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ESSAYS

George Grosz

Berlin Street. Circa 1926. Watercolor and ink on paper. Private collection.

YOU SAY YOU WANT A REVOLUTION

American Artists and the Communist Party


RECENT ACQUISITIONS


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


MODERN FURIES

The Lessons and Legacy of World War I


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market


FACE TIME

Self and Identity in Expressionist Portraiture


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


THE LADY AND THE TRAMP

Images of Women in Austrian and German Art


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


DECADENCE & DECAY

Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


FROM BRUCKE TO BAUHAUS

The Meanings of Modernity in Germany, 1905-1933


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


HOPE OR MENACE?

Communism in Germany Between the World Wars


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


MORE THAN COFFEE WAS SERVED

Café Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna and Weimar Germany


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market


EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY

The Narrative Impulse in Modern and Contemporary Art


SUE COE: BULLY: MASTER OF THE GLOBAL MERRY-GO-ROUND AND RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


BODY AND SOUL

Expressionism and the Human Figure


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market)


WORKERS OF THE WORLD

Modern Images of Labor


ART WITH AN AGENDA

Politics, Persuasion, Illustration and Decoration


THE TRAGEDY OF WAR


THE EXPRESSIONIST CITY


RECENT ACQUISITIONS (AND SOME THOUGHTS ON THE CURRENT ART MARKET)


FROM FACADE TO PSYCHE

Turn-of-the-Century Portraiture in Austria & Germany


THE MODERN CHILD

(Images of Children in Twentieth-Century Art)


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And a Look at Sixty Years of Art Dealing)


GEORGE GROSZ - ELFRIEDE LOHSE-WACHTLER

Art & Gender in Weimar Germany


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

(And Some Thoughts About Looted Art)


TABOO

Repression and Revolt in Modern Art


THE NEW OBJECTIVITY

Realism in Weimar-Era Germany


RECENT ACQUISITIONS

A Question of Quality


THE FRACTURED FORM

Expressionism and the Human Body


FROM LEFT TO RIGHT

Social Realism in Germany and Russia, Circa 1919-1933


ON THE BRINK 1900-2000

The Turning of Two Centuries


ART AND POLITICS IN WEIMAR GERMANY


THE DANCE OF DEATH

Images of Mortality in German Art


NAIVE VISIONS/ART NOUVEAU AND EXPRESSIONISM/SUE COE: THE ROAD TO THE WHITE HOUSE


SCANDAL, OUTRAGE, CENSORSHIP

Controversy in Modern Art


THE EXPRESSIONIST FIGURE


THE NARRATIVE IN ART


THE NARRATIVE IN ART

Narrative content and realistic verisimilitude--two of the mainstays of conventional academic art--are often considered inimical to the modernist aesthetic. Yet, as the twentieth century enters its final decade, it is abundantly evident that neither of these two characteristics has in any sense been eliminated from art. Rather it appears that modern art has seesawed back and forth between content and form. While some may credit French formalism with defining the modernist sensibility, French artists by no means eschewed content in their work. Conversely, although the German Expressionists more consciously charted the upheavals of the twentieth-century psyche, they equally shaped the modernist formal vocabulary.

 

Sue Coe is one of a number of contemporary artists whose work addresses narrative concerns--but, as the present exhibition demonstrates, similar tendencies have run throughout much art of the past decades. A turn-of-the-century renaissance in printmaking--coupled with the keen interest in beautiful books nurtured by the British Arts and Crafts movement and its various Germanic offshoots--in part abetted this pervasive interest in pictorial story-telling. Lithography, which began to flourish in the mid-nineteenth century, not only made pictures available to the public on a previously unequalled scale, but provided artists with an important new creative medium. Toward the end of the century, artists such as Felix Vallotton and Edvard Munch helped revive woodcut as an art form in its own right. Etching and drypoint, too, were increasingly favored by artists, not merely as a means of reproducing images originated in other media, but for their own intrinsic visual qualities. All the printmaking methods encouraged the production of cyclical art works that were implicitly if not explicitly narrative in orientation. Some of the resultant cycles--such as Emil Nolde's untitled series dealing with myth, religion and childhood fantasy--are only loosely interconnected, while others, like Vallotton's This is War! hew fairly closely to a cohesive theme. Many print cycles were published in book or portfolio form, with or without accompanying text.

 

Despite the demise of formal history painting, mythological, Biblical and literary subjects remained popular with modern artists. Lovis Corinth's illustrations of the Deluge and Ernst Barlach's and Oskar Laske's illustrations of Goethe are by no means anomalous within the context of twentieth-century art. Alfred Kubin found steady employment as an illustrator, and many avant-garde artists were closely allied with their literary counterparts. Thus Hans Arp illustrated the poetry of his Dadaist colleague Tristan Tzara, and Oskar Kokoschka an essay by his coffeehouse crony Karl Kraus. Painstaking fidelity to the text was not necessarily required in such collaborations; rather, the images frequently paralleled the words, forming a second, independent treatment of the theme that, by echoing the first, amplified its resonance. It is for this reason that all Kokoschka's illustrations (for example, of Bach's cantata O Ewigkeit--Du Donnerwort) are capable of standing on their own.

 

Another aspect of Kokoschka's work--and that of many of his contemporaries--is that its putative subject is often only a pretext for the exploration of more personal concerns. Therefore in both the Kraus and the Bach illustrations, one clearly recognizes the faces of the artist and his lover, Alma Mahler. Symbolism laid the groundwork for the personalization of allegorical subject matter. Munch's Madonna is a steamy seductress who seems deliberately to challenge accepted iconography, while Gustav Klimt's allegories of Medicine, Philosophy and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna evoked a flurry of controversy due to their unconventional presentation of intertwined nudes. Some artists--such as Marc Chagall in his series Mein Leben--were specifically autobiographical in their approach; many simply contented themselves with depicting everyday life as they experienced it.

 

During the early decades of this century, "everyday life," as it had been defined when the pioneer modernists were children, was undergoing a profound upheaval. World War I put a final end to the staid bourgeois society of the late nineteenth century, and although many artists embraced this end with gleeful nihilism, few had much to offer in the way of concrete political alternatives. The war itself--as brilliantly documented by Otto Dix in his monumental series--left in its wake horrific devastation and economic chaos. While Käthe Kollwitz was probably the most eloquent spokesperson on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, even she shied away from the political infighting that came to characterize Weimar Germany. George Grosz chronicled the ongoing conflict between socialism and fascism with an acerbic wit, but when it became evident that fascism would triumph, he instinctively knew that he must flee.

 

In some respects, our understanding of the present moment--rife with manic pronouncements about the death of socialism--may well be enriched by a glance backward at the work of artists who, so many years ago, dealt with similar issues. The persistence of such artists, and of their work, should in a broader sense give pause to those who would contend that art and politics (or art and content) do not mix. It has become a truism that even the most seemingly innocuous art subliminally reflects the society of its day. In times of turmoil, it is natural that artists take the lead in responding to the social forces that surround them, and imperative that we listen.