talking in American English, talking loud and long, whereas she clings to the French she had learned in Paris, and behind that to the Czech she grew up with, neither of which Gustaf understands. Now, meeting the strange man (Josef) in the airport has revived something in her. He had given her the number of his hotel and when she gets through after trying half a dozen times, she is thrilled and aroused at his voice.

All this contrasts with the gabby loudmouth Gustaf who she can hear downstairs keeping her horrible chatterbox mum in stitches. Josef represents escape from two people she’s come to loathe.

The teenage girl attempts suicide

The narrative cuts back to that teenage girl after her second boyfriend cruelly dumps her. We are intended by now, I think, to realise that the sentimental and sadistic boyfriend was none other than Josef, and I think the distraught girl was a young Irena.

We are told how the teenage girl goes on the school ski trip, one evening walks away from the chalet, as far as she can, swallows a bunch of sleeping pills she’s stolen off her mother, and lies down in the snow to die.

Burying the dead

This narrative breaks off to revive a thought that had been mentioned earlier (and which recurs in Kundera’s later fiction) which is the correct disposal of the dead. When Josef’s wife dies, he fights an almighty battle to stop her family claiming the body and burying it in the family plot. Josef feels she would be abandoned among strangers. (This parallels Chantal’s anxiety in Identity about what happens to the bodies of the dead the instant they’ve gone i.e. they lose all privacy and pored over by pathologists and police and strangers, cut open and humiliated. Which is why she insists on being cremated.)

The suicide survives

She had lain down under a beautiful blue Alpine sky, her head woozily full of images of a beautiful death. She wakes up under a black night sky feeling awful and in fact unable to feel half her body. Evidently she is not dead, and she staggers back to the ski chalet where the doctor diagnoses her with frostbite and says part of her ear will have to be chopped off. Word goes round the other kids and teachers about the girl who tried to kill herself. She is mortified. Now her life divides into two halves – the innocent years under the blue sky of childhood, and the years of knowledge under a black sky.

The implications of human lifespan

There now follow some fascinating passages about the human condition. Nothing impenetrable or difficult, it’s all very accessible. It’s as if he’s made philosophy entertaining. It’s like Heidegger turned into a newspaper editorial.

First idea is a consideration of how much our lifespan – say 80 years – affects meaning. If human beings lived for, say 160 years, then the notion of a Great Return which his book is about, would dissolve into just one of the many peregrinations 180 year-olds would be prone to.

Human memory

Next, Memory. The fact is that human memory retains no more than a millionth, maybe a hundred millionth of our actual lived experiences. If human beings remembered everything they would cease being human and be a different species. One of the things that defines us is the way we forget almost everything.

And why do we remember some things and not others? Because they are part of the complex narratives we tell ourselves about our lives. And these narratives, obviously, vary hugely from person to person.

It’s not just that people remember the same event differently (as Kundera has given us ample examples of throughout his work), but that quite often two people don’t even remember the event at all. Thus Irena powerfully remembers her first meeting with Josef, and remembers him as a symbol or talisman of the single life she left behind when she married her husband soon after. Whereas Josef doesn’t remember her at all.

Kundera evinces both Irena’s experience after he husband died and Josef’s after his wife died: for both of them the shared memories which made up their relationships required constant discussing and sharing. Once the sharing ended, the memories started to decay, worryingly quickly.

Kundera’s discussed some of these issues before but, as I’ve said, they seem to arise more naturally from the subject matter and setting in this book than they do in its immediate predecessors. The result is that it feels more graceful. There are fewer abrupt handbrake turns.

Back to the narrative

Irena goes strolling round Prague, revising the middle class area where she grew up. She walks through woodland to the back of the famous castle. She thinks about her upbringing, the poets and storytellers and the little theatres with their humour – the ‘intangible essence’ of her country.

Josef reflects

He drives out into the country. He reflects on the destiny of the Czechs, a small nation, whose history has been one of fear and domination, yet have refused to bow to their larger neighbours, like the Danes he has settled among.

He and his sister-in-law had bickered about a painting, a painting by a painter friend of his depicting a working class neighbourhood in the flamey colours of the Fauves. Now he realises he doesn’t want it anyway. It would be a splinter of old Prague in his clean, windswept Danish existence. Out of place.

Man cannot know the future because he doesn’t understand the present

This point is made very amusingly though the example of Schoenberg the revolutionary Austrian composer. In the 1920s he announced that his new twelve-tone system would ensure the dominance of German music for a century. Barely ten years later he, a Jew, was forced to flee Nazi Germany, to America. Here he continued to write and developed the fans and acolytes who were to dominate post-war classical music and impose the atonal ‘system’ onto serious music until well into the 1970s.

But where is he now? In Kundera’s view forgotten and ignored (I’m not sure that’s quite true, but his system certainly doesn’t dominate classical music the way it used to).

Anyway, Kundera introduces another level to explain what he means. Imagine two armies meet to determine the fate of the world but unknown to either one carries the plague bacillus which will wipe out the civilisation they’re fighting over.

Same with Schoenberg and his arch-enemy Stravinsky who he spent fifty years slagging off. In the event both were blown away by radio. The advent of radio in the 1920s was the start of the great plague of noise and din and racket which, in Kundera’s view, has ruined music forever. Kundera lets rip with some classic cultural pessimism:

If in the past people would listen to music out of love of music, nowadays it roars everywhere and all the time, ‘regardless of whether we want to hear it’, it roars from loudspeakers, in cars, in restaurants, in elevators, in the streets, in waiting rooms, in gyms, in the earpieces of Walkmans, music rewritten, reorchestrated, abridged, and stretched out, fragments of rock, of jazz, of opera, a flood of everything jumbled together so that we don’t know who composed it (music become noise is anonymous), so that we can’t tell beginning from end (music become noise has no form); sewage-water music in which music is dying. (p.146)

So who cares any more whether Schoenberg or Stravinsky was right. Both have gone down under a tsunami of sewage-water music.

Irena and music

As so often in Kundera, having shared a thought or idea with us for a couple of pages, he then applies it to one of his walking experiments, also known as ‘characters. Thus we eavesdrop on how much Irena hates the way music blares from every outlet, how much she wants to get away from it to a realm of quiet. On one side of her the bedside radio which, even in its speech programmes, contains snippets of sewage music; on the other side Gustaf snoring like a pig. (This trip to Prague has crystallised how much she hates him.)

She is tense because it is the day when she’s made an appointment to meet Josef.

Josef and N

Before he left the country, Josef had been helped by N., a devout communist who stood up for people like him. Josef goes to meet him, his head full of questions about how he felt about collaborating in the oppression of his people, how things changed towards the end, what he feels now. But N.’s house is packed full of his grown-up kids milling around and he and Josef can’t manage to get a conversation started. He laments the capitalist commercialisation he sees all over the country. N. nods his head. ‘National independence has been an illusion for some time, now.’

Josef abandons his plans to engage in Weighty Conversation and, as soon as he does so, experiences a sudden release and sense of liberation. Suddenly he and N. are like two old friends chatting and gossiping about the past. (There is a certain polemical purpose in the notion that Josef the émigré has more in common with a former communist than with his own brother. His brother represents bitterness, and his wife, Josef’s sister-in-law, would string up the old communists if she could. Josef’s relaxed and warm conversation with his old friend shows how irrelevant that witch-hunting mentality is to the situation. Celebrate what we have in the here and now. Not least because ‘they’ – N. nods towards his adult children – have no idea what they’re talking about.)

The memory theme reappears because N. thanks Josef for acting as his alibi to his wife, on an occasion when N. was off with his mistress. Josef has absolutely no memory of this happening and doubts it was him, but acquiesces in the story. Earlier, his brother had reminded him of some boyhood lines he had supposedly uttered, and his sister-in-law reminded him that he used to scandalise the family with his anti-clerical sentiments. Josef remembers none of this, none of it.

Irena and Josef

They meet at his hotel. They chat and get on. She describes how alien she feels in Prague and yet how she has been cold-shouldered in Paris. The French accepted her and Martin as Heroic Exiles. When the wall came down and she could go back, she realised her few friends slowly lost contact with her because she was no longer interesting.

The suicide girl grown into a woman

I was wrong about the suicide teenager being Irena. It’s her best friend from the old days, Milada, who alone of the cackling women at the hen night reception for Irena, makes the effort to talk to her and understand her. At the time Kundera had told us that she had a very particular hairstyle, the hair cut to perfectly frame her face. Now we realise it is to hide the ear she had cut off because of the frostbite. For her, while Josef and Irena get to know each other in the Prague hotel bar, it is another boring day driving out to a suburb, having a beer and a sandwich alone in a bar.

Except that she has learned that he has come back, the teenage boy who rejected her and prompted her suicide attempt and the loss of her ear. Him. Josef.

Irena and Josef

It’s so noisy with sewage-water music in the bar that Josef invites Irena up to his bedroom. He’s reading the Odyssey. They explicitly compare Odysseus’s 20 year exile with Irena’s own. Talk swiftly moves to Odysseus and Penelope’s first night back in bed. Irena describes it then, half drunk, describes it again using coarse sex words. Both are immediately aroused and tumble into bed. Yes. It is a Milan Kundera novel where, no matter how artful, erudite and thought-provoking the ideas and discussion, straightforward heterosexual penetrative sex is never far away.

It was the sound of those rude words in their native Czech. Both have been married to or living with people who don’t speak Czech. The sound of those words in their native tongue, certainly stimulates Irena to ecstasies of sexual abandonment, she wants to do everything, try every position, and then describe out loud her crudest fantasies, voyeurism, exhibitionism (to be honest, in the era of Fifty Shades of Grey, these do not sound like the wildest fantasies).

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

She is a loud bossy vulgar woman who Irena has been trying to escape all her life. She lives in one of the rooms of the big house Gustaf’s company bought after the liberation. He gets back after a heavy lunch with clients. She has put on some dance music and playfully dances round the room. She takes his hand and makes her dance with her. She pulls him over towards the wall-length mirror. She places her hand on his crotch. They continue dancing. She lets her robe fall open so he can see her breasts and pubic triangle. They continue dancing. She slips her hand down his trousers to touch his hardening member.

Irena and Josef

Irena is exhausted and drunk. She bursts into tears. One thing leads to another and suddenly she realises the awful truth – he doesn’t know who she is. He didn’t on the plane, or in their follow-up phone calls, or downstairs in the bar, or now. She stands and demands he tell her her name. He is silent. Oh dear.

Gustaf and Irena’s mother

Gustaf withdraws from Irena’s mother’s quavery wobbly body. In the darkness she intones that he is quite free to make love to her whenever he likes, but under no obligation. Now, throughout the book we’ve been gently reminded that Gustaf is a bit of a mother’s boy, who fled the responsibility of his wife and child. Now, we realise, he has finally arrived home. Irena’s mother offer him precisely the reassurance and mother love he’s always sought. He reaches out to stroke her cellulite-wobbly buttocks.

Irena and Josef

Abruptly drunk tearful Irena collapses on the bed and passes out. She starts snoring. Josef knees beside her naked body and wonders: could he spend his life with her? she is so obviously in love with him? is she the sister-lover he’s been seeking (on and off) throughout the book?

The suicide girl

Alone and sad, she is in her flat, she is a vegetarian because she is terrified by the thought of eating bodies, that we are all bodies, that she is a body. She has a sad snack dinner and looks at herself in the mirror. She lifts up her hair and looks at her damaged ear. She became a scientist and dreams about flying off into space to find a world where people don’t have bodies.

I thought she and Josef would have had some dramatic reunion in which she blamed him for ruining her life (after he, the selfish teenager, dumped her, she made her suicide attempt, then had part of her ear cut off due to frostbite and gangrene, then she was too scared to show herself to men and never married). But it doesn’t happen, and it feels like an opportunity (deliberately) missed. Remember when he wrote:

The life we’ve left behind us has a bad habit of stepping out of the shadows, of bringing complaints against us, of taking us to court. (p.90)

I thought this was a strong hint that the jilted girlfriend was going to step out of the shadows to confront Josef. Shame. It feels a little like coitus interruptus, a little like the flirting with the reader Kundera does in all his books, promising big things which, somehow, don’t quite come off.

Josef leaves

He writes sleeping snoring Irena a brief sincere note, telling her she has the hotel room till noon the next day. Then packs his bags, goes downstairs, tells reception there’s a guest sleeping in the room who’s not to be disturbed, takes a taxi to the airport and catches his flight. The plane flies up through the clouds and into the big empty black empyrean of night dotted with stars.

Credit

Ignorance by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Harper Collins in 2002 All references are to the 2003 paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2002 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The New Sobriety: Art and Politics in the Weimar Period 1917-33 by John Willett (1978)

Willett was born in 1917. He attended Winchester public school and then Christ Church, Oxford (the grandest and poshest of all the Oxford colleges). He was just beginning a career in set design when the Second World War came along. He served in British Intelligence. After the war he worked at the Manchester Guardian, before becoming assistant to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, writing scores of reviews and articles, until he went freelance in 1967.

He had travelled to Germany just before the war and become fascinated by its culture. He met and befriended Bertolt Brecht whose plays he later translated into English. As a freelance writer Willett authored two books about the Weimar period. This is the first of the pair, published by the well-known art publisher Thames and Hudson. Like most T&H art books it has the advantage of lots of illustrations (216 in this case) and the disadvantage that most of them (in this case, all of them) are in black and white.

The New Sobriety is divided into 22 shortish chapters, followed by a 30-page-long, highly detailed Chronological Table, and a shorter bibliography. There’s also a couple of stylish one-page diagrams showing the interconnection of all the arts across Europe during the period.

Several points:

  • Though it has ‘Weimar’ in the title, the text is only partly about the Weimar Republic. It also contains lots about art in revolutionary Russia, as well as Switzerland and France. At this point you realise that the title says the Weimar Period.
  • The period covered is given as starting in 1917, but that’s not strictly true: the early chapters start with Expressionism and Fauvism and Futurism which were all established before 1910, followed by a section dealing with the original Swiss Dada, which started around 1915.

Cool and left wing

The real point to make about this book is that it reflects Willett’s own interest in the avant-garde movements all across Europe of the period, and especially in the politically committed ones. At several points he claims that all the different trends come together into a kind of Gestalt, to form the promise of a new ‘civilisation’.

It was during the second half of the 1920s that the threads which we have followed were drawn together to form something very like a new civilisation… (p.95)

The core of the book is a fantastically detailed account of the cross-fertilisation of trends in fine art, theatre, photography, graphic design, film and architecture between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany.

In the introduction Willett confesses that he would love to see a really thorough study which related the arts to the main political and philosophical and cultural ideas of the era, but that he personally is not capable of it (p.11). Instead, his book will be:

a largely personal attempt to make sense of those mid-European works of art, in many fields and media, which came into being between the end of the First War and the start of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933. It is neither an art-historical study of movements and artistic innovations, nor a general cultural history of the Weimar Republic, but a more selective account which picks up on those aspects of the period which the writer feels to be at once the most original and the most clearly interrelated, and tries to see how and why they came about. (p.10)

‘Selective’ and ‘interrelated’ – they’re the key ideas.

When I was a student I loved this book because it opened my eyes to the extraordinary range of new avant-garde movements of the period: Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and then the burst of new ideas in theatre, graphic design, magazines, poetry and architecture which are still influential to this day.

Although Willett doesn’t come across as particularly left wing himself, the focus on the ‘radical’ innovations of Brecht and Piscator in Germany, or of Proletkult and Agitprop in Soviet Russia, give the whole book a fashionable, cool, left-wing vibe. And if you don’t know much about the period it is an eye-opening experience.

But now, as a middle-aged man, I have all kinds of reservations.

1. Willett’s account is biased and partial

As long as you remember that it is a ‘personal’ view, deliberately bringing together the most avant-garde artists of the time and showing the extraordinary interconnectedness (directors, playwrights, film-makers travelling back and forth between Germany and Russia, bringing with them new books, new magazines, new ideas) it is fine. But it isn’t the whole story. I’m glad I read Walter Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture just before this, because Laqueur’s account is much more complete and more balanced.

For example, Laqueur’s book included a lot about the right-wing thought of the period. It’s not that I’m sympathetic to those beliefs, but that otherwise the rise of Hitler seems inexplicable, like a tsunami coming out of nowhere. Laqueur’s book makes it very clear that all kinds of cultural and intellectual strongholds never ceased to be nationalistic, militaristic, anti-democratic and anti-the Weimar Republic.

Laqueur’s book also plays to my middle-aged and realistic (or tired and jaundiced) opinion that all these fancy left-wing experiments in theatre (in particular), the arty provocations by Dada, the experimental films and so on, were in fact only ever seen by a vanishingly small percentage of the population, and most of them were (ironically) wealthy and bourgeois enough to afford theatre tickets or know about avant-garde art exhibitions.

Laqueur makes the common-sense point that a lot of the books, plays and films which really characterise the period were the popular, accessible works which sold well at the time but have mostly sunk into oblivion. It’s only in retrospect and fired up by the political radicalism of the 1960s, that latterday academics and historians select from the wide range of intellectual and artistic activity of the period those strands which appeal to them in a more modern context.

2. Willett’s modernism versus Art Deco and Surrealism

You realise how selective and partial his point of view is on the rare occasions when the wider world intrudes. Because of Willett’s compelling enthusiasm for ‘the impersonal utilitarian design’ of the Bauhaus or Russian collectivism, because of his praise of Gropius or Le Corbusier, it is easy to forget that all these ideas were in a notable minority during the period.

Thus it came as a genuine shock to me when Willett devotes half a chapter to slagging off Art Deco and Surrealism, because I’d almost forgotten they existed during this period, so narrow is his focus.

It is amusing, and significant, how much he despises both of them. The chapter (18) is called ‘Retrograde symptoms: modishness in France’ and goes on to describe the ‘capitulation and compromise’ of the French avant-garde in the mid-1920s. 1925 in particular was ‘a year of retreat all down the line’, epitomised by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes exhibition which gave its name to the style of applied arts of the period, Art Deco.

Willett is disgusted that dressmakers sat on the selecting committees ‘alongside obscure establishment architects and rubbishy artists like Jean-Gabriel Domergue’. Not a single German artist or designer was featured (it was a patriotic French affair after all) and Theo van Doesberg’s avant-garde movement, de Stijl, was not even represented in the Dutch stand.

Willet hates all this soft luxury Frenchy stuff, this ‘wishy-washy extremely mondain setting’ which was the milieu of gifted amateurs and dilettantes. It was a hateful commercialisation of cubism and fauvism, it was skin-deep modernism.

What took place here was a diffusing of the modern movement for the benefit not of the less well-off but of the luxury consumer. (p.170)

It’s only because I happen to have recently read Andrew Duncan’s encyclopedic book about Art Deco that I know that there was a vast, a truly huge world of visual arts completely separate from the avant-garde Willett is championing – a world of architects, designers and craftsmen who built buildings, designed the interiors of shops and homes, created fixtures and fittings, lamps and tables and chairs and beds and curtains and wallpapers, all in the luxury, colourful style we now refer to as Art Deco.

Thousands of people bought the stylish originals and millions of people bought the affordable copies of all kinds of objects in this style.

So who is right?

When I was a student I also was on the side of the radical left, excited by Willett’s portrait of a world of hard-headed, functional design in homes and household goods, of agit-prop theatre and experimental film, all designed to mobilise the workers to overthrow the ruling classes and create a perfect world. Indeed the same chapter which dismisses French culture and opens with photos of elegantly-titled French aristocratic connoisseurs and patrons, ends with a photo of a parade by the Communist Roterfront in 1926. That’s the real people, you see, that’s real commitment for you!

But therein lies the rub. The radical, anti-traditionalist, anti-bourgeois, up-the-workers movement in architecture, design, film and theatre which Willett loves did not usher in a new workers’ paradise, a new age of peace and equality – the exact opposite.

The sustained left-wing attacks on the status quo in Germany had the net effect of helping to undermine the Weimar Republic and making the advent of Hitler easier. All the funky film innovations of Eisenstein and the theatrical novelties of Meyerhold failed to create an educated, informed and critical working class in Russia, failed to establish new standards of political and social discourse – instead the extreme cliquishness of its exponents made it all the easier to round them up and control (or just execute) them, as Stalin slowly accumulated power from 1928 onwards.

Older and a bit less naive than I used to be, I am also more relaxed about political ‘commitment’. I have learned what I consider to be the big lesson in life which is that – There are a lot of people in the world. Which means a lot of people who disagree – profoundly and completely disagree – with your own beliefs, ideas and convictions. Disagree with everything you and all your friends and your favourite magazines and newspapers and TV shows and movies think. And that they have as much right to live and think and talk and meet and discuss their stuff, as you do. And so democracy is the permanently messy, impure task of creating a public, political, cultural and artistic space in which all kinds of beliefs and ideas can rub along.

Willett exemplifies what I take to be the central idea of Modernism: that there is only one narrative, one avant-garde, one movement: you have to be on the bus. He identifies his Weimar Germany-Soviet Russia axis as the movement. The French weren’t signed up to it. So he despises the French.

But we now, in 2018, live in a thoroughly post-Modernist world and the best explanation I’ve heard of the difference between modernism and post-modernism is that, in the latter, we no longer believe there is only one narrative, One Movement which you simply must, must, must belong to. There are thousands of movements. There are all types of music, looks, fashions and lifestyles.

Willett’s division of the cultural world of the 1920s into Modernist (his Bauhaus-Constructivist heroes) versus the Rest (wishy-washy, degenerate French fashion) itself seems part of the problem. It’s the same insistence on binary extremes which underlay the mentality of a Hitler or a Stalin (either you are for the Great Leader or against him). And it was the same need to push political opinions and movements to extremes which undermined the centre and led to dictatorship.

By contrast the fashionably arty French world (let alone the philistine, public school world of English culture) was simply more relaxed, less extreme. They had more shopping in them. The Art Deco world which Willett despises was the world of visual and applied art which most people, most shoppers, and most of the rich and the aspiring middle classes would have known about. (And I learned from Duncan’s book that Art Deco really was about shops, about Tiffany’s and Liberty’s and Lalique’s and the design and the shop windows of these top boutiques.)

On the evidence of Laqueur’s account of Weimar culture and Duncan’s account of the Art Deco world, I now see Willett’s world of Bauhaus and Constructivism – which I once considered the be-all and end-all of 1920s art – as only one strand, just one part of a much bigger artistic and decorative universe.

Same goes for Willett’s couple of pages about Surrealism. Boy, he despises those guys. Again it was a bit of a shock to snap out of Willett’s wonderworld of Bauhaus-Constructivism to remember that there was this whole separate and different art movement afoot. Reading Ruth Brandon’s book, Surreal Lives would lead you to believe that it, Surrealism, was the big anti-bourgeois artistic movement of the day. Yet, from Willett’s point of view, focused on the Germany-Russia axis, Surrealism comes over as pitifully superficial froggy play acting.

He says it was unclear throughout the 1920s whether Surrealism even existed outside a handful of books made with ‘automatic writing’. When Hans Arp or Max Ernst went over to the Surrealist camp their work had nothing to tell the German avant-garde. They were German, so it was more a case of the German avant-garde coming to the rescue of a pitifully under-resourced French movement.

There was in fact something slightly factitious about the very idea of Surrealist painting right up to the point when Dali arrived with his distinctively creepy academicism. (p.172)

Surrealism’s moving force, the dominating poet André Breton, is contrasted with Willett’s heroes.

Breton’s romantic irrationalism, his belief in mysterious forces and the quasi-mediumistic use of the imagination could scarcely have been more opposed to the open-eyed utilitarianism of the younger Germans, with their respect for objective facts. (p.172)

I was pleased to read that Willett, like me, finds the Surrealists ‘anti-bourgeois’ antics simply stupid schoolboy posturing.

As for his group’s aggressive public gestures, like Georges Sadoul’s insulting postcard to a Saint-Cyr colonel or the wanton breaking-up of a nightclub that dared to call itself after Les Chants de Maldoror, one of their cult books, these were bound to seem trivial to anyone who had experienced serious political violence. (p.172)

Although the Surrealists bandied around the term ‘revolution’ they didn’t know what it meant, they had no idea what it was like to live through the revolutionary turmoil of Soviet Russia or the troubled years 1918 to 1923 in post-war Germany which saw repeated attempts at communist coups in Munich and Berlin, accompanied by savage street fighting between left and right.

Although the Surrealists pretentiously incorporated the world ‘revolution’ into the title of their magazine, La Révolution surréaliste, none of them knew what a revolution really entailed, and

Breton, Aragon and Eluard remained none the less bourgeois in their life styles and their concern with bella figura. (p.172)

There were no massacres in the streets of comfortable Paris, and certainly nothing to disturb the salon of the Princess Edmond de Polignac, who subsidised the first performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or to upset the Comtesse de Noailles, who commissioned Léger to decorate her villa at Hyères and later underwrote the ‘daring’ Surrealist film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, L’Age d’Or (1930).

In this, as in so many other things, French intellectuals come across as stylish poseurs performing for impeccably aristocratic patrons.

3. Willett’s account is clotted and cluttered

The text is clotted with names, absolutely stuffed. To give two symptoms, each chapter begins with a paragraph-long summary of its content, which is itself often quite exhausting to read; and then the text itself suffers from being rammed full of as many names as Willett can squeeze in.

Almost every sentence has at least one if not more subordinate clauses which add in details about the subject’s other activities, or another organisation they were part of, or a list of other people they were connected to, or examples of other artists doing the same kind of thing.

Here’s a typical chapter summary, of ‘Chapter 16 Theatre for the machine age: Piscator, Brecht, the Bauhaus, agitprop‘:

Middlebrow entertainment and the revaluation of the classics. The challenge of cinema. Piscator’s first political productions and his development of documentary theatre; splitting of the Volksbühne and formation of his own company; his historic productions of 1927-8 with their use of machinery and film. The new dramaturgy and the problem of suitable plays. Brecht’s reflection of technology, notably in Mann ist Mann; his collaboration with Kurt Weill and the success of the Threepenny Opera; epic theatre and the collective approach. Boom of ‘the theatre of the times’ in 1928-9. Experiments at the Bauhaus: Schlemmer, Moholy, Nagy, Gropius’s ‘Totaltheater’ etc;. The Communist agitprop movement. Parallel developments in Russia: Meyerhold, TRAM, Tretiakoff.

Quite tiring to read, isn’t it? And that’s before you get to the actual text itself.

So Eisenstein could legitimately adopt circus techniques, just as Grosz and Mehring could appear in cabaret and Brecht before leaving Munich worked on the stage and film sketches of that great comic Karl Valentin. In 1925 a certain Walter von Hollander proposed what he called ‘education by revue’, the recruiting of writers like Mehring, Tucholsky and Weinert to ‘fill the marvellous revue form with the wit and vigour of our time’. This form was itself a kind of montage, and Reinhardt seems to have planned a ‘Revue for the Ruhr’ to which Brecht would contribute – ‘A workers’ revue’ was the critic Herbert Ihering’s description – while Piscator too hoped to open his first season with his own company in 1927 by a revue drawing on the mixed talents of his new ‘dramaturgical collective’. This scheme came to nothing, though Piscator’s earlier ‘red Revue’ – the Revue roter Rummel of 1924 – became important for the travelling agit-prop groups which various communist bodies now began forming on the model of the Soviet ‘Blue Blouses’. (p.110)

Breathless long sentences packed with names and works ranging across places and people and theatres and countries, all about everything. This is because Willett is at pains to convey his one big idea – the astonishing interconnectedness of the world of the 1920s European avant-garde – at every possible opportunity, and so embodies it in the chapter summaries, in his diagrams of interconnectedness, extending it even down to the level of individual sentences.

The tendency to prose overstuffed with facts is not helped by another key aspect of the subject matter which was the proliferation of acronyms and initialisms. For example the tendency of left-wing organisations to endlessly fragment and reorganise, especially in Russia where, as revolutionary excitement slowly morphed into totalitarian bureaucracy, there was no stopping the endless setting up of organisations and departments.

Becher, Anor Gabór and the Young Communist functionary Alfred Kurella, who that autumn [of 1927] were part of a delegation to the tenth anniversary celebrations [of the October Revolution] in Moscow, also attended the IBRL’s foundation meeting and undertook to form a German section of the body. Simultaneously some of the surviving adherents of the earlier Red Group decided to set up a sister organisation which would correspond to the Association of Artists of the Russian Revolution, an essentially academic body now posing as Proletarian. Both plans materialised in the following year, when the new German Revolutionary Artists Association (or ARBKD) was founded in March and the Proletarian-Revolutionary Writers’ League (BPRS) in October. (p.173)

Every paragraph is like that.

4. Very historical

Willett’s approach is very historical. As a student I found it thrilling the way he relates the evolving ideas of his galaxy of avant-garde writers, artists and architects – Grosz and Dix, Gropius and Le Corbusier, Moholy-Nagy and Meyerhold, Rodchenko and Eistenstein, Piscator and Brecht – to the fast-changing political situations in Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia, which, being equally ignorant of, I also found a revelation.

Now, more familiar with this sorry history, I found the book a little obviously chronological. Thus:

  • Chapter six – Revolution and the arts: Germany 1918-20, from Arbeitsrat to Dada
  • Chapter seven – Paris postwar: Dada, Les Six, the Swedish ballet, Le Corbusier
  • Chapter eight – The crucial period 1921-3; international relations and development of the media; Lenin and the New Economic Policy; Stresemann and German stabilisation

It proceeds with very much the straightforward chronology of a school textbook.

5. Not very analytical

The helter-skelter of fraught political developments in both countries – the long lists of names, their interconnections emphasised at every opportunity – these give a tremendous sense of excitement to his account, a sense that scores of exciting artists were involved in all these fast-moving and radically experimental movements.

But, at the end of the day, I didn’t come away with any new ideas or sense of enlightenment. All the avant-garde artists he describes were responding to two basic impulses:

  1. The advent of the Machine Age (meaning gramophone, cars, airplanes, cruise ships, portable cameras, film) which prompted experiments in all the new media and the sense that all previous art was redundant.
  2. The Bolshevik Revolution – which inspired far-left opinions among the artists he deals with and inspired, most obviously, the agitprop experiments in Russia and Piscator and Brecht’s experiments in Germany – theatre in the round, with few if any props, the projection onto the walls of moving pictures or graphs or newspaper headlines – all designed to make the audience think (i.e. agree with the playwright and the director’s communist views).

But we sort of know about these already. From Peter Gay’s book, and then even more so Walter Laqueur’s book, I came away with a strong sense of the achievement and importance of particular individuals, and their distinctive ideas. Thomas Mann emerges as the representative novelist of the period and Laqueur’s book gives you a sense of the development of his political or social thought (the way he slowly came round to support the Republic) and of his works, especially the complex of currents found in his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain.

Willett just doesn’t give himself the space or time to do that. In the relentless blizzard of lists and connections only relatively superficial aspects of the countless works referenced are ever mentioned. Thus Piscator’s main theatrical innovation was to project moving pictures, graphs and statistics onto the backdrops of the stage, accompanying or counter-pointing the action. That’s it. We nowhere get a sense of the specific images or facts used in any one production, rather a quick list of the productions, of the involvement of Brecht or whoever in the writing, of Weill or Eisler in the music, before Willett is off comparing it with similar productions by Meyerhold in Moscow. Always he is hurrying off to make comparisons and links.

Thus there is:

6. Very little analysis of specific works

I think the book would have benefited from slowing down and studying half a dozen key works in a little more detail. Given the funky design of the book into pages with double columns of text, with each chapter introduced by a functionalist summary in bold black type, it wouldn’t have been going much further to insert page-long special features on, say, The Threepenny Opera (1928) or Le Corbusier’s Weissenhof Estate housing in Stuttgart (1927).

Just some concrete examples of what the style was about, how it worked, and what kind of legacy it left would have significantly lifted the book and left the reader with concrete, specific instances. As it is the blizzard of names, acronyms and historical events is overwhelming and, ultimately, numbing.

The Wall Street Crash leads to the end of the Weimar experiment

In the last chapters Willett, as per his basic chronological structure, deals with the end of the Weimar Republic.

America started it, by having the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. American banks were plunged into crisis and clawed back all their outstanding loans in order to stay solvent. Businesses all across America went bankrupt, but America had also been the main lender to the German government during the reconstruction years after the War.

It had been an American, Charles G. Dawes, who chaired the committee which came up with the Dawes Plan of 1924. This arranged for loans to be made to the German government, which it would invest to boost industry, which would increase the tax revenue, which it would then use to pay off the punishing reparations which France demanded at the end of the war. And these reparations France would use to pay off the large debts to America which France had incurred during the war.

It was the guarantee of American money which stabilised the German currency after the hyper-inflation crisis of 1923, and enabled the five years of economic and social stability which followed, 1924-29, the high point for Willett of the Republic’s artistic and cultural output. All funded, let it be remembered, by capitalist America’s money.

The Wall Street Crash ended that. American banks demanded their loans back. German industry collapsed. Unemployment shot up from a few hundred thousand to six million at the point where Hitler took power. Six million! People voted, logically enough, for the man who promised economic and national salvation.

In this respect, the failure of American capitalism, which the crash represented, directly led to the rise of Hitler, to the Second World War, to the invasion of Russia, the partition of Europe and the Cold War. No Wall Street Crash, none of that would have happened.

A closed worldview leads to failure

Anyway, given that all this is relatively well known (it was all taught to my kids for their history GCSEs) what Willett’s account brings out is the short-sighted stupidity of the Communist Party of Germany and their Soviet masters.

Right up till the end of the Weimar Republic, the Communists (the KPD) refused to co-operate with the more centrist socialists (the SPD) in forming a government, and often campaigned against them. Willett quotes a contemporary communist paper saying an SPD government and a disunited working class would be a vastly worse evil than a fascist government and a unified working class. Well, they got the fascist government they hoped for.

In fact, the communists wanted a Big Crisis to come because they were convinced that it would bring about the German Revolution (which would itself trigger revolution across Europe and the triumph of communism).

How could they have been so stupid?

Because they lived in a bubble of self-reaffirming views. I thought this passage was eerily relevant to discussions today about people’s use of the internet, about modern digital citizens tending to select the news media, journalism and art and movies and so on, which reinforce their views and convince them that everyone thinks like them.

To some extent the extreme unreality of this attitude, with its deceptive aura of do-or-die militancy, sprang from the old left-wing tendency to underrate the non-urban population, which is where the Nazis had so much of their strength. At the same time it reflects a certain social and cultural isolation which sprang from the KPD’s own successes. For the German Communists lived in a world of their own, where the party catered for every interest. Once committed to the movement you not only read AIZ and the party political press: your literary tastes were catered for by the Büchergilde Gutenberg and the Malik-Verlag and corrected by Die Linkskurve; your entertainment was provided by Piscator’s and other collectives, by the agitprop groups, the Soviet cinema, the Lehrstück and the music of Eisler and Weill; your ideology was formed by Radványi’s MASch or Marxist Workers’ School; your visual standards by Grosz and Kollwitz and the CIAM; your view of Russia by the IAH. If you were a photographer, you joined a Workers-Photographers’ group; if a sportsman, some kind of Workers’ Sports Association; whatever your special interests Münzenberg [the German communist publisher and propagandist] had a journal for you. You followed the same issues, you lobbied for the same causes. (p.204)

And you failed. Your cause failed and everyone you knew was arrested, murdered or fled abroad.

A worldview which is based on a self-confirming bubble of like-minded information is proto-totalitarian, inevitably seeks to ban or suppress any opposing points of view, and is doomed to fail in an ever-changing world where people with views unlike yours outnumber you.

A democratic culture is one where people acknowledge the utter difference of other people’s views, no matter how vile and distasteful, and commit to argument, debate and so on, but also to conceding the point where the opponents are, quite simply, in the majority. You can’t always win, no matter how God-given you think your views of the world. But you can’t even hope to win unless you concede that your opponents are people, too, with deeply held views. Just calling them ‘social-fascists’ (as the KPD called the SPD) or ‘racists’ or ‘sexists’ (as bienpensant liberals call anyone who opposes them today) won’t change anything. You don’t stand a chance of prevailing unless you listen to, learn from, and sympathise with, the beliefs of people you profoundly oppose.

A third of the German population voted for Hitler in 1932 and the majority switched to Führer worship once he came to power. The avant-garde artists Willett catalogues in such mind-numbing profusion pioneered techniques of design and architecture, theatre production and photography, which still seem astonishingly modern to us today. But theirs was an entirely urban movement created among a hard core of like-minded bohemians. They didn’t even reach out to university students (as Laqueur’s chapter on universities makes abundantly clear), let alone the majority of Germany’s population, which didn’t live in fashionable cities.

Over the three days it took to read this book, I’ve also read newspapers packed with stories about Donald Trump and listened to radio features about Trump’s first year in office, so it’s been difficult not to draw the obvious comparisons between Willett’s right-thinking urban artists who failed to stop Hitler and the American urban liberals who failed to stop Trump.

American liberals – middle class, mainly confined to the big cities, convinced of the rightness of their virtuous views on sexism and racism – snobbishly dismissing Trump as a flashy businessman with a weird haircut who never got a degree, throwing up their hands in horror at his racist, sexist remarks. And utterly failing to realise that these were all precisely the tokens which made him appeal to non-urban, non-university-educated, non-middle class, and economically suffering, small-town populations.

Also, as in Weimar, the left devoted so much energy to tearing itself apart – Hillary versus Sanders – that it only woke up to the threat from the right-wing contender too late.

Ditto Brexit in Britain. The liberal elite (Guardian, BBC) based in London just couldn’t believe it could happen, led as it was by obvious buffoons like Farage and Johnson, people who make ‘racist’, ‘sexist’ comments and so, therefore, obviously didn’t count and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Because only people who talk like us, think like us, are politically correct like us, can possibly count or matter.

Well, they were proved wrong. In a democracy everyone’s vote counts as precisely ‘1’, no matter whether they’re a professor of gender studies at Cambridge (which had the highest Remain vote) or a drug dealer in Middlesborough (which had the highest Leave vote).

Dismissing Farage and Johnson as idiots, and anyone who voted Leave as a racist, was simply a way of avoiding looking into and trying to address the profound social and economic issues which drove the vote.

Well, the extremely clever sophisticates of Berlin also thought Hitler was a provincial bumpkin, a ludicrous loudmouth spouting absurd opinions about Jews which no sensible person could believe, who didn’t stand a chance of gaining power. And by focusing on the (ridiculous little) man they consistently failed to address the vast economic and social crisis which underpinned his support and brought him to power. Ditto Trump. Ditto Brexit.

Some optimists believe the reason for studying history is so we can learn from it. But my impression is that the key lesson of history is that – people never learn from history.


Related links

Related reviews

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974)

The term ‘Weimar culture’, while generally accepted, is in some respects unsatisfactory, if only because political and cultural history seldom coincides in time. Expressionism was not born with the defeat of the Imperial German army, nor is there any obvious connection between abstract painting and atonal music and the escape of the Kaiser, nor were the great scientific discoveries triggered off by the proclamation of the Republic in 1919. As the eminent historian Walter Laqueur demonstrates, the avant-gardism commonly associated with post-World War One precedes the Weimar Republic by a decade. It would no doubt be easier for the historian if the cultural history of Weimar were identical with the plays and theories of Bertolt Brecht; the creations of the Bauhaus and the articles published by the Weltbühne. But there were a great many other individuals and groups at work, and Laqueur gives a full and vivid accounting of their ideas and activities. The realities of Weimar culture comprise the political right as well as the left, the universities as well as the literary intelligentsia (Publisher’s blurb)

Laqueur was born into a Jewish family in 1921 in Prussia. He emigrated to British-controlled Palestine in 1938, where he graduated from school then worked as a journalist till the mid-50s. In 1955 he moved to London, and then on to America where he became an American citizen and a leading writer on modern history and international affairs.

Laqueur is still going strong at the age of 96 and has had a prodigious career – his first book (a study of the Middle East) was published in 1956 and his most recent (a study of Putinism) was published in 2015.

This book is about twice the length of Peter Gay’s 1968 study of the culture of Weimar. It is more urbane and expansive in style, and less tied to a specific thesis. Gay’s aim was to show how, in a range of ways, the intelligentsia of Weimar failed to support, or actively sought to overthrow, the young German democracy.

The overall tendency of Laqueur’s book is the same – the failure of the arts and intelligentsia to support the Republic – but his account feels much more balanced and thorough.

Geography

I appreciated his description of the geography of post-war Germany and how it influenced its politics. It’s important to remember that, under the punitive Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost all her overseas colonies, 13% of her European territory and a tenth of her population (some 6 million people) who now found themselves living in foreign countries (France, Poland, the new state of Czechoslovakia).

Much more than France or Britain, Germany had (and still has) many cities outside the capital which have strong cultural traditions of their own – Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden.

Laqueur emphasises the difference between the industrial north and west and more agricultural south and east. He points out that the cities never gave that much support to Nazism; on the eve of Hitler’s coup, only a third of Berliners voted for the Nazis. Nazism was more a product of the thousands of rural towns and villages of Germany – inhabited by non-urbanites easily persuaded that they hated corrupt city life, cosmopolitanism, rapacious capitalists, Jews, and the rest of the Nazi gallery of culprits.

The left

I benefited from his description of the thinkers based around the famous Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923. The aim of the Institute was to bring together Marxist thinkers, writers, philosophers in order to work on a cultural critique of capitalist society. The idea was to analyse literature, plays, the new form of cinema – to show how capitalism conditioned the manufacture and consumption of these cultural artefacts.

To us, today, this seems like an obvious project, but that’s because we live in a culture saturated with an analysis of culture. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, blogs, TV shows, books, university courses by the thousand offer analyses of plays, art, movies and so on in terms of their construction, hidden codes, gender stereotyping, narrative structures, and so on and so on. The Frankfurt School thinkers – men like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin – more or less invented the language and approach to do this.

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, all these Marxist thinkers were forced into exile. Did they flee to the Workers’ Paradise of the Soviet Union? No. They may have been Marxists but they weren’t stupid. They fled to the epicentre of world capitalism, America. New York at first, but many passed on to California where, among the palm trees and swimming pools, they penned long disquisitions about how awful capitalism was.

What Laqueur brings out from a review of their different approaches is the complete impracticality of their subtle and sophisticated critiques of capitalist society, which were more or less ignored by the actual German Communist Party (the KPD). In fact it only slowly dawned on these clever men that the Communist Party merely carried out Moscow’s foreign policy demands and that clever, individualistic Marxist thinkers like them were more of a liability to its demands for unswerving obedience, than an asset. In the eyes of the Party:

Since they lacked close contact with the working class few of them had been able to escape the ideological confusion of the 1920s, and to advance from a petty-bourgeois, half-hearted affirmation of humanist values to a full, wholehearted identification with Marxism-Leninism. (p.272)

Their peers in the USSR were rounded up and executed during Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s. Life among the tennis courts of California was much nicer.

The right

Surprisingly, Laqueur shows that this political impractibility also goes for thinkers of the right, who he deals with at length in a chapter titled ‘Thunder from the Right’.

The right had, probably, a higher proportion of cranks than the left, but still included a number of powerful and coherent thinkers. Laqueur gives insightful pen portraits of some of the most significant figures:

  • Alfred Rosenberg the Nazi propagandist, thought that the Bolshevik revolution symbolised the uprising of racially inferior groups, led by the Asiatic Lenin and the Jew Trotsky, against the racially pure Aryan élite (the Romanov dynasty). Rosenberg wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), the myth being ‘the myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.’ Despite this feverish support for the Nazis, Laqueur points out that Hitler and the Nazi leaders didn’t bother to read this long work. Rosenberg was in fact, seen as ‘plodding, earnest, humourless,’ a figure of fun even on the right.
  • Oswald Spengler‘s famous tome The Decline of the West (1922) had been drafted as early as 1911, its aim being to describe the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism, which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts. According to Spengler history moves in enormous unavoidable cycles of birth and decay. The age of kings and emperors was over, a new age of mass society and machines was at hand. (Although Spengler attacked the Republic for being a business scam, he also had some hard words for the Nazis who in reply criticised him. But they let him live and he died a natural death, in 1936.)
  • Moeller van den Bruck wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich, the latter arguing that the key to world history was the conflict between the new young nations (Germany, Russia, America) and the old imperial ones (Britain and France). He thought Germany’s leaders needed to adopt a form of state ‘socialism’ which would unite the nation in a new Reich, which would become a synthesis of everything which came before. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). It is in this hyperbole which he represents the overwrought spirit of the times.
  • Edgar Jung was a leader of the Conservative Revolutionary movement who lobbied long and hard against the Weimar Republic, whose parliamentarian system he considered decadent and foreign-imposed. Jung became speech writer to the Vice-chancellor of the coalition cabinet, Franz von Papen. He wrote a 1934 speech which was fiercely critical of the Nazis for being fanatics who were upsetting the return to Christian values and ‘balance’ which is what he thought Germany required. With the result that Hitler had him arrested and executed on the Night of the Long Knives, at the end of June 1934.
  • Carl Schmitt was an eminent legal philosopher who developed a theory based around the centrality of the state. The state exists to protect its population, predominantly from aggression by other states. To function it has to be a co-ordinated community of interests. Liberalism undermines this by encouraging everyone to go their own way. Parliamentarianism is the (ineffectual) reflection of liberalism. The state exists to make firm, clear decisions (generally about foreign policy), the opposite of the endless talking-shop of parliaments. Schmitt was yet another ‘serious’ thinker who prepared the minds he influenced for the advent of a Führer. But what I enjoyed about Laqueur’s account is that he goes on to bring out nuances and subtleties in the positions of all these people. Despite being anti-parliamentarian and soundly right-wing, Schmitt wasn’t approved of by the Nazis because his theory of the strong state made no room for two key Nazi concepts, race and Volk. Also – like many right wing thinkers – his philosophy was temperamentally pessimistic – whereas the Nazis were resoundingly optimistic and required optimism from their followers.
  • Ludwig Klages was, after the Second World War, nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in developing graphology, the study of handwriting. But during the 1920s he was a pessimist of global proportions and a violent anti-Semite. His key work was The Intellect as Adversary of the Soul (1929) which claims that the heart, the soul, the essence of man has been trapped and confined ever since the beastly Jews invented monotheism and morality, twin evils which they passed on to Christianity. His book was a long review of the way Western morality had trapped and chained the deep ‘soul of Man’. Although the work was ripe in rhetoric, fiercely anti-rational and anti-democratic in tone and purpose it was, once again, not particularly useful to the Nazis.

To summarise: There was a large cohort of eminent thinkers, writers, philosophers, historians, of intellectuals generally, who wrote long, deeply researched and persuasive attacks on liberalism and democracy. Laqueur’s account builds up into a devastating indictment of almost the entire intellectual class of the country.

But all these attacks on Weimar democracy begged the central question: What would become of individual freedom when there were no longer human rights, elections, political parties or a parliament? The answer was that many of these thinkers developed a notion of ‘freedom’ completely at odds with out modern, UN Declaration of Human Rights-era understanding of the term. But notions which came out of deep German traditions of philosophy and religion.

Spengler, for example, maintained that, despite its harsh outer discipline, Prussianism – an epitome of core German values – enabled a deeper, inner freedom: the freedom which comes from belonging to a unified nation, and being devoted to a cause.

Protestant theologians of the era, on the other hand, developed a notion that ‘freedom’ was no longer (and never had been) attached to the outdated, liberal concept of individual liberty (which was visibly failing in a visibly failing ‘democracy’ as the Weimar Republic tottered from one crisis to the next). No, a man could only be ‘free’ in a collective which had one focus and one share belief.

In numerous thinkers of the era, a political order higher than liberalism promised freedom, not to individual capitalists and cosmopolitans, but to an entire oppressed people. The Volk.

What emerges from Laqueur’s summary of Weimar’s right-wing thinkers is that they were responding to the failure of democratic politics in just as vehement a fashion as the Marxists. The main difference is that invoked a much more varied selection of interesting (often obscure, sometimes bonkers) ideas and sources (compared with the communists who tended to be confined, more or less, to slightly varying interpretations of Marx).

To summarise, common features of Weimar right-wing thinking included:

  • the favouring of German Kultur (profound, spiritual, rural, of the soil) against superficial French Zivilisation (superficial, decadent, urban)
  • a focus on deep cultural values – Innerlichkeit meaning wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness
  • fierce opposition to the ‘ideas of 1918’:
    • political liberalism, social democracy, socialism, parliamentarianism
    • sexual lascivious dancing, jazz, nudity, immorality, abortion, divorce, pornography
    • cultural arts which focused on corruption and low moral values instead of raising the mind to emulate heroes
    • racial against foreigners, non-Germans, traitors and Jews

But just as the actual Communist Party didn’t think much of Weimar’s Communist intellectuals and were as likely to be repelled by avant-garde art as the staidest Berlin banker (as Stalin’s crack down on all the arts in favour of Socialist Realism was soon to show) – so Laqueur shows that the Nazis weren’t all that interested in most of the right-wing intellectuals, some of whom (as explained above) they even executed.

One of the themes which emerges from Laqueur’s long account of intellectuals of all stripes is that none of them seem to have grasped that politics is not about fancy ideas, but about power.

The Nazis had a far more astute grasp of the realities of power than the other right-wing leaders; they did not think highly of intellectuals as allies in the political struggle, and they made no efforts to win them over. (p.88)

The Nazis realised (like Lenin) that the intellectuals who supported them would rally to their cause once they’d won power; and that those who didn’t… could be killed. Simples.

The politically negative impact of the arts

As to the arts, Laqueur echoes Gay in thinking that every one of the left-wing plays and movies and pictures, all the scabrous articles by Kurt Tucholsky and the searing drawings of George Grosz – didn’t convert one conservative or bourgeois to the cause. Instead, their net effect was to alienate large sectors of the population from an urban, predominantly Berlin-based culture, a milieu which the conservative newspapers could all-too-easily depict as corrupt, decadent, immoral and unpatriotic.

Conservatives said: ‘Why do all paintings, plays, cabarets and movies seem to focus on criminals, prostitutes, grotesques and monsters? Why can’t artists portray ordinary decency and German virtues?’

Laqueur gives a long account of Weimar literature, the main thrust of which is that a) it was more varied than is remembered b) Thomas Mann was the leading writer. Indeed, Mann’s career, writings and changing political attitudes weave in and out of the whole text.

Weimar had possibly the most interesting theatre in the world with the innovations of Erwin Piscator standing out (projection of film onto the stage, facts, statistics, graphs; stylised stage sets; stage workings left exposed to view, and so on). But he, like the most famous playwright of the era, Bertolt Brecht, appealed ultimately to an intellectual, bourgeois audience (as they do today). There’s no evidence that ‘the workers’ saw many of these avant-garde plays. Instead ‘the workers’ were down the road watching the latest thriller at the cinema. Film was well-established as the populist art form of the era.

Art is much more international than literature or theatre, and Laqueuer makes the same point as Gay, that what we think of as Modern art was mostly a pre-war affair, with the Fauves, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism all named and established by 1910, let alone 1914. In 1918 the survivors of these movements carried on, but Laqueur shows how the Expressionist impulse in all the arts – the harrowing sense of anguish, the apocalyptic visions, the strident imagery – was exhausted by 1923 or 4, and the more conservative, figurative (if still often stark and grotesque style) of Otto Dix and George Grosz was prevalent enough to be given its name of Neue Sachlichkeit well before the famous 1925 exhibition of that name.

Laqueur covers a lot more ground than Gay. There’s an entire chapter about German universities, which proceeds systematically through each of the subjects – sciences, arts, humanities, social studies and so on – explaining the major works of the era, describing the careers of key figures, putting them in the wider social and historical context. For example, art history emerges as a particular strong point of Weimar scholarship, from which America and Britain both benefited when Hitler came to power and all the art scholars fled abroad.

The main take home about universities is how shockingly right-wing the authorities and the students were, with plenty of learned scholars spending all their energy undermining the hated republic, and students forming all sorts of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups. I was genuinely surprised by this.

There’s a section on Weimar theology describing the thought of famous theologians such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish thinker Martin Buber. As so often throughout the book there is often a strong sense of déjà vu, as the reader realises that ideas first promulgated during the 1920s have, in essence, echoed down to the present day:

The religious socialists, best-known among them Paul Tillich, preached ‘socialism derived from faith’, attacking soulless capitalist society, the free market economy and the alienation of man in which it had resulted. (p.210)

This sounds like the more outspoken Anglican bishops since as far back as I can remember (the 1970s).

Comparisons with our time

In fact one of the book’s great appeals is the way it prompts the reader to stop and draw comparisons between the Weimar years and our own happy times. Here are some thought-provoking similarities:

  • The left was full of utopian dreams, often about advanced sexual morality (divorce and abortions in the 1920s, LBGT+ and trans people in our time), which alienated a good deal of broader conventional opinion from their cause.
  • The left was characterised then, as now, by bitter internecine fighting (in our time the splits in the Labour Party between Momentum+young people supporting Jeremy Corbyn against the Labour MPs and left-wing commentators [e.g. The Guardian] who bitterly opposed him). The net effect of all this in-fighting, then as now, was to leave the way clear for the right to take and hold power.
  • The Weimar left was overwhelmingly urban and educated and made the fundamental mistake of thinking everyone was like them and shared their values. But, now as then, the majority of the population does not have university degrees, nor live in big cities full of talk about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘racial diversity’. This seems to be what took Vote Remain campaigners in the UK and Clinton campaigners in the US by surprise: the discovery that there are tens of millions of people who simply don’t share their views or values. At all.

Reading about: the obscene gap between rich and poor; the exploitation of workers; homelessness and dereliction; the in-fighting of the left; the irrelevance of the self-appointed avant-garde who made ‘revolutionary’ art, films, plays which were sponsored by and consumed by the bourgeois rich; while all the time the levers of power remained with bankers and financiers, huge business conglomerates and right-wing politicians — it’s hard not to feel that, although lots of surface things have changed, somehow, deep down, the same kind of structures and behaviours are with us still.

Reading the book tends to confirm John Gray’s opinion that, whereas you can definitely point to objective progress in the hard sciences, in the humanities – in philosophy, politics, art, literature and so on – things really just go round and round, with each new generation thinking it’s invented revolutionary politics or avant-garde art or subversive movies, just like the previous ones.

On a cultural level, has anything changed since the Weimar Republic produced Marxist culture critics, avant-garde movies, gay nightclubs, gender subversion and everyone was moaning about the useless government?

The peril of attacking liberal democracy

For me the central take-home message of both Gay and Laqueur’s books is that — If left wingers attack the imperfect bourgeois democracy they’ve got, the chances are that they won’t prepare the way for the kind of utopian revolution they yearn for. Chances are they will open the door to reactionaries who harness the votes and support of people which the left didn’t even know existed – the farmers and rural poor, the unemployed and petty bourgeoisie, the religious and culturally conservative – and lead to precisely the opposite of what the left hoped to achieve.

All across the developed world we are seeing this happening in our time: the left preaching utopian identity politics, supporting mass immigration and bickering among themselves – while the culturally and socially conservative right goes from strength to strength. I’m not saying there’s a direct comparison between Weimar Germany and now; I’m just pointing out that, reading this long and absorbing book, it was striking how many times the political or artistic rhetoric of the era sounded identical to the kind of thing we hear today, on both sides.

German values

Like Gay, Laqueur is German. Therefore his occasional, generally negative, comments about the German character are all the more noteworthy.

The esoteric language they [the members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research] used made their whole endeavour intelligible only to a small circle of like-minded people. This, incidentally, applied to most of the writings of the German neo-Marxists; the German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision, and the Frankfurt School, to put it mildly, made no effort to overcome this drawback. (p.63)

The new trend [Modernism in all its forms] was in stark contrast to German innerlichkeit, wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness. (p.85)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Something that comes over very powerfully is that the Germans don’t appear to have a sense of humour. They have bitter sarcasm, biting satire and harsh irony – but lightness, wit, drollery? Apparently not.

[Before The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer] the German theatre had been notoriously weak in comedy. (p.152)

It is easy to think of many tragedies in the annals of German theatre and opera; the comedies which have survived can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There was no German operetta, not a single composer who could even remotely be compared to Johann Strauss or Offenbach, to Milloecker or Gilbert and Sullivan. (p.226)

Quite a few patriotic films dealing with heroic episodes of Prussian or German history were produced. Von Czerèpy’s Fridericus Rex, perhaps the first major film of this genre, was done so crudely, with such a total lack of humour, that it was acclaimed outside Germany on the mistaken assumption that it was anti-German propaganda. (p.231)

The absence during the 1920s of good comedies and adventure films helps to explain the tremendous popularity in Germany not only of Charlie Chaplin, but also of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, later, Jackie Coogan. (p.243)

These are just a few examples, but Laqueur repeatedly describes the writers, thinkers, intellectuals and so on who he summarises as humourless, earnest, heavy and serious. I thought the notion of Germans being ponderous and humourless was a dubious stereotype, but reading this book goes a long way to confirming it.

The Weimar revival of the 1960s

In his final summary, Laqueur presents another very important piece of information, when he explains how and why the reputation of Weimar culture underwent a revival.

This, he says, happened in the 1960s. For 40 years the period had been forgotten or brushed aside as a shameful failure which preceded the Great Disaster. It was during the 1960s that societies across the Western world saw a swing to the left among intellectuals and the young, a movement which became known as the New Left.

It was as a result of this revival of interest in far left thought that much of Weimar’s experimental and left-wing achievements were revived, that saw an upsurge in interest in of Piscator’s modernist theatre stagings, Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, and the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School. This revival has never gone away. The Marxist theories of the Frankfurt School – a kind of communism-without-tears – has gone on to take over the thinking of most humanities departments in the Western world.

But, as Laqueur points out, the revival of interest in left wing and ‘radical’ thinkers, artists, writers of the period, systematically ignores both the conservative or right-wing thinkers of the period, as well as the middle ground of run-of-the-mill but popular playwrights, novelists or film-makers – the kind that most people read or went to the theatre to enjoy. These have all been consigned to oblivion so that in modern memory, only the radicals stand like brave heroes confronting the gathering darkness.

Laqueur argues that this has produced a fundamental distortion in our understanding of the period. Even the opinions of non-left-wing survivors from the Weimar years were ignored.

Thus Laqueur reports a conference in Germany about the Weimar achievement at which Golo Mann accused the Piscator theatre of being Salonkommunisten (the German equivalent of the English phrase ‘champagne socialists’), while Walter Mehring criticised Brecht’s Threepenny Opera for abetting Nazi propaganda by undermining the Republic. These kinds of criticisms from people who were there have been simply ignored by the generations of left-wing academics, students and bien-pensant theatre-goers and gallery visitors who have shaped the current Weimar myth.

The utopian left-wing 1960s sought for and boosted the thinkers and artists who they thought supported their own stance.

Just like Gay, Laqueur thinks that the latterday popularity of the novelist Hermann Hesse would have been inexplicable to those who lived through Weimar when he published most of his novels. Back then he was seen as an eccentric and peripheral figure, but in the 1960s he suddenly found himself hailed godfather of the hippy generation, and his books Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund became bestsellers. In his final years Hesse was in fact driven to declare that his writings were being misinterpreted by the younger generation. But then, in 1962, he died and the hippies and their successors were free to interpret him according to their own needs and fantasies.

After the Second World War Bertolt Brecht’s plays and productions became the toast of champagne socialists everywhere.

The Bauhaus brand underwent a great efflorescence, the architects who had settled in America (particularly Mies van der Rohe) having a huge impact on American skyscraper design, while the works of Kandinsky and Klee were revived and made famous.

In the humanities, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of capitalist consumer culture fit perfectly with the beliefs of the ‘New Left’, as it came to be known in the 1960s. The obscure essays of Walter Benjamin were dusted off and are now included in all literature, culture and critical theory courses. (I was struck by how Benjamin was referenced in almost every one of the 14 essays in the book about Weimar Art I recently read, The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33. I wonder if you’re allowed to write an essay in a humanities subject which doesn’t mention Saint Walter.)

Laqueur’s point is that the New Left of the 1960s, which has gone on to find a permanent home in humanities departments of all universities, chose very selectively only those elements of Weimar culture which suited their own interests.

Right here, at the end of the book, we realise that Laquer has been making a sustained attempt to present a less politicised, a more factual and inclusive account of Weimar culture than has become popular in the academy – deliberately ranging over all the achievements in pretty much every sphere of cultural endeavour, whether left or right, popular or avant-garde, whether it had undergone a golden revival in the 1960s or slumped into complete obscurity – in order to present a complete picture.

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 is a big, rich, thorough, sensible and thought-provoking book, which prompts ideas not only about the vibrant, conflicted culture of its time, but about how the Weimar legacy has been appropriated and distorted by later generations.


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Art Deco by Alastair Duncan (1988)

Perhaps most significant to the development of a twentieth century aesthetic was the birth in the interwar period of the professional industrial designer… (p.118) In the 1920s commercial art became a bona fide profession which, in turn, gave birth to the graphic artist. (p.150)

This is one of the older volumes from Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series, famous for its thorough texts but also, alas, for the way most of the illustrations are in black and white (this book has 194 illustrations, but only 44 of them in colour, most of them quite small).

Duncan also wrote the WoA volume on Art Nouveau, which I read recently, and has gone on to write many more books on both these topics, including a huge Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 30s. He knows his onions.

Main points from the introduction

  • Art Deco was the last really luxurious style – people look back to Art Deco and Art Nouveau with nostalgia because they were florid, indulgent and luxurious – since the Second World War all styles have been variations on plain functionalism.
  • Art Deco is not a reaction against Art Nouveau but a continuation of it, in terms of ‘lavish ornamentation, superlative craftsmanship and fine materials’.
  • Received opinion has it that Art Deco started after the war, but Duncan asserts that it had begun earlier, with some indisputable Art Deco pieces made before 1914 or during the war. In fact he boldly suggests that, had there been no war, Art Deco might have flourished, peaked and been over by 1920.
  • Art Deco is hard to define because designers and craftsmen had so many disparate sources to draw on by 1920 – Cubism, Fauvism, Constructivism, Futurism, but also high fashion, motifs from the Orient, tribal Africa, the Ballets Russes, or Egypt, especially after the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered in 1922.
  • Duncan distinguishes between the decorative styles of the 1920s which were luxurious and ornamented, and of the 1930s, when machine chic became more dominant, lines sleeker, more mechanical. The chapter on metalwork makes this clear with the 1920s work alive with gazelles, flowers and sunbursts, while the 1930s work copies the sleek straight lines of airplanes and steamships. In the architecture chapter he distinguishes between zigzag’ Moderne of the 1920s and the ‘streamline’ Moderne of the 1930s (p.195).
  • There’s also a distinction between the French style (the French continued to lead the field in almost all the decorative art) exuberant and playful, and the style of the rest of Europe and, a little later, America, which was cooler, more functional and intellectual. Throughout the book Duncan refers to the former as Art Deco and the latter as Modernism.
  • To my surprise Duncan asserts that Modernism was born at the moment of Art Deco’s greatest triumph i.e. the famous Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes of 1925. The severe modernist Le Corbusier wrote an article criticising almost all the exhibits for their luxury and foppishness and arguing that true design should be functional, and mass produced so as to be affordable.
  • Duncan contrasts the attenuated flowers and fairy maidens of Art Nouveau with the more severe functionalism of the Munich Werkbund, set up as early as 1907, which sought to integrate design with the reality of machine production. This spartan approach, insistence on modern materials, and mass production to make its objects affordable, underpinned the Bauhaus, established in 1919, whose influence spread slowly, but affected particularly American design during the 1930s, as many Bauhaus teachers fled the Nazis.

So the entire period between the wars can be simplified down to a tension between a French tradition of luxury, embellished and ornamented objects made for rich clients, and a much more severe, modern, functionalist, Bauhaus style intended for mass consumption, with the Bauhaus concern for sleek lines and modern materials gaining ground in the streamlined 1930s.

In reality, the hundreds of designers Duncan mentions hovered between these two poles.

Structure

The book is laid out very logically, indeed with the rather dry logic of an encyclopedia. There are ten chapters:

  1. Furniture
  2. textiles
  3. Ironwork and lighting
  4. Silver, Lacquer and Metalware
  5. Glass
  6. Ceramics
  7. Sculpture
  8. Paintings, Graphics, Posters and Bookbinding
  9. Jewelry
  10. Architecture

Each of the chapters tends to be broken down into a handful of trends or topics. Each of these is then broken down into area or country, so that successive paragraphs begin ‘In America’ or ‘In Belgium’ or ‘In Britain’. And then each of these sections is broken down into a paragraph or so about leading designers or manufacturers. So, for example, the chapter on ceramics is divided into sections on: artist-potters, traditional manufactories, and industrial ceramics; each of these is then sub-divided into countries – France, Germany, America, England; each of these sub-sections then has a paragraph or so about the leading practitioners in each style.

On the up side, the book is encyclopedic in its coverage. On the down side it sometimes feels like reading a glorified list and, particularly when entire paragraphs are made up of lists of the designers who worked for this or that ceramics firm or glass manufacturer, you frequently find your mind going blank and your eye skipping entire paragraphs (one paragraph, on page 51, lists 34 designers of Art Deco rugs).

It’s a shame because whenever Duncan does break out of this encyclopedia structure, whenever he stops to explain something – for example, the background to a particular technique or medium – he is invariably fascinating and authoritative. For example, take his explanation of pâte-de-verre, something I’d never heard of before:

Pâte-de-verre is made of finely crushed pieces of glass ground into a powder mixed with a fluxing agent that facilitates melting. Colouring is achieved by using coloured glass or by adding metallic oxides after the ground glass has been melted into a paste. In paste form, pâte-de-verre is as malleable as clay, and it is modelled by being packed into a mould where it is fused by firing. It can likewise be moulded in several layers or refined by carving after firing. (p.93)

Having myself spent quite a few years being paid to turn a wide variety of information (about medicine, or botany, or VAT) into clear English, I am full of admiration for Duncan’s simple, clear prose. There’s a similar paragraph about silver which, in a short space, brings an entire craft to life.

By virtue of its colour, silver is a ‘dry’ material. To give it life without the use of surface ornament, the 1920s Modernist silversmith had to rely on interplay of light, shadow, and reflection created by contrasting planes and curves. Another way to enrich its monotone colour was by incorporating semiprecious stones, rare woods, ivory and glass. Towards the 1930s, vermeil or gold panels were applied to the surface as an additional means of embellishment. (p.71)

He tells us that the pinnacle of commercial Art Deco sculpture was work done in chryselephantine, combining bronze and ivory, and that the acknowledged master of this genre was Demêtre Chiparus, who made works depicting French ballet and theatre.

Duncan makes the simple but profound point that, in architecture, Art Deco tended to be applied to buildings which had no tradition behind them, to new types of building for the machine age – this explains the prevalence of the Art Deco look in so many power stations, airport buildings, cinemas and swimming pools. Think (in London) Battersea power station (1935), Croydon airport (1928), the Golden Mile of Art Deco factories along the Great West Road at Brentford, Brixton Lido (1937), Charles Holden’s Art Deco Tube stations, and scores of Odeon cinemas across the country.

I liked his wonderfully crisp explanation of costume jewelry.

Costume jewelry differs from fine jewelry in that it is made out of base metals or silver set with marcasite, paste or imitation stones. (p.167)

Now you know. When he’s explaining, he’s wonderful.

Likes and dislikes

To my great surprise I actively disliked most of the objects and art shown in this book. I thought I liked Art Deco, but I didn’t like a lot of this stuff.

Maybe I’m a Bauhaus baby at heart. I consistently preferred the more linear work from the 1930s.

Then it dawned on me that maybe it’s because Duncan doesn’t include much about Art Deco posters (despite having authored a whole book about them). Indeed the section on posters here was remarkably short and with hardly any illustrations (7 pages, 6 pictures).

Similarly, the section on the scores of fashionable magazines and graphic illustrations from the era (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar and countless others) is barely 3 pages long.

There’s nothing at all about movies or photography, either. Maybe this is fair enough since Duncan is an expert in the decorative and applied arts and that’s the focus of the book. Still, Gary Cooper is a masterpiece of Art Deco, with his strong lines ending in beautiful machine-tooled curves (nose and chin), his powerful symmetries – as beautiful as any skyscraper.

Gary Cooper, super duper

Gary Cooper, super duper

French terms

  • animalier – an artist who specializes in the realistic portrayal of animals
  • cabochon –  a gemstone which has been shaped and polished as opposed to faceted
  • éditeur d’art – publisher of art works
  • nécessaire – vanity case for ladies
  • objet d’art – used in English to describe works of art that are not paintings, large or medium-sized sculptures, prints or drawings. It therefore covers a wide range of works, usually small and three-dimensional, of high quality and finish in areas of the decorative arts, such as metalwork items, with or without enamel, small carvings, statuettes and plaquettes in any material, including engraved gems, hardstone carvings, ivory carvings and similar items, non-utilitarian porcelain and glass, and a vast range of objects that would also be classed as antiques (or indeed antiquities), such as small clocks, watches, gold boxes, and sometimes textiles, especially tapestries. Might include books with fine bookbindings.
  • pâte-de-verre – a kiln casting method that literally means ‘paste of glass’
  • pieces uniques – one-off works for rich buyers

Conclusion

In summary, this is an encyclopedic overview of the period with some very useful insights, not least the fundamental distinction between the French ‘high’ Art Deco of the 1920s and the ‘Modernist’ Art Deco of the 1930s (which flourished more in America than Europe). But it is also a rather dry and colourless book, only occasionally coming to life when Duncan gives one of his beautifully lucid technical explanations.

Probably better to invest in a coffee-table volume which has plenty of large illustrations (particularly of the great posters and magazine illustrations) to get a more accessible and exciting feel for the period.


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Cubism by Philip Cooper (1995)

Browsing through books about Cubism in either a bookshop, library or second-hand shop can be a bit dispiriting because there are just so many of them. Where to begin? Should you read them all? And shouldn’t you know all about the most famous art movement of the twentieth century already?

The Colour Library look and layout

Cubism is a volume in Phaidon’s ‘Colour Library’ series. I came across it in a second-hand bookshop and snapped it up for £3, mainly because the size and format means it includes lots of full-page, full-colour illustrations – something often lacking in longer, more text-based accounts (e.g. the ‘World of Art’ volume, Cubism and Culture).

It’s coffee-table-sized (22.9 x 30.5 cm) but, being a paperback, is light and easy in the hand. It’s divided into two sections:

  1. Pages 5 to 25 give a surprisingly thorough history of the Cubism movement, surprising because I’d forgotten, or never knew, there was quite so much to it, nor that it spread to have quite so many exponents.
  2. Then there are 48 double-page spreads with a full-colour plate on the right-hand page, and commentary, artist biography, sometimes a b&w illustration of a related work, on the left.

Altogether the 48 illustrations show a surprising range of paintings and sculptures by precursors, core cubists and peripheral members of the movement, namely:

  • Cézanne (2 paintings)
  • Picasso (9)
  • Braque (7)
  • Léger (4)
  • Juan Gris (5)
  • Robert Delaunay (3)
  • Chagall (1)
  • Marcel Duchamp (1 – 1912)
  • Gino Severini (1 – 1912)
  • Natalia Gontcharova (1 – 1912)
  • Albert Gleizes (1 – 1912)
  • Jean Metzinger (1 – 1912)
  • Alexander Archipenko (1 – 1913)
  • Francis Picabia (1 – 1913)
  • Piet Mondrian (1 – 1913)
  • Lyonel Feininger (1 – 1913)
  • Franz Marc (1 – 1913)
  • Emil Filla (1 – 1915)
  • Edward Wadsworth (1 – 1915)
  • Max Weber (1 – 1915)
  • Henri Laurens (1 – 1920)
  • Stuart Davis (1 – 1921)
  • Amédée Ozenfant (1 – 1925)
  • Ben Nicholson (1 – 1947)

Cubist forebears

  • The Impressionists tried to capture fleeting impressions of objects in changing light, as they appeared to the artist, not as they objectively were (e.g. as depicted in the increasingly prevalent photographs).
  • Post-Impressionists – specifically van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, used unrealistic colours and vivid brushstrokes or strong black outlines and stark colour schemes to express emotion.
  • The Fauves (1905-8) took the colour idea further to represent real-life scenes or people in garishly bright and deliberately unrealistic colours.
  • The German Expressionists depicted real people or scenes in harsh, primitive woodcuts or angular ugly paintings.

The single greatest source of Cubism was the later painting of Paul Cézanne, who used a variety of techniques to bring out the geometric forms, the planes and rectangles implicit in a subject, to the fore – not least by creating patches of paint which look like facets of a view.

For example, Mont Saint-Victoire (1904) where the notion of realistically depicting the foliage of trees or houses has long since disappeared to be replaced by the idea of blocks or chunks of paint. The effect is to undermine the idea of a painting as ‘a window on the world’, and replace it with the arrangement of units of paint for semi-abstract aesthetic purposes.

In Cézanne’s still lifes he painted, for example, the bowl of fruit, the table it sat on, and the floor or background wall, all at different angles, with different implied perspectives – Still life with plaster cupid (1895).

The invention of Cubism

Cubism takes these trends a decisive step further. Cubism abandoned 450 years of the careful development of Renaissance techniques for creating a sense of perspective in a painting – rejected the notion of one particular vanishing point towards which all lines in the image converge which gives the viewer the illusion they are looking through a ‘window on the world’ – and instead set about representing the same subject from multiple points of view depicting all sides, top and bottom as required solely to create an aesthetic composition. Abandoning realism or naturalism. Conceiving the work as a purely aesthetic creation.

Cézanne had died in 1906, and 1907 saw two major retrospective exhibitions of his work held in Paris. It is a neat coincidence (or maybe no coincidence) that the first, proto-Cubist painting was made the same year, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso. In this seismic work the idea of a coherent perspective giving depth and shape to the objects depicted has obviously been ripped up in favour of a stylised depiction of space and objects which is is impossible to relate to in any of the traditional ways of ‘seeing’ art.

In 1907 Braque saw Les Demoiselles in Picasso’s studio. He was also bowled over by the big Cézanne retrospective. By the next year he was painting landscapes at the village of L’Estaque in a kind of exaggerated Cézanne style, converting houses, trees and roads into increasingly stylised geometric forms. – Houses in l’Estaque (1908)

Thus began a period from about 1908 to 1914 when Braque and Picasso worked very closely together, to begin with both living in rented rooms in a rundown building in Montmartre, the bohemian area in northern Paris, named the Bateau Lavoir. Here they spent the days painting and the nights drinking, partying, joking, discussing ideas, and often spending the summers painting in the same or similar locations.

Very quickly they moved towards painting a relatively small selection of objects:

  • common-or-garden objects from their lives – jugs, newspapers, guitars
  • interiors – so few if any landscapes
  • in muted tones of grey and brown

If Matisse and the other ‘Fauves’ (Vlaminck and Derain) were continuing to explore colour in all its garish vibrancy, B and P undertook an almost scientific analysis of what happens if you paint things after abandoning the idea of there being one point of view in either time or space, if you bring in facets from every angle, if you abandon the idea of producing one coherent perspective on an object and instead, use your artistic power to depict whatever elements you want.

In 1910 Braque painted Violin and pitcher, the palette restricted to grey or brown, the entire composition broken up into numerous clashing planes, with only hints of the ostensible subject (actually, the violin is fairly easy to make out). The trompe l’oeil image of a nail hammered into the top of the painting (complete with its own shadow) conveys the ideas that a painting is a two-dimensional artefact.

Analytic cubism

Violin and pitcher is an example of so-called ‘analytical cubism’ i.e. the subject has been taken to pieces and the resulting fragments reassembled so as to seem splayed out, so as to emphasise a multitude of clashing picture planes.

Now objects can be seen from all points of view at once. Or denoted by one or two scattered attributes – a moustache for a man, an eye for a human being, a fragment of text to denote a newspaper, and so on.

The effect was liberating and seismic. It spread right across the art world like wildfire. As early as 1912 Gleize and Metzinger published a book On Cubism. Contemporary critics and artists related it to Einstein’s undermining of the traditional world of Newtonian physics with his new theory of relativity. Others related it to the philosopher Henri Bergson’s idea that Time isn’t made up of discreet, definable moments measured by clocks and human reason, but is instead an endless flux in which perception of the present moment is flooded with memories of the past and anticipations of the future: all happening at once, as all sides of an object can be depicted simultaneously in a cubist picture.

In 1911 Braque and Picasso went on to break objects down into constituent parts and not even reassemble them, making it almost impossible to see what they are. This further stage is referred to as ‘hermetic’ or ‘high analytical’ cubism. Thus Woman Reading (1911) by Braque – you can make out the curlicues at left and right indicating the wings of the chair, but after that…

It created the notion of the painting as puzzle, with only the title giving the viewer any help in identification.

It’s all the same to me whether a form represents a different thing to different people or many things at the same time. (Braque)

the book reinforces how cubism really was a joint venture by the artists, the look of their works converging into the same style. They often didn’t sign works, giving rise to a century of confusion and misattribution.

In 1912 Braque introduced several further techniques:

  • the use of stencilled lettering, which he had learned as an apprentice housepainter, and which further flattens the surface
  • a method of using steel combs to create the effect of wood grain (faux bois)

There were also three major innovations in materials:

  • Collage, i.e. attaching real objects and non-artistic elements onto the canvas. – Still Life with Chair Caning (May 1912) by Picasso.
  • Paper sculptures – Braque pioneered the idea of making sculptures of paper and then drawing or painting on them i.e. paper is no longer a flat surface i.e. the picture itself can be folded and sculpted.
  • papiers collé where collé means pasted. You paste a flattish medium onto paper and then paint or draw on that. Braque pasted imitation wood-grain wallpaper onto white paper and drew on it; Picasso, always the brasher and more experimental of the two, used newspaper pages. –
  • They mixed sand with paint to give the paintwork a real texture.

All these experiments with medium move the work of art away from being a flat, illusionistic window on the world into being a fully autonomous object in its own right, completely divorced from all previous aesthetic theories. It was a volcanic upheaval in art.

Picasso extended these techniques into the sculpture, Guitar, a) made from scrap metal b) with a rough finish c) inverting space (the sound hole should go into the guitar; instead it protrudes out from the surface like a tin can.

All these deliberate rejections of the entire history of Western sculpture were to have seismic repercussions and affect sculpture right down to the present day.

Synthetic cubism

These latter works are examples of what the critics came to call ‘synthetic cubism’. Whereas ‘analytic cubism’ reduced a given object to its constituent elements and then reassembled them according to a new aesthetic, ‘synthetic cubism’ took elements which had nothing to do with each other (newspaper, sand, spare metal) and assembled them into new objects, which were the end result of the process, not the starting point.

1913 saw Braque and Picasso experimenting with introducing more colour into analytical works, and experimenting further with sculpture and synthetic works.

Montmartre cubism and Salon cubism

But these stunning innovations had not gone unnoticed. Juan Gris was living in the same building as B&P, observing their innovations, and decided to give up his career as an illustrator and commit to becoming a painter.

In 1912 Gris painted a cubist portrait of Picasso. Immediately you can see the difference between his approach and that of B&P – how the idea of breaking down an object (here a human being) into facets can be done in completely different ways by different artists with different personal styles. The facets here are bigger and arranged in a much more orderly way – to the line across the top and the lines off at diagonals create a very regular geometric space of a kind never found in Picasso or Braque. (Cooper points out that Gris trained as an engineer and this may explain his love for architectural regularity.)

This is what now happened – at first a trickle and then a flood of other artists began to incorporate one or other aspect of analytical of synthetic cubism into their own practice.

While B&P didn’t exhibit their new works in 1912 or 1913, another group of artists, based around Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes, was exhibiting regularly at the various Paris art shows and/or had dealers who promoted them. They quickly soaked up the lessons of cubism and incorporated them into their own works. Other members of Salon cubism at the time loosely include Robert Delaunay, Henri le Fauconnier, Jacques Villon, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Roger de la Fresnaye, Louis Marcoussis and Alexander Archipenko.

Salon Cubism is characterised by:

  • size – B&P’s works are often small and intense: Salon Cubist works are often immense, metres across
  • ambitious subject matter
  • less severe, demanding and complex

They also theorised and wrote about their work, something B&P never did. Thus it was Metzinger and Gleizes who co-authored On Cubism, which put the ideas into phrases which are still quoted. They had realised they were working in the same direction when their works were hung more or less by accident near each other in the 1910 Salon des Indépendants.

They recruited like-minded colleagues and then lobbied the hanging committee to get their works deliberately hung together in one room for the next year’s (1911) show. The effect of having a roomful of the new style hung together was to cause scandal (as so often in Paris art history). The poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote a long defence of the show and thus came to be seen as a spokesman for the movement.

As to the name, Matisse, who was on the hanging committee of the 1908 Salon which B&P submitted some early works to, is said to have dismissed them as little more than a bunch of ‘cubes’.

The art critic Louis Vauxcelles (who has the distinction of having made the throwaway remark about the paintings of Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck looking like the works of wild things – thus naming the art movement of Fauvism) in 1910 referred to the collected works of Metzinger, Gleizes, Delaunay, Léger and Le Fauconnier as ‘ignorant geometers, reducing the human body, the site, to pallid cubes.’

Whatever the precise origin, the book On Cubism cemented the term and promoted it to a wide book-reading public.

La section d’Or

The Salon cubists held another show in October 1912, named the Section d’Or, French for ‘Golden ratio’, a mathematical concept which had fascinated artists for 2,500 years. It contained over 200 works and was designed as a deliberate retrospective, showing the evolution of a number of artists from 1909 to 1912, and also to establish cubism as a much broader range of styles and approaches than the narrow high cubism of Picasso and Braque.

Its strength (its diversity) was also its weakness. By 1913 many of these artists were pursuing their own visions and interpretations, so much so that Apollinaire’s book of 1913 – The Cubist Painters – was forced to divide the movement into four distinct categories.

Robert and Sonia Delaunay named their experiments in colour combination – painting interlocking or overlapping patches or planes of contrasting (or complementary) colours – Simultanism. Apollinaire called it Orphism or Orphic cubism insofar as it was interested in abstract shape and colour, and the play of colours was identified – by Delaunay and Apollinaire (as by Kandinsky, who Delaunay corresponded with) with music.

Meanwhile, a work like Metzinger’s Dancer in a café (1912) uses cubist rhetoric but is obviously much more decorative and accessible than P&B’s more demanding experiments – the lamp at top right is pure Art Nouveau.

Contemporary movements affected by cubism

Futurism The impresario of Futurism, Filippo Marinetti, published his loudmouth Futurist manifesto in 1909, then took his gang of painters and poets to Paris to see the latest work. Well organised and polemical, the Futurists adapted many of cubism’s tricks but focused on the modern world of machines and on the challenge of depicting movement. They were soon attacking cubism for being quaint and staid and conservative (ladies with mandolins, newspapers on cafe tables, how dull!).

  • States of mind: the Farewell by Umberto Boccioni (1911) breaks down the subject into facets (and uses a very obvious bit of stencilling) but in order to convey the dynamic and modern subject of a fast steam train gathering steam in a railway station.

Rayonism Russian artists wanted to create a home-grown brand of modern art. In 1911 Mikhail Larionov invented Rayonism, an attempt to depict the rays of light reflected from objects using spiky splintered forms. Kasimir Malevich experimented with this angular look and in 1913 he would invent Suprematism, starting from the radical ground zero of his famous black square. Many other contemporary works are described as Cubo-Futurist, for combining elements of both.

Expressionism Cooper sees the influence of cubism on the German Expressionist painter Franz Marc, whose rather naive paintings of animals from 1910 or so, become steadily more involved and broken up by complex sheets or facets as the cubist vision influenced him.

In fact Cooper attributes this highly colourful use of facets and planes more to Robert Delaunay’s version of cubism, than to the grey and brown style of Picasso or Braque.

Vorticism Established in London by the Canadian writer and artist Wyndham Lewis, named by the American poet Ezra Pound, Vorticism published on edition of its bombastic journal, Blast, trying to outdo the Futurists at their own game, and (inevitably) pouring scorn on cubism for being pale and passive. Nonetheless, in its brief life Vorticism attracted impressive talents including Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Edward Wadsworth, David Bomberg, C.R.W. Nevinson and Jacob Epstein.

The Great War

World War One brought modern art to a grinding halt – Vorticism ceased to exist, Futurism’s key artists were enlisted; two of the key artists of German Expressionism (Marc and Macke) were killed.

Many of the French artists were called up (the Spaniard Picasso being lucky in this respect) and ceased working for the duration. Across Europe there was a reaction against the avant-garde in face of an understandable rise in patriotic nationalism. In France this was called the rappel a l’ordre.

The best example I know of this move to order is in the music of Igor Stravinsky, who moved from the barbaric primitivism of the Rite of Spring (1914) to the orderly, post-war, neo-classical ballet Pulcinella of 1920, which is still recognisably Stravinksian, but made orderly and sensible.

Something similar can be seen by comparing any of Picasso’s pre-war cubist works with Three Musicians of 1921. The later painting keeps many of the elements of cubism, but is somehow completely different. Every object now has a solid outline unlike the swirling blurring of facets in the pre-war work. There are brighter colours instead of the earth browns and greys of high cubism. The colours themselves are painted in solid unshaded blocks, unlike the very rough dabs and strokes of paint in pre-war work. All these changes go to make the later work much more readable that the esoteric ‘hermetic cubist’ works of the pre-war.

The use of much more clear and precise forms has given rise to the term crystal cubism to describe this late style.

Braque fought in the war, and survived. On his return he was never again so close to Picasso and continued to plough a traditionalist cubist furrow, earth colours and all, reworking the same still lifes, becoming maybe a bit more decorative. For example, Fruit on a table cloth with a fruit dish (1925). You can see why Picasso’s style would be more popular.

Léger, meanwhile, was perfecting the ‘shiny tube’ style which was to last the rest of his career. – The card players (1917)

These and other post-war ‘cubist’ works are included in the forty-eight colour plates of this impressive little book.

After cubism

By 1919 the poet Blaise Cendrars wrote a piece saying Cubism had been hugely important but was now finished. Artists were looking elsewhere. In Russia socially-committed Constructivism influenced the new post-revolutionary avant-garde. In Germany the airily ‘spiritualist’ Expressionists were succeeded the grotesque social satire of Otto Dix and George Grosz, which came to be called Neue Sachlichkeit.

In Zurich, Berlin and New York, the Dada movement (1915-20) ridiculed everything, all previous art included, in an outburst of nihilism whose most enduring artistic legacy was the invention of photomontage by John Heartfield in Berlin, a sort of spin-off of cubist collage but focusing exclusively on elements found in newspapers and magazines.

And when Dada fizzled out it was replaced by a new anti-rational movement, Surrealism, led by the imperious writer André Breton in Paris, and exploring dreams, automatic writing and drawing, which also criticised Cubism for being tame and passive.

Around 1918 the Purist movement was founded by Edouard Jeanneret (better known as the modern architect Le Corbusier) and Amédée Ozenfant who co-authored a book, After Cubism in which they criticised the fragmentation of the object in cubism and the way in which cubism had become, in their view, decorative by that time.

They proposed a kind of painting in which objects were represented as powerful basic forms stripped of detail. Purism reached a climax in Le Corbusier’s Pavilion of the New Spirit built in 1925 for the International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris which contained works by the three principals and the cubists, Juan Gris and Jacques Lipchitz. Soon afterwards the movement lapsed and the painters went their separate ways. – Still life with jug by Amédée Ozenfant (1925).

But it didn’t really matter what these or any other art movements said about Cubism – its historical important is still vast, as seismic as the French Revolution. It definitively ended a centuries-old way of thinking about art as naively representational, and opened up a whole range of strategies and ideas and opportunities, and the use of new media and materials, which are still playing out to this day.

But that’s the subject of another book (in fact, whole libraries of books). This Phaidon volume combines a fact-filled and intelligent introduction with a generous selection of works to show how cubism influenced an entire generation of artists.


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Modigliani by Doris Krystof (1996)

Taschen Publishing specialise in medium-sized art books (23 cm tall x 18.5 cm wide). They’re all originally written in German, this one was translated into English by Christina Rathgeber. I picked it up for a fiver in some art shop years ago, and dusted it off and reread it to coincide with visiting the big Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern.

The text is eminently readable and it has 88 good quality colour reproductions, not just of paintings and sculptures by the man himself but of works by contemporaries like Picasso, Kirchner and Brancusi, as well as classic nudes by Titian and Giorgione, quoted to compare and contrast with Modigliani’s famous nude paintings.

It is a real visual treat just slowly flipping through the pictures and soaking them up.

Biography

The outline of Modigliani’s life is clear enough. Born in 1884 to an arty Jewish family in northern Italy (his mother translated poetry, wrote essays and book reviews), his creative tendencies were encouraged so that by age 14 he was studying at the art academy in Livorno. He studied from books and attended a life drawing class; he visited Rome and Florence and Venice where he revelled in the Old Masters. He attended the Venice Biennale of 1903 and stayed there two years.

By which point it was time to move on and he headed for the Mecca of modern artists, Paris, arriving in 1906. Quite quickly he made important friends, not least the Spaniard Picasso and the Romanian sculptor Brancusi. For the next few years he experimented with a number of styles, from Cézanne (who had died in 1906 and quickly had several exhibitions devoted to his late work) to Edvard Munch, who impressed everyone with the work displayed at the Salon d’Automne of 1908 – although he avoided the main new movement of the day, Fauvism (given its name in 1905 and which flourished for the next few years).

Similarly, Modigliani was well aware of, but avoided, the arrival of Cubism in 1908, pioneered by Picasso and Braque, which swept up many lesser talents. Instead, he pursued his core interest of depicting the human form using outlines of graceful arabesques.

From about 1909 to 1912 Modigliani devoted himself entirely to sculpture, heavily influenced by the new taste for ‘primitive’ art from Africa and Oceania which became modish from around 1905, and by his friendship with the modernist sculptor, Brancusi.

Although some of his sculptures are obviously influenced by (copies) of African fetish masks which were becoming popular in artistic circles, Modigliani was just as obsessed by the idea of the caryatid, the statue of a woman bearing the weight of a building which had been developed in ancient Greece. He produced scores of sketches and variations on this crouching, hunched-up, female shape.

Eventually Modigliani gave up sculpting, maybe because the dust was bad for his chronic tuberculosis, but his painting style was now purified of the earlier variety and experimentalism – the faces in particular from now on were all variations on the elongated, oval shape with schematic, one-line features (eyes, eyelids and mouth all drawn with a crisp elegant line) which he had perfected in the sculptures and in the numerous preparatory sketches he made for them.

He continued to paint a wide variety of portraits of friends, lovers, fellow artists, collectors and patrons, and in the middle of the Great War began to paint a series of nudes. These differ from the portraits in being really simplified – the skin tone is generally a consistent warm orange colour, and the facial features are purified down to a handful of lines. They sold well – what’s not to like?

Towards the end of the War, Modigliani was advised to head south by his dealer and set up shop in Nice, along with his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, mother of his daughter. Here he painted lots more portraits, but in a noticeably lighter style, and of ordinary people – instead of the rich and famous of Paris’s art world – of peasants, hotel cleaners, and even of children. These, along with the nudes, became his most popular images.

By 1919 he was back in Paris, and the final portraits of his mistress and patrons show a further tendency to elongate both the neck and the face even more, making each person even more of an abstract collection of lines and colours.

Modigliani died after a long decline in his health on 24 June 1920. Soon afterwards friends and acquaintances, lovers and patrons began writing their memoirs, and quite quickly the myth grew up of the handsome, charming Wunderkind artist, who endured great poverty in his undying devotion to his art. And his paintings began to sell.

The works

Early paintings

Having seen a lot of the ‘greatest hits’ at the Tate Modern exhibition, I was taken by the more out-of-the-way works included in this book, especially of the early works before he’d perfected the Modigliani ‘look’.

Sketches

From early on he developed a hyper-simplified line, which comes over in nude sketches and then very much in the sketches he made from African artefacts in the Louvre and the Museum of Ethnography.

Sculptures

He took up sculpture in 1909, nobody knows why. Perhaps because he had always revered the sculptural legacy of his native Italy, perhaps because his paintings weren’t selling, perhaps because he moved to a bigger workspace in Montparnasse, perhaps because he met Constantin Brancusi in 19090 and was hugely influenced by him. Or all of the above.

Brancusi (b.1876) had perfected a smooth highly stylised way of working in stone which anticipates Art Deco.

Modigliani’s sculptures are of two types, a squat square type, which could fit at the top of a column –

And the much-better known, highly elongated, ‘primitive’ mask like heads. Although the politically correct like to raise the issue of ‘cultural appropriation’ and the way so many of the avant-garde artists of the 1900s looked to sculptures from Africa or Oceania, the book points out that there are also strong European origins for this look, in the stunningly abstract heads carved in the Cycladic islands of Greece thousands of years BC.

Apparently he conceived of the sculptures, these stone heads, as all being together in one place, creating a kind of temple of beauty. This may partly explain their thematic unity, that they were designed to be displayed and seen as an ensemble.

Nudes

Krystof makes a simple but effective point that it’s not so much in the sculptures but in the sketches for the sculptures, and especially in the sketches of caryatids, that we see Modigliani really simplifying his technique, perfecting a way of depicting the human body entirely made up of simple, one-line, shallow curves – no sketching, and repeated lines or cross-hatching – just one pure line to create the body’s outline, another to distinguish to the two legs, meeting another curve which creates the loins, two simple curves, maybe a bit pointed, to indicate the breasts, a curve for the mouth, a long narrow triangle for the nose, two almonds for eyes – in many ways a child’s eye view of the human body.

She also makes the good point that these curves are consciously not like the focus on blocks and squares and diagonals and geometric shapes of the suddenly fashionable Cubists. It is in pursuit of shallow curves that Modigliani is at odds with the art of his own times, a one-off.

And so to the female nudes which make up about 10% of his output – about 30 nudes in total – and in their simple outlines, as well as their very simple orange flesh colouring, present a kind of cartoon simplicity and pleasingness.

He began painting them in 1916, helped by the important patronage of dealer and friend Léopold Zborowski, who lent the artist use of his apartment, supplied models and painting materials, and paid him between fifteen and twenty francs each day for his work.

The simple graceful outlines, the soft orange skin and pink nipples, the simplified facial features, and the tonal unity of the paintings (compare and contrast with the violent garish colouring of the Fauves) makes Modigliani’s nudes understandably popular even among opponents of modern art.

Krystof also takes some time to explain another reason for their sense of familiarity, the reason they seem so assimilable. It’s because the poses are often based on established classics of Western art.

Quite systematic copying or borrowing or pastiching, isn’t it?

Krystof makes another, subtler, point. In all the classic paintings above you can see the entire body – you, the viewer, are standing some way away. By contrast, all of the Modigliani nudes are cropped, at least part of the arms or legs are out of the frame – as if you were really close up to the model, not so much contemplating them as about to fall over them. Immediacy.

Portraits

But the 20 or so nudes mark a sort of apricot-coloured interlude in Modigiliani’s core activity during his final years, which was the obsessive painting of hundreds of portraits.

Krystof divides them into two categories – one of friends, lovers, patrons, fellow artists and named individuals – the other category of scores of anonymous models, peasants and children.

They are all rougher and harsher, in design and finish, than the nudes.

To get at the essence of the Modigliani approach, Krystof compares his portrait of Jean Cocteau with a portrait done at exactly the same time and place by Moise Kisling.

The immediate and obvious conclusion is the huge amount of clutter Modigliani has chucked out – the window, shutters, table, vase, stove, chair, dog and rug are all not there – and the way he has zoomed in to focus on the top half of the body to create an image which is much simpler, sparer and more intense.

Hence Krystof’s suggestion that Modigliani developed in his portraits ‘the art of omission’ (p.53)

The same technique – cropping sitters at the bust and showing no interest in the details of the backdrop – characterises many of the portraits, which are more varied and interesting than the nudes.

Flight south

In the spring of 1918 the Germans began a final offensive. Planes and Zeppelins bombed Paris and many feared the city would fall. Up to a million people fled the capital, including Modigliani and his mistress / common-law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, who gave birth to their daughter in 1918. The young family spent over a year in Nice and Cagnes-sur-Mer, where Modigliani painted more feverishly and intensely than ever before.

The light of the South of France lightened his palette and the texture of the paint he used, the paint is thinner. Also the local people he got to model for him lack the specificity of the Paris portraits, becoming more generic – which may account for their later popularity.

Jeanne Hébuterne

Modigliani painted at least 25 portraits of the mother of his children. Photographs of her make her look absolutely stunning, in fact she has something of the long-tressed, full-lipped beauty beloved of the pre-Raphaelites.

In his last paintings of her, the neck and face are more elongated than ever, the background painted in with lighter sketchier colours than previously.

Conclusion

This is a really handy book, containing not only nearly 90 beautiful full-colour illustrations which give you an immediate and comprehensive feel for Modigliani’s unique style, but also a more thoughtful and insightful text by Doris Krystof, than is usual for Taschen books.

Possibly my favourite portrait comes right at the end of the book, one of the few Modigliani portraits which has even a hint of feeling and emotion, in this case a self-contained, winsome sadness.


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Modigliani @ Tate Modern

His name is pronounced Mod-ill-ee-arn-ee – the ‘g’ is silent.

This is the most comprehensive Modigliani exhibition ever held in the UK, bringing together a really comprehensive range of portraits, sculptures and the largest ever group of nudes (12) to be shown in this country.

Modigliani

Modigliani

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Amedeo Modigliani died very young, on January 1920, aged just 35. By that time he had developed a look, a brand, a style, which was instantly recognisable and has made him one of the most valued of ‘modern’ painters, with two entries in the top twenty-five most expensive paintings of all time:

No. 9 – Nu Couché $170 million
No. 21 – Reclining Nude With Blue Cushion $118 million

Art capital of the world

In the 1900s Paris was the acknowledged capital of the art world, full of artists who’d flocked there from all over Europe (e.g. the Spaniard Picasso, the Romanian Brancusi). Modigliani moved from his native Italy to Paris in 1906, when he was 21.

The second room in this big exhibition shows an excellent five minute video montage of black and white photos and very basic movie footage of the Paris of the day, starting with grand scenes of the Eiffel Tower and the buildings left over from the Great Exhibition of 1900, then moving to the ramshackle buildings up the side of the hill of Montmartre, the white Sacre Coeur church still being completed, cabarets and theatres, the back alleys and tenements where the artists rented apartments and studios, and then shots of key figures of the time, Picasso, Brancusi, Gertrude Stein from the family of art collectors, Modigliani himself and some moving footage of workers manhandling lumps of the limestone he carved into sculptures.

Experiments in styles

With a good feel for the life and times of 1900s Paris we move on into a room which shows Modigliani experimenting with the variety of looks and styles on offer. Loose brushwork and abstracted figures testify to the pervading influence of Cézanne on everyone at the time. This is apparent in the very visible diagonal brushstrokes which draw attention to themselves of this early nude, or of his study of Brancusi, who soon became a good friend.

Sculpting

Between 1909 and 1911, heavily influenced by Brancusi, Modigliani went through an intense phase of sculpting. Like many others he was caught up in the fashion for exotic, non-European art, supposedly ‘primitive’ sculptures from ancient Egypt or from France’s colonial possession like Cambodia or the Ivory Coast. It had only been in 1906/7 that Matisse and Picasso both began to incorporate non-European masks and body shapes in their work. Two rooms are devoted to this phase, one showing the lovely preparatory sketches he made, showing Modigliani’s wonderful way with elegant curved but geometric lines, the other showing a dozen or so sculptures which are, without exception, faces, some squat square ones, but most a highly characteristic elongated, narrow face with a long pendulous nose ending in a little round pouting mouth.

The commentary tells the story that sometimes visitors to his studio at night found that Modigliani had placed lighted candles atop each of the sculptures. He told friends he planned to create a kind of pagan temple decorated with them. On a few occasions, at hashish parties, he was seen to embrace them.

In all, Modigliani made about 25 of these highly characteristic heads. A handful were included in the 1912 Salon d’Automne, the only time they were displayed in his lifetime. There are several theories why he abandoned sculpture in 1913 – possibly the constant dust of a sculptor’s studio exacerbated the childhood tuberculosis which he was always holding at bay. Possibly it was just too expensive compared to painting.

The Modigliani look

But the extensive sketches, and the really physical engagement with sculpture, had set in stone (as it were) what was now established as the Modigliani ‘look’ – elongated faces with swan-like necks and blank almond-shaped eyes were to characterise all his paintings from now to the end of his life.

This is already apparent in the many portraits he painted of fellow artists, mistresses, and the collectors and art dealers who were important in launching his career. The commentary gives a good deal of background information about each of them, for example about the several portraits of his dealer, Paul Alexandre, a leading promoter of African art. I particularly liked the ‘naive’ way Modigliani writes on the paintings: he writes the name of the subject (Picasso, Paul), his own signature, and then often writes a comment, for example writing ‘Novo Pilota’ – meaning ‘guiding star’ – onto his portrait of Paul Guillaume.

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

Portrait of Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota (1915) Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Collection Jean Walter et Paul Guillaume

The elongated, cylinder-like neck, the perfectly almond-shaped face especially the pointed chin, the simple one-line depiction of the nose and eyes and eyebrows and especially the slate grey or blacking out of the eyes to emphasise the impassive mask-like effect – all these are apparent in his several portraits of his mistress-lover Beatrice Hastings who, the commentary tells us, was a British-born writer and editor who covered the Paris art scene for British magazines.

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

Beatrice Hastings (1915) Private Collection

There are three rooms devoted to his artistic peers, to colleagues, collectors and dealers, friends and lovers and patrons, featuring his portraits of such luminaries as Jean Cocteau, Juan Gris and the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. By the time war broke out in 1914 Modigliani was very well-connected, an ‘insider’ in the Paris art world, friends with the leaders of the avant-garde, beneficiary of regular commissions from the cognoscenti.

A people person

What these three rooms really crystallise is the fairly obvious point that he only painted portraits – heads or busts or full bodies, but only individual people. Landscapes such as had obsessed the godfather of modernism, Cézanne? None. Still lives such as absorbed the Cubists, Picasso and Braque? None. Cityscapes such as dominated the Futurists from his own native land, Italy (the first Futurist manifesto was published in 1909)? None. On the strength of this exhibition it seems that he never sketched, drew, painted or sculpted anything but the human form and face. And although highly stylised, they are always recognisable, with recognisable clothes (or not), in chairs or leaning on tables in a recognisable space.

Compared to the wild experiments going on around him (Fauves, Cubism, Futurism) Modigliani’s art seems – well ‘conservative’ is the wrong word, a genuinely die-hard conservative style continued to be produced by academic painters – but understandable, assimilable, acceptable.

Modigliani’s nudes

It was with this in mind that I walked into the big room displaying ‘the largest ever group of Modigliani nudes to be shown in this country’, 12 of them, to be precise.

The commentary would have us believe that these are ‘shocking’ and ‘provocative’ works and tells the story that the one and only exhibition of them – held at Berthe Weill’s gallery in 1917 – was closed down by the police on the grounds of indecency. Apparently, this was specifically because Modigliani showed his models having pubic hair and underarm hair.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

To be honest, I found this a little hard to credit (not that the show was closed down, but that the works were particularly shocking or provocative). I’ve just read a book about the Fauves which included plenty of Fauvist nudes which a) are really wild pictures, sometimes difficult to make out amid the riot of colour; and b) where you can, quite routinely show depict pubic hair.

Compared with any of these works from at least ten years earlier, Modigliani’s nudes seem very tame – in terms of colour (which is very restrained and ‘realistic’ – the flesh is generally flesh-coloured), in terms of line (Modigliani’s nudes are all clearly defined by wonderfully crisp, curving outlines), in terms of facial features (which are stylised but not, actually, that much), even in terms of crudity, none of the Modiglianis are as in-your-face as that final nude by Camoin.

On the contrary – they all share a similar warm orange body, lovely curves, ample bosoms, pink nipples, all depicted with super-clear, well-defined black outlines. If they so show women’s pubes, they are as neat and geometric as their oval faces. Actual women’s pubic hair is a lot more unkempt and varied than Modigliani’s tasteful version.

No, what struck me about all of Modigliani’s nudes was their restraint, their tastefulness, and several of them really did strike me as deeply conservative, particularly the nudes where he is consciously referencing the European tradition, like this one which is based on Ingres’ famous Odalisque.

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reclining Nude (1919) Museum of Modern Art, New York

All four curators of this exhibition are women and so you have a strong feeling in the audio commentary that they feel duty bound to discuss how women’s bodies were a battlefield in the 1910s (prompting the thought, When have women’s bodies not been battlefields, according to feminist history?), but, at the same time, want to assert that the women Modigliani depicts are not helpless victims of ‘the male gaze’ – these women are strong independent women, as evidenced by their wearing lipstick, make-up and – in some of them – necklaces or ear rings.

The commentary compares the lot of the average model to the really grim lives of working class women slaving away in factories or as laundresses etc (Modigliani’s models earned about double the daily working wage for spending a day lying on a couch).

But none of this semi-political feminist interpretation really changes the fact that these are cartoons. The simple black outline, the stylised and fairly flat colouring – they could almost come from a Tintin cartoon, or from any number of subsequent comic strips. Compare and contrast with the genuinely experimental way nudes had been portrayed for at least a decade.

If the Berthe Weill show was raided and closed down it was, if anything, because the nudes were – in artistic terms – so conservative, so realistic, so figurative and so traditional in style – that they really did teeter on the brink of pornography.

No one could mistake the Matisse, Derain or Picasso nudes for soft porn, they are all very obviously far more interested in experimenting with new ways of seeing and new ways of painting than with titillation. You can’t really confidently say that about the Modigliani nudes. They are all pretty sexy and sexiness is their subject, although the curators prefer the more polite word ‘seductive’.

By this, room 8 of the 11-room exhibition, it seemed to me that Modigliani had progressed far beyond his earlier experiments, incorporated all the stylisation he’d learned from studying ‘primitive’ art and sculpting, and had emerged to produce a really consistent brand of very quaffable female nudes. Their naive simplicity makes them extremely enjoyable and explains, I think, the extraordinary prices they fetch at modern auction, tasteful, soft-porn works which any self-respecting billionaire would be proud to hang in his luxury apartment in New York, Paris, Moscow or Beijing. (Nu Couché was bought by the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian for $170 million, Reclining Nude with Blue Cushion was bought by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $118 million.)

The curators can use feminist tropes all they like to try and defend these nudes but there seems no doubt that they are now, as they were then, designed for the visual pleasure of rich men.

The warm South

Towards the end of the war Modigliani was sent to the Mediterranean coast by his new art dealer, Léopold Zborowski, as a precaution against increasing Zeppelin raids on Paris and also because of his worsening health. Modigliani was worried about leaving behind his well-developed network of friends and artistic accomplices, but in fact soon settled in to a new life, not least because he was accompanied by his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne.

Again he painted nothing but portraits and, deprived of the network of professional models in Paris, took to painting local adults and then a series of children. He seems to have reacted to the far brighter light of the south by using warmed Mediterranean colours and also applying the paint much more thinly, both of which make these portraits seem light and airy.

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

The Little Peasant (c.1918) Tate

Children and peasants. Is there not something a little, well, twee about some of these works? (Looking it up I see that ‘twee’ is defined as ‘excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental’.)

Again compare and contrast with his contemporaries or, in this case, with the Master, Cézanne. With the current exhibition of Cézanne portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in mind, we can see how Modigliani has learned the lessons of the old Frenchman – the patches of colour, the visible brush-strokes, the steep foreshortening of the subject and backdrop, the confrontational -full-on pose, but made it somehow, well babyish. Toy-like. Here’s a Cézanne.

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Man with Pipe (1891-6) by Paul Cézanne. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Comparing the two it seems to me the main difference is in the face. Not only does Modigliani use his simplified mask design, but, by this stage, he’s often painting his faces in a unified flesh tone (true of almost all the nudes) which gives them quite literally a baby-faced freshness. Again compare and contrast with the complex brushwork Cézanne has applied to the face of his old bloke with a pipe, let alone the wild blues and greens which the Fauves used in their portraits. Compared to all of them, surely Modigliania is tame.

In fact it’s only really the use of the mask motif which prevents his works toppling over into kitsch. In particular I felt it was only the blacking out of the eyes of the portraits (which gives them a weird voodoo science fiction vibe) which prevents them from turning into the kind of Modernism light paintings you see being hawked on the streets of any tourist trap European city.

Last works

The final room shows his last works, painted back in Paris after the war, depictions of more rich patrons and commissions, alongside a suite of portraits of his mistress, Jeanne Hébuterne, who was pregnant with their second child.

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Jeanne Hébuterne (1919) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It’s notable that the flesh tones have moved away from the warm pinks of the nudes, back towards a more ‘experimental’ colouring. But the most striking thing about these last paintings is that the almond-shaped face and swan neck are taken to new extremes. Some of the people look like giraffes.

The colouring is richer and denser than in the South of France paintings. But each work, no matter how varied the subject, is now totally identifiable as a Modigliani. Who knows how his work would have continued to evolve and develop; he was half-way towards the kind of crisp neo-classical feel which so many French artists would adopt after the war.

But we’ll never know. Modigliani died from tubercular meningitis on 24 January in 1920. In a grim note we learn that just a few days later, his mistress Jeanne, nine-months pregnant, committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of an apartment building.

This is a really enjoyable, carefully and thoughtfully curated overview of a wonderful artist, whose draughtsmanship is a joy to look at, from his earliest works, and whose mature geometric style produced painting after painting which fills the eye with pleasure.

Modigliani Virtual Reality

Towards the end of the exhibition is an ambitious innovation – a room where about ten visitors at a time can sit and have a visitor assistant clamp onto their head a kind of helmet with built-in 3-D goggles. These give you a virtual reality tour of a computer-generated recreation of Modigliani’s studio. It’s a bld new idea and a first for Tate.

Inevitably, there was a fairly long queue for this brave new digital experience, with an estimated waiting time of 25 minutes so I’m afraid I decided not to. Some of the content can be seen on the video screen outside the exhibition which is running a film about the making of the VR experience (which I’ve embedded, below).

So my advice would be to go the exhibition soon after opening (at 10am) and go straight to the queue for the VR, do it, and then go back to do the exhibition in order.

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Seated Nude (1917) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Lukasart in Flanders. Photo credit: Hugo Maertens

Videos

Introduction to the exhibition by curator Simonetta Fraquelli.

Video showing how the virtual reality experience was made.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Fauvism by Sarah Whitfield (1991)

‘What characterised Fauvism was that we rejected imitative colours and that with pure colours we obtained stronger reactions.’ (Matisse, quoted on page 62)

Fauve

Fauvism was an art movement in the first decade of the twentieth century. ‘Fauve’ is French for wild animal, wild beast. When the Parisian art critic Louis Vauxcelles attended the 1905 Salon d’Automne he came across the room hung with strikingly colourful and crudely finished paintings by Derain, Matisse, Vlaminck, Manguin, Camoin and Marquet, in the middle of which were some more traditional works of sculpture. Struck by the contrast, he wrote:

The artlessness of these busts comes as a surprise in the midst of the orgy of pure colours; Donatello at home among the wild beasts [les fauves]. (quoted p.82)

The artists concerned adopted this insult with pride, called themselves ‘les fauves’, and for a few years claimed to be carrying forward a movement called ‘Fauvism’.

But, as Whitfield shows in this excellent introduction and overview, Fauvism was more a restless search for a new style than a movement. As early as 1907 the leading figures were developing in their own ways and by 1909 Fauvism was over – making it, as Whitfield comments, possibly the shortest-lived art movement of the 20th century.

Matisse and Derain

At its heart Fauvism amounted to the works and attitudes of its leader Henri Matisse (b.1869) and his close companion in the decisive summer of 1905, André Derain (b.1880).

That summer the pair had worked side by side in the south of France painting works characterised by:

  • extremely bright colours, sometimes taken straight from the tube onto the palette with no mixing or moderating
  • deliberate use of non-naturalistic colour – green for the sea, blue for grass, red for shadow and so on
  • very broad dabs of colour – taking the Impressionist use of stroke and dabs to an extreme with really big strokes of paint often sitting in isolation

The effect of this third aspect in particular was to make the colours – no longer part of a smooth continuum of painted surface – instead stand out as isolated units. This created a tremendous vibrancy and shimmer – precisely the visual attack which Vauxcelles had responded to.

The final element in the style was the radical simplification of the subject or motif so that, sometimes, it is quite hard to make out what is depicted. Even when it is ‘readable’, the old idea that a painting was a window on a world which had a clear unified perspective, a depth, a sense of recession into the distance, is deliberately overthrown.

Fauvist art is designed to draw the viewer’s attention to the blunt fact that a picture is the deployment of paint on a two dimensional surface. The Fauves set art free from its requirement to paint ‘pictures’, it liberated art to become the free play of colours, patterns, shapes and designs.

In the two works above it’s not only the bright colour, it’s the gaps between the strokes or dabs, the way each stroke is isolated in space so that it rings and vibrates all the more powerfully.

Other members

Matisse had attended Gustave Moreau’s art class at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he met Henri Manguin, Albert Marquet and Charles Camoin.

After Moreau’s death in 1898, Matisse began attending classes at the Académie Carrière where he met Jean Puy and the young André Derain.

Derain formed a close friendship with the Flemish painter Maurice Vlaminck, who he met in the summer of 1900.

The year after the 1905 exhibition, this loose group was joined by three painters from Le Havre – Emile-Othon Friesz, Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque.

Loosely associated with the Fauves were Georges Rouault, also a one-time student of Moreau, and Kees van Dongen from Holland.

Contemporary movements

Fauvism can be seen as an extreme extension of the post-impressionism of Van Gogh combined with the neo-impressionism of Seurat.

1. In 1904 Matisse went to stay with Paul Signac, heir to the neo-Impressionist innovations of Georges Seurat (who died in 1891) proponent of the theory of ‘dots’, of pointillism. Matisse produced a batch of works in this style before he realised that the isolated and detached bit of colour used to create a pointillist painting needn’t be dots – they could be isolated and detached strokes. – Luxe, Calme et Volupté is considered a pivotal moment in this history of art, as neo-impressionism gives birth to Fauvism.

Luxe, calme et volupté (1904) by Henri Matisse

Luxe, calme et volupté (1904) by Henri Matisse

2. Fauvism can also be seen as a form of expressionism in its use of brilliant colours and spontaneous brushwork. It is the French (and therefore stylish and joie de vivre) equivalent of the (tortured, angst-ridden) Expressionism which emerged in Germany a few years later, itself in its way another development of post-Impressionist discoveries, but given a characteristic Teutonic flavour.

Woman in a hat strikes me as being on the Expressionist end of the spectrum, eschewing the isolated strokes of the paintings done at Collioure or the thick impasto of the Open window in favour of the pure play of colour. Note the green and yellow nose or the sudden stroke of green across the forehead.

The contemporary critic Roger Marx described paintings like this as ‘lab experiments’ and you can see why. You can feel Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck – in particular – trying things out, suddenly liberated to use any colour in creating a portrait, setting about a wild profusion of experiments and tests.

It also explains why, although there is a common theme of super-bright primary colours in the 1905 paintings by Derain and Matisse, you can see why the movement was always pretty unstable. Even the core members were painting works which depart from the official ‘look’. It is more like a period of rapid experimentation focusing on experiments with brightly coloured isolated brush-strokes, creating form and shape with coloured rather than black outlines, thick impastos of paint then then – boom! – it was over.

After Fauvism

Some of the minor names mentioned above (Puy, Manguin, Camoin and Marquet) rejected the label Fauve even at the time, generally believing that more remained to be done in the avenues opened up by the Impressionists. Whitfield shows works which emphasise the way they stopped well this side of full ‘wild beastliness’.

Even for the most adventurous of the others, Fauvism was a very temporary phase, a stepping stone towards their more mature and individual styles.

In fact it is striking how many of them went on, by 1908 or so, to fall under the influence of Cézanne, with his much more muted palette and the artfully analytical approach he took to painting landscapes, people and objects.

Thus Braque, after a series of muscular landscapes shown and described by Whitfield, went on to develop cubism along with Pablo Picasso.

Derain rowed back from his garish experiments to adopt a more muted, grey and brown palette and a much more neo-classical, figurative approach as early as 1911.

Dufy was initially dazzled by the Fauvist outburst, but also moderated his palette by 1909, flirted with cubism and, after the war, developed an entirely new look based on clear draughtsmanship and light washes of colour depicting bright outdoors subjects, especially on the fun-loving Riviera of the 1920s.

Vlaminck was a grumpy outsider to the group, who pioneered the use of a thick impasto of vivid colours creating an expressionist swirl – the landscapes shown by Whitfield make me want to see more of  his work – but he, too, by 1909 had subdued his palette under the influence of Cézanne, and retreated to a more sombre figuratism.

Rouault’s style was always harsh and satirical, never really Fauvist, and he went on in later years to develop a highly stylised primitive style. – The Old King (1936) by Georges Rouault

Only Matisse continued his explorations of colour and design, always happy to remember and discuss his Fauvist roots, and evolving into one of the great master painters of the 20th century. In a late interview he summarised Fauvism as being

a revolt against the subtleties of Impressionism, it is a revolt against ‘mere charm’, against accidental aspects of illumination; a return to simplicity, directness, pure colours and decorative qualities. (quoted page 192)

I find that phrase ‘a revolt against charm’ very revealing, very indicative.

Later chapters

Later chapters of the book deal with landscape and the nude – I was particularly struck by Derain’s paintings of London, the Thames and the Houses of Parliament (three of these can be seen at the current Impressionists in London exhibition at Tate Britain). Vlaminck emerges as a painter of great forcefulness and crude power; and Dufy is laying claim to the seaside idylls which were to become his forte.

There’s a really interesting chapter on the evolution of the art market, with the rise of a new cohort of upper-middle class professional collectors, and of new, entrepreneurial gallery owners and dealers willing to cater to them. Ambroise Vollard is probably the most famous of these, and forged close working relationships with Matisse in particular. Vollard is a pivotal figure: in 1895 he bought up almost all of Cézanne’s output, some 150 canvases, to create his first exhibition in 1895. This was followed by three other influential exhibitions devoted to Manet, Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh. Vollard mounted the first ever exhibitions devoted to Picasso (1901) and Matisse (1904). You can see Cézanne’s sombre, proto-cubist portrait of Vollard at the current Cézanne Portraits exhibition at the national Portrait Gallery.

By 1900 these one-artist shows had become established as a good way for critics to assess the scene, other artists to catch up with new developments, and collectors to invest in the hot new thing. It was exhibitions marking Cézanne’s death in 1906, displaying his later, more ‘analytical’ works for the first time, which account for the influence he suddenly cast over so many painters in 1908 and 1909.

The final chapter traces the way all the main players reacted against their Fauvist phase. By 1907 they were expressing doubts about flaring colour, by 1908 they were copying Cézanne’s more muted palette and analytical approach – the search for the geometric in the object rather than the play of bright colour – and in 1908 Georges Braque painted the first cubist works – Houses and trees. The Fauvist moment was over.

In Whitfield’s summary, Fauvism was a kind of midwife to twentieth century art, fulfilling the legacy of post-Impressionism, and completing the mission to move Western art all the way from an art of representation to an art of abstraction.

Whitfield’s prose style

Writing about art – really describing what you see, conveying what the eye sees and processes so quickly, into slow-moving and clumsy words – is very difficult. Ways of not writing well about art include:

  1. giving yourself airs and graces – the very old-school way of declaring such a work ‘fine’ and ‘superb’ and a ‘wonderful example of the so-and-so school’ etc, an approach which turns art criticism into wine-tasting and mainly serves to convey how superior andsrefined the critic is
  2. giving in to a biographical approach i.e. telling us all about the artist’s life and loves, his mistresses and sex life, but conveying precious little about the actual look of their works
  3. giving in to generalised prose poetry about ‘vibrant’ use of colour and ‘bold’ design – phrases which could refer to anyone from Botticelli to Francis Bacon
  4. giving into art critical theory and interpreting works as ‘subverting traditional narratives’ or ‘engaging’ with ‘issues’ – all too often the same old ‘issues’ of ‘race’ or ‘gender’ or ‘identity’

Whitfield is a rarity in my experience, someone who can really express in words the specificity of particular works and the feel of a style.

Fauvism was the first movement to insist in explicit terms that a painting is the canvas and the pigments. The idea that a picture is the sum of the marks made on the canvas rather than a mirror held up to life, or to nature, or to literature accounts for the chief characteristics of the first true Fauve paintings being composed of briskly applied strokes, patches and dabs of brilliant colour. (p.9)

Describing Matisse’s very early work La Desserte she writes that it is ‘modern’ by virtue of

adopting the range of separately applied brush strokes with which the Impressionists invigorated the picture surface; the vibration of colour in their paintings was in total opposition to the smooth, ‘licked’ surfaces advocated by their teachers. (p.16)

The ‘smooth licked surfaces’ of the Salon painters is good, but I found the idea of the separately applied brush strokes invigorating the surface of a painting a really useful description of how many Impressionist paintings work. Here she is explaining the importance of Cézanne:

Matisse understood the manner in which Cézanne had unshackled painting from its representational role by making the paint itself the subject of the picture: the way in which every form in a Cézanne canvas is invested with equal weight regardless of its size came as a revelation to him. (p.23)

‘Equal weight’ is a great phrase, bringing out exactly the way a Cézanne painting is made of patches of colour constantly pressing towards a flat two-dimensionality. Late on she describes

The delicately crafted way in which Cézanne built up his paint, hingeing one brush-stroke onto the next… (p.200)

Reviewers of the book on Amazon all point out that only 24 of the 174 illustrations in the book are in colour, the rest in drab black and white, which is especially ironic considering the Fauves were all about colour, really strong, dazzling colour.

But so be it. The book is still well worth reading not just as a handy primer about the chronology, the artists and works which made up the movement – but for the continual flow of insights Whitfield gives into the working of specific paintings, her excellent ability to verbalise and articulate the hard-to-pin-down visual effects of oil paintings. That’s a rare gift.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of Impressionist exhibitions

Surrealism by Michael Robinson (2005)

This is an almost square, thick, glossy art book (17.1 x 16.1 cm) whose 384 pages – after the brief foreword and introduction – contain nearly 200 colour reproductions of Surrealist works of art. Each one gets a 2-page spread, image on the right, text giving the artist, title, medium and some interpretation, on the left. A kind of flip book of Surrealist painting, divided into four sections – Movement overview, Influences, Styles & techniques and Places.

The left-page analyses vary widely in quality, some telling you really insightful things, others little more than recaps of so-and-so’s career or an anecdote behind the picture. There is an obtrusive political correctness in many of them – Robinson is the kind of white man who has to make it quite clear he is on the side of feminists in their struggle against the patriarchy, and regrets the cultural misappropriation of colonial exploiters like Picasso, Matisse and the rest of those awful white men.

Here he is discussing Meret Oppenheim’s Occasional Table (1939):

Occasional table (1939) by Meret Oppenheim

Occasional table (1939) by Meret Oppenheim

In this work Meret Oppenheim continues with a number of Surrealist preoccupations, the most significant of which is the preconception of specific gender roles and stereotyping in a patriarchal society. At first this object may appear as an opulent or even decadent excess of Art Deco design for the bourgeois market, particularly in its use of gold leaf. Oppenheim is, in line with Dada and Surrealist ideals, commenting on bourgeois excesses, as well as on gender stereotypes.

Let’s just stop here and ask if you, the reader, can identify specifically how this work of art is tackling ‘the preconception of specific gender roles and stereotyping in a patriarchal society’. Spotted it? Good. Now, read on:

As a (male) viewer one is drawn to the legs to consider their shape before considering their functionality. There is an obvious parallel here with women being viewed in the same stereotypical manner. The viewer is also being denied access to the rest of the body, emphasised by the flatness and width of the table’s top. (p.224)

So, if I’m reading this correctly, Robinson is claiming that if you are struck by the fact that an ordinary-looking table is being supported by a pair of bird’s legs, this is not because it’s rather unusual and incongruous – in the deliberately disconcerting Surrealist/Dada fashion – it’s because you are always looking at legs and sizing them up, because you are a misogynist member of a patriarchal society guilty of gender stereotyping. Unless you are a woman. In which case you just see a pair of bird’s legs.

I hope all my male readers have gone away suitably chastened and reformed.

Here he is preparing to talk about a work by Wifredo Lam:

At the turn of the nineteenth century many modernists adopted and adapted ritualistic or totemic motifs from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Oceania – in fact from most places that were European colonies. The use of these misappropriated motifs can be found in the so-called ‘primitive’ aesthetics of Paul Gauguin’s Post-Impressionism, the Cubism of Picasso and Georges Braque, much of German Expressionism and some of the Fauvism of Matisse. However, Surrealism differed in this regard thanks largely to the multi-ethnicity of its group and a genuine interest in anthropology. (p.184)

Will all those white European artists who ‘misappropriated’ motifs from non-European cultures please stay behind after school and write out one hundred times ‘Michael Robinson says I must only use subjects and motifs from European culture and not misappropriate motifs from any other source’. Naughty Picasso. Naughty Matisse. Unless you’re black or Asian or non-caucasian, in which case it’s fine: you can use any motifs and imagery you like.

Your use of non-European motifs is cultural misappropriation; our use of non-European motifs is different, because we have ‘a genuine interest in anthropology’. Michael says so.

Some notes

The sheer number and variety of art and artists tell their own story about the Surrealists’ broad-spectrum dominance of the inter-war period.

First conclusion is there were so many of them – Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, René Crevel, Robert Desnos, Jacques Baron, Max Morise, Pierre Naville, Roger Vitrac, Gala Éluard, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, Hans Arp, Georges Malkine, Michel Leiris, Georges Limbour, Antonin Artaud, Raymond Queneau, André Masson, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert, and Yves Tanguy – just for starters.

Surrealism followed on from Dada, founded in 1916 in Switzerland as a really angry response to the pointless barbarity of the Great War.

By 1920 a lot of former Dadaists had gravitated to Paris and were experimenting with Freud-inspired ideas of accessing or depicting the unconscious, via stream-of-consciousness prose or automatic writing. One of them, the bullish, domineering poet André Breton, decided the trouble with Dada is it had been too anarchic, chaotic, unfocused – which had led to its eventual collapse.

Breton decided to form a real movement, not just literary but with social and political aims. This led in 1924 to the publication of the first of numerous Surrealist manifestos.

It was primarily a movement of writers – poets and novelists – not artists. Artists came later. Ironic, because now we are soaked in the artists’ imagery and I wonder if anyone reads the old surrealist prose works, or could name any.

And Surrealism was political, designed to undermine and overthrow the existing scheme of things, opposing traditional bourgeois values (kinder, küche, kirche), religion, the rational, the scientific – all the things which, it was claimed, had led Europe into the inferno of the Great War.

Breton conceived of Surrealism as a philosophy and a way of life, rejecting the stifling repression of bourgeois society, setting free our deep inner selves. It wasn’t just teenage rebellion for its own sake. Breton and many of the others thought that Western society was really seriously crippled and doomed by its steadfast refusal to acknowledge the most vital part of the human being – the unconscious, source of all our creative imaginative urges, which can only be accessed via dreams and other specialised techniques.

Only if we can tap into our unused creativity, into our irrational minds, into the sensual part of our psyche, can we ever hope to change the repressed, uptight, bourgeois, scientific, technocratic society which is leading us to destruction.

You can see why this genuine commitment to radical social change led many Surrealists, as the 1920s turned into the Fascist 1930s, to declare themselves communists and how this led to numerous splits and bitter quarrels among them.

In his rules Breton declared that surrealist writers and artists (and film-makers and photographers) could work in any medium whatsoever, depicting any subject whatsoever, with only one golden rule – it must come from inside, from the unconscious, from the free imagination untrammeled or restricted by conscious thought or tradition. You could use realistic figures and objects from the real world – but only in the service of the unconscious.

Of the scores of artists connected the movement, probably Dalí and Magritte created the most widely recognized images of Surrealism. Dalí joined the group in 1929 (after  his brief abandonment of painting for film and photography) and played a crucial role in establishing a definitive visual style between 1930 and 1935.

Outliers

Assuming we’re all familiar with the usual suspects – Dali, Miro, Ernst, Arp, Magritte, Ray – one of the interesting facets of the book is how widely it casts the net, to include artists never part of the official movement but clearly influenced by it. I enjoyed the inclusion of English artists like Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and, especially, Roland Penrose.

The real pleasure of the book was coming across quite a few artists I’d never heard of before:

Women

There were quite a few women surrealist artists and it was genuinely interesting to a) learn about them and their work, considered purely as artists b) to learn how many of them really were feminists, how many disliked the bullying male environment created by Breton, how many of them tried to develop an aesthetic which escaped male stereotyping and the sexualising of women’s bodies. From a crowded field I think Dorothea Tanning stood out for me.

Lee Miller was an important muse for many of the male Surrealists. She had an intense affair with the photographer Man Ray, who taught her photography as well as making her the subject of many of his greatest works. Later she married Roland Penrose, the English Surrealist painter. His painting, Bien vise, above, depicts her naked torso. But Miller also painted, created surrealist objects and took surreal photos in her own right (as well as her later, awesome, war photos).

Surrealism and gender

The gender issue with Surrealism strikes me as simple enough: all these men thought they had a duty to express the unconscious; the dominating master and ‘discoverer’ of the unconscious was  a man, Sigmund Freud; Freud insisted that the unconscious was drenched in repressed sexuality (only later adding aggression and violence in the form of the Death Wish); which meant that this large and influential group of male artists felt it was their moral and artistic duty to be as frank as possible about sex and sexuality, to be as shocking and provocative as they could be; and so they saturated their works with erotic images and symbols; and, being men, these tended to be images of women, their own objects of desire.

And almost all the women, in one way or another, reacted against this use of women as sex objects, as objects of desire, in male painting, and tried to redress the balance by painting women fully dressed or in poses where they obviously dominate men or as girls on the cusp of adolescence (or abandoned figuration altogether to paint abstracts).

The really interesting biological-anthropological question is about the difference in ‘desire’ which this tends to bring out. Men paint women, but women paint women, too. Everyone seems to take ‘women’ as a fit subject for painting. Very few of the women artists paint pictures of big naked men or fixate on the penis in the same way that men paint countless breasts and vulvas. Why? Broadly speaking, feminists from de Beauvoir onwards say that gender differences are entirely due to social conditioning; the vast majority of the population and all the biologists and evolutionists I’ve read point out that there are certain unavoidable differences in DNA, physiology and behaviour between males and females of almost every species: why should we be any different?

All that said, I’ve just flicked slowly through the nearly 200 images in this book and only a handful of paintings – about ten – actually depict realistic images of naked women (and some of those are by women e.g. Dorothea Tanning’s Birthday; among the men Paul Delvaux had the most persistent in (admittedly dreamy zombie) naked women e.g. The Sleeping Venus).

If you go looking for naked women to support this thesis, they are in fact surprisingly absent from the classic surrealist images (by Magritte, Dali, Ernst).

Surprise

I had no idea that Desmond Morris, author of the immensely popular Naked Ape/Manwatching books, was an official member of the Birmingham Surrealist group while still an undergraduate studying biology. This work, painted when he was just 21, is immediately pleasing, in colour, design and the formal symmetric arrangement. It also demonstrates the general rule that Surrealism, which set out to turn society upside down, ended up producing charming and delightful images which could safely hang on the walls of any investment banker or corporate lawyer. Art changes nothing.

Conc

This book is a useful reservoir of some classic Surrealist images, but its real value is as a stimulating introduction to a far wider range of less well-known artists.


Credit

Surrealism by Michael Robinson was published by Flametree Published in 2005.

Related links

Surrealism-related blog posts

Australia’s Impressionists @ the National Gallery

This is a very enjoyable, relaxing, easy-going exhibition. It’s small, with fewer than 50 works on display and a relatively short audioguide with only 15 items, meaning there is time to read and look and absorb all the works and then to stroll back through picking out favourites and re-examining them closely.

Australia’s impressionists

‘Australia’s Impressionists’ brings together paintings by three late-Victorian artists – Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder – who used new European ideas of painting in the open air to capture the urban and rural landscape of Australia. Their open air practice and the often quick, blurred finish of the works led to them being called ‘Australia’s impressionists’. They are joined here by a fourth Australian artist, John Russell, who spent most of his adult life in France, where he became friends with leading artists such as Monet and van Gogh, developing a genuinely European impressionist style and was even mentor to the young Matisse.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931)

Roberts was in fact born in England – in Dorchester, Dorset to be precise. His family emigrated to Australia in 1869. He returned to England to study art from 1881 to 1884 before returning to establish himself in ‘marvellous’ Melbourne in 1885. The wall label explains that Melbourne was an economic and social phenomenon, having grown from a few shacks in 1800 to become the second largest city in the British Empire by the 1880s, with bustling docks, warehouses and busy streets teeming with soldiers, shopkeepers, sheepfarmers and well-dressed ladies.

Thus one of the most arresting images in the show is Roberts’ Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West, an immense panorama of one of the busiest streets in Melbourne. The palette of duck egg blue for the sky overwhelmed by the sandy orange of the streets and buildings makes a tremendous impact as a depiction of an authentic Australian urban scene. But the title is important and symptomatic, too. Roberts had just returned from 4 years in London where he was much influenced by the Aestheticism of James McNeill Whistler, the pioneering American painter who gave his paintings titles from musical terminology like ‘Symphony’ and ‘Harmony’.

Although they were determined to paint the Australian scene, all three of these artists saw it with eyes conditioned by the latest developments in European art.

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West by Tom Roberts (1885-6, reworked 1890) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

Allegro con brio, Bourke Street West (1885-6, reworked 1890) by Tom Roberts © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra and the National Library of Australia, Canberra

While in London Roberts painted the city in a kind of foggy, blurry style which recalls Monet’s London paintings (e.g. The Thames at Westminster (Westminster Bridge) 1871). These made a big impression on his contemporaries and several examples are included here. (My favourite one dates from a later visit to London but is a splendidly evocative miniature of the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square – all the more so since the visitor to this exhibition has just walked past this very scene.)

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Trafalgar Square (1904) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

9 by 5 Impression Exhibition

In August 1889 Roberts helped to organise an exhibition of works by himself and colleagues in Melbourne. It was titled the ‘9 by 5 Impression Exhibition’ because many of the works were painted on the 9-inch by 5-inch lids of cigar boxes, an easy resource for poor artists. Although small, the sheer number of works (180-plus) in such a consistently shaky, blurry, swift, impressionistic style, made a big impact on critics (who didn’t like it) and fellow artists (who did). In some accounts the show is credited with marking the start of a genuinely Australian art. It was also distinctive for its fin-de-siecle and Aesthetic trimmings, with the walls of the gallery swathed in Liberty silks and the works bordered by large blocky frames, often painted a kind of modernist metallic tint.

Roberts brought back from Europe this taste for painting en plein air and did much to encourage friends and colleagues to do likewise, and to consciously depict the Australian scenery and life. He set up artists’ ‘camps’ in rural locations a train ride from Sydney or Melbourne (just as the French impressionists used the new suburban train network to go out to the suburbs of Paris to paint semi-rural scenes) although the commentary wryly points out that they weren’t exactly primitive, the one at Box Hill near Sydney having a separate ‘dining tent’ and even a piano installed.

As you explore the exhibition more you understand why the 9 to 5 works are placed right at the start – small, fleeting ‘impressions’ of urban scenes they may be, but they soon give way to large and sometimes enormous works depicting the countryside near Melbourne and Sydney.

Given that sheep farming was one of the fundamental activities in Australia it’s striking how few images of it there are in the exhibition. A Google search shows that Roberts did do many sheep-related paintings, including ones of herding and shearing, but there’s only one here, a big and dramatic composition, Break away! in which the mounted farmer is trying to stop sheep bolting for a dried-up waterhole during a drought.

A Break Away! by Tom Roberts (1891) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Break Away! (1891) by Tom Roberts © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

This is a strikingly naturalistic work, concerned to give a realistic depiction of every detail, for example of the horse’s sweating coat, the cowboy’s lean, his braces, every detail of the fence. It’s great fun but it isn’t really impressionism.

Charles Conder (1868-1909)

Conder was also born in England, in Tottenham, north London. After a boyhood in India he was sent to Australia in 1884. In 1888 he moved to Melbourne where he met Roberts and Streeton. A notable early work is Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay. Note the high vantage point, as used by Roberts in the Bourke Street painting, the smudginess of the clouds and smoke from steamships, the sheen of rain on the dockside. But I saw more of L.S. Lowry in this work than Monet.

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

In fact Conder went back to Europe in 1890, never to return to Australia, and became deeply involved in the Aesthetic movement, mixing with leading artists and writers of the day including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Critics consider his later period less convincing than the earlier Australian paintings. Conder took part in the rural painting camps organised by Roberts outside Sydney or Melbourne. Towards the end of the show there’s a sequence of works by all three artists depicting beaches outside Sydney. Conder produced this work which became quite famous.

Points of interest include:

  • the text on the building at the right being cut off, as in contemporary photographs or the paintings of Degas who enjoyed chopping off objects mid-frame
  • the image is dominated not by a long sweeping beach but by the man-made walkway or bridge – bridges loom large in the works of the French impressionists and Whistler did a series depicting bridges of London in different moods
  • the (to us) absurd formality of these Victorian ladies and gents. The commentary picks up on Conder’s characteristic use of pink in the discarded parasol, ladies’ hat and newspaper held by the lying figure – I was more struck by the intense blackness of the top hat and the couple behind one of the bridge supports
A Holiday at Mentone by Charles Conder (1888) © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A Holiday at Mentone (1888) by Charles Conder © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Arthur Streeton (1867-1943)

Streeton was actually born in Australia, unlike the previous two who migrated there. The paintings of his here are among the largest, and the most evocative of rural Australia. This dramatic depiction of a mine works on what looks like a blisteringly hot day is initially striking for its scale, for the portrait format and for the brilliance with which he creates the slabby effect of hard rocks. It takes a while to focus on the small humans down at the entrance of the mine, and to realise that they are bringing out of an injured miner on a stretcher.

Fire’s On by Arthur Streeton (1891) © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Fire’s On (1891) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Streeton’s work is possibly the most accessible and enjoyable of the three. The second room of the show features a number of his really large paintings of rural Australia which make it look like paradise. Golden Summer was painted when he was just 21! painted at the artists’ camp at Heidelberg, outside Sydney, set up by him and Roberts. It was the first painting by an Australian-born artist to be exhibited at both the Royal Academy in London, in 1890, and the Paris Salon the following year, where it won an award. A reproduction can’t convey the size and the sheer sensual pleasure of this astonishingly assured masterpiece.

Golden Summer, Eaglemont by Arthur Streeton (1889) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Nationalism

The commentary points out that the states of Australia only came together to form a nation in 1901. The late 19th century was a great era of nationalism in politics, an interest or concern or issue which spilled over into art, music and literature. And so, for Australian politicians, commentators and artists, there was a lot of debate about what made it a nation, what was ‘Australian-ness’ etc. The commentary points all this out but it would have been good to have more from the artists or maybe contemporary commentators on what they thought Australian-ness consisted of, what they thought the distinctive features of the Australian landscape, or light, or flora consisted of.

A handful of beach paintings are brought together later in the exhibition to show the distinctive white sand of beaches outside Sydney. But in fact one of the most striking things about the show is how European most of these paintings looked to me. My early impressions of Australia were formed by movies, specifically Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), or the TV series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1968-70). Desert and drought and hard red rock, or lush sub-tropical suburbia.

Works like Streeton’s ‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (painted when he was just 22) are lovely but don’t look anything like the Australia I grew up seeing. It could be somewhere in the Cotswolds. The fact that the title is a quote from Wordsworth emphasises the Englishness of the imagination which is creating it.

'Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’ (1890) by Arthur Streeton © Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Naturalism

The entire exhibition is premised on identifying these artists as impressionists but I wondered. They remind me less of their French contemporaries and more of late-Victorian English naturalistic painters, as can be seen at the wonderful Guildhall Gallery. A painting like Golden Summer is not unlike some of George Clausen’s bucolic scenes of rural England.

How much these paintings are not really that impressionist is highlighted by the fourth member of the show –

John Russell (1858-1930)

Russell left Australia when he was 22, travelling to France where he made friends with the major painters of the day, including Monet and van Gogh. The section of 10 of his paintings here are completely unlike the preceding three artists.

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes by John Russell (1890-1) © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes (1890-91) by John Russell © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Now this has the full French impressionist feel, vague and blurry blobs of very light and bright colours used loosely to create an impression of a scene. Also no people – unlike all the examples above. Streeton, Roberts and Conder also depicted people-less landscapes, but they are concerned with accurately depicting it, whereas Russell seems much more interested in playing with the possibilities of oil paint and colour – pushing, stretching and experimenting.

This can be seen in his many paintings of the Breton coastline where he settled and lived for decades. Here he used Monet’s tactic of painting the same scene multiple times at different times of day to capture different light and mood, in this example the cluster of rocks off the Breton coast named Aiguille de Coton.

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île (about 1890) by John Russell. Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth

As might be expected from a friend of van Gogh’s, Russell experiments with oil paint to express not what he literally saw in front of him but the psychological impact of colour. Similarly the big crude super-obvious brushstrokes are designed to emphasise the paintwork itself rather than the ‘subject’.

Russell’s bold colour experiments led to his work being included alongside those of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck in the 1905 exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. A critic wrote that the works looked like they had been painted by ‘wild things’ or fauves in French, and this nickname was quickly applied to the movement which became known as Fauvism.

Russell’s section of the exhibition shows us hard-core French impressionism morphing into post-impressionism. One of the curators makes the case – in the very informative film which accompanies the exhibition and runs in a projection room off to one side – that Russell deserves to be better known and included in our accounts of late impressionism. Without doubt. But if you then walk out of his rather dazzling section and back past the restrained realistic works of Streeter, Conder and Roberts it makes you question the label ‘impressionism’ as applied to them. Plein air naturalism might be closer.

Ariadne

One of the most evocative images in the show is Streeton’s fabulous Ariadne (1895). For once this feels like a landscape which is impossible to confuse with England or even Europe. It could be a Mediterranean sky but the red rocks on the horizon and the mottled eucalyptus trees clearly indicate the Antipodes. No reproduction can convey the intimacy and power of this painting.

The commentary points out that it is typical of the French symbolism of the 1890s to deploy a mysterious, generally female, figure to point and focus a landscape, as is done here. But it’s only if you get really close to the painting’s surface that you can see details like the way the sandy beach is achieved by broad horizontal brushstrokes whereas the woman’s figure is made by vertical brushstrokes, as is the white of the tumbling surf. Or the way the vertical sweeps of the dress merge into the beach. The branches of the tree on the left are achieved with just one or two confident strokes. It is an astonishing masterpiece, and no surprise that this image was chosen for the posters and publicity for the exhibition.

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Ariadne (1895) by Arthur Streeton © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Conclusion

This is a lovely exhibition, full of what’s-not-to-like images of turn-of-the-century Australia, urban and rural, and shedding light on a quartet of artists who are well worth knowing about.


The video

Most galleries nowadays produce at least one video about their exhibitions.

Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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