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Léon Spilliaert

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Self-Portrait with Moon (1908), Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 488 x 630 mm, Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, inv. 6923]

Visitors to the Modern section of art museums in Belgium will soon come across stark and dramatic art by an unfamiliar name. Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) was a Belgian artist, associated with but not part of the Symbolist and Art Nouveau movements of the period. Curator and scholar Anne Adriaens-Pannier has become the world’s leading expert on Spilliaert. She prepared the catalogue raisonné and has assembled the most detailed body biographical information about the artist, not least due to her extensive and long-lasting contact with his descendants.

This publication is a major advance in making Spilliaert’s art known outside Belgium. His art is in private hands in Europe and in Belgian museums but has only recently been exhibited more internationally. This major monograph makes an excellent guide to the artist’s life and work, provides detailed information, a bibliography, chronology and plentiful information about the artist’s output, career and ideas.

The early work moves between modes of satire, social criticism, mythology, caricature and cartoon. Early pieces include the gamut of juvenile subjects: interiors, street scenes, solitary figures, caricatures, fantastic figures, symbolic characters and humorous scenes. Almost all were drawn in stylised forms and – with the exception of some self-portraits and interiors – produced from memory or imagination. There is often a bold stylisation with swathes of black. It is close to the sort of art published in illustrated journals and newspapers. We can relate it to the Modernisme of Barcelona, Jugenstil from Vienna and the closer influences of Belgian Art Nouveau and French Symbolism. This was also the time when Aubrey Beardsley’s black-and-white style was at its most popular. We can detect common refrains in Spilliaert’s art – the preoccupation with the morbid and grotesque, the artificial and synthesised, the decadent and uncanny, the ambiguous and androgynous. However, Spilliaert is never overtly erotic, as Rops and Beardsley were. There is a fascination with the strange but never an obsession. For Spilliaert, excess is a matter of detached speculation rather than something in which he indulged in his everyday life. Spilliaert was an early reader of Comte de Lautrémont’s Les chants de Maldoror, a fan of Nietzsche (of whom he drew some portraits) and someone familiar with Symbolist poetry.

Peculiarly, in his best work Spilliaert hardly went beyond the adolescent stage of art, with its interiority, self-absorption, heightened emotion, small size and lack of externally derived correction. Although indebted to Symbolism and Art Nouveau, Spilliaert was artistically and professionally isolated. He always preferred working on paper to using canvas; he stayed with ink, pencil, charcoal, watercolour and pastel, never achieving much in oil paint or sculpture. (His oil paintings were produced at the behest of gallerists who found those easiest to sell.) His palette is most effective when limited to cool hues, with little contrast in colour. The impressive thing is how he managed to extract the very best from a narrow emotional and thematic base.

He was essentially self-taught, spending only a few months studying in Bruges. He spent most of his life in his birth town of Ostend. The most important artist of Ostend was James Ensor, who was a minor celebrity in the town by the time Spilliaert started working. (Ensor outlived Spilliaert by a few years, dying in 1949.) Spilliaert greatly admired Ensor’s interiors. Ensor’s marines were very painterly and reliant on the effects of oil paint, so they could not be a direct influence on an artist using Spilliaert’s materials. Pannier includes an excellent and illuminating discussion about the personal and artistic links between the two artists. Ensor’s satirical drawings and prints directly inspired Spilliaert to produce his own interpretations on the subjects, though usually less scabrous and bitter.

Spilliaert did join societies, participate in group exhibitions  and form connections to other artists. Spilliaert is best thought of as an individualist associated with Symbolism, alongside Vilhelm Hammershøi, Helene Schjerfbeck, Félix Vallotton and others. Other artists such as Alfred Kubin, Odilon Redon and Félicien Rops are suitable comparators. An extended chapter relates Spilliaert to Fernand Khnopff, Xavier Mellery (who taught Spilliaert briefly in Bruges), Munch, Ensor, Constant Permeke, the Nabis and Japanese prints. Adriaens-Pannier helpfully weighs up the specialist literature (mostly available only in Flemish), which allows us to understand the debates which have shaped the reception of the artist’s work. She describes the artistic and literary affiliations that added to the formation of the art and is particularly good at setting his work in a historical context. Whilst not all of Spilliaert’s art will be to single viewer’s tastes – indeed there is a chasm between later colourful work and the early tenebrous style – Adriaens-Pannier even-handedly informs us about the multiple interests of the artist.

The interiors are domestic, generally, and still-lifes are of everyday objects (boxes, bottles, house plants). His early self-portraits are characteristic of Spilliaert. His slender form, strong facial shapes and flamboyant coif of hair provided a base upon which to exaggerate with powerful shadows and highlights. (He often posed under a raking overhead light at night.) His clothing is formal, with a high collar and dark jacket. He is the epitome of a damned artist or anguished aesthete. Coloration in muted, sometimes little more than a touch of isolated colour in an otherwise black-and-white picture.

Pictures of other figures depend on mood. When the figures are simple, dark, dramatic and isolated they work best. The caricatures, portraits (aside from the self-portraits) and pieces in high colour are much less successful. In the latter, the influence of the Nabis leads Spilliaert away from his strengths. Realism is not an issue, as the art that is realistic (the self-portraits) and unrealistic (the dream-like compositions) are both effective – just as the art which blends verisimilitude and artificiality. Contrasting or bright colour diminishes the impact of Spilliaert’s art.

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Promenade and Lighthouse, 1908, Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 505 x 395 mm (day)]

Much of the artist’s work concerns the sea. A constant presence in Ostend, a repeated subject for local artists, the sea provided Spilliaert with a chance to approach nature as vast and temperamental. The fields of flowing water, dramatic elongated reflections and counterpoints between Ostend’s seafront architecture and areas of water all allowed Spilliaert to address subjects such as the infinite, nature, the frisson of fear and wonder in tranquillity. The sea and beach gave his art greater breadth of expression and subject. Receding tides, reflections and ripples gave Spilliaert a chance to use the bold curving lines the dominate Art Nouveau aesthetic. The lone figure on the beach was a staple of contemporary art. These scenes show the introverted artist reaching for boundless expanses without leaving his home.

The beach became a dream-like stage that took on existential qualities, with lone figures free of ties and given freedom in return for lonely isolation. The sweeping beach and promenade are scenes of contemplation, free of detail, cut adrift from the society which made the structures. In a sense it prefigures de Chirico’s dark shadows, empty plazas and stripped down imagery. In some brilliant and haunting images, Spilliaert showed fans of light emanating from doorways in the elongated promenade building, placing us in the dark night, removed from light and life but still able to access those human necessities. These are images that embody existential art and should be as well-known as the art of de Chirico and Edvard Munch.

It is admitted even by his supporters that a fair quantity of Spilliaert’s art is unsuccessful. The pictures of women are types rather than individuals, lacking memorability or appeal. Late-career excursions into brighter landscapes are absolute failures and make painful viewing. His religious art scenes (the deployment of icons in abstract spaces) are oddities. The oil paintings he made to satisfy gallerist requests are not a natural fit for Spilliaert’s strengths. The best of the late works are scenes of trees.

His forays into lithography were much more successful. He produced single-colour images using the grain of the plates and paper to produce equivalents of conté drawings. The outstanding works are The Avenue (1899) and Woman Sewing (1899).

In 1917 Spilliaert moved to Brussels to improve his income (he was now married and they were expecting a child). The coloured watercolour scenes of bathers of this time are light-weight. His return to Ostend in 1922 apparently came as a relief to him and his wife. The high colour of later years – influenced by Fauvism and Expressionism – makes the later period of less interest. His society portraits and commercial work (aside from some illustrations) are uninvolving. Apart from some early flirtation with social commentary, Spilliaert was politically unengaged. Depictions of fishermen and fishwives in Ostend became a recurrent theme (something he shared with his friend Permeke). The artist’s interest seems more sentimental than attached to any desire to delve into social realism. Spilliaert became more established over the 1920s to the 1940s, assisted by a return to Brussels in 1935.

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[Image: Leon Spilliaert, Promenade, Light Reflections (1908), Indian ink wash, brush, coloured pencil on paper, 480 x 394 mm, Paris, Musée d’Orsay]

Overall, Spilliaert is uneven. One could hardly react so warmly to all his contradictory styles and subjects. He has weaknesses – a tendency to decorativeness, an infelicity handling certain materials, a poor sense of colour outside of a near-monochrome approach, a certain aimlessness in his last decades – but at his best he is brilliant. The early interiors, self-portraits, beach and sea views and moody isolated figures are haunting and wonderful. They have the power to impress themselves upon your memory and strike a deep chord.

Adriaens-Pannier has used family testimony, contemporary sources (including the artist’s own writings), archive photographs, access to archives, a wide knowledge of the period and an unparalleled understanding of Spilliaert’s life and art to produce an absorbing book. The illustrations are extensive and high quality, many full page. They reproduce key pieces and less accessible works in private collections. This excellent monograph can be unreservedly recommended and will become the standard reference work for any English-language researchers studying Spilliaert.

 

Anne Adriaens-Pannier, Léon Spilliaert: From the Depths of the Soul, Ludion, 2019, cloth hardback, 336pp, €59.90, fully illus., ISBN 978 94 9181 990 2

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

New York Mid-Century Women Printmakers

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Artist Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988) founded his printmaking workshop Atelier 17 on the Left Bank of Paris in 1927/8. Hayter as an artist and teacher was close to Surrealism, particularly the practice and theory of automatism. He encouraged students to experiment but accepted artists of outlooks contrary to his. At the outbreak of war, Hayter left Paris. In October 1940 he re-opened Atelier 17 in New York. Christina Weyl’s The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York is a new study of women who trained in Atelier 17 in its New York incarnation. It focuses on eight of the most adventurous and committed women artists who worked at the studio: Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Minna Citron (1896-1991), Worden Day (1912-1986), Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994), Sue Fuller (1914-2006), Alice Trumbull Mason (1904-1971), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) and Anne Ryan (1889-1954).

Hayter moved back to Paris in 1950 to re-establish his studio there. A number of replacement directors maintained the New York studio. The New York studio closed for financial reasons in September 1955. The Paris studio of Atelier 17 only closed in 1988, upon Hayter’s death; a replacement studio has since been run under the name Atelier Contrepoint.

Weyl’s thesis is that the activities of Hayter’s studio allowed women in the 1940s and 1950s to develop proto-feminist practices and associations. “My reading of women artists’ affiliation with Atelier 17 and their experiences both inside and outside the studio is shaped by feminist art history and gender theory. The scaffolding provided by theorists and feminist scholars such as Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Griselda Pollock, Rozsika Parker, and Lucy Lippard allows for a more sophisticated analysis of this moment in history and of this particular group of women artists and makes it possible to reframe Atelier 17 through a feminist lens.” Weyl says she intends to continue “the scholarly trajectory of decentering and demythologizing [American modernism] that began decades ago”.

Weyl admits her thesis is partial. “Giving women artists a space in which they could flex their artistic muscles was radical for the 1940s and 1950s.” This is followed by an admission that often women outnumbered men at art school and that the WPA in the 1930s provided equal treatment of women artists. Weyl overlooks Black Mountain College, Hans Hofmann’s studio and any number of places where women could train without sexist prejudice. When Weyl writes about the limited career options open to women artists, she could just have easily written the same about male artists. There was great competition and few opportunities for all young artists and they had difficulty selling any non-traditional art. At the outset, one senses that Weyl has overstated her case to prove a point and by the mid-point of the book this judgment seems well founded.

The residual fallacy persists throughout the book. Whenever female artists do not pursue their studies, are discouraged, fail to exhibit, leave the studio prematurely and so forth, Weyl’s first resort is to explain this as the outcome of sexist obstruction. Environments are “coded masculine”; “ambivalent attitudes” are “largely unspoken but no less impactful”, nonetheless Weyl seems to be to unerringly identify it at a distance of seven decades. “Given the prevalence of wartime and postwar messaging about personal hygiene and hand care, female members of Atelier 17 had to be cognizant that their ink-stained hands were nonconforming to gender norms.” This sums up the approach and tone of The Women of Atelier 17.

When Hayter was peremptorily dismissive of some applicants (whom he disparaged as dilettantes), Weyl interprets this as sexism rather than impatience with less dedicated artists. Whether or not Hayter was fair in his assessments is not easy to weigh. This was a question of reciprocal respect – not just the master printmaker judging the seriousness of prospective students but of students realising that by studying with Hayter but not treating the work seriously they would be wasting the time of a busy teacher who could have been expending energy on more receptive students. Teachers such as Hayter had justifiably little patience for students who were dabblers. This was a serious problem for artist-teachers, who needed to guard their reputations and to assess how best to apportion limited resources and spaces. When Weyl chides Hayter for being too domineering, this contrasts with the reader’s sympathy regarding Hayter’s protectiveness towards his materials and tools, which were shared and sometimes expensive to replace. The author displays a measurable deficit of empathy towards Hayter, the individual who provided so much support, encouragement and opportunity for women artists.

The place of women in Atelier 17 is an interesting subject worth studying. Simply reviewing commonalities between eight female printmakers and discussing how their working approaches overlap and diverge is worthwhile. The illustrations are numerous and important, as many of these prints are obscure and rarely exhibited or discussed. There is also a useful guide to the societies, open exhibitions and co-operatives that were used by printmakers of the period. Notes of sources and summary biographies of artists will be of use to researchers. Weyl identifies a verifiable case of a woman being overlooked by colleagues. Fuller revived the sugar-lift technique detailed in E.S. Lumsden’s The Art of Etching, which went on to be a popular technique in the 1940s.

The author’s vexation with the two most prominent women artists of Atelier 17, Bourgeois and Nevelson, is apparent. “[They] had indecisive relationships with feminism. Though often touted as the two greatest women artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Bourgeois and Nevelson were not overly supportive of other women artists and treated those from younger generations, especially, with suspicion or ambivalence.” Weyl has a very definite idea that women artists are by nature more collegial than their male colleagues. Therefore great women artists should be greatly collegial. Why would they be?  Wouldn’t unusually competent, ambitious and individualistic artists act in ways that are the opposite of collegial? Why would tough exceptional female artists act any different from tough exceptional male artists and why would those female artists be feminists?

Weyl is insistent on the importance of group solidarity between women artists. “Women taught women, women promoted their fellow sisters’ new editions or current gallery exhibitions, and they supported each other’s business ventures in the print world.” Networking happens at all levels. The most successful artists will tend to network with their successful peers but not be dependent on those connections. One suspects that class solidarity tends to appeal to less competent and less successful practitioners who profit from pooling resources. It is not a matter of gender or temperament but of success. In a modern age when artists do not have or need apprentices, very successful artists usually do not teach. It is less successful artists who teach, print other artists’ editions, promote each other’s work, share studios and form co-operative groups. We might posit that the success of Bourgeois and Nevelson caused them to be less in need of group activity.

Worryingly, there are a number of statements that are inaccurate. “[…] transitioning from social realism to abstraction was not as simple or seamless for women as it was for their male colleagues (think of [Camilo] Egas or someone like Jackson Pollock).” This is overlooks the resistance that Pollock faced as a former student of Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton from that trained by European abstract artist Hans Hofmann. Lee Krasner commented – as did a number of other artists of the time – that Pollock was taken less seriously precisely because his background was in realism and American art rather than European Modernism. One way in which Egas and Pollock earned a degree of respect from the Modernist camp was having worked with the Mexican Muralists, who were seen as the acceptable face of realism. The Muralists blended social realism with Modernism. Formerly realist artists (male and female) faced resistance from the influential New York School supporters of Surrealism, abstract or Modernist sympathies if they had not displayed some sort of engagement with a “more advanced” semi-Modern form of realism before they came to abstraction.

“At Atelier 17, women artists not only upended centuries-old gender boundaries guiding the division of labor within printmaking, but also participating in redefining beliefs about men’s and women’s work in American society  at midcentury.” Setting aside the second clause, the first clause can be identified as absolutely false. Not only have women have been engaged in every part of printmaking since the Middle Ages, it is widely known to be an area where they practiced effectively in every area of workshop activity. Weyl will be aware of the New York Public Library’s exhibition Printing Women: Three Centuries of Female Printmakers: 1570-1900 (October 2015-January 2016) which covered just this topic. Exaggeration, distortion or falsehood – the quoted statements deserve no place in a reputable study.

Weyl, who has done enough research to know the common sources that I am familiar with, must know that such aspersions of sexism are unfounded. The authority of her statements relies upon the unfamiliarity of general readers with the wider body of literature. Additionally, there are errors of fact (such as technical descriptions on pp. 79, 156, etc.).

The persistent political direction of interpretation distorts the subject. When Nevelson was criticised for using too much ink, it was not a critique of her violating gender roles but of using too much communal material and creating mess that inconvenienced others. “Though Citron ultimately admired Nevelson’s resulting prints, she, Grippe, and others perceived Nevelson’s methods as slapdash and, implicitly, inappropriate for a woman.” Or colleagues may have found her use of shared materials reckless and a bad example to other students. “[…] she was unwilling to concede to postwar expectations and instead transgressed feminine norms with her bold and outsized personality.” Or she was thoughtless, egocentric and entitled. “Citron asked her friend, the sculptor Ibram Lassaw, to solder the plate parts back together. (Her aversion to the soldering gun is revealing because it follows the post-war taboo against women embracing home repair equipment.)” Or Citron was unfamiliar with a dangerous tool and asked an expert to perform the work for her using his tool. You see how hopeless the “gendered reading” is in practice. The best work in the book is in the second half, which contains an informative discussion about the market, distribution, exhibition, collection and status of Modernist prints in the period – material that is unrelated to gender.

The Women of Atelier 17 is a title that should be treated as partial and in some respects misleading. It is likely to cause of much misunderstanding if it is used liberally by writers unaware of the wider art historical scholarship on this period.

 

Christina Weyl, The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York, Yale University Press, 2019, hardback, 296pp, 76 col./63 mono illus., £50, ISBN 978 0 300 238501

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Claude Cahun

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The artist-writer Claude Cahun was born Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob in 1894. She grew up in a middle-class family in Nantes. In some respects her childhood was conventional – financial security, good education – but Cahun (as she called herself from 1919 onwards) felt disturbed by undercurrents at home, which intensified over the years. Her father was Jewish at a time when the Dreyfuss affair was dividing the nation. Her mother was mentally ill and for some of the time confined a mental asylum.  Her mother was finally committed to an asylum permanently, with family visits forbidden. She and her brother were moved between relatives who were not always affection or considerate towards them.

Slight of build, not pretty, burdened with a Jewish surname at a time of anti-Semitism, disturbed by the emotional extremities of her parents and troubled by the spectre of hereditary madness, Cahun developed feelings of inadequacy. She found refuge in books. She had access to the books in her father’s office (a journal publication house) and read the classics to her blind grandmother, which gave her unusually broad exposure to literature. She began to write fiction. While a teenager she began a lifelong love affair with Suzanne Malherbe, who later changed her name to Marcel Moore (called Moore hereafter). The two women would be inseparable companions and collaborate in the production of books, photographs and artistic projects. Despite certain misgivings, their families tacitly approved of the unconventional relationship.

Cahun went to study philosophy and letters at the Sorbonne and Moore studied fine art in Nantes. Cahun conceived of herself as a failure in any of the available roles open to women of the time. In 1919 she changed her name to Claude Cahun partly to use as a nom de plume but also as a way of breaking with femininity. She shaved her head. She took as her heroes the Symbolist and Decadent writers, as well as André Gide. Their subjects of forbidden homosexual love, the morbid and grotesque, the renegade and flâneur, struck a chord in her. Her admiration for Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and John Addington Symmonds was related to her Anglophilia. The family holidayed in Jersey, she was schooled in England for a time and spoke English fluently. (When, a few later, Malherbe adopted the name “Moore” it may have been a conscious expression of affiliation for non-French culture.) Moore’s illustrations for Cahun’s first book (a restrained, stylised story about forbidden love) are derived from Aubrey Beardsley.

Moore was providing illustrations to journals and Cahun at that time was writing journalism. Cahun was following the Dada movement, which blew away the cultivated cobwebs of decadence. She dabbled in Buddhism and Eastern spirituality, something that was particularly current in the inter-war period, when people disgusted with the horrors of war turned their back on the traditions of their parents. Cahun became friends with Henri Michaux, René Crevel and André Breton. She met Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney and Chana Orloff, as well as visiting Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co.

The most important work of the 1920s was the commencement of a series of photographs of Cahun by Moore. It is this for which Cahun has become recognised posthumously. It seems that both Cahun and Moore worked to arrange the striking images, with Cahun alone as the subject in various incarnations: as a marionette, schoolgirl, clown, androgyne, mime, swimmer, dancer, Buddhist nun, scientific exhibit and other less identifiable types. Most of the photographs were only seen after Moore’s death, found as unprinted and untitled negatives. Some prints were marked with crop lines, others exist in unedited sequences. Some were published and displayed during Cahun’s lifetime – some in collage form – but it seems closer to a private project that occasionally bore fruit only to be exposed selectively. How serious are these works? What degree of importance did Cahun and Moore accord to them? The very fact that these questions are so important yet so unanswerable makes the asking significant.

The authorship issue is pertinent. Whose work is this: the subject’s or the photographer’s? Who came up with the ideas? Cahun and Moore are given joint credit but it is Cahun’s name on the book. Shaw points out that in early publications and posthumous exhibitions Cahun was credited as sole creator. “The perception that Disavowals [Aveux non avenus] and all of the photographic work associated with Cahun were the product Cahun’s singular vision was, for a long time, reinforced by the fact that the photomontages and photographs were attributed solely to Cahun in museum entries, catalogues and essays.”

More elaborate photo-collages (using original photographs, found photographs and handwritten texts) from the Aveux non avenus (1930) Shaw attributes to Cahun and Moore together, though she acknowledges that other experts believe Cahun was the principal creator. Shaw attributes to Cahun solely the photographs of temporary assemblages and miniature dioramas. They show serio-comic figures, toys, trinkets, plants and so forth in improvised settings. The photographs are jaunty and unsettling, adding a touch of the uncanny to assemblages that are childish. Other than photographs and photo-collages, the only other art Cahun produced were a few drawings and objects.

As the 1930s progressed greater political engagement was demanded of alert artists. Impelled by political commitment and artistic proclivity, Cahun became ever more closely involved in the Surrealist movement, specifically the circle around Breton. In 1932 Cahun and Moore joined the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, an organisation for Communist-supporting writers and artists. AEAR was anti-Fascist, pro-Communist and non-Surrealist. Relations between the PCF and the Surrealists were complicated and shifting. The Surrealists could not fully reconcile their search for freedom with the PCF and the USSR’s increasingly conservative artistic policy. Over the next few years the division between Trotsky and Breton’s position of free creativity by politically alert artists and the PCF and USSR’s directives enjoining adherence to Socialist Realism. Cahun found it difficult to align herself with a political organisation, as she admitted, and left in 1933.

In 1935 the group Contre-Attaque was co-founded by Cahun, alongside Breton, Bataille and others. It was an attempt to provide a unified front of Surrealists against Fascism. Breton and Bataille had different temperaments. Bataille has been characterised as a proponent of “Left Fascism” – essentially Socialism achieved through Fascist methods of force, not dissimilar to Strasserism – whereas Breton was a more conventional Marxist. Breton was also an authoritarian who saw Surrealism as his personal fiefdom and he mistrusted the group centred on Bataille’s Documents journal. Cahun, Moore and Breton resigned from Contre-Attaque due to the group’s “super fascist tendencies”.

Cahun seems to have been omitted from early retrospective monographs on Surrealism due to multiple reasons. First, much of her photography was unpublished and unexhibited, thus unknown to historians. The public works – seen in isolation and detached from the body of her work – might have seemed slight to critics. Second, with the exception of Man Ray, photographs have been assigned a supplementary role in histories of visual Surrealism behind paintings, sculpture and the graphic arts. Third, she did not sign many manifestoes, therefore is easy to overlook in compilations of official documents.

In 1937 Cahun and Moore moved to Jersey. In 1940 the British government demilitarised the Channel Islands as indefensible and evacuated much of the population. Cahun and Moore remained in the expectation of German occupation, with the intention of performing active resistance. Their house was requisitioned by the German army, yet still they engaged in small acts of subversion which carried a severe penalty. They distributed written propaganda to undermine occupiers’ authority and confidence; they smuggled food to starving slave labourers building defences. They retained a radio after a ban was imposed and passed on war news.

The couple were arrested whilst carrying anti-German propaganda. They attempted suicide but their overdoses were non-fatal. Their deportation to the continent was forestalled by the Allied victory in Saint-Malo. The German occupiers were now cut off from mainland Europe. They both attempted suicide again, believing the other to be dead. They were tried for listening to the radio, having a weapon and camera and distributing anti-German propaganda. Found guilty, they were sentenced to death. It seems that the Germans did want to carry out the execution and that there was no expectation that so late in the war two elderly women would be executed.

Much of the personal archive and collection of art, books and letters were burned by the Gestapo. Disillusioned by the perceived passivity of islanders to the occupation, the couple lived on in Jersey, with Cahun health failing. She died in 1954. Moore died in 1972.

Shaw is thoroughly familiar with her subject and intelligently guides us through the writing, art and life of Cahun and Moore. She is careful not to adduce an autobiographical reading of the photographs and does not over interpret the writings. She draws parallels between Cahun’s ideas and later gender theory without interpreting Cahun through that lens, though she has been and will be subject to such treatment. She summarises Cahun’s writings, which are not widely available in English. Appendices include translations of selections from Cahun’s writing. The book is thorough, sensitive, informative and absorbing. Shaw’s Exist Otherwise makes an important addition to Surrealism studies.

Cahun has in recent decades become one of the most influential photographers for a generation of artists and it is easy to see why. Alongside Francesca Woodman and Cindy Sherman, Cahun is seen as the supreme exponent of the ambiguous, elusive, disruptive photographic featuring the artist as subject. Cahun is a lodestar for women photographers, the ultimate trickster. Her collaborative mode of art creation is a very current concern, with more and more artists seeking to sublimate their identities in partnerships. Her roleplaying seems grist to the mill of gender-studies students and professors concerned with Judith Butler’s ideas of gender as performance.

Cahun’s work is liminal. It crosses boundaries between the performative and autobiographical, private and public, male and female, art and documentation, personal and political, singular and collaborative, serious and humorous, professional and amateur. It is unstable and unclear, sometimes existing in binary states simultaneously. This is why it appeals to artists and critics in the Post-Modernist age with its insistent fetishisation of boundary-breaking and genre-bending. What makes Cahun’s art better than the art that emulates it is a lack of affect, a genuine fascination with ambiguity and an absence of self-consciousness. There is a real question about whether this is art or not, whereas the knowing art students of the 1990s never intended anything other of their activities, realising that everything could be fed into the voracious, undiscriminating, unobjecting, uncritical maw of art exhibition and publication. Cahun’s art has a magical risk that is missing from the activities of the 1990s. It also has that now mocked attribute of originality.

 

Jennifer L. Shaw, Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun, Reaktion Books, 2017, hardback, ISBN 978 1 78023 728 2

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Arshile Gorky in Venice

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[Image: Arshile Gorky,  Portrait of Master Bill (ca. 1937), oil on canvas / Olio su tela, 52⅛x 40⅛in. (132.4 x 101.9 cm). Private collection/ Collezione privata]

In May 2019 Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia opened a major exhibition of the work of Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) in Venice (Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Ca’ Pesaro – International Gallery of Modern Art, Venice, 9 May-22 September 2019). It is the first solo exhibition of Gorky’s art in Venice, though his art was exhibited a number of times at the Biennale. The retrospective exhibition includes 81 works, paintings and drawings, from all periods of the artist’s career. Curated by Gabriella Belli and Edith Devaney, the exhibition is realised in cooperation with The Arshile Gorky Foundation. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

This exhibition presents the full range of Gorky’s art, starting with a response to Cézanne, painted about 1927-8. Gorky was famous in his early years for his fastidious craftsmanship, the high quality of his materials and his fascination with incorporating and reworking the ideas of leading Modernists. Cézanne, Léger, de Chirico, Picasso and Miró his idols and his art before 1940 was heavily influenced by these painters. In still-lifes he made work that was resolutely European. (He claimed to have studied in Paris but he travelled from his native Armenia via Greece to the USA without studying art in Europe. Gorky was always vague about his origins in Armenia and was unwilling to talk about his past.) Gorky’s portraits from the 1930s are more independent and the demands of representing particular sitters (in life and from photographs) seem to have encouraged Gorky to develop more personal solutions in terms of styles and forms. The exhibition includes portraits, some of named subjects (including Gorky, his mother, Frederick Kiesler and friend Willem de Kooning), others of unidentified heads.

At this time Gorky was teaching art and painting in New York. He was employed on the WPA painting murals (one for Newark Airport), receiving coverage that portrayed him as an heir to the famous European master of Modernism. He formed close bonds with some artists in New York, particularly de Kooning. It was around the time the first artist wartime emigres arrived from Europe in late 1939 and 1940 that Gorky raised his game. Like many of the American artists interested in the avant-garde, they were impressed and disappointed to meet the trailblazers such as Ernst, Tanguy, Mondrian and others. They discovered that these pioneers were human, subject to fallibilities such as cupidity and vanity. Sparked by Surrealism in particular, the American artists took the ideas of automatism and developed it into ambitious abstract painting. Gorky was in the vanguard, developing his late style: biomorphic forms, intense colours, technical virtuosity, visible materiality. Gorky had synthesised his influences and applied a unique style (associated to Tanguy and Matta but independent) to his natural surroundings.

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[Image: Arshile Gorky, The Liver Is the Cock’s Comb / Il fegatoèla cresta del gallo (1944), oil on canvas/ Olio su tela73 ¼ x 98⅜in. (186.1 x 249.9 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New YorkGift of / Dono di Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1956, K1956:4Image courtesy Albright-Knox Art Gallery]

The landscapes of Virginia and Connecticut over the summers of 1942-1945 are considered high points. André Breton visited the Gorky family and invented titles of some works. The Liver is the Cock’s Comb (1944) is one of the great lyrical masterpieces – full of vigorous forms, delicate and energetic brushwork and intense colour. The energy belies the fact that at least some of Gorky’s classic Surrealist compositions were drawn on paper before being carefully transferred to canvas. From 1944 to the year of his death, Gorky’s oil paintings were thinly painted, with dilute paint forming light veils. An early colourful example is One Year the Milkweed (1944). Delicate Game (1946) has a drawn design barely covering the canvas surface. It includes only a few washes and most of the painting is bare primer. Painting (1947) is as translucent as a watercolour, with no firm lines. Only in his final months did Gorky use opaque oil paint, as seen in Dark Green Painting (c. 1948). Some unfinished paintings indicate how Gorky started his oil paintings.

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[Image: Arshile Gorky, Dark Green Painting / Pittura verde scuroca (1948), oil on canvas / Olio su tela43 3/4 x 55 1/2 in.(111.1 x 141 cm)Philadelphia Museum of ArtGift (by exchange) of / Dono (in scambio) di Mr. and Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee and R. Sturgis and Marion B. F.Ingersoll, 1995, 1995-54]

The drawings supplement paintings and show Gorky’s virtuosity. The early portrait drawing of his mother stands in for the two painted versions of that subject, which did not travel to Venice. The ink drawings and gouache paintings are related to his mural works. Apple Orchard (c. 1943-6) is one of the pastels which show the artist fusing forms of leaves, fruits and flowers. Other drawings allow us to compare the preparation with the final paintings.  There is an experimental drawing where a sheet has been smudged and the forms are indicated by erasing them. Ink wash and line are indicative of Gorky’s command of many materials and approaches, served by his long apprenticeship following the art of his heroes.

Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948 includes works loaned from museums and private collections across the USA and Europe and gives a strong overview of the artist’s work. The generously sized catalogue has full illustrations, essays describing the artist’s career, an essay discussing the reception of Gorky’s art in Italy and a chronology, all in Italian and English languages. It comprises a good introduction to Gorky’s achievements.

 

Gabriella Belli, Edith Devaney, Saskia Spender, Arshile Gorky: 1904-1948, Hauser & Wirth (distr. Artbook), June 2019, hardback, 240pp, 118 col. illus., Italian/English text, $55/C$75, ISBN 978 3 906915 34 0

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

 

Abstract Expressionist Women Painters

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As with other past art movements, these individuals are predominantly male; in this case, not only are they male, but their maleness, their heroic machismo spirit, has become a defining characteristic of the expansive, gestural paintings of Abstract Expressionism.[i]

So stated is the recent feminist case against Abstract Expressionism, an art style associated with hard-drinking, brawling men who wore workmen’s clothes and used industrial paint. For feminists, the discussion of such art is embodied in the language of criticism.

Discussion of the work of abstract expressionists abounds with highly gender-laden adjectives, it is “strong” “incisive”, “thrusting” and “aggressive”. Its image of barely controlled violence is reinforced by the frequent title of “Action Painting”, all these elements conforming to popular perceptions of masculinity. […] cultural stereotypes of female passivity made the function of the female artist within “Action Painting” difficult to define, hence the often peripheral position allocated to artists such as Lee Krasner or Helen Frankenthaler. […] in art as in so many other areas of activity, women were denied a central role in post-war western culture.[iii]

Critics such as Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess would arbitrate on the quality of art using language that would lock in place a masculine set of virtues, the argument goes. “A so-called canon would arise that solidified Abstract Expressionism as male.” [iv] Yet one of the leading critics was Elaine de Kooning – a shrewd, intelligent and informed woman who was also a painter.  Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler enjoyably and thoroughly surveys the lives of five prominent female artists of the New York scene. Lee Krasner (1908-1984), Elaine de Kooning née Fried (1918-1989), Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) and Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) are all artists well worth biographical and critical attention, which have received to varying degrees over the decades.

The starting point of the book is the Ninth Street Show, a group show held in a building in New York due for demolition. The show displayed the depth and variety of the New York School as it became the vanguard style of world Modernist art. The show, held over May and June of 1951, brought together the leading artists of the first generation of newly prominent New York School (including Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Krasner) alongside many members of the second generation (including Hartigan, Frankenthaler and Mitchell). The second generation were not much younger than the first generation (sometimes only a matter of ten years). The main differentiation was participation in the experiences of the 1930s as artists: the Great Depression, the conflict between Modernists and Regionalists, the WPA (which provided indigent artists with paid employment for public benefit) and the political activism of unionism and Socialist events.

Gabriel captures the excitement, poverty and cultural ferment of the arts starting in 1929, when artists divided into camps and argued vehemently (to the point of fistfights) about aesthetics. Social commitment meant being gaoled for affray during protests. The writing is lively, informed and strongly narrative. It is an approachable entrance in the atmosphere, politics and characters of the New York School. Although it is centred on five painters it weaves in the stories of other major (and a few of the minor) figures of the time: Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Hess, Rosenberg, Greenburg, Peggy Guggenheim, Frank O’Hara, Larry Rivers and John Graham. Most prominent of the other figures are Pollock and de Kooning. The book closes in 1959, with a coda describing the later lives of the painters.

Krasner trained at the Cooper Union, New York. Discouraged by the limitations of social realism (the Ash Can School) and the politics of Communism in the wake of Stalin’s show trials, she turned to abstraction and Modernism by taking classes under Hans Hofmann. She became a committed Modernist and admired Mondrian; soon she had a chance to meet her hero when he moved to New York as part of the influx of emigre artists. During the war years she met Pollock, they moved in together and shared ideas. In 1945 they married. Together with Clement Greenberg, Krasner made Pollock’s career a joint effort, even to the extent of painting less. It seems that Pollock’s emotional demands and ego inhibited Krasner from working for a time, though they did co-operate for a number of joint exhibitions.

Elaine Fried studied at Leonardo da Vinci School. In 1938 she met de Kooning at about the same time as Gorky and John Graham, the painter and theoretician who wrote System and Dialectics of Art (1937). This eccentric book on the subject of Modern art was one of key references for the tiny group of American artists of the era. Well before their marriage in 1943, Elaine made de Kooning’s career her project, networking with critic Harold Rosenberg. Her art was portraiture of herself and fellow artists, executed with painterly bravura. In 1948 Hess, editor of ArtNews, commissioned Elaine de Kooning to write exhibition reviews. This made her an important figure in the New York art world and appreciated by artists, about whose work she could write with the knowledge and sympathy of an insider.

Frankenthaler studied at Bennington College and with Hans Hofmann and entered an art world where the nascent Abstract Expressionists were already being exhibited and sold. Unlike the first generation, she never experienced the pre-war scene. She was joining an art world where Modernism was in ascendant with the cognoscenti even if it was not widely accepted by the general public. While freshly graduated, she met Greenberg and began an affair with him. Although he did not write about her art, his status helped to open doors for Frankenthaler. On 26 October 1952 she painted Mountains and the Sea, which is made with diluted paint which she splashed and soaked into the canvas while it was horizontal on the floor of her studio. It is credited with starting the Colour Field School.

Hartigan, without art qualifications, she worked as a technical draughtsman during the war. Her future husband Harry Jackson was a painter and fan of Pollock. She met Pollock and Krasner in 1948 and the couples became friends. Hartigan’s rise was faster than that of most artists and she was soon exhibiting and selling paintings alongside veteran painters. The 1953 purchase of one of her paintings by MoMA marked a remarkable level of recognition for one of the second-generation of Abstract Expressionists.

Mitchell studied painting at the School of Art Institute, Chicago. She married fellow Chicagoan Barney Rosset, filmmaker and future publisher of Grove Press, in 1949. In New York she became an abstract painter, influenced by a tour of Europe. Critics consider her part of Abstract Impressionism, fusing Abstract Expressionism and the inheritance of Monet. Substance abuse and infidelity caused a split from Rosset. Later, Mitchell had a long-term relationship with French-Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle.

All of these artists knew each other and had periods of close friendships, sometimes working side by side, at other times estranged through personal differences. All achieved public and commercial recognition, sometimes slow, sometimes ebbing, subject to the changing critical tastes of their times. All achieved financial independence.

Reading Ninth Street Women we come to understand how important painting as painting was for this generation. Painting was a way of discovering the world and unlocking doors to new experiences; it was an expression of individual humanity in an era of Cold War. The earnest atmosphere of The Club and the boozy raucousness of the Cedar Tavern are conveyed in the author’s descriptions, augmented by recollections of artists. The poverty and neglect these artists faced brought (relative) camaraderie; with fame and money came (relative) rivalry. The main narrative ends in the year 1959, which marks the decline of Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field Painting and the rise of Pop Art. By 1959 American Modernist art had become mainstream, big business and a haven for speculators. Mitchell had moved to France to be closer to Riopelle and escape the drinking culture of the Five Spot (the replacement for the Cedar Tavern). Frankenthaler had married Robert Motherwell. Krasner was managing Pollock’s estate and making her own art on Long Island. Elaine was estranged from de Kooning, painting and teaching art; she would go on to paint portraits of many notable people, including President Kennedy. Hartigan was changing her art, leaving behind the sturm und drang of Ab Ex impasto and diluting her paint to washes, influenced by Colour Field Painting.

The hard-drinking uninhibited lifestyles of the New York School were punctuated by arguments that escalated to fistfights. Affairs were common and marriages and relationships imploding regularly. In 1956 Pollock died when he crashed his car whilst drunk. These women painters strove for equality and some of them – in their hard drinking, heavy smoking, drug taking, casual sex and flouting of conventions – sometimes partook of the freedoms and temptations of bohemian life as much as their male counterparts. Like the men, they suffered consequences. Mitchell experienced fits of depression after bouts of drunken wildness and earned a reputation as a hell raiser. In 1953 Mitchell attempted suicide attempt following an extreme party. By the mid-1950s many of the New York School were struggling with excessive alcohol consumption, a problem heightened by their increasing incomes.[v] “Marriages and relationships born in poverty and obscurity could not withstand the onset of fortune and fame.”[vi] Hartigan suffered depression[vii] and later experienced alcoholism and would attempt suicide. Like Hartigan, Elaine de Kooning overcame alcoholism. Elaine de Kooning died of cancer, possibly caused by lifelong smoking – the same cause as Mitchell.

Gabriel discusses the situation of women artists of the time with sensitivity and fairness. Gabriel uses the words of the artists to give us their views on the subject. “Throughout her career, Grace was loath to acknowledge any difference between the sexes when it came to making art – except in the case of children [i.e. childbearing and childcare].”[ix] Only one of these five women had a child; Hartigan spent prolonged periods apart from her only child.

Gabriel remembers her first interview with Hartigan. “As Grace [Hartigan] spoke, she didn’t dwell on the fact that she was a woman artist. […] but each time she mentioned a woman painter or sculptor, I found myself wondering why, in the official history, those names so rarely surfaced. Their contributions were significant. […] and yet, the story of that movement has been taught and accepted as the tale of a few heroic men.”[x] The story of these artists is worth telling but we should not think that these women artists have not been overly neglected. The question is where are the books advancing forgotten figures such as Milton Resnick, James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, Friedel Dzubas, Norman Lewis and Theodoros Stamos? The Abstract Expressionist movement is full of skilled artists who were successful for a brief heyday but subsequently suffered a slump in recognition and today we hear almost nothing about them. The tough truth is that if the curator of a group exhibition can include only 10 artists then the temptation is to exhibit work by the 10 most famous artists to attract visitors and press. There is also the weight of expectations. If the same 10 artists appear in histories then it is hard for any writer of a new history to exclude any of those 10 artists to include an unfamiliar artist because it will look like an omission. Expectation and complacency play a greater role than prejudice in generating histories.

In every art movement or school, vanguards get the majority of attention, influence, press and market appeal. It is only later – as the primary figures get played out biographically and critically (and their art becomes scarcer in the market) – that scholars and dealers move to lesser-known figures. This is a universal phenomenon observable in all cases in fine art. Why women artists might find themselves as secondary or peripheral figures is another matter but it is one that they share with male counterparts. In the case of these five painters, only one of them was part of the first generation of the Abstract Expressionists, so in any short account of the brief heyday of the movement only Lee Krasner seems like a necessary inclusion, though Frankenthaler is essential if one wants to discuss the transition between Abstract Expressionist and Colour Field Painting. Elaine de Kooning was not really an Abstract Expressionist in style. Hartigan and Mitchell are talented painters but not innovators. This book reminds us that the artists (male and female) who make a success of their careers are often abnormal – abnormally confident, selfish, dedicated (or obsessive), ambitious or in some other way outliers in psychological terms. One might also say they are also abnormally lucky. Among the dozens or hundreds or (in our era of widespread global higher education in the fine arts) thousands of aspiring artists, it is only a handful who become successful, respected and remembered. Elaine de Kooning, Krasner, Frankenthaler, Hartigan and Mitchell were such artists.

The advent of feminism in the 1960s was in some ways antithetical to these artists. None of them wanted to be judged as a “woman painter” and social issues did not feature in their art. They distanced themselves from trends towards conceptualism and performance, remaining resolutely painters. Many of the younger generation of women artists resented and despised them as upholders of tradition. In later years Frankenthaler endured insults from political critics and artists for her perceived aloofness and affluence.[xi]

The book includes photographs of the artists and the main movers of the art scene, as well as some colour images of paintings. Over 160 pages of detailed notes and bibliography attest to the formidably thorough work of the author. The book is a sweeping panorama of an excitingly dynamic period in Modernism, when the creation of advanced art was a prize worth sacrificing everything for. Ninth Street Women will stand as a classic and rich recounting of Abstract Expressionism alongside Naifeh and Smith’s biography of Pollock and Stevens and Swan’s biography of de Kooning.

 

Mary Gabriel, Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art, Little, Brown, 2018, hardback, 927pp + xvi, col./mono illus., $35, ISBN 978 0 316 22618 9

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

 

 

[i] P. 10, Gwen F Chanzit, “Introduction to the Exhibition”, Marten etc.

[iii] Teresa Grimes, Judith Collins, Oriana Baddeley, Five Women Painters, Lennard, 1989, p. 179-180

[iv] P. 22, Joan Marten, “Missing in Action”, Marten etc.

[v] Elaine de Kooning “I was addicted to alcohol, and so was almost everyone else on the scene at that time.” p. 637

[vi] P. 587

[vii] “I had been seriously mentally ill those last two years in New York.” Quoted p. 678

[viii] P. 31

[ix] P. 288

[x] pp. xii-xiii

[xi] Pp. 713-6

Israeli Modernist Architecture

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“There is no Israeli style yet,” said Israeli designer Rafi Blumenfeld in 1972. “We have no original materials of beauty that can inspire style, no great traditions of design.”

In 1948 the new Israelis faced a question of how the build a state from nothing other than an ostensible ethno-religious loyalty binding together disparate émigrés. There was no unbroken geographically centred, national, architectural tradition for Jews. For many framing history, there has been a common perception that there is a correlation between Zionism and architectural Modernism. An assertive form of paradoxically modern architecture was employed for a state legitimised on a claim to an ancient foundational ancestry.

The Object of Zionism: The Architecture of Israel is a study Israeli architecture, with a stress on the early decades of the state’s attempts to establish an identity and provide both symbolic and critical architecture at a civic and residential level. Sections deal with different periods and issues, including original sources and retrospective analyses. Documents are reproduced, so we have a chance to read the original reviews, reports, letters and statements. Reproductions of official reports and journal articles (most in English, but some in Hebrew, German and French) give us a rich range of primary sources. Translations and transcriptions augment these facsimiles. Numerous photographs of locations, models, plans, maps, projections, blueprints and photographs of construction, completion and present states give us visual sources to accompany the text.

Author Zvi Efrat explains that the dispersal of the Bauhaus in 1933 led to many teachers and students schooled in the International Style, materials and techniques. Many of these were Jewish and gravitated to Mandatory Palestine, which led to a flourishing of Art Deco and Modernist architecture, especially in Tel Aviv, in the 1930s and early 1940s. “In Tel Aviv […] modern architecture became both compulsory and compulsive.” The International Style became ubiquitous in the 1930s. (Tel Aviv was later designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.) The dry climate and high levels of direct sunlight led were sympathetic to the Modernism style of flat roofs, terraces and brises soleils.

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[Image:Apartment building, Tel Aviv, 1959, architects: Avraham Yasky, Amnon Alexandroni]

The potentials for a Zionist state had been discussed for decades before the reality presented itself, so the various architectural inclinations had already been advanced prior to 1948. Consensus led to a rejection of colonial, indigenous and quasi-historical architectural approaches. Hannes Meyer wrote a letter in 1937 to his former student Arieh Sharon in Tel Aviv asking if there was a Jewish-national style of architecture. Sharon’s long reply is transcribed in full, with illustrations. Sharon, a Bauhaus graduate and prominent trade unionist, went on to be commissioned to found the Israeli Planning Department. His book Physical Planning in Israel (1951) became the Sharon Plan, which guided planners and architects in the early phase of Israeli history. It set out principles that could be applied locally without central guidance. This replication established a cellular dispersal.

The objectives of a national plan include: siting of agricultural settlements and location of agricultural areas; determination of a rational and sound distribution of urban centres; effective disposition of industry in the various regions of the country; indication of the road network and centres of communication, and provision of forests and national parks.

Sharon identified three determinant factors in the foundation of Israel: land, people and time. Land was limited and varied in climate; people were immigrants from multiple backgrounds and in need of clear realistic objectives and reasonable living conditions; time was short because of the rudimentary foundation circumstances, rapidly rising population level and need to establish a strong economic, agricultural and military framework in the face of foreign hostility.

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For a century, cities had been seen as sources of moral and physiological degeneration, causing writers, politicians, journalists and academics concern. The project of Israel would require a plan for numerous anti-urban garden towns (modelled on the British model) to be founded in a landscape that would be transformed. The settlements were seen as society in microcosm and the aspirations of the nation, encompassing all its conflicting values, so they were scrutinised and debated extensively. Zeev Sternhall identified a problem, as he saw it, with the new state idealising rural settlements:

The condemnation of the city and the cult of a return to nature, to the simplicity, authenticity, and rootedness of the village, was always one of the myths of radical nationalism, not of socialism. Socialism was oriented toward the modern world, industrialized and urban.

For Sternhall, inevitable development towards an urbanised society meant that the romantic rejection of the city as the Zionist ideal was in conflict with the travel of history. The implications of extreme nationalism in recent European history were a matter not lost on the Jewish Diaspora. Sternhall goes on to point out that even in the 1920s and 1930s Mandatory Palestine, 80% of Jews lived in towns. Proposals asserting rural settlements as an idealised target for the new nation (which could never have been a principally agricultural in character) therefore were only one instance of the actualisation of utopian symbolism.

Extensive afforestation, irrigation, desalination and soil conservation projects were initiated, turning barren desert into productive agricultural land. The de-desertification of the Negev Desert was a project of irrigation that was directed by the government. The one hand of the Israeli planners cleared former Palestinian villages was a necessary step in the process of creating the tabula rasa which the other hand thence transformed into the site for a Utopian project such as a kibbutz or a garden city. The Object of Zionism does not shy away from the removal of the Arab population in 1948, the later border wall and the illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories.

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[Image: Amal Lady Davis High Dchool, Tel Aviv, 1965-73, architects: Ram Karmi, Chaim Ketzef, Ben Peleg]

The Kibbutzim were first founded in 1910 as an implementation of the communal ideas of Zionism, Marxism and anarchism. (The name Kibbutz was first used in 1921.) Kibbutzim featured communal dining, group childcare, no fences and common public spaces such as libraries and temples. There were no leaders and decisions were taken by democratic vote. In the new state they would be multiplied across the land to enable national self-sufficiency. The national and political imperatives of independence, agrarian reforms and providing work for millions of migrants aligned in Israeli policies for land use in the first decades of the state’s existence.

New building methods were pioneered. “Cannon houses” made by the method of constructing shuttered structures into which concrete was poured by concrete mixers with long barrels which looked like cannon. The architecture of the desert was in the form of Neptun Hotel and the school in Eilat with wind-catching chimneys to control the interior control climates. “Centralization, serialization, standardization, reductivism, and ergonomic efficiency were not merely the idealized concepts and modes of operation of the Zionist establishment; they were its only option.” Various projects are discussed, showing how an entire nation had to be created from very little in a short period of time. Utopianism was sometimes sacrificed to contingency but a surprisingly strong ideological character can be detected in the urban planning of early periods.

Top architects who planned buildings for Mandatory Palestine and Israel included Erich Mendelsohn, Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson and Oscar Niemeyer. Over 1960-5 Isamu Noguchi was invited to design sculpture garden of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Philip Johnson designed Soreq Nuclear Research Centre (1956-9). This volume includes theory and projects by Frederick Kiesler, Alfred Neumann, Kahn and Niemeyer. There is discussion of significant buildings such as the Knesset, Israel Museum and Hebrew University.

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[Image: People’s culture house, Beersheba, 1955, architects: Zeev Rechter, Moshe Zarhi, Yaakov Rechter]

Later developments included Brutalism (Yafo City Hall (1957-65)) and I.M. Goodovitch’s saddle system, using undulating concrete slabs as roofs. There were advanced schemes that did not meet with success. The Ramot Polin housing (1972) of polygonal prefabricated cells met with considerable professional and press interest but was rejected by residents, who found the spaces impractical and unsettling. By the late 1960s native Israeli architects were rising to prominence.

The soft power of Israel is apparent in the official encouragement of Israeli architects to work in other states, particularly non-aligned countries in Africa. This was associated to Third Worldism and the Non-Aligned Movement and an attempt for Israel to position itself outside of the influence of the USA and USSR. Israel had more links to the USA than the USSR, not least because of USSR’s policy of engagement and support for Arab nations. Planning, concepts, consultancy and architects were exported to Africa and also Iraq and Iran. One of the most notable Israeli-led projects was the luxurious Abidjan Riviera hotel complex of the late 1960s, as part of Ivory Coast’s aspiration to become an international jet-set destination.

A serious and comprehensive survey, The Object of Zionism should become the foundational volume of any study of Israeli architecture.

 

Zvi Efrat, The Object of Zionism: The Architecture of Israel, Spector Books, 2018, cloth hardback, 951pp, fully illus., €62, ISBN 978 3959 051330

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Seduction of Unreason: Post-Modernism and Fascism

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The introduction to the original 2004 edition of Richard Wolin’s study of Post-Modernism’s intimate relationship with fascist-related philosophy of the 1920s to the 1940s (newly re-published) has a puzzlingly premature obituary for Post-Modernism.

Today the postmodern juggernaut seems to have run aground. Outside of the parochial climate of contemporary academe, its program of a “farewell to reason” failed to take root. Its bold proclamation concerning the end of “metanarratives” of human emancipation also failed to gain widespread acceptance.

In recent years we have seen empirical reasoning assaulted by political activists who declare that human sex difference is a scientific falsehood and that Western science itself is a tool of racist oppression. Scientific data is considered “too upsetting” to be published and contentious ideas are so dangerous they cannot be publicly discussed (even to debunk them). It is demanded by students that public institutions must institute racial quotas and that authors should be stripped of their place in reading lists due to skin colour. Language “is violence” and speech can legitimately be met with actual violence. The cult of victimhood holds sway over national broadcasters, political parties and judicial systems. Post-Modernism has expanded to touch every aspect of discussion as ad hominem attacks and emotional grandstanding threaten to overwhelm reason and evidence.

Post-Modernism and Post-Structuralism may have fallen from favour in philosophy and English faculties at leading universities 15 years ago, but since then Post-Modernist relativism has powerfully undermined rational discourse as graduates have entered the wider world, eager to dispense social justice. Wolin observes that Post-Modernism has been co-opted in a recent resurgence in nationalism, while suggesting that as a line of academic inquiry it is discredited. Post-Modernism is often spurned by supporters of Neo-Marxism as politically unsound, reliant on philosophy that is tainted by obscurantism and authoritarianism. Yet the combination of Neo-Marxism and Post-Modernism – contradictory though they may be – is what has given the New Left intellectual traction in its attack on the pillars of the West: family, church, capitalism, science, nationhood.

The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism presents the kernel of Post-Modernism in the opposition of the Counter-Enlightenment to the humanism of the Enlightenment. The overlap between philosophy and politics is apparent in the way philosophy was used to justify political prejudices and the way politicians adopted philosophy to provide their positions with intellectual fibre. At the outset, Wolin writes that he does not wish to tar Post-Modernism with guilt by association, but rather to examine how principles that the Fascists advanced became embedded in Post-Modernism.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s aristocratic and anti-democratic proclivities steered his writing towards the espousal of elitism and the necessity of inspired might over consensus – the antithesis of liberal democracy. Nietzsche’s dictum “There are no facts, only interpretation,” is a favourite with teachers of gender and race studies, who use it to bolster the relativism of “personal truth”. Foucault found in Nietzsche support for the idea of power shaping knowledge. Claude Levi-Strauss saw the horrors of Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries as an inevitable extension of humanism. This correlates with Nietzsche’s prophecy of totalitarian regimes dominating a post-Christian Europe. Framing knowledge in terms of power becomes a tenet of Post-Modernism. “Jean-Francois Lyotard attained notoriety for his controversial equation of “consensus” with “terror”. The idea of an uncoerced, rational accord, argues Lyotard, is a fantasy. Underlying the veneer of mutual agreement lurks force.”

Carl Jung is conceived of as the Post-Modernist antithesis of Modernist Freud. Jung’s intuitive understanding of man’s eternal internal struggles to reconcile archetypes of the unconscious stood in stark contrast to Freud’s quasi-scientific teasing out of friction between conscious and subconscious. Jung posited a racial dimension to archetypes and went on to contrast the cerebral nature of Jews with the youthful vigour of Aryans. Fascism seemed to align well with Jung’s collective racial thinking and the idea of a Nietzschean shamanic figure taking command. In an interview in 1939, Jung nominated Hitler as such a figure. Jung was recipient of the Nazi state’s patronage through work with German institutions. Despite Jung subsequently distancing himself from Fascism, there is no doubting the sympathy between Jungian psychoanalytic theory, National Socialist racial ideology and Post-Modernist anti-rationalism.

Philosophers Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer were both sympathetic towards Nazism’s claims of Germanic intellectual and biological superiority, at times guardedly supportive (or more) in public actions and statements. Heidegger’s involvement in National Socialism is well documented. Here Wolin describes Gadamer’s propositions regarding the role of prejudice within judgment and his support for Plato’s anti-democratic Republic as advocacy of the unreason inherent in the Nazi Weltanschauung.

Georges Bataille, informed by study of history and ethnography, proposed an aesthetics of violent spectacle; his dwelling upon (and celebration of) degradation, perversion, suffering and destruction mark him as a precursor of Post-Modernist Post-Structuralists intent on destabilising a society founded on complacent materialism. Sexual libertinism (apparent in his erotic novel The Story of the Eye as well as his theoretical writing) is revolutionary because it returns sex to the sacramental function to be found in pagan societies of recent history and pre-history. The cult of primitivism is an alternative to the fallacy of rationalism which debilitates and denatures man. Transgression of the utilitarian law will give rise to the establishment of irrational laws of pre-Enlightenment culture, religious in essence. Advancing paganism, sacrifice (up to and including human sacrifice), the sovereignty of the mystical leader and communal bonding through observation and participation in the grand spectacle all distance Bataille equally from Enlightenment reason and Socialist materialism. Wolin situates Bataille (and his associates in the College of Sociology and the quasi-pagan Acéphale brotherhood) in the group of Left Fascism. Left Fascism, as Wolin describes it, is a rejection of liberalism, democracy and Enlightenment ratiocination and the adoption of Fascist methods for the advancement of the left. Many of Bataille’s associates of the 1930s and 1940s considered him a covert Fascist and thought his commitment to leftism was a cover for infatuation with Fascism. The final rupture between Bataille and André Breton’s Surrealists was a manifesto which included praise of Hitler. Bataille had included as signatories Breton and other Surrealists without consulting them.

Maurice Blanchot’s anti-Semitic and pro-Fascist journalism is cited as evidence of this thinker’s political sympathies. His post-war literary theories were influential on Post-Structuralists due to “the need to account for the rhetorical dimension of language, the focus on the perplexing ambiguities in literary texts, the problematic nature of citations, and the transfer of linguistic structures to the study of literature, psychology, cultural phenomena, history, and metaphysics.” “Literature’s essential characteristics are absence, silence, meaninglessness, and death.” Aside from their content, it was the deep seriousness and density of Blanchot’s texts which left a deep impression on intellectuals.

Jacques Derrida’s metaphysical word-games deconstruct philosophy and language yet also undermine themselves. A hermetic circularity is commenced, one that fails to offer anything but banal generalities, playful mischief and pervasive mistrust. Buoyed by a comforting wave of nihilism, followers of Derrida’s ideas are insulated from correction and refinement, free in the knowledge that political engagement was not only unnecessary but impossible. If “there is nothing outside the text” one might as well retreat into discourses on linguistic riddles and slippages in meaning. Foucault and Edward Said (among others) lambasted Derrida as a purveyor of weighty minutiae and of adopting the status of an oracular authority. Wolin quotes Michèle Lamont who observes that Derrida has gained credibility in the USA – and to a lesser extent, the UK – which have weak native traditions of leftism, but been rejected by European countries with strong leftist intellectual schools. Derrida’s link with Fascism is his criticism of law based on determinant certitude and legal positivism derived from logos, a set of positive firm attributes which he sees as fundamentally fallacious. In contrast, he stresses the deep irrationality of justice and the need for a mystical authority.

While Wolin’s assessment of influence of Fascist thinkers on Post-Modernism is accurate, he fails to fully identify Fascism as a variant of Socialism. (This is despite Wolin’s nuanced description of Mussolini’s syncretic adaptation of Marxism through the lens of Nietzsche and a discussion of Left Fascism.) Nazi National Socialism and Italian Fascism share many characteristics of Socialism, were allies of Socialist countries and adopted the forms and language of Socialism. Socialism is not the least component of Fascism. Wolin is in error conceiving of Fascism as irrational rightism in opposition to rational leftism, rather than identifying Fascism and leftism as two warring siblings sharing many traits. Wolin takes leftism at face value. “Historically, the left has been staunchly rationalist and universalist, defending democracy, egalitarianism, and human rights.”[v] Sporadically, yes. Yet it is Socialist regimes which were founded on opposition to democracy and the underlying motivation of leftist politics is sentiment not rationality. In Socialist states, human rights apply selectively, to be strategically withdrawn from opponents. Leftists support free speech when they are a dissident minority; when in power, leftists oppose free speech. Wolin fails to adequately highlight the utopian authoritarianism in the Old Left and the sectarianism in the New Left; his conflation of liberalism with leftism is a common error.

On the question of left unreason, Wolin seems a prisoner to the conception that unreason is primarily the prerogative of the political right. Yet it was the positioning of Neo-Marxists such as Gramsci, Horkheimer and Marcuse who dismissed the idea of reason as a tool to critique society. Facing a Late Capitalist society – with its privileges so entrenched in traditional forms and well defended with its weapons of capitalism, consumer goods, mass entertainment and representative democracy – was it not the Neo-Marxist thinkers who determined to avoid persuasion and instead infiltrate institutions to occupy key positions? Was the unreason of the New Left not an admission that tradition, capitalism and democracy could not be overcome by discussion alone and that force and terror may be necessary to combat these axes of oppression? Once these positions had been taken, was not the worm of unreason hollowing out the Western institutions over half a century as much a creation of the left as of the right?

In short, the rise of nationalist populism across the Western world is a reaction to neoliberal social and economic policies – a reaction which has taken the form of identity politics partly due to the legitimisation of the New Left, which has abandoned universalism.

Notwithstanding the reservations outlined above, The Seduction of Unreason is an informative, thoughtful and admirably clear dissection of the ties of Post-Modernism to Fascist thought and identifies Post-Modernist as essentially sceptical towards political liberalism and parliamentary democracy. Anyone wishing to study the intellectual origins of Fascism – and intellectual support for and collaboration with Fascism – will find The Seduction of Unreason a valuable guide.

 

Richard Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism, second edition, Princeton University Press, 2019, paperback, $29.95/£24, ISBN 978 0 691 19235 2

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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