German Artists at War, Part Two

GERMAN ARTISTS AT WAR

The Good Soldier, Part Two

A battlefield is not an artist’s natural habitat. Fighting in combat is not an artist’s métier. But Franz Marc (1880-1916) wrote very militant and martial tracts for the Blue Rider Almanac. In 1912 he said stridently and forcefully:

In this time of the great struggle for a new art we fight like disorganized “savages” against an old, established power. The battle seems to be unequal, but spiritual matters are never decided by numbers, only by the power of ideas. The dreaded weapons of the `savages” are their new ideas. New ideas kill better than steel and destroy what was thought to be indestructible. Who are these “savages” in Germany? For the most part they are both well known and widely disparaged: the Brücke in Dresden, the Neue Sezession in Berlin, and the Neue Vereinigung in Munich.

His short essay was bristling with militaristic language and his images were borrowed from the barricades. Marc imagined the young artists with new ideas as “savages,” attacking the hills of old ideas guarded by the older generations, presumably the Munich Secession. The language of the Blue Rider artist, the images he conveyed can be seen as part of a phenomenon, on view mostly in Germany, which could be called portents of a coming war. The most famous writing on the necessity of a cleansing war, of course, came from the Futurist leader and poet, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, but the Italian desire for a modern war was different from the many paintings that emerged in Germany, picturing a total war, a cultural apocalypse that would leave a wasteland in its wake. The most famous of these visionary artists was Ludwig Meidner, but Franz Marc also seemed to be envisioning the future to come with his 1913 painting, The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol.

Franz Marc. The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol (1913)

Unlike Meidner’s many end-of-the-world paintings, the painting by Marc referenced the war in the Balkans, a skirmish in an uneasy part of Europe that acted like a tinderbox, predicting conflagrations to come. The horses, Marc’s beloved animals, are black and in the middle ground, a red-hilled cemetery is studded with black crosses that will be sprouting across the Western Front in a year. During these pre-war years, with Europe seemingly edging closer and closer to plunging into war, artists veered between metaphorical images and literal responses to actual events. Marinetti also reacted the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 with the poem, Zang Tumb Tumb, recounting in onomatopoeic words the sounds of the Siege of Adrianople during the first phase of these wars. While the Balkan conflicts were troubling, they predicted not so much a European war but were symptoms of the weakness of the Ottoman Empire which was losing pieces as territories were pulling away, seeking independence.

On the home front, in Germany, the nation was rattling sabers, imperial cavalry in full dress marched daily in Berlin, and the threat level seemed to be rising. In retrospect, Marc, like many artists, sensed the coming danger in his painting The Fate of Animals. But only in retrospect. In 1976, Frederick S. Levine investigated the origins of this work, dating it to May 1913, part of a larger group of animal paintings that the artist described as “utterly divergent pictures.” “They reveal nothing, but perhaps they will amuse you,” he wrote to his friend and fellow artist, August Macke. In addition to the reaction to the Balkans war on the Tyrol region, he was discussing The Tower of Blue Horses, The First Animals, The World Cow, and Wolves: Balkan War. The original title of The Fate of Animals was both extreme and poetic: The Trees Show Their Rings, The Animals Their Veins (Die Bäume zeigten ihre Ringe, die Tiere ihre Adern) and on the back of the canvas of a painting that Marc had declared would “reveal nothing,” he wrote, “And All Being is Flaming Suffering” (“Und alles Sein ist flammend Leid“). This complicated verbiage was distilled, on the advice of Paul Klee to Fate of the Animals (Tierschicksale), a more coherent title. The “fate” of animals in a burning forest is that of doom and death. They cannot outrun the flames that slash through the trees; the animals can only stand and wait or fruitlessly run for their lives. Certainly being caught in a blazing wood and being helpless would, in the near future, mirror the fate of the soldiers trapped in a war that would mow them down as ruthlessly as the flames would end the lives of the animals that stand in waiting for their “fate.” The painting was first shown in the Berlin gallery Der Sturm later that year, and its subsequent destiny or fate–of which more will be said later–was as eerie as that painting was as moving and prophetic.

Franz Marc. Fate of the Animals (May 1913)

The intense clashing diagonals and strong and fearless colors that envelop the stalwart beasts are painterly echoes of the writing of the artist penned a year earlier:

The first works of a new era are tremendously difficult to define. Who can see clearly what their aim is and what is to come; But just the fact that they do exist and appear in many places today, sometimes independently of each other, and that they possess inner truth, makes us certain that they are the first signs of the coming new epoch—they are the signal fires for the pathfinders. The hour is unique. Is it too daring to call attention to the small, unique signs of the time?

The question of the meanings of these “signs of the time,” was taken up by Milton A. Cohen in his article “Fatal Symbiosis: Modernism and the First World War.” He wrote,

As anticipations of the First World War, these images of war have been typically treated either as instances of artistic naivety (in glorifying a horror that artists could scarcely imagine) or as artistic prescience in sensing the blood that was already “in the air.” Yet such clichés miss the complexity of modernism’s relations to the First World War..Modernist artists had been at war long before they were mobilized in August 1914. Their primary enemies were the forces of artistic reaction: the hostile press, the conservative academies, the reactionary critics, the smug, self-satisfied bourgeoisie..By the early 1910s, however, as modernist innovation intensified, so did its struggle against reaction, and increasingly, modernists turned to war and violence for the vocabulary to depict it.

The author suggested that these paintings, like the language that accompanied them, were metaphorical and more directed to a desiccated art world than towards an imagined clash in the future. And yet, Marc depicted himself, riding a horse, in full dress uniform, in a 1913 painting that would prove to be a sad prediction of his own death.

Franz Marc. St. Julian the Hospitaler ( St. Julien l’Hospitalier ) (1913)

In another book Movement, Manifesto, Melee: The Modernist Group, 1910-1914, Cohen described the end of all of the bellicose images and manifestos once the War began in August of 1914. Instantaneously, artists flocked to war, acting as patriots for their nations, and ending the international sharing of artistic ideas that had characterized the two decades before the War. Faced with the enormity of actual war, normal artistic life ground to a halt and the militant words of Franz Marc would quickly seem naïve in the face of real battle. Cohen quoted French artist Albert Gleizes, who observed, “The present conflict throws into anarchy all the intellectual paths of the pre-war period, and the reasons are simple; the leaders are in the army and the generation of thirty-year-olds is sparse.” He ended sadly by stating a commonly held sentiment, “The past is finished.”

Franz Marc. Fighting Forms (1913)

To imagine Marc at war was to imagine an apparently gentle and spiritually inclined artist in alien territory, the battlefield. For years he had celebrated animals, considering them to be uncorrupted and closer to the spiritual in the world than humans, who were hopelessly compromised and unable to redeem themselves. The artist imagined nature itself as living and breathing according to hidden mystical laws that people, bent upon disturbing the forests and the fields, could no longer sense. He used color to bring symbolic meaning to his spiritual paintings, attempting to create a new language that would be redemptive for humans and at least bring a soothing balm to benighted beings.

Franz Marc. Animals in Landscape (Painting with Bulls II) (1914)

Marc’s language of colors echoed the ideas borrowed from Theosophy as put forward by his colleague Vassily Kandinsky in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). Marc wrote that “Blue is the male principle, astringent and spiritual. Yellow is the female principle, gentle, gay and spiritual. Red is matter, brutal and heavy and always the colour to be opposed and overcome by the other two.” Writing in 2016, Eleni Gemtou noted that Marc projected human feelings of qualities, such as a lost spirituality, once the property of individuals, now found only in animals. In “Art and Science in Franz Marc’s Animal Iconography,” Gemtou discuss the empathy Marc felt for animals, imparting them with anthropomorphic qualities they probably did not possess. As the author explained,

Marc’s particular attitude towards animals must have been developed through many parameters and influences arrived at from both his own life experiences and the proceedings in contemporary science. He was familiar with animal iconography from his childhood up, as his father, Wilhelm Marc, was a professor at the Munich Academy specialized in animal and genre scenes. His approaches though were very different from those of his son, as he used to sentimentalize nature and anthropomorphize animal behavior in a more direct manner.

Despite this uplifting theme that drove his art, Marc, who came from a religious family, dreamed of a cleansing war that would bring about a new beginning. His last paintings of 1914 were marked by restless agitation on the part of animals who were instinctively sensing the dangers to come. In September 1914, the artist, filled with enthusiasm, volunteered and joined the calvary, a part of the military where he could ride a horse, but such units would soon become anachronistic. Romantic notions of a “cleansing” war quickly subsided in the face of reality. Marc’s close friend and fellow artist, August Macke died in October, very early in the war. Sadly, Macke’s wife, Lisbeth, had written, “And it’s wonderful to see how eager they all are to go.” Marc understood the magnitude of the loss of this man, his art and the future of his art. Correctly, Marc recognized the arbitrary nature of wartime death, writing of the “accident of the individual death which, with every fatal bullet, inexorably determines and alters the destiny of a race.” But he believed that this death would contribute to the greater good. “The blood sacrifice which turbrulent nature demands of nations in great wars they offer with tragic enthusiasm, without regret. The whole clasps loyal hands and bears the loss proudly under peals of victory.” Possibly through his own nationalism, Marc came to realize that any war ended globalism and watched the impulses towards a pan-European artistic network dissolve into an extreme nationalism. Instead of rising nobly and heroically to the great occasion, humans, faced with life of death circumstances, quickly descend to animal-like behavoir in order to survive. In his article, “A Murderous Carnival,” Richard Cork quoted Marc, writing in December of 1914, two months after the death of Macke, saying that “the most important lesson and irony of the Great War is certainly this: precisely the great triumph of our ‘technical warfare’ has forced us back into the most primitive age of the cavemen.”

Franz Marc. The Birds (1914)

In writing regularly to his wife and in asking her to make sure that the correspondence would be published, Franz Marc left posterity a remarkable record of a German soldier’s thinking and how his ideas evolved during the two years he served at the front. According to the analysis of Susanna Partsche in her book of his letters, Marc, the artist began with the belief that

Europe was sick and could only be purged through war. He spoke of an interntional blood sacrifice through which the world would be purified. He stricly rejected the view that economice interests had led to the War. He understood this War as a civil war, a “war against the inner, invisible enemy of the European spirit.On the other hand, he also believed that Germany would emerge strengthened from the War, and imagined a Europe under German hegemony. “Germanity will spill across every border after this war. If we want to stay healthy and strong and retain the fruits of our victory, we need..a life-force which penetrates all, without fear..of the unknown..which will bring us to our position of power in Europe..”

Like many artists, Marc tried to find the time to sketch the conflict, mostly in metaphorical rather than in documentary terms. For a brief shining moment, he was assigned to a camouflage unit where he painted “Kandinskys” on canvas, and he wrote of the new function of art in a modern war: “From now on, painting must make the picture that betrays our presence sufficiently blurred and distorted for the position to be unrecognizable. The division is going to provide us with a plane to experiment with some aerial photographs to see how it looks from the air. I’m very interested to see the effect of a Kandinsky from six thousand feet.”

But as the war dragged on, Marc became more and more disillusioned. In the beginning, the artist had believed that “There is something impressive and mystical about the artillery battles… I still do not think differently about the war. It simply seems to me feeble and lifeless to consider it vulgar and dumb. I dream of a new Europe, I … see in this war the healing, if also gruesome, path to our goals; it will purify Europe, and make it ready… Europe is doing the same things to her body France did to hers during the Revolution.” By 1916, he was yearning for an end to his service, and he wrote of the hopelessness of the War itself: “The world is richer by the bloodiest year of its many thousand year history. It is terrible to think of; and all for nothing, for a misunderstanding, for want of being able to make ourselves tolerably understood by our neighbors! And that in Europe!! We must unlearn, rethink absolutely everything in order to come to terms with the monstrous psychology of this deed and not only to hate, revile, deride and bewail it, but to understand its orgins and to form counterthoughts.”

In 1916, the Western Front was mired in the rain and in the endless Battle of Verdun and Franz Marc was but one of the thousands of men fated to meet senseless deaths during a campaign that lasted for months. After two years of being in constant danger, in 1916 he wrote, In this war, you can try it out on yourself- an opportunity life seldom offers one…nothing is more calming than the prospect of the peace of death…the one thing common to all. [it] leads us back into normal “being.” The space between birth and death is an exception, in which there is much to fear and suffer. The only true, constant, philosophical comfort is the awareness that this exceptional condition will pass and that “I-consciousness” which is always restless, always piquant, in all seriousness inaccessible, will again sink back into its wonderful peace before birth…whoever strives for purity and knowledge, to him death always comes as a savior. Marc was now thirty-six years old and, had war not come into his life; Marc would be at the peak of his creative powers, with a long and distinguished career ahead of him. But he was beginning to feel haunted and stalked by death. He wrote to his mother that “death avoided me, not I it; but that is long past. Today I greet it very sadly and bitterly, not out of fear and anxiety about it–nothing is more soothing than the prospect of the stillness of death–but because I have half-finished work to be done that, when completed, will convey the entirety of my feeling. The whole purpose of my life lies hidden in my unpainted pictures.” In 2013, Mark Dober, in his article, “Franz Marc: utopian hopes for art and the Great War,” of the great irony of the artist’s death. On March 2, 1916, Marc wrote to his wife Maria, “For days I have seen nothing but the most awful scenes that the human mind can imagine … Stay calm and don’t worry: I will come back to you – the war will end this year. I must stop; the transport of the wounded, which will take this letter along, is leaving. Stay well and calm as I do.” Then two days later he wrote what would be his final letter to her, saying, “Don’t worry, I will come through, and I’m also fine as far as my health goes. I feel well and watch myself.” According to Dober, Marc was dead two hours later.

Franz Marc. Broken Forms (1914)

But the story is even more horrific than the final poignant letter. In the book, War, Violence, and the Modern Condition, Richard Cork quoted Marc’s commanding officer. The artist and his superior were on a reconnaissance mission, scouting territory during “a radiant early-spring afternoon..At the foot of the hill Marc mounted his horse, a tall chestnut bay, and as long-legged as himself..” The peaceful afternoon was violently interrupted by an exploding shell which burst open, spewing shrapnel. The shards hit the artist in the head so violently that he was nearly decapitated, instantly killing him. It is comforting to think of Franz Marc, living the last moments of his life in the radiant light, riding a horse that we hope was blue.

Franz Marc. Blue Horse I (1911)

In an odd postscript to the painting, Fate of the Animals was in storage at the storage unit for the Der Sturm Gallery, awaiting transport to a memorial exhibition in November. According to Levine’s The Iconography of Franz Marc’s Fate of the Animals, the storage area caught fire and the painting “..subtitled And All Being is Flaming Suffering, was itself consumed by fire. The immense task of restoration was immediately undertaken by Paul Klee who, with the help of Marc’s widow and the artist’s preliminary sketches, was able to reconstruct the structure of the original work..although the original structure remains intact, much of the continuity and much for the dynamism of Marc’s color scheme is gone from what..is one of the most vital sections of the entire work.” The restored ill-fated painting was purchased in a few years later for theMoritzburg Museum in Halle, but in 1936, Fate of the Animals was declared “degenerate art” by the Nazis, whereupon it vanished until 1939. As Levine explained, the painting was found and sent to the infamous Galerie Fischer in Lucerne, a money laundering operation performed by the Swiss for the benefit of the Nazis. The Fate of the Animals finally came to rest when it was purchased by the Basel Kunstmuseum.

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The Russian Avant-Garde and the Revolution, Part One

Artist and Revolution

Art at Ground Zero, Part One

In 1981, the Guggenheim Museum in New York presented a remarkable exhibition, selections from the collection of an otherwise unknown individual, George Costakis (1913-1990). Born in Russia, a nation he considered his home, Costakis was the son of Greek parents who did business in Russia. He was “Greek” and had a Greek passport, but he lived most of his life in the Soviet Union, working at the Canadian Embassy, where his job was organizing the service staff for the ambassador. According to one of his biographers, Bruce Chatwin, Costakis wanted to do “somethimg” to make his life worthy and began collecting art in Moscow around 1946, a time of hardship when a number of privately held goods came up for sale. Undoubtedly there are entire stories attached to each object he purchased–pieces from collections sold off by “white” Russians fleeing the “reds,” and later, perhaps even art looted from Germany, unmoored from provenance, but the total collection grew into something impressive and unprecedented. However, his interests changed from traditional classical art to an obscure view of “modern art” when Costakis was introduced the the brightly colored works of long forgotten artists, once part of the then forgotten “Russian Avant-Garde.”

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The 1981 Guggenheim Museum Catalogue

Under Stalin, abstract art was banned and Socialist Realism ruled as the desired mode of communication. No one wanted, much less remembered, the art produced by a disgraced and discarded group of artists, many of whom were dead. The Guggenheim Museum described how Costakis was impacted by his discovery of the avant-garde: “One day he was shown a brilliantly hued abstract painting by Olga Rozanova, an artist of whom he had never heard. Its impact upon him was instantaneous: ‘I was dazzled by the flaming colors in this unknown work, so unlike anything I had seen before.'” Stunned by finding a neglected body of art by Russian artists, Costakis began to hunt for the paintings of Kandinsky and Rozanova and Popova, searching like a detective on the trail of treasure for lost works of art. In the fifties, there was no competition for these works, and Costakis, as a Greek, was able to amass an impressive collection, which lined the walls of his home, covering all available space, stacked in piles, and numbering in the thousands of objects. Over the years, his Moscow apartment on Bolshaya Bronnaya Street became a place of pilgrimage as the grip of Stalinism slackened and people began attempt to fill in the early Revolutionary years lost to unending oppression.

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Olga Rozanova. Battle of the Futurist and the Ocean (1916)

In his biography of the collector, Peter Roberts, who saw the collection in 1957, recounted his experience:

In 1957 I was not alone in my ignorance of the avant-garde. Few people other than art historians, and not many of those, had any detailed knowledge of this movement. Except for those such as Chagall and Kandinsky who had gone abroad at the time of the revolution and had become famous in the West, the artists who comprised the movement were largely unknown. Most of them were dead by 1957; few of them had continued painting after 1934, when their brilliant style was peremptorily suppressed and forbidden by Stalin.

In his book, George Costakis: A Russian Life in Art, Roberts indicated that the unorthodox collecting of the Greek citizen working at the Canadian embassy using Canadian money attracted the attention of the KGB, which may or may not have understood what he was doing but were concerned at the growing numbers of foreigners who wanted to view the collection put together by a person who was considered “crazy.” However, those in the art world, curious as to the contents of his apartment, and those in the museum circles of Russia, were aware that the art was potentially very valuable–not in Russia, of course, but outside in the West. By 1978, Costakis was officially considered a “traitor” and was forced to leave the Soviet Union, his lifetime home. Because he was allowed to take only one thousand two hundred works from his collection out of the USSR, under duress, he generously gave a large portion of his collection to the State Tretyakov Gallery and departed for Greece.

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Vassily Kandinsky. Red Square (1916)

Almost immediately, his collection, or what was left of it, became available to the West, supplementing what little was known of the suppressed Russian avant-garde movement, such as the foundational work by Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art. 1863-1922, published in 1962. In a 1963 review of this seminal and pioneering book, Mary Chamot wrote in the Burlington Magazine, “Armed with a knowledge of Russian, and an immense amount of courage and determination, Camilla Gray has succeeded in contacting the few survivors of the artistic groups she writes about; she has also had access to a number of documents to be found only in Russian libraries and, perhaps most difficult of all, she has managed to see and obtain photographs of the works of art closely guarded in Russian Museum Stores.” Other reviewers were less kind, pointing to the limitations in the book, caused, for the most part by Gray’s decision to begin in 1863 and end in 1920, but the research was undoubtedly shaped by the amount of access to materials in Russia obtainable by a scholar in a period when the Cold War was at its peak. That said, the book would have provided at least a platform or a foundation upon which to build a study of Russian art, and the arrival of the Costakis collection would have literally thrown open the doors to the wide range of artists involved in the avant-garde movement before they were suppressed by Stalin. Commenting in 2011 on the slow revelation of revolutionary art and the difficulty of building a discourse on unavailable art, Owen Hatherley wrote for The Guardian,

(Costakis) created what has been called a “futurist ark”, buying up drawings, paintings and sketches by artists who were dead, discredited, forgotten, prohibited, or who had moved on to the very different “socialist realism” prescribed from the 1930s onwards. Until Costakis’s collection went public, there was only a vague idea that something extraordinary had happened in the former Russian empire – perhaps a couple of mentions of Kasimir Malevich or Alexander Rodchenko, usually in connection with the German artists they had inspired. Costakis’s work was aided from the 1970s on by the archaeological research of the Soviet historian Selim Khan-Magomedov and the late English architectural writer Catherine Cooke; it’s no exaggeration to say that without this small group of people, the current prominence of the “Russian avant garde”, which has featured in seemingly dozens of exhibitions on the heroic era of modernism over the last decade, would have been impossible.

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Aristarkh Lentulov, Kislovodsk Landscape with Gates (1913)

Obviously, what happened the the Russian Avant-Garde? is a compelling question, as is the question: what happened to the artists? The traditional attempts to understand these long-lost artists have usually relied upon the connections, both stylistic and intellectual, between the West and the Russian artists. As pointed out in earlier posts, there is a distinct break in the narrative of the progression of avant-garde art in Russia, and it is the trauma and freedom of the Revolution that severs the artists from the West, forcing them to produce not “Russian” art but “Revolutionary Art.” Before the War broke out, the artists responded to art from Paris and Berlin but translated what they saw into objects that were semiotically “Russian.” During the War, the artists continued mining and developing their pre-war ideas with little interruption. But the Revolution changed everything for these artists, isolating them from any ties to Western Europe they might have had, and, indeed, the authorities were inclined to force them to stay in their homeland. Signs of governmental oppression were apparent from the start of the Revolution and it quickly became clear that if one wanted to work, one needed permission and support from Communist leaders. The artists with pre-existing European connections were the first the leave, signaling that the first phase of “the Russian Avant-Garde” had ended. The great ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghilev chose to not return to Russia after the Revolution and, strangely, the famous Ballet Russes never performed in their homeland. Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov left for Paris when the Great War began. Marc Chagall left his homeland in the early twenties and only with special permission. Kandinsky left at the same time as Chagall, taking a job at the Bauhaus. None of these artists would ever return to Russia, except for Chagall, who made a quick visit in 1973, only to find the world he left behind gone forever.

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George Costakis with his collection in the 1970s

From the time of the Revolution, especially the October Revolution, the artists who stayed behind were at ground zero, a site where an old world had violently ended with such finality that the old art, once thought so darling in front of the backdrop of the anachronistic regime, now was “bourgeoisie” and out of step with the brave new world that had to arise from the ashes. For a few brief years the artists had tentative government permission or benign neglect to create new art for a new world. Although they threw themselves into the task with great and naïve enthusiasm, those in power had no definitive concept of what the role of art should be in the Communist proletariate society and no instructions to give to artists. Over time, the Soviet Union would have very specific guidelines, but in the beginning, the officials were preoccupied by the internal civil war between the Reds and the Whites. As intellectuals, the artists were always on the side of revolution, which is to say they wanted change and they relished the opportunity to be part of the vanguard of a new visual language. Unfortunately, as has been pointed out earlier, the artists themselves were internally conflicted, split off into different factions and went in multiple directions. Some wanted to continue bourgeois painting, while others wanted to experiment constructively as engineers rather than create as artists, still others wanted to contribute to the production of an art dedicated to the Revolution.

Vassily Kandinsky, a traditional Expressionist artist out of place in Russia, complained in 1920: “Even though art workers right now may be working on problems of construction (art still has virtually no precise rules), they might try to find a positive solution too easily and too ardently from the engineer. And they might accept the engineer’s answer as the solution for art—quite erroneously. This is a very real danger.” Unlike Vassily Kandinsky who was still involved with German ideas, Kazimir Malevich was more the native son referred to the Productivists and Constructivists as “lackeys of the factory and production.” He equated utilitarianism and Constructivism, which he disparaged as “subsistence art.” On the other hand, the new antagonist to Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin declared, “The influence of my art is expressed in the movement of the Constructivists, of which I am the founder.” But he rejected the Moscow group of constructivists and its leading figure, Rodchenko, and went his own way. The result of the dissension about the use of art and its role in social change was a splintered art movement that failed to present a either a united front or an ordered or an orderly slate of solutions to the government.

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Kazimir Malevich. Portrait of M.V. MatyUshin (1913)

The government, for its part, had issues more pressing than coming up with an art program for the artists, but, on the other hand, those in charge also recognized the importance of art, its power to do harm or good, support or undermine the ideals of the revolution. At first the most obvious reform to make was the extrication of the production of art from the bourgeois class and freeing art from the mechanisms of capitalism. Art should be in the service of the people, the state and removed from the corrupting effect of being a decorative luxury item. As the Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, also known as the Soviet People’s Commissar of Education, issued a new definition for art very early after the Revolution: “The Proletariat must finally eradicate the sharp difference between life and art that has concerned the ruling class of the past. From now on art for art’s sake does not exist. In the hands of the Proletariat art will become a sharp weapon of communist propaganda and agitation. In the hands of the proletariat art is a tool, the means, and the product of production.” In other words, art would become art for everyone, not a consumer good for the wealthy elite, and, therefore, its role would change from passive to active, suggesting a reduced role for painting and an enlarged role for graphic design.

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El Lissizky. Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919)

As we move to the next posts on Russian Revolutionary Art, it is important to remember that, in the minds of the intellectuals, the Revolution itself was based in Marxist philosophy. They assumed that the Revolution was the result of the thesis-anti-thesis of capitalism and the failure of capitalism and class warfare. Having succeeded in bring about the inevitable collapse of the government, the Communists dreamed of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Without class hierarchies, everyone would be part of the proletariat or urban lower classes, the true revolutionary foot soldiers. The state would wither away, as Marx predicted, and the people would govern themselves. In her book, The Russian Revolution, Sheila Fitzpatrick noted that the most fervent dreamers imagined a cold, clinical and impersonal state, run by machine-like bureaucrats. The steely mind-set, devoid of personal (bourgeois) feelings and full of ideology imagined that the state would be a “well ordered machine.” In this new world, the family was secondary to the state and it was a given that, within marriage, women were oppressed. Children were recruited by the state to watch their nostalgic parents for any lingering bourgeois sentiments. The entire world was to be economically remade according the what the Revolutionaries considered to be Marxist beliefs and socially reexamined in terms of their interpretations of Engels. To be an artist in this utopian era was to be a righteous radical. As Fitzpatrick wrote,

Avant-garde artists like the poet Vladirnir Mayakovsky and the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold saw revolutionary art and revolutionary politics as part of the same protest against the old, bourgeois world. They were among the first members of the intelligentsia to accept the October Revolu- tion and offer their services to the new Soviet government, producing propaganda posters in Cubist and Futurist style, painting revolutionary slogans on the walls of former palaces, staging mass re- enactments of revolutionary victories in the streets, bringing acrobatics as well as politically-relevant messages into the conventional theatre, and designing non-representational monuments to revolutionary heroes of the past. If the avant-garde artists had had their way, traditional bourgeois art would have been liquidated even more quickly than the bourgeois political parties. The Bolshevik leaders, however, were not quite convinced that artistic Futurism and Bolshevism were inseparable natural allies, and took a more cautious position on the classics.

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Meyerhold’s 1922 production of Sukhovo-Kobylin’s The Death of Tarelkin

It is customary to begin any discussion of the avant-garde made during the Revolution to begin with Constructivism and Productivism, with a side bar about the quarrel between Malevich and Tatlin, but it is also useful to shift the focus away from elite art and to investigate popular culture and how certain artists embedded themselves in the vernacular in order to coin new visual currency in the service of the revolution. The raw materials, the foundational alpha and omega for the new language seeking to communicate with the proletariat and the isolated peasants in the rural regions, were sophisticated and effective at the same time. The next post will discuss the ROSTA art in ROSTA windows, a fleeting attempt at agitprop.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Der Blaue Reiter Painting

THE SPIRITUALISM OF DER BLAUE REITER PAINTING

 

General Characteristics

From 1911 it could be said that European avant-garde art was divided between two needs: the need for individual subjective expressiveness and a striving for order in a time of pending chaos. Both needs were rooted in a desire to escape through an inward journey into feelings or to an ideal structure. Both needs were part of the culture shock that swept Europe at the beginning of the century, as the implications of the Industrialization were sinking in. The avant-garde artists tried to create a new language to respond to these needs: the Cubists searched for a near scientific logic to the construction of the world and the Expressionists sought the answer in the irrational and a return to a more primal spiritual state.

Der Balue Reiter combined two currents: the general European Expressionism and French Fauvism and added to these currents an interest in inner and mystical construction, stemming from Theosophy. Despite the close affinity between Der Blaue Reiter and the Fauves, the approach to art making was radically different—the French artists were more interested in a formal extension of Post-Impressionism while the German artists were interested in mysticism, which was alien to the French. The French Fauves wanted to form an imaginative counter-reality through the formal elements to break up objective reality. In other words, the Fauves used Post-Impressionism to counter Impressionism and cultivated pictorial devices of pure color and pure line

The bridge between the mysticism of Der Blaue Reiter and the French Fauves was Vincent van Gogh. The Fauves were interested in the Dutch artist’s formal experimentations: the fact that he achieved expression through abstract pictorial means. The Germans responded to the symbolic aspects to his art and to the late artist’s desire to use painting to create what Jawlensky called “mood paintings.” It was Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941), who convinced Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), fresh from his years in France, to give up his notion that van Gogh’s art was pathological. Jawlensky felt that van Gogh’s art could best be thought of as a kind of “synthesis” or the harmony of form and color. By 1911, Kandinsky was listening intently to such ideas and made the logical step that if line and color were symbolic and expressive carriers of meaning then they were self-sufficient and it would be possible to give up the subject matter. Even van Gogh had thought of himself as a “musician in colors.”

Form and Color

 

Der Blaue Reiter’s spirituality was based upon three main intellectual aspirations. Fundamental to the movement was the unlimited freedom of all artistic endeavors. For these artists, synthesis meant the unity of stylistic development in terms of color, which was linked to mysticism. For Der Blaue Reiter, art was embodied in mysticism. The purpose of art was to express the innermost being of a human, living and feeling in harmony with nature’s laws of formation and growth. Abstract means, i. e. the use of form and color replaced imitation with simile: formal elements carried meaning and were a pictorial formula for the invisible, as Kandinsky wrote in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art of 1911.

In contrast to Die Brücke’s youthful eroticism and male concern with human body and human sexuality, expressed as the dialectic between spirit/mind and body, Der Blaue Reiter exposed the spiritual rather than the formal construction or composition of the world. Following over a decade of maturation and absorption of a variety of artistic influences, the years 1910 to 1912 was a decisive growth period for Der Blaue Reiter. These artists were carving out a space for themselves after an artistic struggle with Cubism, Orphism, and Futurism, all of which were interested in the dynamism of modern life. Der Blaue Reiter was less involved with the real world and used color as a tracer of movement and as a bearer of emotion. The artists moved away from objects to free arabesques of expression, which dynamized the surface. Color overwhelmed pictorial construction, which dissolved illusionary perspective, leading to a negation of surface.

Unlike the Cubists, the destruction of Renaissance perspective was not a rational dismantling of space and time through multiple perspectives. Der Blaue Reiter created an irrational picture space that was a non-space and was, unlike Cubism, free from reality. The result was the creation of new art form, rejected forms in nature and representation rejected. The picture’s quality resided solely in form, in line, shape, color, and plane, without reference to outside world. Form was then freed to become an expression of the artist’s inner needs. Form was an expression of content, dependent upon innermost spirit. Form was equated with matter and the artist’s struggle against materialism content. Once divested of academic concepts, content is the non-objective, the “inner sound,” or the spiritual, which creates appropriate form.

In the end, Der Blaue Reiter was not a school or a movement but a loose configuration of artists who were exploring spiritual outlets for art. Jawlensky worshiped van Gogh to the extent that he purchased The House of Père Pilon from the artist’s sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Jawlensky, who was paying in installments, wrote gratefully to van Gogh-Bonger, stating that, “Never did a work of your blessed brother-in-law fall into more pious hands.” Franz Marc (1890-1916) described van Gogh as “the most authentic, the greatest, the most poignant painter I know.” Marc was concerned with the painting of animals, an interest that had waned since the Nineteenth Century, but his purposes were not descriptive but spiritual. In her book, Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism, Jill Lloyd explained that for Marc, the vibrating color and undulating forms of Signac and van Gogh “animalized” painting by which he meant “The inner pulsing life of an animal.”

The animals were painted in symbolic colors, especially the primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Marc devised an elaborate theory of art and its colors—blue ws masculine and spiritual and yellow was female and joyful—and used them to indicate the inner life of the animals, not the animals themselves. Like Marc, Kandinsky believed that colors had symbolic meanings, but his theories stemmed from his readings of Theosophy, especially those of Rudolf Steiner and Annie Beasant, a follower of Madame Blavatsky. Involved in the realm of the spiritual, Kandinsky ceased to even see reality itself and he replaced the objects that once populated his paintings with his “inner aspiration.”

In comparison the Jawlensky’s idea of synthesis, Kandinsky began to think in terms of parallels or “correspondences,” as the Symbolists called it—that color was like a musical leitmotif and belonged to a spiritual universe. As Sixten Ringbom explained it in “Transcending the Visible: The Generation of the Abstract Pioneers,” from 1911 on, Kandinsky “dematerialized” form through a series of paintings that ranged from what he termed “Impressions” or painterly interpretations of external nature to “Improvisations” which are expressions of the inner character or inner nature of the object and finally, to the “Improvisations” which Kandinsky described as “feelings.” Thus, the artist explained his transition from representation to abstraction. However, for decades, this transition was explained in terms of formal development, not as a spiritual journey for the artist in search of the deeper meaning of art. Not until The Spiritual in Abstract Painting, 1890-1985) was published in 1987 did the habit of formal analysis release its grip. Although Kandinsky’s works, Concerning the Spiritual in Art and From Point to Line to Plane, were easily available, this exhibition catalogue and the essays were revelations for art audiences and art historians. Created on the eve of the Great War, abstraction had content, and spiritual content at that.

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Der Blaue Reiter

THE EXPRESSIONISM OF DER BLAUE REITER

Brief History

 

Located in a small village just outside of Munich, Munchen, the southern German Expressionist group, Der Blaue Reiter, was broader in scope and more sophisticated than Die Brücke. Der Blaue Reiter was a more international group, with a more amorphous and changing membership. They were more ideological and more concerned with changing the world than Die Brücke. The group was more diverse in national backgrounds but was bound together by common ideals. Although these artists never developed a common style, theirs was a formal aesthetic, based upon the new formal possibilities of plane and line, creating a stylized natural form. The Die Brücke artists were more individualistic, refused leadership and resented Kirchner’s attempts to be the group’s spokesperson. But like Fauvism, this group was largely focused around one artist: Vassily (Wassily) Kandinsky (1866-1944), the dominant figure of Der Blaue Reiter. He was most closely associated with Gabriele Münter (1877-1962) and Franz (Frantsem) Marc (1890-1916); and with Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941) and Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938). This group was later joined by Auguste Macke and the young Paul Klee.

The northern group was not in contact with Der Blaue Reiter in Munich (and Munich area) until 1911-1912, when Franz Marc visited Berlin. The two groups began and developed independently. What they shared in common was the journey thorough and away from Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and Art nouveau. Although Der Blaue Reiter was ultimately more influenced by Jugdenstil ideals which were still current in Munich, both groups had precedents in late Nineteenth Century German landscape schools at Worpeswede in the north and Dachau in the south, where artistic colonies and groups were established. Likewise, Der Blaue Reiter was interested in “primitive” sculpture as part of “quest for origins” and for alternatives to the outdated styles of the fin-de-siecle. These artists also interested in the art of children, art of the insane, naïve painting, all of this art came from untrained people. The Der Blaue Reiter artists, like most artists of their time had received traditional art training and were imbued with conventions. They needed to purify and to do that they had to get back to basics, whether it be the countryside or art making, and live in a small independent community.

Mürnau

 

By 1903, Kandinsky and Münter had moved from Munich, then the capital of art in Germany, to a small town in the country, Mürnau. Notice that the concept of the isolated art community was a German one. French artists may have vacationed in seaside towns, but they spent most of their careers in Paris, the capital of the art world. There was nothing like Paris in Russia, only Moscow, which offered limited opportunities for an ­avant-garde artist in the late Nineteenth Century. Unsurprisingly, Kandinsky and all the Russians, Jawlensky and von Werefkin, were in Munich by 1896, joined later by Paul Klee and Franz Marc before 1900. His little group complete, in 1901, Kandinsky founded Phalanx, a school of painting, but, due to a lack of a clear concept, it disbanded in 1904. Between 1904 and 1908, Kandinsky was in Sèvres, just outside of Paris and was a member of the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne, the best years of Fauvism. Fauvism ended in 1908 when Henri Matisse published Notes of a Painter, in which he indicated that he was changing his mind about the direction of his art. Indeed that very year, Matisse began teaching students who were, to his dismay, both imitating and misunderstanding Fauvism. He made the youngsters start over—-from classicism.

But Kandinsky was very impacted by Fauvism and his visits to the Stein collection where he saw additional works by Matisse, and the suggestion that line and color could have separate and independent existences, unfettered from the task of describing. Formal elements, far from being inert until activated by the artist, were expressive in their own right. Full of new ideas, he returned to Germany where Kandinsky and his associates founded the “New Artists Association,” (Neue Kunstlervereinigung), Jan 22, 1909 but the group disbanded, destroyed by quarrels over art. The Blaue Reiter group was held together by two things, the leadership of Kandinsky and their interest in color and alternative art forms. Otherwise, the actual work of the group is highly diverse: Franz Marc frequently focused on animals which were, he was convinced, capable of spiritual feeling, Gabriel Münter was interested in Bavarian folk painting on glass, while Kandinsky’s paintings were moving towards abstraction.

The group was renamed when Kandinsky and Marc founded Der Blaue Reiter in December 1911. Der Blaue Reiter was also an “almanac,” an illustrated yearbook of the current art scene, published by the artists in 1912, 1913 and 1914 editions. Der Blaue Reiter was also an exhibition of avant-garde art, which traveled about Europe, to Cologne, Berlin, the Hague, Frankfurt, etc. There were also two exhibitions in Munich, at the Galerie Thannhauser at the beginning of 1912 and at the gallery of the dealer Glotz in March 1912. In 1912, Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which fused Theosophy and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner and Madame Helena Blavatsky on the universality of all elements. Like many of the art colonies in Germany, their intense interest in all things spiritual was paradoxical. The Blue Rider came to an end by the Great War when it broke out in August, 1914 and scattered the artists. Leaving Gabriel Münter behind in Switzerland, Kandinsky returned to Russia where he married his second wife. Tragically, Franz Marc was killed in action. Kandinsky and Klee were reunited after the War at the Bauhaus, where the now-mature artists were installed as master teachers.

Podcast 39 Painting 5: Art Between the Wars

Art Between the Wars

Although art history usually passes over this inter-war period quickly, pausing only for Dada and Surrealism, these decades were significant for the continued development of painting. After decades of avant-garde art, Europeans began to consolidate the innovations and inventions of the new century. While the art scene in Paris returned to conservative market-based art, the experimental mind-set shifted to Berlin, the new capital of art between the wars.

 

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Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Podcast 37 Painting 3: The Pre-War Avant-Garde

The Avant-Garde Before the Great War

The decades of the fin-de-siècle period in Europe were fruitful ones, years of innovation and experimentation in painting. “Ism” followed “ism:” Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, German Expressionism, ended only by the Great War. New independent Salons and the burgeoning artist-dealer system provided new opportunities for cutting edged artists to show their work. Working experimentally, these artists developed a new language for a new art for a new century.

 

[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]