In my last post, Traveling in the Age of ISIS, I made a reference to art of Impressionist to Modernists painters, and how their world, as ours, was shattered by world events. While my thoughts were influenced by our holiday travel plans in the context of the recent ISIS associated attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, as well as the heightened security in Washington, D.C. (multiple police cars at each bridge crossing we passed over, four security guards checking all bags going into a Christmas concert…), they were as much informed by an art exhibition which we visited that weekend. Gauguin to Picasso, Masterworks from Switzerland, the Staecheli & Im Obersteg Collections, at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. hosted several dozen paintings spanning the Impressionist to Modernists eras of the late 19th to early 20th centuries.
When we think of Impressionist paintings, most likely beautiful, blurred images of villages, farms, and women come to mind. Following them came the Fauvist, with their canvases dazzling with color at the expense of precise, realistic portrayals of their subjects. A couple of decades later, Modernists shocked us with the stark drabness of life and the sadness of the people and places behind our prior idealized views of European life. Even Gauguin’s attempt to escape to the South Pacific pallet turned into an illusion as Western Culture transformed his expectation of native life into the confines of European business exploitation and missionary control. What happened in those decades? World War I, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Nazi and fascists regimes, and the exile of those who saw the world differently.
Forgive my morose thoughts. Let’s step back into the art. First, the reason for this exhibition is renovation work being done at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland. This museum is home to two collections from Rudolf Staechelin and Karl Im Obersteg. They, along with Duncan Phillips, were like-minded in their method of collecting art of their age, specifically the decades from 1910’s – 1930’s. Each also worked with galleries to support living artists, several of whom they gave regular stipends to allow the artists to work without concern for sales, in exchange for first-rights to purchase their works. Additionally, each of these collectors reached back a generation, to the Impressionist, for examples of art that influenced the artists whom they supported.
Those earlier works include arts such as Cezanne, Pissarro, Van Gogh and Gauguin. Though we may not be familiar with the specific paintings, we easily recognize their landscapes, still-life arrangements of fruit, and depictions of people. Book-end their style with Picasso and Chagall, whom we associate with Modernism and Cubism, though their works certainly spanned from realistic to abstract lens. In between, do we know the names of Holder, Rouault, Soutine or Jawlensky? If now, why?
Some of our lack of awareness of their careers and catalogues has to do with regionalism in art collecting of that time. While Paris and New York were major art centers for galleries, they were more represented in other areas of Europe. A few of their paintings are in major museums in the world, but with our bucket-lists for di Vinci to Van Gogh we are likely to pass by their paintings as “don’t know him” on our quests.
Another reason for our lack of awareness is world events that shattered the Impressionist world. Those wars and revolutions sent many of their into exile. Some were free-thinkers, hardly a trait desired by the propaganda machines of Russia and Germany. Others were Jewish, another reasons to expunge their art from the world.
Alexej von Jawlensky experience exemplifies this path. He went into exile from Russia after the Revolution. Then the Nazi’s banned his work as “degenerate”. The Nazi’s forced museums to purge their collections of art they considered vulgar, including his. Without exposure, he could not get commissions. With export-bans, his supporters could not send his works overseas for sale in other markets. On a personal level, he also suffered from arthritis that crippled his ability to hold his tools. The images below chronicle his artistic progression from an intimate image of his mother working on her craft, though a series of images of faces to his final meditations.
When our cultural options appear to be trapped by ISIS, which would destroy anything that violates its view of the sacred (which already have included historic, Roman and Greek sites in Syria to Christian church, and would certainly damn all of Western art) to the fascism of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, as potential front-runners for the post of leader-of-the-free-world, I have dim hopes for generations of artists.
We, in the USA, are accustomed to short wars. Our Civil war lasted a mere 4 years. We barely got overseas before WWI ended. WWII involved us for another 4 years plus a decade of rebuilding Europe and the Pacific regions. We are not used to 100-Years wars. I recently read that the Greeks and Carthaginians fought over the island of Sicily for over 500 years before the Romans defeated both of them. My eye will look for the beauty that Roman allowed to flourish under its domination. I hope that I am not just being optimistic.