“Modernism seen now”

“The Neue Galerie in New York holds one of the world’s greatest collections of German and Austrian Modernist fine and applied art. It was founded by Ronald S. Lauder and conceived of in consultation with his friend Serge Sabarsky, who owned a fine selection of the best of Austrian Expressionism, particularly by Egon Schiele. Sabarsky died in 1996, before the museum opened. When the museum opened in 2001, the intention of Lauder and team of directors and curators was to correct the bias towards French art in the historical surveys of the development of Modernism in the visual arts. Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940 is the grand catalogue of an exhibition held to celebrate the first two decades of the gallery. This review is from that catalogue.

Neue Galerie was warmly received when it opened and became highly regarded for its scholarship and the quality of its holdings. The great success of the Neue Galerie, which I have visited several times and consider an essential stop on any tour of New York museums, has made German-Austrian Modernist art now a much better understood part of art history. Among specialists, there was always an appreciation of Expressionism and Secession art, but the condensed selection of masterpieces by the very best artists, housed in a handsome beaux-arts townhouse at 1048 Fifth Avenue (built in 1914) has provided an integrated story of Modernism in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

Modern Worlds has essays on various topics relating the fine art and applied art in the collection…”

To read the full review free on The Brazen Head click here: https://brazen-head.org/2022/06/03/modernism-seen-now/

Whistler, Ruskin, Tonalism and the Falling Rocket

“In November 1878 one of the defining events of Modernism and aesthetics took place. A libel case was brought to court in London. The plaintiff was the flamboyant and notorious London-based American painter-printmaker and the defendant (who did not appear to testify) was a famous art critic.

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was the leading painter of the Aesthetic Movement. He was witty and erudite and made a point of provoking audiences with his statements on taste. He is (understandably) often assessed in relation to Wilde, whom he knew. There was a degree of competition between the pair. The young Wilde attended events Whistler spoke at and it was commonly thought that many of Wilde’s beliefs on aesthetics and art came from Whistler. Famously, Whistler and Wilde were at a gathering together and Whistler uttered a witticism. Wilde exclaimed, “I wish I had said that,” to which, Whistler replied, “You will, Oscar, you will.” Wilde addressed the painter as “Butterfly”, a symbol of ornate beauty and delicacy. Later, the pair became estranged, their egos rather than their outlooks conflicting. Not least, Whistler was a skilled writer, well known for his elegantly barbed letters to the press. Wilde may have felt, as a mere writer and no more, that the multi-talented Whistler was intimidatingly skilled and sophisticated….”

To read the full article for free, visit my Substack page: https://alexanderadamsart.substack.com/p/whistler-ruskin-tonalism-and-the?s=w

Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution

A central aspect of the art of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) is the adoption of ancient and non-Western visual languages and conventions. The exhibition Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution at the Albertina Museum, Vienna (17 September 2021-9 January 2022) set out to make clear what forms these affinities took in Modigliani’s art and compare those to primitive-inspired art by Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). All three were based in Paris. In short, the exhibition sought to explain how primitivism influenced the directions of leading Modernist artists in the École de Paris and also to look at the links between these three artists. This review is from the catalogue.

Modigliani arrived in Paris from his native Italy in 1906, intent on being a sculptor. The carved stone heads – some twenty – are evidence of his dedication to achieving a single ideal: a female head that would meld the sophistication of European beauty, the direct simplicity of non-European art and the mysterious dignity of ancient statuary. The artist required technical instruction on stone carving and so fell in with another newly arrived immigrant. Brâncuşi arrived in Paris from Romania in 1904. Modigliani was also friendly with Jacob Epstein, with whom he collaborated on a sculptural project in his early Paris years. Over the periods 1907-11 and 1912-4, Modigliani made many drawings of caryatids (some related the Epstein project), which translated into only a handful of sculptures.

One of the most striking aspects of Modigliani’s art is the incorporation of non-Western and archaic art. No viewer of his art can miss the references, albeit highly synthesised, to art generally considered outside of the European fine-art canon. These stylistic elements have been carried over into his paintings. Frontality, stiffness, reduction of modelling and lack of expression are all typical of primitive or archaic statuary and we see all of these is the art of primitive-influenced Modernists. The elongated faces and columnal necks are African innovations and recur often in Modigliani’s carved heads and portraits.  

Friedrich Teja Bach enumerates three reasons why Brâncuşi was so struck by encounters with African artefacts. Firstly, it liberated his imagination. Secondly, “the contemporary appreciation of African sculpture made him aware of the relevance of wood – something familiar to him from the arts and crafts of his Romanian homeland – as a material for modern sculpture of the context of the urban avant-garde. Third, as Sidney Geist has rightly pointed out, the abstractness of African sculpture, as found in some masks, probably made a significant contribution to opening for him a path to an abstract symbolic dimension.”

Archaic Greek carvings, Egyptian statuary and murals and other ancient art – in addition to non-European art – was of mutual interest to the pair. Brâncuşi worked in stone, wood, metal and plaster, whereas Modigliani worked only in stone. It was the irritation that the dust of carving caused his tuberculosis-weakened lungs that caused Modigliani to give up carving for painting by 1914. It seems that the friendship of the pair petered out at this time. Unlike Picasso, Modigliani displayed an attachment to primitive art throughout his career, starting in 1906 up to his premature death of tuberculosis. It is the case that Modigliani gradually moved away from primitive influences, especially as he strove for prettiness in his Nice period but one can discern the traits become more or less prominent between pictures.

Modigliani’s portrait painting Black Hair (1918) was bought or acquired by exchange by Picasso in the early 1940s. What exactly the relationship was between Modigliani and Picasso is disputed. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson (and Francis Carco) underplayed it, suggesting that Picasso avoided Modigliani, disliking his drunkenness. Richardson – like many prominent art historians – seemed to have a low opinion of Modigliani. The main charge against Modigliani is superficiality. The idea was Modigliani relied on a range of mannerisms (the long necks, the almond eyes, the long elegant nose) in place of open interaction with sitters and subjects. While that charge has validity, Modigliani’s adoption of the rough surfaces, unusually flattened facets and taut graphic lines – all common between Modernism and African carvings – counteract the tendency towards suaveness and the prioritisation of attractiveness.   

Picasso’s paintings from 1906-8 seem to parallel the art of Modigliani. The overwhelming flatness, drawn outlines, graphic shorthand replacing individualistic description, simplified forms, roughly painted facets making no concession to volumetric modelling – all of these are shared by Modigliani and Picasso. It is a moot point how many Picasso works – which seem to date slightly earlier than Modigliani’s, although dating to a precise month is not always possible – Modigliani saw. Many of these pieces were never exhibited during Picasso’s lifetime, so it was only through a studio visit that the Italian could have seen them.

Restellini attempts to reduce the role of debauchery and dissolution in the common view of Modigliani. He quotes the source of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s most committed collector and confidante, on the artist’s use of drugs. The author then adds, “Contrary to legend, Modigliani was neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict. He did not create under the influence of narcotics or drink: like a “seer,” he needed them to fathom the depths of the human soul, to penetrate the other and discover what lay hidden within himself: “Alcohol insulates us from the exterior, it helps us delve into our inner self, all while making use of the outside world.”

The influence of the West African traditions of mask making provided fresh alternatives for avant-garde artists. The radical simplification of the face and the use of symbols and flatness, all aligned with the tendencies already apparent in Post-Impressionist art. We can say that École de Paris artists found what they sought in non-Western art because many aspects of their existing art – and the preferences that they felt drawn towards – were present in the art they responded to. After all, had they been Symbolists such as Moreau, they might have been drawn to the ornate decoration of Khmer sculpture, intricate needlework of North American native textiles, the bas-reliefs of Coptic art, the vivid colours of India art or the narrative function of Aboriginal art. Instead, they found earthy colours, flatness, simplification and the incorporation of shells, feathers and nails in art of West Africa. What the admirers of primitivism found did not change the direct of their art; it confirmed the correctness of their existing trajectory (by antecedent endorsement) and accelerated their trajectory. It was a highly selective response to the breadth of material available.

Modigliani – like artists such as Picasso, Derain and Matisse – frequented the Musée d’Ethnographie at the Palais du Trocadéro, where he was captivated by art of Indochina, Africa and Oceania. At the time, the museum was disorganised, badly lit, overfull, inadequately labelled and unfriendly for any visitor wishing to gain information rather than simply immerse himself in the miasma of foreign cultures. Many readers will long for such a museum, repulsed by the excessive curation of politically active staff of recent days. Publications – especially with high quality illustrations – were less available in those days, which meant that a lot of artefacts that confronted visitors were utterly unexpected and alien. The jolt to the preconceptions of European artists was a shock that electrified and animated Modernist tendencies. Readers are advised to treat the discussion of primitivism by Restellini with caution. While it has some handy quotes from individuals from the lifetime of Modigliani, the historical analysis of primitivism is purely politically driven and of little worth.       

Modigliani and Picasso both exhibited at the Lyre et Palette exhibition, held at the studio of Émile Lejeune on 19 November 1916. This displayed modern art alongside 25 African carvings from the Paul Guillaume collection by work by Picasso, Modigliani, Kisling, Matisse and Julio Ortiz de Zarate, in a non-hierarchical approach. It was a recognition of the influence of non-European art and a sense of shared values and outlooks, to a degree.  

This exhibition brought together an impressive selection of paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs of lost sculptures. The quality of the art is excellent. There are plenty of drawings by Modigliani, especially those that anticipate sculptures. There is Picasso’s rough unfinished wooden carving of his mistress Fernande as a primeval Venus, made in Gósol in 1906. This is contrasted with a rarely seen gouache of 1905 of harlequin applying make-up, accompanied by a seated woman. At this time, Picasso was looking at ancient Iberian art and the African statues and masks at the Trocadéro. There are many seated portraits in elongated vertical format, which became a feature of his late output. Some of his best portraits are included, such as the profile portrait of his mistress Jeanne Hébuterne (1918) with extravagant curved neck a tapering hairdo. It is notably how few drawings by Modigliani use shading as a modelling technique. When shading appears, it is mainly to separate a figure from a ground, emphasise a line or indicate a block of tone. The paintings deploy modelling techniques, which are handled with a delicacy. The rough dabbing and scumbling of the 1914-5 era is turned into soft smudging in Nice, reminiscent of two local painters: Renoir and Bonnard.

Brâncuşi’s lost wooden figure of a child (The First Step (c. 1914)) is represented by a vintage photograph and a drawing. The sculptor radically simplified the form of an infant walking, following the approach found in West African carving. An oil painting of bathers (1908) by Derain presents art by another Modernist who was inspired by African figures at the Trocadéro. This painting seems as one with Picasso’s African period of 1907-8. The exhibition includes only a few non-Modern/non-Western works (West African carvings, Cycladic stone statuettes, a Khmer head), but there are numerous illustrations of other pieces, some of which may have been personally encountered by the three artists.

Considering today’s political climate, it is unfortunate (but entirely expected) that any approach to primitivism in art leaves the conventional curator tied up in agonised knots of shame. Every statement is preceded by elaborate unequivocal condemnations of the vast ignorance and shameful chauvinism of European artists, even those who demonstrated an intellectual and artistic engagement with non-Western art. “The predominant analysis of this artistic revolution, as articulated by Rubin in the 1980s and persisting until the end of the 1990s, is tinged with racism: this claims that the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas were more at ease in expressing emotion due to their “indigenous” and “primitive” nature.” The curators perform such elaborate obsequious performances to demonstrate their political virtue that they end up damning everyone who came before and failed to meet today’s standards. This leads to an impression that the artist subjects – who were sympathetic towards, and engaged by, non-Western art – are being tried for crimes against 2021’s left-liberal norms.

For those of us who require historical accounts of art that treat us as intelligent, empathetic and morally-informed individuals, we must firmly and clearly reject the presumptions of curators who often know less than their audiences about topics on which they opine.

Notwithstanding this reservation, the catalogue summarises well the inspiring spark that non-Western and archaic art provided for artists of the École de Paris.

Marc Restellini (ed.), Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution, Hirmer/Albertina, 2021, 216pp, 222 col. illus., £39.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3566 4

Suggested illus.

113, Picasso, female head, 1908, p. 178

114, Fang mask, p. 179

7, Brancusi, The First Step, 1914, p. 62

42, early cycladic figure, p. 102

43, Modigliani, female nude with crossed arms, 1911, p. 102

80, Modigliani, head, 1911-2, p. 146

21 April 2022

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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


Wyndham Lewis’s “The Art of Being Ruled” and Elite Theory

In 1926 the British artist-author Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) published The Art of Being Ruled. This treatise of social and political issues was an unusual book in a number of respects. It argued that democracy was not the crowning achievement of Western civilisation but rather a means of suppressing the true wants and needs of the populace. Contrary to liberal intellectuals and supporters of socialism, Lewis argued that mankind in West neither wanted or benefited from democracy. It made no concessions to Lewis’s social milieu, which was predominantly Fabian and Marxist in outlook. A reprint of a selection of Lewis’s prose includes lengthy passages from The Art of Being Ruled, therefore a summary of its arguments is timely.

Lewis, Sorel and reactionary thought

During the early 1900s, Lewis was living in Paris and took an interest in politics as well as the arts. By 1906, Lewis knew of the writing of political theorist and advocate of syndicalism, Georges Sorel – “the key to all contemporary political thought”.[i] Sorel was translated by another Man of 1914, T.E. Hulme, who shared Lewis’s reactionary outlook. Sorel, a late convert to Leninism, may seem a curious hero for Lewis, unless we realise the overlap – or ambiguous adjacency – of Sorel’s traditional and reactionary views. Sorel admired Marxist analyses but conceded, “[Marx] did not understand that the feeling for socialism (as he conceived it) was extremely artificial.”[ii] Socialism is something that is imposed from above, not yearned for from below.

What attracted Lewis was precisely the anti-Modern, illiberal confinement that syndicalism imposed. “[…] the more you specialize people, the more power you can obtain over them, the more helpless and in consequence the more obedient they are. To shut people up in a water-tight, syndicalized, occupational unit is like shutting them up on an island.”[iii] Freedom from specialisation is to bar a working man from community; it robs him of purpose and solidarity. “The chief thing to remember in such a discussion is that no one wants to be ‘free’ in that sense.”[iv]

In his own book, Lewis took as his starting point Sorel, Spengler and Nietzsche. He first discounted the idea that social change is necessarily progress. He then critiqued democracy as a device not of liberation but of containment. “Bound up with the idea of progress in the democratic conception of social unification. It is this idea of unification inseparable from ‘democracy’ that Sorel, the syndicalist, is principally concerned to attack and if possible destroy. Democracy has for its principal object (both according to the revolutionary school to which Sorel belonged, and equally according to Leninism) the disappearance of the class feeling. The idea is to mix all the citizens of a given society into one whole, in which the most intelligent would automatically ‘better themselves’ and rise, by their talents, into the higher ranks. Such social climbing would be of the essence of this democratic society.”[v]

The delusion of democracy

Lewis identifies the functions of democracy as the undermining caste legitimacy and class stability, noting the mechanism of social climbing, analogous to the phenomenon that Pareto had previously described as “circulation of elites”. “For this up and down, this higher and lower, this betterment of ‘progress’ and democratic snobbery, with its necessary unification into a whole, suppressing of differences and substituting for them an arbitrary sale of values, with the salon at the top […]”[vi] Lewis states that syndicalism – considered a branch of Marxist class theory – implicitly accepts an anti-democratic principle of resistance to class mobility in favour of class solidarity for the advancement of that class or tradesman/artisan group.

There is a critique of the mass man – “crushed by debt and threatened with every form of danger, without and within”[vii] – being bombarded by mass media, closely followed by a discussion of education. The main functions of state education are to keep man placid and to direct his trust towards democratic institutions. “His support for everything that he has been taught to support can be practically guaranteed. Hence, of course, the vote of the free citizen is a farce: education and suggestion, the imposition of the will of the ruler through press and other publicity channels, cancelling it. So ‘democratic’ government is far more effective than subjugation by physical conquest. […] So what we call conventionally the capitalist state is as truly an educationalist state.”[viii]

Lewis writes of class privilege substituting race privilege in terms of social status. As he would later write on this matter, Lewis was not a biological essentialist but rather a cultural essentialist and in a time before modern mass migration, he could – with the explicit exception of the USA – equate ethnicity of people with the societies of particular countries. He presents the idea of the English and Scots warring within decades should their public education values diverge and if old enmities were stirred by belligerent elites. He renames What the Public Wants to What the Puppets Want. Class division is as natural as division between species. What is unnatural is the claim by the aristocrats that there is no class division, something that the middle classes and the working man know to be the case.  

Lewis disagreed with Communism but he found the nakedly direct actions of the USSR elites refreshing. In a section entitled “The misuse of intellect”, Lewis describes how Soviet authorities curb the misuses of science and art as entertainment or diversion. By restricting the fields of science and art, the elite reinstate their essential qualities as mystery or craft. “They have taken in this respect the wisest and sanest step where both art and science are concerned, in curtailing the impossible freedom of art, and discouraging the people from gaping incessantly for new and disturbing novelties of science.”[ix] The freedom (real or apparent) afforded people in the Nineteenth Century was anomalous and unnatural. He suggests great books should be reserved for great people. “[A great book] should only be placed in the hands of those who are in a position to understand it. The people who read such books, after all, should be the rulers.”[x] It is worth noting that Lewis was opposed to abstraction in art, despite being the British artist who came close to pure abstraction in the 1910s.  

Ten years after The Art of Being Ruled was published, Lewis wrote, “Ninety per cent of men long at all times for a leader. They are on the look-out, whether they know it or not, for someone who will take all responsibility off their shoulders and tell them what to do.”[xi] For Lewis, the burden of choice for the average man with many concerns, was onerous and one which he would happily pass up, should the cost not be onerous. By extension, the cost demands of having to choose between political platforms of parties and then having the responsibility for being culpable through complicity with the results of endorsing a ruling party’s programme, are also unwelcome. In order to reach these conclusions, Lewis does not have to assume here that democracy actually functions as it is supposed to.

Lewis sees the promulgators of freedom are modern-day aristocrats, who have their own motives. “What is happening in reality in the West is that a small privileged class is playing at revolution, and aping a ‘proletarian’ freedom that the proletariat has not yet reached the conception of. The rich are always the first ‘revolutionaries’. They also mix up together the instincts, opportunities, and desires of the ruler and the ruled. They have the apple and eat it plan in full operation in their behaviour. It is they who have evolved the secondary, heterodox, quite impracticable notion of ‘liberty’ […] This type of freedom, synonymous with irresponsibility, and yet impregnated with privilege as well, is a very strange growth indeed. It will be found on examination to be the most utopian type of all.”[xii]

Later, there is a cutting disparagement of the notion of individuals being encouraged to “express their personality”. “Generally speaking, it can be said that people wish to escape from themselves (this by no means excluding the crudest selfishness). When people are encouraged, as happens in a democratic society, to believe that they wish ‘to express their personality’, the question at once arises as to what their personality is. For the most part, if investigated, it would be rapidly found that they had none. So what would it be that they would eventually ‘express’? and why have they been asked to express it? If they were subsequently watched in the act of ‘expressing’ their personality, it would be found that it was somebody else’s personality they were expressing. If a hundred of them were observed ‘expressing their personality’ all together and at the same time, it would be found that they all ‘expressed’ this inalienable, mysterious ‘personality’ in the same way. In short, it would be patent at once that they had only one personality between them to ‘express’ – some ‘expressing’ it with a little more virtuosity, some a little less. It would be a group personality they were ‘expressing’ – a pattern imposed on them by means of education and the hypnotism of cinema, wireless and press. Each one would, however, be firmly persuaded that it was ‘his own’ personality that he was ‘expressing’: just as when he voted he would be persuaded that it was the vote of a free man that was being cast, replete with the independence and free-will which was the birthright of a member of a truly democratic community.”[xiii]

People wish to be automata”

When we today are encouraged to express our personality, we are given a set range of options to choose from. It is a matter of selecting our favourite musical artist, mass-market (or arthouse) film, holiday destination or tattoo. The acceptable options are not rejection of materialist comforts or allegiance to the causes of holy war, racial purity or nationalistic superiority. Merely thinking such things is essentially criminal and saying the beliefs aloud is actually criminal. Lewis is describing a culture of conformity and expression through consumption which has come to pass. To Orwell, such social transgression was described in 1984 as “thoughtcrime”. “Lewis anticipated Orwell’s concept of “Doublethink” when he stated [in 1936]: “I mean independence in the real sense – not in the Alice in Wonderland sense of contemporary political jargon – where ‘Peace’ means War, ‘Neutrality’ means Intervention, and ‘Independence’ means Economic Servitude.””[xiv] Lewis is describing the modern type of the real-life NPC (non-player character in a video game), who has no interior monologue and repeats information from the mass media. Asking such a person to express his personality is little more than running a programme in order to check the output is as expected. It is a test or inspection, not any expression of individuality.  

“For in the mass[,] people wish to be automata: they wish to be conventional: they hate you teaching them or forcing them into ‘freedom’: they wish to be obedient, hard-working machines, as near dead as possible – as near dead (feelingless and thoughtless) as they can get, without actually dying.”[xv] Lewis detects in people a desire to be numb, to escape oneself, coupled with a strong sense of purpose and place. He dissects the modern state’s drive to dismantle the family, most particularly in the socialist state. He describes the state as becoming the breadwinner. Lewis is critical of feminism and female influence and foresees the rise of welfare state in a feminist era. “Since the great masses of the people are not likely to be in a position to prolong the family arrangement based on an individual ‘home’ (marriage and the family circle to which the European is accustomed), it will be abolished. That is the economic fact at the bottom of ‘feminism’.”[xvi]  

With mankind on the threshold of world government, what powers would authorities need and exercise? “People no doubt could be persuaded that they did not see the sun and moon […]” Consider how that applies to academia, mass media and social media of today and the way that impossibilities are advanced as unarguable truths.

The Art of Being Ruled is a remarkable book – remarkably prescient and remarkably brave. This reprinted edited version will make the ideas known to more. Let us hope that a press decides to issue an unedited republication. For now, alongside extracts of Lewis’s other social and philosophical writings, this version is a fascinating addition to any library of counter-liberal thought.

Wyndham Lewis, E.W.F. Tomlin (ed.), Volume 3: An Anthology of His Prose, Routledge Library Editions, 1969/2021, hardback, 397pp + ix, mono illus., £80, ISBN 978 1 03 211914 4

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

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


[i] Prose, p. 122

[ii] Sorel, quoted Prose, p. 124

[iii] Prose, p. 153

[iv] Prose, p. 153

[v] Prose, p. 98

[vi] Prose, p. 99

[vii] Prose, p. 107

[viii] Prose, p. 108

[ix] Prose, p. 115

[x] Prose, p. 114

[xi] Quoted from Left Wings over Europe (1936), 296p Meyers

[xii] Prose, p. 136

[xiii] Prose, pp. 150-1

[xiv] Prose, p. 296

[xv] Prose, p. 153

[xvi] Prose, p. 185

Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York

I. The Book

Alexander Nemerov (a professor at Stanford University) has written a series of biographical episodes about the art and life of Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011). Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and founder of Colour-field Painting (Post-Painterly Abstraction). Nemerov has taken 11 dates, one per year from 1950 to 1960, to write about. These are entrances into different parts of the artist’s life, situating the chapters around specific events. This works adequately. Nemerov has to be flexible about what to include and how much the significance the day has to the chapter, but the framework is secondary to content.  

The 1950s were a decade in which Frankenthaler achieved an astronomical rise in prominence. When the account begins, Frankenthaler was a young painter, a recent graduate, searching for a unique style and place. She had graduated in 1949 from Bennington College, Vermont. Frankenthaler came from a wealthy upper-class Jewish family from New York. Her father had been a New York State Supreme Court justice. His unexpected death in 1940 left the family of a wife and three young girls grieving but financially secure.  

Frankenthaler participated in the 1951 exhibition at a venue on Ninth Street. Only in retrospect was it seen as ground breaking. Frankenthaler became close to Grace Hartigan, who exhibited in that show. More important for Frankenthaler was her first solo exhibition in November of that year. By that time she had already started an affair with Clement Greenberg. Much her elder, Greenberg was the most influential critic of the era. His backing had not exactly made Pollock the most famous (or notorious) painter in America, but his support had certainly seen both Pollock and Greenberg’s stars rise. Frankenthaler met Pollock and his wife Krasner via Greenberg. By this time, Pollock and Krasner lived on Long Island. Greenberg and Frankenthaler went out to visit them. Frankenthaler took much from Pollock. He was an example of a great and serious painter. His art was exhilarating. She viewed Pollock’s 1950 exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, which contained Pollock’s greatest drip paintings, and this transformed her idea of what painting could be.

On 26 October 1952, Frankenthaler painted Mountains and Sea. It was painted on raw canvas and unstretched, as Pollock painted. Frankenthaler diluted her paint so that it soaked and stained, rather than remained where poured. This diffuseness was radical. It was lyrical and sensuous. It was different from gestural painting of Pollock and the tight, impermeable surfaces of Malevich and Mondrian. This is seen as the starting point for the Colour-field Painting. Friedel Dzubas, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski and others were excited by the painting as saw potential in that art. Others would soon follow. For the first time in history, two occurrences had taken place: a woman had founded a major art movement and a style had been established on a single identifiable day.

On 27 July 1953, Frankenthaler visited the Prado, seeking cultural release from domestic frustrations. Her encounter with Tintoretto and painters of the Spanish Golden Age led her to tackle larger canvases, referring back to art history. On 12 August 1956, Frankenthaler was in Paris with Krasner when the news reached them that Pollock had been killed in a car crash. Frankenthaler did her best to comfort Krasner as she made funeral and travel arrangements by telephone. Following Pollock’s lengthy deterioration into a violent angry drunk, his death ended up freeing both Krasner and Frankenthaler. As Nemerov puts it, “Whatever personal feelings it occasioned, Pollock’s death was also a release. That fall Helen’s paintings became freer, more improvisational, more brazenly indifferent to protocols of “finish.” Some new joy came with the master’s demise; some liberation, inseperable from the pall, fueled her work.”

On 1 August 1958 Frankenthaler and Motherwell were on their honeymoon in Spain and visited the caves of Altamira.  On 16 July they had visited the caves of Lascaux. This was Frankenthaler’s second pilgrimage to the Altamira caves. That had been with a crowd. This time, she and her husband were alone, having bribed the keeper to allow them in during the lunch break. Viewing the paintings by candlelight, surrounded by darkness and silence, the couple wondered at the paintings of bison, horses and deer that had once inhabited ancient Spain. For two painters strongly committed to the primal power of painting and dedicated to paint as a medium, it was a profound experience. Both later made reference to the experience in statements and art.

The year 1959 was a stressful one for Frankenthaler and Motherwell. They took custody of Motherwell’s two young children from his ex-wife, due to her break down. Frankenthaler was at first anxious and disconcerted by the responsibilities of being a stepmother. However, the couple adjusted, had enough money for a nanny and the children grew to trust and like Frankenthaler. It was a bittersweet moment when the girls returned to their mother two years later. Frankenthaler would have no children of her own. Frankenthaler’s 1960 exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York, brought a curtain down on the 1950s and her youth. By this time, Pop, Happenings and Conceptual art was in the wings. Politics would drive a wedge between the student artists and the grand Abstract Expressionists. Over barely two decades, Abstract Expressionism would rise, freeze and fade, its practitioners turned into bankable Old Masters in late middle age.    

The book is a brisk read, written in a direct style but informed by a solid grounding in 1950s American culture and the New York School. Nemerov’s familiarity with the biography and art of his subject (and of others in her milieu) is evident. The thorough footnotes will help students and scholars track down sources; the illustrations – colour images of art, photographs of the artist at work and socialising – fill out the narrative. This book will be welcomed by fans of the painter and anyone interested in the New York School.

II. Frankenthaler as “a woman artist”

Discussions about Frankenthaler and the circumstances of women artists is complex. She was a talented painter who made original art – started a new school of painting – and was acclaimed by her peers. On that level, she is a success story, a self-actualised woman artist in a time when there were few top-level female artists. Yet her close connections to critic Clement Greenberg, artist Robert Motherwell and curator Bryan Robertson leave open the inference that her prominence was assisted by these men. If we examine interpretations of Krasner’s career, we find authors and associates suggesting Krasner’s marriage to Pollock impeded her during his lifetime (making her a supernumerary, causing people to view her art as relational to Pollock’s, reducing her productivity) and assisted her after his lifetime (proceeds from the Pollock estate making her financially secure, dealers interested in Pollock’s art treating Krasner’s art favourably in order to win access to his art). Yet Frankenthaler was already part of the New York Abstract Expressionist scene before her relationship with Greenberg. She was already exhibiting and selling art before the affair started. Greenberg may have increased the attention given her art before 1953 (the year Mountains and Sea was first exhibited), but it was in that year that Frankenthaler earned her reputation and had artist followers. It is difficult to see how her romantic connections translated into measurable career advantages, certainly after 1953.

It seems inevitable that an artist as original and driven as Frankenthaler would have broken through in the way she did, even without the encouragement of influential male partners. Greenberg was not a great champion of women artists as a whole. It is possible that the main boost he provided to Frankenthaler was forming a strong social bond with Pollock and Krasner and thereby allowing Frankenthaler to see their art first hand and discuss techniques, material and ideas with two of the most advanced artists in the scene. She admitted that seeing Pollock’s art was a seminal experience for her as a fellow painter. In that sense, Greenberg’s assistance was to help her develop her art, not to advantage her public career.

Frankenthaler’s signature style of staining was seen by some critics and artists as distinctly feminine. The style tended to conform to assumptions about womanly delicacy, as did the lack of evidence of raw physical energy or cultivated athletic dexterity, as found in the art of Pollock and Kline. The paintings contained blooming optical sensations and enveloping expanses rather than staccato brushwork or whipped drips. There were the inferences of woman as producer of fluids, passive, unfirm, labile, unpredictable, unfocused, avatar of untrammelled nature. Such talk betrayed the assumptions of the commentator more than it identified any trait in the painter. Woman as dyer of cloth, maker of decoration and laundress were the cultural shadows flickering through the minds of some in the 1950s and 1960s who saw photographs of Frankenthaler. These same viewers had seen Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of Pollock at work, the comparisons were somewhere between boxer and farmer; Pollock was described as a cowboy spinning lariats of paint instead of a lasso.

Frankenthaler’s art was well regarded – especially by the art cognoscenti of Manhattan, Long Island and Provincetown – possibly in part because it was seen as a (incidentally feminine) variant of an existing (incidentally largely masculine) discipline. It was an offshoot or evolution. In stylistic terms, this is correct. Colour-field Painting was developed by Abstract Expressionist painters, in their search to expand their formal range and technical capacities. The inference that it was secondary and subsequent, was one that artists and critics at the time were aware of and it did frame discussions. It is ironic that the first style inescapably founded by a female artist was one that was considered primarily as a development or continuation of a pre-existing school of painting. Even as a leader, Frankenthaler was seen at a secondary rank, as the head of a group which was behind a vanguard. This is a touch unfair whilst being accurate. Frankenthaler was a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and Colour-field Painting did develop from that existing movement.      

This book does present a good overview of how Frankenthaler’s art was received by contemporaries, though the author is limited by his biographical focus. This book is a suitable entry point for those wishing to investigate this subject in more depth.

Alexander Nemerov, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, Penguin Press, 2021, hardback, 269pp + xviii, illus., $28, ISBN 978 0 525 56018 0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Hans Purrmann

A recent addition to Hirmer’s Great Masters of Art series is a short book on German Modernist Hans Purrmann (1880-1966). Purrmann was born in Speyer, Rhineland-Palatinate. He was trained in decorative art and took courses at the Applied Arts School, Karlsruhe, before going to study painting at Academy of Fine Arts, Munich (1897-1905). All of this gave him great craft skills and sensitivity towards colour. He had an affinity for Munich Impressionism. Park in Svinar (1903) is close to Max Liebermann’s Impressionism and Seated Nude (“Polish Equestrienne”) (1905) follows Lovis Corinth’s expressive diagonal brushwork and lush painterliness. The former is a dazzling tour de force depiction of shadow and dappling sunlight effects. Painting as pleasure-giving is never far from Purrmann’s thinking. Purrmann also respected Max Slevogt.

While in Munich, Purrmann developed an admiration for Cézanne. He immersed himself in the power of colour and the cultivation of facture, as means to vitalise painting. He moved to Paris in 1905 and the following year commenced studying in the studio of Henri Matisse. The master proved a major influence; so much so, that Purrmann is often called “the German Matisse”. It did not help Purrmann’s standing as an independent painter the fact that he vigorously promoted Matisse’s paintings in Germany. His combination of bluish greens and viridian – and his preference for blocks of unmodulated, unshaded colour – was developed at this time.

Purrmann could be classed as a late-period Fauve. His paintings from 1905 onwards share characteristics with those of Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain, as well as Matisse. The energy of Purrmann’s early Fauve paintings is akin to Vlaminck’s. The hot-coloured landscapes are a blend of Derain and Cézanne.

The painter admitted that he painted that which he enjoyed looking at and being around – sunny gardens, interiors of his handsome home, family members, nude models. Purrmann’s sumptuous interiors – juxtaposing reds and oranges against saturated greens and blue – of 1917-8 display his feeling for colour. The richness of the colour, restrained brushwork and deft use of detailing in compositions that exaggerate forms and spaces without reaching levels of unreality are highly satisfying and typical of Purrmann. That also demonstrates Purrmann’s weakness in comparison to Matisse. He is too restrained and too genteel to take up the risks that Matisse undertook. His art is gorgeous but genteel; it is the gentility of a consummate craftsman rather than the rawness and risk of genius.

Interestingly, Purrmann’s art was classed as degenerate by the Nazis and included in the 1937 exhibition. The content of his art was unobjectionable, had it been painted in a realist or mild Impressionist manner, but his style was tied to the unapologetic Modernism. This led to him being perceived as belonging to a subversive group (or tendency). The author admits he cannot explain how this condemned artist came to be appointed director of Villa Romana, Florence, a German-owned villa used for artist residencies. Purmann held the position from 1935 until 1943, the breakdown of the Fascist government during the pressure of Allied invasion and German occupation. (That summer his wife died in Munich after a long illness.) In 1939, the “Italian branch of the Nazi Party” wrote to the German Embassy in Rome, calling Purrmann a “proponent of an altogether un-German concept of art”. Purrmann was known to have assisted dissident artists and writers during his time there.

Purrmann’s painting during his years in Florence feature the villa and display the artist’s appreciation for his surroundings. The views of rooms, including glimpses of the garden and trees beyond the balcony, recall Matisse’s Nice and Cannes paintings. After the war, Purrmann settled in Lugano, Switzerland. His studio had a spectacular mountain view. His art did not develop much in later years; it did not need to. He continued painting after 1959, when he was confined to a wheelchair by a stroke. His dedication to pleasure was richly rewarded in his last decades by increasing acclaim and financial security. In 1955, his art was selected for the first Documenta exhibition in Cassel, chosen in part by the German curators because Purrmann was seen as untainted by Naziism, Modernist in character and representative of the taste and artists of France. Purrmann was, for Germans burdened by war-guilt, an embodiment of “the good German artist”: cosmopolitan in outlook and association.

Purrmann’s painting is definitely worth becoming acquainted with, especially if one is a fan of the Fauves or early Matisse. It is highly accomplished and enjoyable. Wagner’s book is the perfect introduction. The book contains a general essay, a thorough chronology and a handful of documents from Purrmann, alongside colour illustrations. The illustrations are well chosen and large enough. Recommended for all fans of Matisse, Modernist painting and German art.

Christoph Wagner, Hans Purrmann, Hirmer, 2021, hardback, 80pp, 55 col. illus., £9.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3679 1

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

“Getting Creative with History”

“From the first charcoal drawings on cave walls, to Rachel Whiteread’s Turner Prize-winning cast of a house interior, Creation attempts to chart the nature of artistic creativity worldwide. It is a comparative anthropological study of what creativity means within a differing but constant construct: society. The book offers a chronological survey of fine art, applied art and architecture, in that order of emphasis. We visit the highlights of major civilisations, respectively the Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Olmec, Mayans, Aztecs, Greek, Romans, Indians and others. Then we return to Europe for the majority of the remainder of the book.

“Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation — tracing the course of European culture from ancient Greece to the 20th century — was considered an encyclopaedic achievement. This is by some measure even more ambitious. Curator and cultural historian John-Paul Stonard takes us to ancient China, the lost civilisations of Central America and modern and prehistoric Africa, whilst also featuring art of Western societies from the medieval to modern era. Surely, Stonard is setting himself up for failure….”

John-Paul Stonard, Creation: Art Since The Beginning, Bloomsbury, 2021, hardback, 464pp, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 4088 7968 9

Read the full review here: https://thecritic.co.uk/getting-creative-with-history/

Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Algers

[Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O), 1955, Privatsammlung
© Bridgeman Images / Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021]

This publication is a catalogue for an exhibition in Berlin (Museum Berggruen/Nationalgalerie, Berlin). The review is from the catalogue.

In 1954 Picasso began a series of variants of Eugene Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Alger (1834). This series was apparently prompted by three proximate causes. Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s new mistress and future wife, reminded him of a figure in Delacroix’s painting; the news coverage of the Algerian civil war kept Algeria in the public’s attention. The death of Matisse – the only contemporary artist that Picasso considered a true equal and rival – left Picasso in search of artists that he considered historical peers. Matisse (as was Delacroix) a genuine Orientalist. Matisse (unlike Picasso) had visited North Africa to paint, thus he had had memories and insights of the Orient that Picasso did not have. Matisse painted odalisques long after his trips to North Africa. One recurrent motif of Matisse’s (while residing in Nice in the 1920s) were of French models in harem pants, reclining in the painter’s hotel room. This exhibition included nine of these, plus art by Delacroix, Ingres, Matisse, Manet and others. The graphics by Picasso include drawings and prints. The exhibition includes art by contemporary Algerian artists.

[Henri Fantin-Latour, Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, d’après Eugène
Delacroix (Frauen von Algier in ihrem Gemach, nach Eugène Delacroix), 1875/76, Musée du
Louvre, Musée national Eugène Delacroix, Paris, © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand
Palais / Harry Bréjat]

Delacroix executed his painting in 1834, following his return from North Africa. It shows three women in an apartment (the artist made a point of calling it an “apartment”, not a harem) with a black servant. The walls are tiled and the floor covered with rugs. The figures sit around a ceramic brazier and a hookah pipe. Delacroix did several versions, including a print, which reduced the scene to two figures, one baring her breasts. Delacroix’s paintings (including street scenes and a Jewish wedding) became touchstones for both Orientalists and radicals. The Orientalists appreciated the subjects and the authenticity; the radicals admired the creativity and handling.

[Henri Matisse, Odalisque au coffret rouge (Odaliske mit roter Schatulle), 1927,
Musée Matisse, Nice. Legs de Madame Henri Matisse, 1960 © François Fernandez /
Succession H. Matisse / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021]

Over the winter of 1954-5, Picasso painted 15 oil-on-canvas variants (given letters A to O) and made supplementary pictures. Picasso turned Delacroix’s chaste women in nude sexual athletes, twisting like tops. Poses are like those in the paintings and drawings are compared to a sequence of thumbnail sketches the young Picasso had drawn in 1905. The Algeriennes’ angular flat forms are bent like cardboard echo the planar sculptures Picasso was making at the time. While there is a sexual dimension to the variants, it seems more of a test of ability, imagination and audacity – taking on one of the masterworks of a great masters of French art.

[Eugène Delacroix, Deux femmes arabes assises (Zwei sitzende arabische Frauen),
ca.1832/34, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, ParisPhoto, © RMNGrand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado]

The initial versions are small – obviously started on blank canvases that were just to hand. The lines are curving. The figures’ positions are accurate to the original but they are nude. The four figures are reduced to three occasionally because Picasso tended to enlarge the figures, which meant he could not accommodate four figures in a painting. By canvas C, the figure on the right in reclining on her back. The lines become straighter. The later versions (H-M) are in grisaille, like ink wash drawings. These are probably the most satisfying because they tamp down the sexual provocation and the play of lines, forms and facets replaces the strident colours. Two are single figure studies. The final version is the most complete and settled. It balances the sensuality of the setting with the invention of Picasso and the harmonious colour combinations. A very useful double-page spread shows all of the paintings in sequence and in proportionate size.

This journey was recapitulated in four states of a lithograph made in 1955. His sketches show him wrestling with the figures and design, trying to emphasise this or that aspect. Some portraits of Jacqueline dressed as an Algerian show Picasso forcefully placing his mistress in the history of Orientalist art and the grand tradition of French painting. The famous linocut after a Cranach portrait is another venture into the variant territory, which Picasso had been mining since at least his Poussin variant of 1944. Of course, all artists have produced copies of older art as part of their apprenticeships and learning their craft. Academic artists and students in France often made copies that were sold to the state, which allocated them to regional museums. Picasso had many copies in his youth. He touched on pastiche in the 1900s with El Greco, then again in the 1910s with Ingres’s portraits and then again in 1930s with parodies of Van Gogh and El Greco. By the time of the Poussin variant of 1944, Picasso saw the Old Masters as a subject in themselves. More precisely, he saw himself responding to the Old Masters in a self-reflective, ironic manner as subject matter. That multi-processed production of masterpieces about masterpieces (with a critical apparatus, audience and a collector base ready to adulate the products without demur) detached Picasso from any subject other than himself.

[Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d’Alger (Version L), 1955, © Staatliche Museen zu
Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Roman März / Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021]

Whatever the value of the series, it marked a slump in Picasso’s creativity. It was followed by variations after Las Meninas (1957), Cranach portraits (1958), Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1960-1), Rape of the Sabine Women (1962) and others. Picasso entertained himself with these dialogues but they are of little value to others. Paradoxically, these tussles with the great masters indicate a lack of serious of Picasso’s part. Imagine Degas, Poussin or Manet spending months on making fanciful variations of old art in Picasso’s method. These painters did take up old art and made it new. Manet completely reimagined a Raphael composition as Déjeuner sur l’herbe, imbuing it with new meaning and extra significance. It commented on the sex politics of his age, referring obliquely to a source that viewers did not need to know in order to appreciate Manet’s painting. Picasso’s variants after Déjeuner sur l’herbe imbue the source with no new meaning and far from matching (or illuminating) the subject, Picasso’s art shows his weakness. His self-image as a great impaired his ability to make meaningful art and tackle subjects outside of himself.

Just as Picasso worked after Delacroix, so other artists worked after Picasso. The most notable example is Roy Lichtenstein’s Femme d’Alger (1963) a Pop art version of a single seated figure by Picasso. The model was a combination of versions K and L, flattened, schematised and colourised. Areas of solid tone and dotted tone in primary colours. It is an indirect portrait of Picasso as iconic creator of Modernist art, not intended to relate to Delacroix or Algeria.

The catalogue includes various essays on the production of Picasso’s series (excerpts of Leo Steinberg’s 1972 text), the reception of the series and Algerian responses to the art. The selection of art is limited but relevant. This catalogue is ideal for Picasso fans and those researching the production and reception of Orientalism in the modern era.

Gabriel Montua, Anna Wegenschimmel (eds.), Picasso & Les Femmes d’Algers, Hirmer, 2021, hardback, 192pp, 130 col. illus., German/French/English text, £39.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3584 8

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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

Review: “Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern”

Charles Dellheim, Professor of History at Boston University, sets out in Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern to show how Jews made a disproportionately large contribution to the ascendancy of Modernist art. As discussed in a previous review, Jews are commonly linked to the avant-garde and Modernism. Dellheim’s project is to explain why Jews entered the European art trade and were particularly supportive of Modern art. In Vienna of the belle époque under Franz Joseph I (an era of industrialisation, expansion and modernisation of the city, as capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) the arts were open to all people of means. The exclusion from certain fields of Jews (voluntarily or involuntarily), left them with free rein in the arts. “This left the Jewish bourgeoisie an unprecedented opportunity to seize the aesthetic initiative. And they made the most of it.”

Dellheim – a descendant of German Jewish refugees – defines Jews as ethnic Jews rather than just those practising Judaism. He rejects the idea that there is anything inherent in Jewish genetics that makes Jews inclined towards, and proficient in, art dealing and appreciation, preferring to see the matter as one of acculturation, law (Jews being restricted in certain matters) and economics (again, determined by law as well as broader economic opportunities). Strong in-group preference facilitated the establishment of profitable and long-lasting family businesses, some of which have lasted over 150 years.  

Jewish art dealers

Dellheim notes that entry of Jews into art collecting, dealing and creating was a late development. Jews were concerned with religion, scholarship, law, trade and finance, not much with the visual arts until the second half of the Nineteenth Century. (Before the emancipation of the Jews in France in 1791, Jews had no right to join a guild – including the Guild of St Luke – or trade fine art.) The public art gallery and the annual salon opened art to the general public. The crisis of academies and salons being unwilling or unable to absorb and co-opt new artistic forms sufficiently rapidly led to a new opportunity for private dealers and middlemen to act as bridges between avant-garde producers and prospective bourgeois collectors. The new entrants into this field included Jews, who had some natural advantages by having preferential access to credit from Jewish financiers to establish businesses, finance speculative acquisitions and sustain businesses during downturns. Some of these networks had been well established in the preceding century, during which the ending of absolute monarchies, the reduction of power in the hands of the aristocracy and the transfer of capital to industrialists all led to a professionalised art market, public auction houses, specialist publications and the foundation of art history as a professional discipline (a movement originating in Vienna) lubricated by the dispersal of noble collections. Thus, a network of Jewish art historians, collectors, publishers and dealers – working with Jewish bankers – led to the flourishing of the European art trade, albeit primarily in Old Masters, in the pre-1850 period.

So, when the rise of the Realists, the Barbizon School and the Impressionists took place over the 1850-75 period, the Jewish art network was already established and ready to take up the opportunity and absorb new entrants. Nathan Wildenstein started selling minor paintings by Old Masters in the 1870s, while working as a textile merchant. His motto was, “Boldness in buying. Patience in selling. Time does not matter.”

Wildenstein became a partner of Ernest Gimpel, another Alsatian Jew, who had worked for Jewish bankers as a commodities broker. These bankers had social access to the richest families in France, who were hungry for social status through art acquisition. Gimpel and Wildenstein made their fortunes through selling French art from Colnaghi in London. Colnaghi had acquired most of his stock from the descendants of French émigrés who had fled the revolution. Watteau’s The Poet’s Dream was bought from Colnaghi for 10,000 francs; ten years later it was sold to a French banker for 150,000 francs. When he established Hôtel Wildenstein at 57 rue la Boëtie, it was a palace of culture and statement of ambition to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the high society of Paris.  

[Image: Hotel Wildenstein, Paris]

The Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain are a legacy of the Duveen family of art dealers, founded by Joel Duveen, a Dutch Jewish immigrant to Hull, where the family trade was import-export. If anything, the liquidation of aristocratic collections was even more rapid and extensive in Britain than elsewhere. Dealers facilitated the transfer of art masterpieces from British stately homes to magnate mansions in American cities. The Duveens had branches in London, Paris and New York. They formed a secret partnership with Italian-art expert Bernard Berenson, a Lithuanian Jew. Denied a professorship at Harvard University, Berenson went on to become a scholar, critic and populariser of Renaissance art. He is attributed with stimulating rich Americans to collect European art, thereby accelerating the transatlantic art trade and elevating prices. Berenson was a close adviser to Isabella Stewart Gardner – leading cultural light of Boston high society and one of foremost American art collectors. Berenson acted as an authenticator and insider contact for the Duveens – which clashed with scholarly detachment and disinterest. His high public and credibility made him an invaluable ally for a dealing house.

Gimpel, Wildenstein and the Seligmann brothers followed the Duveens by opening branches in New York to feed the apparently insatiable demand for Old Master art for New Money collectors. At the end of the century, the collections of Jewish bankers joined the inherited art of the British aristocracy entered the art trade, with much of it heading West to the USA. “The rise of Jewish art collectors provided an opening for Jewish art dealers who social connections mattered more inside their own communities than outside of such.” Having favoured status gave Jewish collectors and dealers access to art (and credit) that allowed the creation of great collections at a slightly lower financial and time cost than would have been the case for gentiles. The establishment of dynasties cemented this. After all, when grandfather died and his collection had to be sold by his legatees, they could turn to the art-dealer grandson of the dealer who had sold the art originally to buy it back.

[Image: Paul Rosenberg, Paris, c. 1920]

Modernism and Jewishness

The Rosenbergs (father Alexandre, sons Paul and Léonce) and the Bernheims backed avant-garde art, collecting and selling Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. The Bernheims were big backers of Impressionism and benefited when it occupied centre-stage in the French art scene (at least, commercially) for over half a century. Paul and Bruno Cassirer paved the way for the Post-Impressionists in German through a Berlin gallery and a publishing house (which published van Gogh’s letters in German). The Secession movement of Vienna and Berlin was backed by many Jewish collectors. Gustav Klimt’s portrait subjects form a veritable checklist for the wealthiest Jewish women of Vienna.

In Vienna, Franz Joseph I found himself patronising the Secession exhibitions despite being temperamentally ill-disposed to Modernism – he particularly loathed the Loos House that faced the entrance to his palace. The Kaiser was politically supportive of Modernism because his fractured, multi-cultural, multi-lingual composite empire was being torn apart by separatist movements and Modernism was the only school of art that had no distinctive national character, did not assert an ethnic identity and was not supported by anyone except the cosmopolitan liberal elite and a few radical artists and architects. Thus, the art patronised by the wealthy Jewish upper class found itself a de facto empire style despite being (or perhaps because it was) widely despised.

Hitler lived in Vienna at this time and grew to detest Modernism. When Hitler inaugurated the House of German Art in Munich in 1937, this Nazi brainchild was declared to be explicitly intended to reverse the tide of Modernism. “[…] art and art activities are lumped together with the handiwork of our modern tailor shops and fashion industries. And to be sure, following the maxim: Every year something new. One day Impressionism, then Futurism, Cubism, maybe even Dadaism, etc. A further result is that even for the most insane and inane monstrosities thousands of catchwords to label them will have to be found, and have indeed been found.” We can see the typical Nazi condemnation of Kulturbolshewismus (cultural Bolshevism) in Hitler’s linkage of Modernism to Jewry. “Judaism was very clever indeed, especially in employing its position in the press with the help of so-called art criticism and succeeding not only in confusing the natural concepts about the nature and scope of art as well as its goals, but above all in undermining and destroying the general wholesome feeling in this domain.” As Dellheim writes, “The conviction that modernism was a Jewish threat to German culture became a staple of reactionary ideology. It fit in easily with the image of the rootless, abstract, cosmopolitan Jew, always consuming, never producing, and greedily sucking the life out of the true Germany.”

Dellheim is equivocal on whether Modernism was (at least partly) Jewish. He notes the Jewish Modernist artists (Pissarro, Leibermann, Modigliani, Soutine, Chagall, Lipchitz), collectors (the Stein siblings, the Cone sisters, Peggy Guggenheim) and critics (C.R. Marx, W George, Vauxcelles, Salmon). He then goes on:

Both Jewish entrepreneurs and avant-garde artists were archetypal outsiders, whose social paths otherwise might not have crossed. Both were largely excluded from the old regime in art and society and, moreover, stood to benefit from its destruction. Both were on the margins of their respective worlds as a small religious minority in largely homogenous societies with long histories of antisemitism. Prejudice made it extremely difficult for Jewish bourgeois to attain the degree of social status or respectability that their non-Jewish compatriots could take for granted. Avant-garde were on the margins of the official art world that upheld classical standards and shaped professional success. Neither Jewish entrepreneurs nor avant-garde artists were willing to remain on the periphery, however. Both craved professional success and social acceptance to one extent or another. They were outsiders who were determined to become insiders. But they wanted to do so, if possible, on their own terms rather than by capitulating to traditional ways or majority opinion. The need to circumvent entrenched authority provided common ground for avant-garde artists and their Jewish champions.

Readers might consider that the author could have pursued further this posited division between Jews and the traditions of the nations they inhabit. He lays out this powerful case and does not draw out its implications.

According to Dellheim, Modernism was not a Jewish project – the majority of its producers, dealers and consumers were non-Jewish, and it was not initiated by Jews – Dellheim sees that Modernism was a unique social, financial and artistic opportunity for Jews to acquire advantage. It must be said that many Jewish dealers and collectors were heavily invested in traditional art; however, there was nothing to prevent them from either additionally or successively transferring their backing to Modernism. We might see Modernism as speculative and risky compared to the Old Masters, and that new entrants might see openings that more conservative bodies might miss or disdain. “Marketing modern art – like many of the endeavors in which Jews clustered – was a middleman business that offered limited barriers to entry, the prospect of high returns, competitive advantages to family firms and ethnic networks, scope for international trading, and geographical mobility. The barriers to entry were few, the required capital modest, the competition limited, and professional hierarchies only beginning to gel. Successive waves of artists and schools created openings for dealers seeking a foothold in the commerce of art.” This is the rapid turnover of schools and styles in the Modern era – a hyper-charged cycle of innovation, popularisation, exploitation and obsolescence that can be found in movements lasting less than a decade, as artists, dealers, critics and collectors scrambled to establish themselves as pre-eminent before the next generation displaced them.

The course of history

Dellheim outlines the Intimiste circle, Berthe Weill and Alfred Flechtheim (dealer of Otto Dix). Picasso would have numerous Jewish dealers: Weill, D.-H. Kahnweiler, the Rosenbergs, Louise Leiris, Georges Wildenstein and others. So associated was Picasso (and Cubism) with Jewish and German names, that he kept a low profile during the Great War, for fear that French patriots would attack his art. (Spotting the non-French “k” in a Picasso painting was enough to stir ire.) Paul Rosenberg was a great champion of Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, Braque and other top-level Modernists. René Gimpel made a point of supporting Modernist artists who were Jewish (Modigliani and Soutine).

The bulk of the book is a lively and well-sourced account of the Modernist art market from the 1910s up to the return of dealers following the end of World War II. The travails of art restitution bodies and the Monuments Men are raised here, though Dellheim acknowledges the extensive coverage of that subject already. Although those familiar with the major dealers and artists will know the outlines already, lesser-known incidents catch the attention. For instance, a Dusseldorf auction arranged by Flechtheim was bombed by the SA on 11 March 1933. The explosion did not kill anyone and was presumably an effort to frighten the Jewish art dealer and to damage his display of “un-German” Modernist art. He recounts the sad end of Paul Cassirer. Married to the beautiful actress Tilla Durieux (painted by Franz Stuck), Cassirer was so suicidal or reckless due to her rejection of him that he fatally wounded himself in the courthouse during their 1926 divorce proceedings.

[Image: Tilla Durieux at Paul Cassirer’s funeral, 1926, Berlin]

The wartime pillaging of Jewish collections is the “betrayal” in the title. Many colleagues and friends of the dealers – who fled, leaving behind most of their collections – collaborated with the Nazis, due to cupidity, envy or fear. Some Jews in neutral countries profited through acting as dealers for art that was stolen or extorted from fleeing collectors and dealers. The dispersal of Jewish collections has still not been entirely resolved to this day. It has been the subject of many books and documentaries and now is almost its own branch of law.

The scope of Dellheim’s subject is so huge that the book cannot help but have omissions. The Jewish patronage of the Secession in Vienna is only lightly sketched and the role of Jews around the early vanguard Modernism of the USSR is omitted. This book nicely sets up what could be a follow-up – an examination of Jewish dealers, artists and critics in the next phase of Modernism, the School of New York. A large percentage of the actors in 1940s Abstract Expressionism and dealers in the New York art scene were Jewish. Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg and Irving Sandler were pioneer critics and artists such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Philip Guston addressed explicitly Jewish themes in their art. All the time Leo Castelli, Frank Lloyd and Ileana Sonnabend were waiting in the wings, ready to advance following art movements.  

Dellheim has had to balance storytelling and analysis and has generally prioritised the former, which is to the benefit of general readers. His chapter “Between Bohemian and Bourgeois” (about the competing drives of Jews to rebel or to assimilate) seems tantalisingly inconclusive. He correctly ascertains that the bourgeois and the bohemian are not diametrically opposed but takes it little further. We could say that both bourgeois and bohemian are archetypes of liberalism – the support of progress (in whatever form that takes), consumers of culture (in whatever form that takes), self-regarding keepers of the flame of modernity (in whatever form that takes), opposers of tradition, religion and aristocracy (right or wrong, regardless). Bourgeois and bohemian are two sides of the same coin, two stages (youthful rebellion, materialist maturity) of conformity within the modern Western middle-class. One hungers for a little elaboration from Dellheim on this.

Belonging and Betrayal is a fine account of the broad and controversial subject of Jewish participation in the rise of Modernism in European art. Dellheim is well informed, thoughtful, sympathetic and a good writer. This book is suitable for anyone studying the history of the art trade, Modernism in the fine arts and the Jewish contributions to European culture.

Charles Dellheim, Belonging and Betrayal: How Jews Made the Art World Modern, Brandeis University Press, 21 September 21 2021, hardback, 674pp, 24 col./96 mono illus., £32.00, ISBN: 978-1-68458-056-9

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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


“The evolutions of revolutionary architecture”

“The neologism is beloved of technocracies, cults and dictatorships; the regime of the USSR had traits of all three tendencies. The lexicon of the USSR sprouted neologisms like mushrooms: Cominform, Comintern, Glavlit, Gosplan, Komsomol, Proletkult, Sovnarkom. VKhUTEMAS was an abbreviation of Higher Art and Technical Studios, a Bolshevik-founded art training school founded in Moscow in 1920. It was set up alongside the even more shortlived INKhUK Institute of Artistic Culture(Institut Khudozhestvennoy Kultury/Институт Художественной Культуры), which only existed from 1920 until 1924, by IZO-Narkompros, the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education. Despite being backed by the state, it failed to survive as long as the Bauhaus…”

Read the full 3-book review at The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2021/06/11/the-evolutions-of-revolutionary-architecture/