Art

Exiles on the cutting edge

Montreal showcases the genius of artists who fled the Nazis

Brian D. Johnson July 1 1997
Art

Exiles on the cutting edge

Montreal showcases the genius of artists who fled the Nazis

Brian D. Johnson July 1 1997

Exiles on the cutting edge

Art

Montreal showcases the genius of artists who fled the Nazis

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Even at the best of times, artists tend to have an unsettled relationship with the real world. Should art reflect reality or subvert it, transcend it or abandon it entirely? In the early 20th century, such questions provoked vivid arguments as various movements galvanized the European art community. Then, with Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, reality drew a savage brushstroke through the whole debate. The Führer fancied himself a painter but had no tolerance for modern work, which he vilified in a series of “Degenerate Art” exhibits. As the Nazis tightened their grip on Europe, many artists were forced to flee, first from Germany, then from occupied France. New York City took over from Paris as the world’s art capital. And the greatest cataclysm of the modern age would become a turning point in the history of modern art.

These events—and the art forged from them—are the focus of a major new exhibition that opened last week at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Titled Exiles and Emigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler, the show features the work of 23 painters, sculptors, photographers and architects who were uprooted during the Nazi regime (1933-1945)—including such names as Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, André Masson, Fernand Léger and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

The exhibition originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and will end up, fittingly, at Berlin’s National Gallery in the fall. Meanwhile, it runs from June 19 to Sept. 7 in Montreal, which is the only other site for the show. “I didn’t have a New York venue,” explains its Los Angeles curator, Stephanie Barron, adding that she

found a sponsor in Canada (First Marathon Securities Ltd.) after failing to find corporate support in the United States. “It’s harder to find sponsorships for idea shows,” she says, “especially when there’s political content.”

Although the exhibit has no overt message, it provides a compelling context for viewing an eclectic range of work. It is fascinating to see how political upheaval colors one artist’s work—and propels another to new horizons of abstraction. At one extreme, John Heartfield depicted Hitler as a saber-rattling gorilla on a propaganda poster; and fellow German emigré George Grosz painted lurid tableaus of Nazi carnage that verge on kitsch. But for surreal-

ists such as Ernst and Yves Tanguy, exile only seemed to enhance a cultivated taste for alien life-forms. Meanwhile, modernist émigrés, from Piet Mondrian to Mies, found a second home in America—seeing their ideas reflected in the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Chicago.

Somewhere in between is Max Beckmann, whose bold, fiercely carnal paintings are the star attraction of the exhibit. Fired from his Frankfurt teaching post by the Nazis, he fled first to Amsterdam, then Paris and finally New York. The torment of exile surfaces in claustrophobic images—sombre men passing zombie-like through train stations and hotel lobbies, sombre men crowded by prostitutes in nightclubs. There are allegorical scenes of birth and death, and of torture by garish birds with knives. Each canvas seems to take him deeper and deeper into a halg lucinogenic carnival, a Euro1 pean Day of the Dead. Beekje mann’s grave faces seem | almost Mayan, angled with i rude strokes reminiscent of I woodcuts. They are faces ë busy reserving judgment, i like Beckmann’s own in I Self-Portrait with Horn, Ï which shows him eyeing a brass mouthpiece with suspicion, as if it were a microphone that could twist his words.

Chagall, one of three Jewish artists in the exhibit, offers a less ambivalent vision. During his eight-year exile in New York, the Russian-born painter produced a series of canvases that use the Crucifixion as a symbol for the Holocaust. In the childlike tableaus of Persecution, Resurrection and Ghetto, the crucified Christ forms a centrepiece for episodic images of refugees, mourning and mayhem. But the tone is elegiac, and strangely serene.

With the surrealists, historical content rarely took on such literal form, even though they constituted one of this century’s most politically engaged art movements, with

their Trotskyist sympathies and their manifestoes promoting the emancipation of dreams. And when a surrealist like André Masson did try painting representations of war, in the gnarled passion of The German Soldier and Oradour, the results were crude.

But the surrealist wave, which was cresting when it crashed on American shores in the late 1930s, is the driving force of the exhibition.

And among the surrealist art displayed, the work of Ernst is the most vibrant. He created a series of remarkable landscapes using decalcomania (transferring paint to canvas from another surface) , a technique that Ernst first tried in a French internment camp, and then continued to use after arriving in New York in 1941. These paintings, which include Napoleon in the Wilderness and Europe After the Rain II, are crawling with decay. Horror and beauty fuse in splendid panoramas of ruin, with totems and half-humans rising out of reefs and cliffs.

The Ernst work also includes totemic bronze sculptures and a sublime satirical portrait of high society titled The Cocktail Drinker. Although Ernst was briefly arrested as an enemy alien upon arriving in New York, he married wealthy art matriarch Peggy Guggenheim, who served as patron for a gilded bohemia of surrealist émigrés. The Montreal exhibit includes a model of Guggenheim’s tunnel-like Surrealist Gallery, with little toy paintings hanging from curved wooden walls, and a train’s whistle wailing on the sound system.

The surrealists exerted a major influence on American abstract expressionism. But they had trouble maintaining their collective energy in New York. “They lamented the absence of cafés, bars and other centralized meeting places,” observes curator Barron. A sobering thought: perhaps Starbucks could have changed the history of modern art.

Dali, the most celebrated surrealist, had already been branded a sellout by the movement, and in New York he began marketing himself aggressively. Like a precursor to

Andy Warhol, he branched out into commissioned portraits, media stunts and professional party-going. The Montreal show has several Dali paintings, but they are minor works—glib confections of technicolor gimmickry. On the opposite wall, however, Dali’s familiar syntax of crutches and struts is echoed in the more profound work of French surrealist Tanguy—who conveys the vacuum of exile with hermetic landscapes of spindly, alien forms.

While the surrealists struggled to make themselves at home in the United States— most went back to Europe after the war— the modernists fit right in. “This is a melo-

dramatic country,” enthused French painter Léger, who translated the “luminous, electric intensity” of urban America into thick cartoon outlines and bold swatches of color in works such as The Divers. And when Mondrian relocated to Manhattan in 1940, the Dutch painter obsessed with right angles must have felt he had died and gone to heaven. In fact, he spent the last four years of his life there, and Manhattan’s grid-like design shaped his work. The Montreal show has no Mondrian paintings, but it does have a doll’s-house model of his New York studio—a white space jumping with tiny colored squares and the beat of boogie-woogie piano.

The exhibition’s most functional modernists are the architects from Germany’s famed Bauhaus school, notably Mies, whose designs include office towers in New York and Chicago. Hitler shut down the Bauhaus in 1933, branding it a centre for “cultural bolshevism.” Still, several of its architects built projects for the Third Reich; one of them even designed prison structures at Auschwitz—where anLU other was executed. And I some, such as Mies, emi-

1 grated to America, where ® they adapted their skills as

2 readily as German rocket | scientists.

§ Although Exiles and EmiJ grés boasts some fine indi=j vidual works, what makes it û engrossing is the unarticulated connection linking its disparate range of artists. Hanging over the exhibit is the silent shadow of war and holocaust— evoked by a steel mesh shroud hanging from the ceiling and the deadness of a black rubber floor. A perimeter of photographs and documents—and a tragic documentary film about U.S. rejection of refugees—reinforces the context. In the centre, the cute replicas of Guggenheim’s gallery and Mondrian’s studio serve as whimsical distractions. And along the walls the art performs its old friction of ideas and colors, conjuring up a historic dialogue that only the viewer can complete. □