“Art is now predicated on what the agent can sell, and not on what the artist can do." -George Rodrigue
Modern Art, a predecessor to Contemporary Art, breaks ranks with traditional representational painting. It includes everything from Monet’s reflections to Pollock’s drips, and its paintings are among the most popular in today’s museums.
Currently, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City presents “The Great Upheaval,” a selection of Modern Art from 1910-1918. The exhibition spotlights European artists and their output just prior to and during World War I.
Surprisingly, this early twentieth century collection includes an almost hopeful view of the oncoming war, as philosophizing artists focus on possibilities of renewal, liberation (particularly for women), and a rejection of elitism. The artists transfer their open-mindedness to their paintings, rendering natural subjects in unnatural colors. They reveal emotions and essences, looking beneath the subject, even inside of it, to expose more than its physical makeup.
Art walks an interesting line, both dated and timeless. Even though bound by a date or an ism, if effective, it endures as universal and eternal in its mystery. I thought about this while strolling the Guggenheim’s snail-shell shape this week. Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural anomaly, opened in 1959, twirls like a corkscrew into Fifth Avenue, built to house a collection of a family’s foundation formed between the world wars.
The early 1900s were an exciting time for the arts, with thriving groups such as Die Brucke (The Bridge) and the Blaue Reiter, and a plethora of isms, including Cubism, Futurism, Rayism, Expressionism, et al.
“What happened to the isms?” I asked my artist-husband.
“The agents killed them with their selections,” he said. “Art is now predicated on what the agent can sell, and not on what the artist can do. Early on the agents followed the movements; now they dictate them. Castelli was a pro at this. He picked only one artist of each type and rejected the others. That way he could say he had the best.”
Artist Franz Marc (1880-1916) and his contemporaries supported the war effort, hoping it would bring positive change. Marc enlisted for service and soon realized the horrible and seemingly endless reality of battle. Concurrently, the German government realized that it was losing its cultural minds and issued deferments for the country’s artists. Marc, however, was mortally wounded at the front only days before his scheduled return.
These artists painted about war without really painting the war. Like poetry, the German Expressionists sought deeper meaning on their canvases. As a result, the wartime paintings resonate with the human condition, whether in times of war or peace.
This is also true of the Austrian Expressionists, on view at the Neue Galerie for the exhibition ‘Vienna 1900: Style and Identity,’ without question the best show I’ve seen in years.
After our Guggenheim experience, I recognized immediately these transparent paintings of the human psyche and the near-literal loosening of the corset strings. George, however, saw much more. He opened my eyes to line and shape, to the way the artists relate their drawings to the edge of the canvas. Through his eyes I became aware of the exaggerated long and angular limbs, enormous heads and hands, and large negative spaces.
“Schiele is free to exaggerate, dissecting the page with lines instead of following the body’s accurate form. It’s the same thing with the paintings, and it’s the same thing with Gustav Klimt. He filled in the negative spaces with whatever design was going on at the time. It’s real easy to figure out once you see the drawings.” —G.R.
Whereas Klimt and Schiele focused on line, Picasso focused on shape and form. Yet in all cases the artists hint at or shout something other than the obvious. Picasso abstracts his forms, revealing hidden meaning not only in what he observes, but also in what he interjects, ultimately abandoning the literal and surface subject.
Picasso rules twentieth century art because he boldly follows his own direction. Others follow his isms but not his lead, unable to break this kind of ground repeatedly. And yet, when the great bronze sculptor Rodin (1840-1917) invited Brancusi (1876-1957) to apprentice in his studio upon his move to Paris in 1904, Brancusi replied,
“Nothing grows in the shade of a tall tree.”
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
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