Dead Enders

Umberto Boccioni Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, Bronze

Umberto Boccioni
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913,

“Italian Futurism, 1909 – 1944: Reconstructing the Universe” at the Guggenheim Museum, February 21 – September 1, 2014

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” at the Neue Galerie, March 13 – September 1, 2014

Will we ever again see the unrestrained excitement and propagation of new art movements that were born at a breathless pace one after another during the 20th century?  One would be foolish to try and predict such an unknowable future, but if the first decade and a half of the 21st century proves indicative, it would seem the age of unrelenting innovation is taking an extended break.  At least for the moment, it appears that art that looks like other art is what collectors crave and galleries feature.  Not that newness is essential to art being good.  Indeed, I think that the idea that all art must be avant-garde has little merit.

And yet what a time for new ideas the 20th century was!  In its first decade everything, in every field, was in a state of white-hot flux; Einstein, Freud, Lenin, Madam Curie, Edison, Georges Méliès, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Wright brothers were all fervently at work.  Many of the ideas from that time continue to define the world we live in today.  Some ideas about art from those early decades proved enduring as well – one can draw a fairly straight line from Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades through Andy Warhol’s soup cans to Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaners.  However, whatever their promise seemed to be at the time, the majority of them faded as quickly as they appeared.  Even two of the most spectacular movements – German Expressionism and Italian Futurism – turned out to be dead ends, albeit for very different reasons. Reasons fully illuminated in two great and scholarly not-to-be-missed exhibitions, each ending its run this month.

Otto Dix  "The Trench" 1923, Oil on Canvas

Otto Dix
“The Trench”
1923, Oil on Canvas

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” at the Neue Galerie is not the first time that Hitler’s infamous traveling exhibition has been partially recreated. In 1991, in part as a response to the reunification of Germany, a larger and more comprehensive exhibition, “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany” was put together at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by Stephanie Barron and traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago. It did not travel to New York and, in any case, it is a story worth retelling for every generation, so 23 years later we are fortunate that Olaf Peters organized this new iteration for the Neue Galerie.

While as noted above the LACMA show contained more works, the current exhibition includes works by the Nazi’s artists of choice for comparison. In a particularly illuminating pairing, the triptych “The Four Elements: Fire, Earth, Water, and Air” a banal Neoclassical by Nazi favorite Adolf Ziegler hangs next to Max Beckmann’s enigmatic and overwhelming triptych “Departure”.  Talk about being hoist with one’s own petard, these two works alone are enough to bring home the point that it wasn’t just that the Nazi’s hated the great contemporary art flourishing all around them, it was also that what they liked, publicly at least, was kitsch dreck and, worst of all, boring.

George Grosz "Portrait of the Writer Max Hermann-Neisse" 1925, Oil on Canvas

George Grosz
“Portrait of the Writer Max Hermann-Neisse”
1925, Oil on Canvas

But of course, boring art or, more to the point, an art that did not ask questions was what the Nazi’s wanted, needed. As they ramped up their war machine, they most certainly did not want artists like Otto Dix, with paintings like “The Trench”, reminding the German people that war is not noble and heroic but dark and horrible. Nor, for that matter, could their ideology accept George Grosz praising in portraiture the writer, and definitely non-Aryan, Max Hermann-Neisse.

As history and this exhibition attests with a display of empty frames, the Nazi’s were not interested in intellectual debates but actions – they sought to reconfigure German culture through force.  Along with their infamous book burnings, they removed thousands of artworks from museums – over 600 Kirchner paintings alone were removed – expelled artists from academies and schools, and worked tirelessly to destroy careers and reputations through their official publications. The havoc they created effectively crippled one of the most vital art movements in Europe, with the effects lasting long after the war ended. For although the Nazis lost, the war changed everything about the world that followed. Art collectors, the majority of whom tend to be conservative by nature, were happy to replace the heat and passion that engendered the German Expressionist movement with the distanced cool of Abstract Expressionism.

Italian Futurism, as the voluminous exhibition at the Guggenheim shows, was an all together different undertaking. Organized by Vivian Greene, Senior Curator of 19th and Early 20th Century Art at the Guggenheim, and a team of advisers, “Italian Futurism, 1909 – 1944: Reconstructing the Universe” is breathtaking in its completeness. With the exception of Giacomo Balla’s “Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash”, it appears that every major work of Italian Futurism is in the exhibition. Winding your way up the spiral ramp (admittedly one of the few times I have actually walked up instead of down) one starts with a room devoted to one of the three greatest artists of the movement, Umberto Boccioni. Along with his other sculptures, “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” from 1913 is so ahead of its time, and for many, myself included, so iconic, that it gives instant legitimacy to the movement as a whole. Unfortunately, Boccioni’s career was cut brutally short when he died serving in the Italian Army during WWI. Which brings up one of the ideas that will eventually doom the movement: they did not only worship the future, but the idea of war as a means of achieving that future. Like all fascists, they were utopians with a very dark streak.

So they loved machines, but also tanks.Which makes for some very disturbing if interesting works, such as one of the better paintings in the exhibition, Gino Severini’s “Armored Train in Action,” 1915.

Gino Severini, Armored Train in Action, 1915, Oil on Canvas

Gino Severini,
Armored Train in Action, 1915, Oil on Canvas

Beautiful, almost lyrically formal, it none-the-less shows soldiers and cannon firing out from a moving train. But in its completeness, the exhibition reveals another weakness of the Italian Futurists, for after naming Balla, Boccioni, and Severini, the level of talent decreases precipitously. For every Giacamo Balla “Street Light”, there are dozens of far lesser works.

Giacomo Balla "Street Light"  1911, Oil on Canvas

Giacomo Balla
“Street Light”
1911, Oil on Canvas

There is something else very strange about the Italian Futurists; they idolized machines, war, and an idealized tomorrow, but largely eschewed more modern means of art production – there are few photographers overall, and hardly any filmmakers at all.  Like their fascist counterparts in the north, they were overall a conservative movement technically – they overwhelmingly favored traditional techniques like oil painting – and in their thinking. For as the century progressed, their fascination with the future fixated on flight, but not flying itself. Instead of thinking about how airplanes changed the way we move around the planet, they found themselves illustrating what one sees from above. In short, while the rest of 20th century art history was invested in expanding our ideas about what art can be, the Italian Futurists were locked into ever diminishing considerations until finally, like the Guggenheim upward ramp, it ends up in the air with nowhere to go.

Both shows end this Monday, September 1st. If you haven’t seem them, I urge to do so – you will not again see the likes of either anytime soon.

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