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ESSAYS

Oskar Laske

ON THE BRINK 1900-2000

The Turning of Two Centuries

Throughout history, there have been moments when catastrophic or sweeping changes, such as the Black Plague of the fourteenth century or the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, exacerbated the apocalyptic and millenarian strains that lie imbedded in the Christian heritage. When change--for example, the political upheaval occasioned by the American and French Revolutions in the late 1700s--coincides with the turn of a century, the attendant tensions appear particularly portentous. The twentieth century, which in its early years witnessed the apotheosis of industrial society and at its end the first death spasms of the same, has produced an unusually rich body of imagery reflecting the dreams and fears inspired by drastic change. Such preoccupations have been further abetted by the fact that the present century lies on the brink of a true millennium.

 

Two world wars, the Holocaust and the prospect of nuclear Armageddon have kept the notion of apocalyptic disaster alive throughout these past 100 years, but from the vantage point of either end of the twentieth century, the central postwar era nevertheless seems comparatively stable and secure. This was the period when a thriving industrial economy produced a steadily rising standard of living for most citizens in the East and West, and the ideological stand-off of the Cold War not only dampened smaller European conflicts, but fostered a reassuring certainty of vision in partisans on both left and right. In art, the often anarchic gropings of the early modernists had been tamed by a formalist doctrine no less rigid, muscling the past into a theoretical straight jacket that purported to justify the present and guarantee the future. By contrast, today all semblance of economic, political and aesthetic certitude has vanished, replaced by a free-for-all whose chaotic nature engenders more dread than hope. Now that the mid-century stasis has been ruptured, it is evident that many issues which fueled anxieties around 1900 were never resolved, and they resurface in current concerns with such matters as race, ethnicity, eugenics and genetic engineering, gender, normative social or “family” values, religious extremism, plague-like diseases, “doomsday” scenarios of various kinds, and pervasive doubts about the merits of technology, science and the urban environment.

 

The present exhibition does not attempt to deal with all the prevalent fin-de-siècle obsessions; probably no single survey could comprehensively do so. Especially in the area of contemporary art, it is evident that themes of degeneration and transformation (thus far surprisingly unremarked) are so widespread as to merit separate study in their own right. From a vast array of choices, we have selected a deliberately eclectic handful, ranging from artists who, like Sue Coe or Eric Fischl, extend the parameters of representational modernism, to those like Charles Burns, Gary Panter and Art Spiegelman, who have brought comics into the realm of fine art. We have also included several self-taught or “outsider” artists, like Howard Finster. It is telling that the contemporary portion of the exhibition incorporates a significant amount of work by photographers such as Sally Mann and Steve McCurry, as well as by artists, including Cindy Sherman and David Wojnarowicz, who make extensive use of photography to express social concerns, for the weaning of narrative content from much twentieth-century painting has encouraged its proliferation in other genres.

 

The historical segment of the exhibition places primary emphasis on the Symbolist/Expressionist nexus that began evolving in the late nineteenth century with such figures as Edvard Munch and Max Klinger, and that culminated over the course of the next decades in the work of Egon Schiele, Erich Heckel, Ludwig Meidner and others. As these artists demonstrate, the human consequences of change were addressed more directly by modernists in north-central Europe than in France. Although all members of the avant-garde were acutely aware of their revolutionary mission, the French at the turn of the last century could look back to an array of precursors from Courbet to Cézanne, whereas those in other parts of Europe, lacking comparable role models, were more conscious of their commitment to radical novelty. A similar rupture with the past may be seen today, as modernism--which itself came to assume the hegemonic role of the old academies--finally fades away.

 

Momentous change creates opportunities as well as dangers, but the most striking turn-of-the-century images dwell on destructive elements. The allegorical figure of death stalks the work of artists as diverse as James Ensor, Käthe Kollwitz and Luis Cruz Azaceta. Evil mutant creatures reminiscent of those found in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch were revived by Ensor at the end of the last century and again today by Coe and Erik Desmazières. Sometimes the peril being evoked is generic--as in Klinger’s famous etching Plague--and sometimes, as in much recent work devoted to the AIDS pandemic, it is alarmingly specific. Though disease is rarely welcomed, armed conflict, at least in the early years of this century, was occasionally seen as a positive force. Kollwitz, a Socialist, at one time yearned for revolution, while the Italian Futurists, together with German colleagues like Ernst Barlach, initially considered the First World War to be a cleansing event that would wipe out the last corrupt traces of bourgeois society. A kindred sensibility is found among present-day Christian fundamentalists, including Finster, who embrace the predicted apocalypse as a triumph of righteousness over sin. The realities of war and revolution eventually made pacifists of most early modernists, however, and today war is seldom endorsed. Coe, like Kollwitz, focuses on its innocent victims, often women and children. McCurry’s photographs of the recent conflict in Kuwait offer a multifaceted indictment of the futility and destructiveness of modern technology.

 

The almost unanimous excoriation of technology by contemporary artists is one of the more striking differences between the present fin-de-siècle and the last one. While some in government and business place great faith in the “information superhighway,” few believe that it will bring to the vast majority the sort of widespread benefits that industrialization once promised and that were, for example, heralded in Bolshevik posters. Indeed, much early twentieth-century art, from Félix Aimé del Marle’s ebullient evocation of the Paris Metro to Robert Michel’s frenetic homage to the town of Weimar, glorified the urban environment as the seat of a modern scientific utopia. Such images are counterbalanced, but not outweighed, by the “dead” or ruined cities of Schiele and Alfred Kubin, and the urban nightmares of Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Frans Masereel, Meidner and others. The flip-side of the rational, progress-oriented construct represented by the city was the idealization of a simpler bucolic past, which found concrete expression in “back-to-nature” colonies like the Worpswede community where Paula Modersohn-Becker and Heinrich Vogeler lived. Today, with the natural environment increasingly threatened by human depredations ranging from genetic engineering to toxic oil spills, artists like Coe concentrate less on recapturing the past than on forestalling further destruction. Doom-laden portraits of civilization, such as those painted by Dennis Pinette, are the norm.

 

A nostalgic yearning to regain lost innocence finds expression not just in the rural/urban dichotomy, but in bizarrely polarized views of childhood. In certain paintings by Modersohn-Becker, children are clearly identified with their idyllic Worpswede surroundings, but in others, little boys appear as almost alien beings, unreachable by adult logic and therefore somehow threatening. Schiele, still emotionally an adolescent when he executed his first Expressionist masterpieces, similarly evokes the self-contained world of childhood in numerous poignant watercolors. His open acknowledgment of sexual feelings in his pubescent models invites comparison with Sally Mann’s recent photographs of her daughters and son, though the attitudes of the two artists are in many ways quite different. Mann adopts a far more ambiguous stance, in which it is unclear whether sexuality and a host of other disturbing feelings are intrinsic to her underage subjects or imposed upon them by the viewer’s preconceptions. Photographer Larry Towell, too, has captured two extremes of the childhood paradigm: one in a pre-modern Mennonite enclave, and the other among the gun-toting boys of the Gaza Strip. The criminalization of children--lampooned by Art Spiegelman in a recent New Yorker cover and explored in depth by Sue Coe in her series on the Liverpool child murderers--is the pathetic recourse of a society that has abdicated all responsibility for its weakest members. It is the child’s “otherness” that places him or her beyond the pale of civilization--as an embodiment alternatively of lawlessness or incorruptibility.

 

Attitudes toward women likewise reflect the state of civilization, for it is by way of contrast that males defend their identity in times of transition and insecurity. Not surprisingly, a concerted attempt to define gender norms characterizes both the last turn of the century and the present one. The iconic femme fatale--typified in the work of Munch, Gustav Klimt, Lovis Corinth and others--was a popular way to simultaneously demonize female sexuality and segregate it from more serene, maternal views of the “good” woman. Even the less highly charged nudes depicted by these late-nineteenth-century artists consciously objectified the female body and placed it squarely at the service of male desire. Schiele, on the other hand, upended conventional poses and attitudes toward the nude, granting far more autonomy to feminine sexuality while nonetheless remaining clearly terrified of it. The lustful aggressiveness manifested by certain Expressionists, such as Beckmann, was countered by others, like Heckel, who equated naked women with the instinctual purity of “primitive” societies. By transplanting nude figures from the tribal wilderness to surroundings more reminiscent of a Caribbean vacation land, Eric Fischl provides an ironic, post-modern take on these age-old iconographic conventions. Cindy Sherman comments more acerbically on the pictorial formulae that have been used to subjugate women, while, like Fischl, remaining essentially outside the traditions that spawned such devices.

 

Artists today have recourse to a wide menu of historical styles and subjects, just as society at large picks through the debris of the past in search of new, overriding values. The tradeoff between freedom and anarchy, security and demagoguery, inevitably entails unsatisfactory compromises, and as the millennium approaches, no easy solution is in sight.