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Interbellum Art

Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936

October 1, 2010-January 9, 2011

Guggenheim, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York




“By breaking statues one risks turning into one oneself,” says a caption in Jean Cocteau’s 1930 film, “The Blood of a Poet.” The statement could be a postmodern take on Psalm 115, which declares that those who make idols (which have mouths but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, noses but cannot smell, hands but cannot feel and feet but cannot walk), “shall become like them, all that place their faith in them.”


Like the legendary Greek sculptor Pygmalion, who fell in love with his sculpture-turned-woman, the artist in Cocteau’s film sees both a drawing and a sculpture of his become flesh and blood. After fleeing some traumatic and surreal visions, including a journey through a mirror and a lethal snowball fight, the artist destroys (and murders?) the sculpture. Yet his iconoclasm, as the statements above suggests, might be an act of projection and identification, rather than violence and disassociation.


The work is worth comparing to Julius Bissier’s 1928 painting, “Sculptor with Self-Portrait.” The artist, wearing a suit and tie, gray-white overcoat and beret, holds a scalpel in one hand and a chunk of clay in the other as he carves a self-portrait bust that stands on a table in the foreground. A note pinned to the wall beyond his left shoulder is Bissier’s signature, and a shelf to the left of the painting supports a quill and ink.


“Although Bissier’s surreal, double image, with its bright palette and cartoonlike formal exaggeration, could never be mistaken for anything but a modern picture, its roots go deep into the local past,” argues Kenneth E. Silver in his essay “A More Durable Self,” which identifies Bissier’s work with the portraits of the 16th century German portraitist and printmaker, Hans Holbein. Silver also cites the term “modernity of the past,” coined by Katia Baudin of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, which he explains as, “the sudden but powerful attraction that German art history exerted on practitioners in the 1920s.”


Jean Cocteau. The Blood of a Poet (Le sang d’un po?te), 1930. 35 mm black-and-white film,

with sound, 50 min. Film still by Sacha Masour. Courtesy Comit? Jean Cocteau.



It is almost a clich? at this point to ask how interbellum Germany, then on the forefront of virtually every cultural sphere, could embrace Hitler and Nazism. Why didn’t Berlin’s painterly and operatic sensibilities, the question goes, elevate the German moral sense, and if, as Oscar Wilde famously claimed, art and morality are not kin, what good is an art that cannot only accommodate genocide, but even style it? Perhaps this is how Theodor Adorno came to argue, “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”


The brilliance of the Guggenheim’s current exhibit, Chaos and Classicism: Art in France, Italy, and Germany, 1918-1936, which includes both Bissier’s and Cocteau’s works, is that it goes one step beyond the hackneyed question.


Instead of looking to indict art for the sins of dictators (though art has often played the role of propaganda, never more thoroughly than Hitler used it), guest curator Silver, professor of modern art at New York University, looks to the art of the period between the world wars, in part, to see how artists responded to the devastation of the First World War and to scout out the cultural forces that facilitated the rise to power of dictators in the Second World War.



Antonio Donghi. Circus (Circo equestre), 1927. Oil on canvas, 150 x 100 cm.

Gerolamo and Roberta Etro, Milan.



Artists of the 20s and 30s, according to Silver, sought to replace the chaos of the First World War with classicism – a revival (called the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity) of the Greco-Roman emphasis on the monumental and the holistic. Like the Genesis narrative where God fashions the cosmos out of tohu and vohu, artists literally seem to have tried to create substance out of bedlam. But purity of forms quickly became a double-edged paintbrush when it became incorporated into the Nazi agenda of using approaches like eugenics to privilege Aryanism over the “Other.”


Although Silver stresses that the artist and the sculpture in Bissier’s work seemingly “insist on the equal status of painting and sculpture, if not the latter’s superiority,” there is one important difference between the two. Bissier has dabbed two white strokes on the artist’s face – one per eye – an old trick that lends the eyes the illusion of texture and three-dimensionality. The sculpture, by comparison, lacks those glimmers in its eyes, making it very clear which is the master and which is made of clay.


The same can be said of Cocteau’s artist and sculpture. Although both have the power of movement, it is clear that there is a difference between the person and the sculpture, however animated it may be. This distinction between human (with all the rights and value implied therein) and non-human, between person and miming puppet, was of course to become a far larger and more terrifying issue with the Nazis’ rise to power.



Otto Dix. Skin Graft (Transplantation) from The War (Der Krieg), 1924.

Etching, aquatint, and drypoint from a portfolio of prints, plate: 19.9 x 14.7 cm; sheet: 47 x 34.6 cm

Published by Karl Nierendorf, Berlin, printed by Otto Felsing, Berlin. Edition of 70.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York.



The Guggenheim exhibit tells of that rise from Joseph Goebbels’ 1936 Decree Concerning Art Criticism (which essentially forbade it) to the closing of the Bauhaus school and the condemning of its art to the Degenerate Art exhibits. The exhibit also addresses Albert Janesch’s painting “Water Sports (Wassersport),” which depicts the 1936 Berlin Olympics and shows “a veritable navy of superhuman Nazi athletes,” according to Silver, as well as Leni Riefenstahl’s 1936-8 “Olympia,” a film about the Olympic games, which Silver says was “financed secretly by the Nazi government to serve as international propaganda for the regime.”


But perhaps the most interesting work in the show is Carlo Carra’s “The Daughters of Lot (Le figlie di Loth)” (1919), which shows Lot’s two daughters and a dog (a symbol of fidelity) set in a mostly desolate landscape. Having fled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah with their father, the two women decide that they are the sole survivors of the apocalypse and that it is their responsibility to get their dad intoxicated and to begin repopulating the planet.


“A tale that resonated during postwar reconstruction, the Old Testament story of Lot refers to a new beginning,” writes Guggenheim curator Helen Hsu in the catalog. “In Carra’s unconventional representation, Lot is eliminated and with him the act of incest, although the staff lying in the foreground may be a cipher for the missing father.”


Hsu doesn’t mention it, but it would be fascinating if Carra intended the pedestal and white sculpture on the right to be a pillar of salt – and then not only the father, but also the mother would be symbolized. Either way, the Lot painting serves as a great representation of the interbellum period not only because Carra has censored the obscenity, but also because the women are wrong. Though their trauma seems universal, it is simply local, and life does indeed carry on. Perhaps Carra has referenced that in the classical structure (perhaps a temple) in the background amidst the hills and the foliage.


Carra couldn’t have predicted World War Two completely, but he certainly knew to create the perfect balance between hope and fear, creation and destruction.



             Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia ,welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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