Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kurt Schwitters - The Cathedral of Erotic Misery

 El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters, 1924

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was born in Hanover, Germany, to a well-to-do family. His parents were owners of a ladies' wear shop. From early childhood Schwitters suffered from epileptic seizures, later he said that these experiences led him to art. He attended the Kunstakademie in Dresden from 1909 to 1914 (alongside with Otto Dix and George Grosz). Schwitter's early paintings were mostly landscapes and academic portraits. In 1915 he married Helma Fischer, a teacher. Schwitters began to construct his first Merzbau in 1915, the transformation of six (or possibly more) rooms of the family house in Hannover, Waldhausenstrasse 5. This took place very gradually. Early photos show the Merzbau with a grotto-like surface and various columns and sculptures, possibly referring to similar pieces by Dadaists, including the Great Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama by Johannes Baader, shown at the First International Dada Fair, Berlin, 1920. Works by Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, amongst others, were incorporated into the installation.

 Kurt Schwitters, The Cathedral of Erotic Misery - Merzbau - Hanover - 1924

Using wood and plaster for the basic structure of the cubistic assemblage, which also included carboard, scraps of metal, old furniture, leftover objects found in garbage bins, and items from his friends, such as Mies van der Rohe's pencil and Sophie Täuber-Arp's brassière. "Everything an artist spits out is art," Schwitters said. The word "Merz" has a variety of associations, starting from "Kommerz" (commerce) to Schmerz (pain) and ausmerzen (to discard). With "Merz", Schwitters defined his own unique movement, "in close artistic friendship with Core dadaism," as he wrote. After the death of his son Gerd, he incorporated his death mask in the Merzbau. Schwitters christened the gigantic work, which eventually extended through several floors and room, The Column and then as his Cathedral of Erotic Misery. Only the gallery owner and critic Herwarth Walden, the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, and Hans Arp were allowed to see the most secret caves of the Merzbau. His visitors Schwitters greeted with his own onomapoetic language - "the language of the birds" - while sitting on a tree branch. 

 Kurt Schwitters, Merzbau, reconstruction by Peter Bissegger 1981–3 (Sprengel Museum Hanover)

Schwitters was to come into contact with Herwarth Walden after exhibiting expressionist paintings at the Hanover Secession in February 1918, which led directly to meetings with members of the Berlin Avant-garde, including Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch and Hans Arp in the autumn of 1918. "I remember the night he introduced himself in the Café des Westens. 'I'm a painter', he said, 'and I nail my pictures together'", Raoul Hausmann later reported. Schwitter's poems and essays were published in Herwarth Walden's Der Sturm magazine. An Anna Blume (1919), Schwitters's first collection of verse, which appeared in the magazine, provoked a strong response. It parodied the high-flown language of love poetry, and was a critical and commercial success; it sold a 13.000 copies. 

 Cover of Anna Blume, Dichtungen, 1919

Hausmann Remembers
by Kurt Schwitters (c. 1920)

Then came Anna Bloom, and Kurt was famous.
"For all the wrong reasons, of course", he said,
but clearly, from his grin, he enjoyed it.
Anna Bloom is out of her tree!
    Anna Bloom is red.
    What colour is the tree?

That's how a schoolboy teases his sweetheart,

not satire at all; and in this age
(so we dadas proclaimed) art must be savage
- a frontal attack!

But Kurt held a mirror up to dada

- reversed its sneer
to a laughing face.
He called our southern tour "Anti-Dada"
and added an "h" to my Hanna(h)'s name
so he could read her backward.

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbild 46 A. Das Kegelbild, 1921

In 1920 Schwitters met Hans Arp, who introduced him to the new collage method, and made a lecture tour with Raoul Hausmann in Chechoslovakia. In 1922 he attended the Dada meeting in Weimar. However, Schwitters never became a friend of George Grosz, who once drove him from his door, saying "I am not Grosz." Schwitters replied after ringing the bell again: "I am not Schwitters, either." Grosz was rebellious and politically committed, Schwitters described himself ambiguously as "Bürger und Idiot" (Bourgeois and Idiot). Schwitters founded the Merz magazine in 1923; the last issue was published in 1932. Merz consisted of books, catalogues, poems and paitings. Numbers 14-17 contained children's books written by Schwitters, Kate Steinitz and Theo van Doesburg. You can see scans of the magazine here. Schwitters also composed and performed an early example of sound poetry, Ursonate. The poem was influenced by Raoul Hausmann's poem "fmsbw" which Schwitters' heard recited by Hausmann in Prague in 1921. You can hear it here.

Kurt Schwitters, Construction for Noble Ladies, 1919

Most of the works attempt to make coherent aesthetic sense of the world around Schwitters, using fragments of found objects. These fragments often make witty allusions to current events. Merzbild 29a, Picture with Turning Wheel (1920, below), for instance, combines a series of wheels that only turn clockwise, alluding to the general drift Rightwards across Germany after the  failed Spartacist Uprising in January that year. Thanks to Schwitters' lifelong patron and friend Katherine Dreier, his work was exhibited regularly in the US from 1920 onwards. In the late 1920s he also became a well-known typographer. In 1928 Schwitters traveled in Norway, where he began to spend much of his time from 1931 onwards. In 1937, Schwitters was designated a "degenerate" artist by the Nazis and his works were shown in the Entartete Kunst exhibition. Schwitters left Germany for Norway, settling in Lysaker near Oslo. He never returned to the city of his birth. His wife Helma died of cancer in 1944 in Hanover.

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbild 29A, Picture with Turning Wheel, 1920 

When German troops invaded Norway, Schwitters fled in 1940 with his son for the United Kingdom on the ice breaker Fridtjof Nansen. Interned as an enemy alien by the British government he was held in interment camps for eighteen months. After being discharged from Hutchinson Square Camp at Douglas, Isle of Man, he settled in London. Schwitters had an exhibition in London in 1944 and in 1947 in New York and Basel, but his work did not attract significant popular or critical interest. Schwitters's Hanover Merzbau was completely destructed by Allied bombing raids on the night of October 8, 1943.

Kurt Schwitters painting in Norway, 1936

In 1944 a stroke left Schwitters temporally paralyzed on one side of his body. The next year he moved with Edith Thomas to Ambleside, in the Lake District. There he became a well known figure, although he did not talk about his past. His portraits of local residents were displayed in shops. With the financial aid from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Schwitters began to build in 1947 his third Merzbau (or the Merzbarn) into a stone barn At Elterwater. He never finished it. Schwitters died in solitude on January 8, 1948, in Kendal. Many artists have cited Schwitters as a major influence, including Ed Ruscha and Robert Rauschenberg, who said after seeing an exhibition of Schwitters' work in 1959, that "I felt like he made it all just for me." You can read more about Kurt Schwitter's here.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ellen Auerbach (Pit)

Ellen Auerbach (1906-2004) was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, the daughter of Max Rosenberg and Melanie Gutmann. Her father was a successful businessman. Between 1924 and 1927 Rosenberg studied art at the Badische Landeskunstschule in Karlsruhe under Karl Hubbuch, where one of her fellow students was Hanna Nagel. In 1928, Auerbach continued her studies at the Academy of Art (Am Weissenhof) in Stuttgart. An uncle for whom she had done a bust gave her a 9 x12 cm camera and thus she discovered photography. Rosenberg thought that this new medium would be a better way to make a living than creating sculptures.

Grete Stern, Ellen & Walter Auerbach, c.1930

In 1929, Auerbach moved to Berlin to study photography with Walter Peterhans, who had been recommended by a friend for his excellent photographs and jazz record collection. At his studio Rosenberg met Grete Stern (see my article about her), Peterhans's only other private student. Ellen and Grete began a profound friendship that lasted throughout their lives. For Ellen Rosenberg the move to the capital was the beginning of a final rupture from her bourgeois background and from her family's traditional expectations for her. She had only a short period of lessons with Peterhans, because in 1930 he was named Master of Photography at the Bauhaus School for art and design in Dessau. 

Ellen Auerbach, Eckstein with Lipstick, 1930

Using the proceeds from an inheritance Stern bought Peterhans' equipment and with Auerbach established a studio to do advertising, fashion and portrait photography. They called the studio ringl+pit, after their childhood nicknames (ringl for Grete, pit for Ellen). The two young women also lived together in their studio. In the early 1930s, modern advertising was at its beginnings and left ample room for creative exploration. ringl+pit's advertising work represented a departure from current styles by combining objects, mannequins and cut-up figures in a whimsical fashion. 

 ringl+pit, Untitled, c. 1930

Their work explored a new way of portraying women, also in character with the image of the New Woman that was emerging. Stern's specialty was in graphic design, and she was more interested in the formal aspects of photography. Auerbach provided the more subtle and ironic touches that challenged the traditional representations of women in advertising and films.  As Auerbach explained, "We are very different people. She is more serious than I am. I’m a frivolous person. But we had a lot of fun together. She was serious and I frivoled."

ringl+pit, Edwin Denby and Claire Eckstein in Regimentstochter (Gaetano Donizetti), Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin 1930 

Auerbach and Stern also photographed friends and lovers whom they met through bohemian circles. These included the dancer Claire Eckstein and her friend Edwin Denby (above), the writer Marieluise Fleißer and the set designer, Walter Auerbach. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Walter Auerbach, who was active in leftist political circles, warned the women of the dangers ahead. Aware of the increasing political repression, they decided to leave Germany. Palestine was the only place Ellen could go to, thanks to a loan from Grete that allowed her to enter as a "capitalist". At the end of 1933 Ellen emigrated to Palestine and Grete left for London.  

Ellen Auerbach, Port of Alexandria, on the way to Palestine, 1933

Walter Auerbach also went to Palestine, and in 1934 they opened Ishon ("apple of my eye") in Tel Aviv, a studio specializing in children’s photography. At the same time Ellen started photographing everyday life in Palestine. This took her out of the studio and into the streets and villages. She was greatly affected by the difficulties in coexistence between Arab and Jews. In 1936, Grete Stern emigrated to Argentina. Auerbach left Palestine and tried to continue with Stern's London studio, but was unable to obtain a work and residency permit. One year later, Ellen married Walter Auerbach in order to emigrate to the United States, thanks to an affidavit they had received through a distant relative. They lived first in Philadelphia, where Auerbach continued to work as a children’s photographer in order to make a living. In 1938 one of her child photographs was selected for the cover of Life Magazine’s second anniversary issue. 

 Ellen Auerbach, Statue of Liberty, New York 1939

Ellen Rosenberg's parents stayed behind in Karlsruhe. In 1941, they were interned at the Gurs concentration camp in France, from where they were freed in 1944 by American troops. At the end of the war they returned to Karlsruhe - an unusual move for Jewish survivors. In 1940, Ellen and Walter Auerbach moved to New York where they were introduced to some avant-garde artists, among them Willem de Kooning, whom Auerbach photographed, and Fairfield Porter, a painter who would become a close friend. Ellen and Walter Auerbach were separated in 1945, but remained friends, and she kept his name. Ellen started visiting Great Spruce Head Island in Maine, the Porter family's summer place, where she continued her art photography, focusing on nature subjects and people on the island.

Ellen Auerbach, Renate Schottelius in New York, 1953
Between 1946 and 1949 Ellen Auerbach worked at the Menninger psychiatric institute in Topeka, Kansas. There she photographed and made two films on young children's behavior. In 1946, she traveled to Argentina to visit her brother and Grete Stern, and to Greece, Germany and Austria. Auerbach continued to travel extensively between the 1940s and 1960s, photographing landscapes and nature, as well as interiors, architecture, street scenes and portraits. 

 Ellen Auerbach, Sulphur Bath, Big Sur 1949

In 1954 she went to Great Spruce Island to visit nature photographer Eliot Porter, whom she had met through his brother Fairfield. He asked her to accompany him on a trip to Mexico to photograph churches. They went there in 1955–1956. When they returned they tried to interest publishers but it was not until thirty years later that their work received recognition. Mexican Churches was only published in 1987 and Mexican Celebration in 1990. After the Mexico trip, Auerbach no longer wanted to photograph and gradually stopped taking pictures. At the age of sixty, she embarked on a new career: until 1984 she worked as an educational therapist with children with learning disabilities at the Educational Institute for Learning and Research in New York.

ringl+pit, Pétrole Hahn [Shampoo Ad], 1931

From the 1980s, the work of ringl+pit and that of Auerbach and Stern was rediscovered as German museums started to look back. Auerbach's hometown Karlsruhe organized a show in 1988 called Emigriert. The Folkwang Museum in Essen mounted a comprehensive ringl+pit exhibition in 1993 and many others followed. For Ellen Auerbach the culmination was a retrospective of her work at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in 1998.  Ellen Auerbach died in New York on July 30, 2004, at the age of ninety-eight.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

John Gutmann

 John Gutmann, Mobile, Alabama, 1937: To be stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again?

John Gutmann (1905-1998) was born in Breslau, Germany  (now Wroclaw in Poland), to a middle-class Jewish businessman and his wife. He pursued a career in art, studying as a master student from 1924 at Breslau's Akademie für Kunst und  Kunstgewerbe under the renowned Expressionist Otto Müller. Müller, one of the original members of Die Brücke, was admired by Gutmann for his strict discipline: His eyes were trained by a weekly average of twenty hours life-drawing for four years. From 1926 to 1927, Gutmann also studied art history and philosophy at Friedrich Wilhelm Universität in Breslau.

John Gutmann, Texas Women, 1937

After receiving a bachelor's degree in 1927, Gutmann moved to Berlin, where he earned a master's degree at the State Institute for Higher Education. He became a connoisseur of the city's vibrant nightlife, as well as the many new artistic movements that collided there: Expressionism, Constructivism, Dadaism, and New Objectivity. His own paintings of the time were compared with the work of Otto Dix, depicting the cosmopolitan social life of Berlin and spicing it with a sense of emotional isolation and social disharmony. In 1931, Gutmann had a solo exhibition of paintings and drawings at the important Gallerie Gurlitt, Berlin. His works were also included in exhibitions of the the Berlin Secession and the Preussische Akademie der Künste. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any reproduction of these paintings except the photo shown below. Probably, like the works of many other exiled artists, they were left behind in Germany and destroyed as "degenerate".

 John Gutmann with his paintings, "Nude" and "Still Life with Apples", circa 1932

The freedom Berlin offered was short-lived. In 1933, the Nazis forbade the Jewish Gutmann to teach or exhibit. Given the increasingly dangerous political climate, he realized that he would have to leave Germany. The editor of the magazine Die Neue Revue (whose mother was American) told him: "There is only one country, that is the United States, the only state is California, the only city, San Francisco." During that period, a strong and lively populist culture promoted, through magazines and popular novels, an image of America as a land of skyscrapers, painted Indians, gangsters, and Negro dancers. Before his emigration, Gutmann's few ideas of America had been fed by sources like Dreiser, jazz, and Chaplin.

 John Gutmann, Autumn, Berlin-Charlottenburg, 1933

Photojournalism struck Gutmann as a useful means of supporting himself. He had no training as a photographer, but a month before he sailed for California, he purchased a Rolleiflex, read the instructions, made three rolls of test shots, and immediately obtained a contract with a news agency, Presse-Foto, to send pictures back to Germany for the many magazines that circulated there. As can be seen in Autumn (above), a melancholy farewell to Berlin, even his first "test shots" alreday showed Gutmann's future as one of last century's outstanding photographers.

John Gutmann, Oakies on their Way West, Laramie, Wyoming, 1936

In the 1930s, San Francisco seemed alluringly remote and exotic to a refugee from Nazi Germany. With the steepest diagonals in the West, San Francisco was designed to make any Weimar Expressionist trigger-happy. "I was in Paradise", Gutmann later said. With his outsider's eye for the curiosities of the city, he recorded the sheer strangeness of his American experience. Gutmann observed the life of the city with the detachment of an anthropologist examining an alien culture. He was particularly fascinated by the prevalence of the car, the fetish of the modern world. Automobiles were a luxury in Germany, whereas in America during the Depression, even homeless had them.

 John Gutmann, San Francisco City Hall, 1935

Gutmann also was a politically conscious photographer: He shot a fascinating series of the militant 1934 West Coast waterfront strike (which resulted in four workers killed by the police and private guards of the employers). His 1935 photo of a Nazi rally in San Francisco's City Hall (obviously organized by the German Consulate - Billy Wilder, in his memoir, sarcastically commented on a similar event in Los Angeles) is a striking historical document. My favourite photo of Gutmann is simply called Omen. Shot in 1934, it is a dire vision of things to come, and bears a striking resemblance to Richard Oelze's famous painting The Expectation, produced one year later.

 John Gutmann, Omen, 1934

Many of Gutmann's pictures are photojournalistically straightforward, modern photojournalism having developed in Germany in the late 1920s. A fair number of his pictures also show the influence of the avant-garde that flourished in Europe in the 1930s. Elevator Garage, for example, has the distinctive bold, tilted angle and arresting cropping of Russian Constructivism, reminiscent of Alexander Rodchenko:

 John Gutmann, Elevator Garage, Chicago 1936

Gutmann described America as "foreign - a landscape in which buildings had replaced mountains, automobiles had replaced trees, and neon and painted signs had been substituted for flowers." His work of this period also had a certain Surrealist quality that owed much to the type of camera he was using. The Rolleiflex was held at the waist, offering a disorientating field of vision in which Gutmann framed the sharp shadows and strong diagonal forms that give his photographs their compelling quality.  In 1936, Gutmann signed up with the New York City picture agency Pix Inc., which placed his work in magazines like Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Look and Time. The same year he also began teaching art at San Francisco State University. A decade later, he founded the creative photography program there, one of the first in the country. 

John Gutmann, National Guard tanks occupy San Francisco Waterfront General Strike, 1934

By the end of the 1930s, Gutmann had toured most of the U.S., and became established as a photographer for magazines and newspapers in America and Europe. His work was shown alongside that of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassai. After his full-time appointment as a professor of art at San Francisco State College in 1938, his magazine work began to peter out. During World War II, he studied at the Signal Corps Motion Picture School in New York, and made still and motion pictures for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. During World War II, Gutmann served with the United States Office of War Information in China, Burma and India. His images of these places were published, amongst others, in National Geographic.

John Gutmann, GI's and Chinese watching Kunming Airbase hit by Japaneses bombers, 1943

After the war, Gutmann returned to the studio, producing in 1946 a large three-screen panel that combined painting and photocollage. Months after completing it, he photographed a beautiful young woman smoking a cigarette before it. This was Gerry von Pribosic, a talented artist whom he would marry in 1949 and photograph frequently. Eventually, she took her own life.

 Imogen Cunningham, Woman in Sorrow (Gerrie von Pribosic Gutmann), 1964

In 1955, Gutmann was appointed full Professor of Art at San Francisco State University. The following years he traveled extensively, producing photography and motion picture footage on modern architecture in Europe and Mexico. Since 1962, Gutmann did little work in photography due to a prolonged illness, but continued teaching. In 1970, he visited  Berlin for the first time since 1933. Since the late seventies, Gutmann's work was exhibited nationally and internationally in many important shows, and was acquired by many museums and private collections.

 John Gutmann, The Oracle, 1949

In 1998, shortly before his death in San Francisco, Gutmann made a selection of what he considered his best photographs, exhibited and published as The Photography of John Gutmann: Culture Shock. These images, taken mostly in the 1930s in San Francisco, offer a very different city from the paradise of the popular imagination. There is a recent film by Jane Levy Reed about John Gutmann's life, My Eyes Were Fresh, which is shown at the Palo Alto Art Center through December, 2010. You can order a DVD here. Also, there is an excellent official webpage where you can see many more of his photos.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Red Vienna

Poster for the exhibition Red Vienna (Museum Postsparkasse Vienna), 2010

Between 1923 and 1934, Vienna's socialist administration launched an extraordinary campaign to provide housing for working-class residents. The government constructed 400 apartment complexes - 64.000 new apartments in all - that together housed one-tenth of the city's population. The pride of this gigantic program was the majestic Karl-Marx-Hof, designed by Karl Ehn. Stretching almost a mile along a major railway line, the Karl-Marx-Hof featured five monumental archways, a striking red and yellow stucco facade, and lush interior courtyards as well as state-of-the-art kindergartens, playgrounds, maternity clinics, health-care offices, lending libraries, and laundries.

Karl Ehn, Karl Marx-Hof in Vienna (1927–1930)

As their heroic scale suggests, the Wiener Gemeindebauten (Vienna Communal Houses, as all of the new socialist apartments were called) amounted to far more than mere residential housing. They embodied  a political idea. As Eve Blau points out in her excellent study, The Architecture of Red Vienna 1919-1934, the communal houses were an expression of the working class's ascent to power. The Viennese workers' houses were islands of socialist power in a bourgeois city. With their monumental facades and their entrances accessible only from interior courtyards, they resembled citadels.

Hubert Gessner, Karl Seitz-Hof in Vienna (1926-31)

Red Vienna had its beginnings immediately after World War I, when the Austrian Social Democrats, whose leaders included such remarkable Austro-Marxists as Otto Bauer, Karl Renner, and Max Adler, inherited power and established a new republic. Against the backdrop of severe food and housing shortages produced by both the military defeat and the collapse of the monarchy, the Social Democrats won a significant electoral victory in the municipal elections of May 1919, making Vienna the first major European capital to be governed by an absolute majority of socialists. (One of my favourite writers, Joseph Roth, in his The Emperor's Tomb portrayed the decaying Vienna society in the aftermath of Wold War I).

 Plate at Karl-Marx-Hof remembering 29 tenants who fell victim to the Holocaust

There also was a sizable and radical squatters' movement, and settlements were springing up on unoccupied land at the outer edges of the city. The city enlisted several students of Vienna's most prominent prewar architect, Otto Wagner, who is now best known for his Postsparkasse (Postal Savings Bank), to design large-scale public housing. The city building agency favored a "neovernacular architecture", and Wagner's students, notably Josef Hoffmann, Hubert Gessner, and Karl Ehn, seemed best qualified to create it.

Hubert Gessner, Karl Seitz-Hof in Vienna (1926-31), Detail

The Wagner school's predilection for courtyards and monumental facades highlights not only their belief in the social function of architecture but also a certain sensitivity to the cultural memory of Habsburg architecture in the Baroque era. An especially striking example is the Reumannhof. With its large central court flanked by smaller side courts in the Baroque manner, the building alluded to Schönbrunn, the nearby imperial summer palace. 

Hubert Gessner, Josef Bittner - Jakob Reumann-Hof in Vienna (1924–1926)

A number of Vienna's most innovative architects, including the eminent Adolf Loos, who worked for the city administration, criticized the Vienna building agency for failing to produce a unified aesthetic vision. In his view, Vienna suffered by comparison with the sleek, modern satellite towns built in Berlin (today a World Heritage), and in Frankfurt by Ernst May. The Winarskyhof, jointly built by Loos, Peter Behrens, Josef Frank, and Margarete Lihotzky, diverged from both Wagner School monumentality and German functionalism, achieving a more complex balance of tradition and modernity, and a greater diversity of color and detail.

Inauguration of the Ferdinand Lasalle monument in front of the Winarskyhof in Vienna (1928). The monument was destroyed in 1936 by the rightwing Schuschnigg government.

In the words of Otto Bauer, the party's leader and most important theorist, Red Vienna fused "sober realpolitik and revolutionary enthusiasm." On the other hand, in his 1980 study Vienna Rossa, the influential Italian architecture critic Manfredo Tafuri, a Marxist, described Red Vienna as a "declaration of war without any hope of victory," condemned to failure by the contradiction between the Social Democrats' radical rhetoric and their reformist strategies. The communal houses, he argued, were, like Red Vienna's socialist administration, "petit bourgeois" and structurally incoherent. 

Erika Giovanna Klien, Revolution in Vienna, 1930

The symbolism of the houses did not go unnoticed by the socialist's fascist opponents. Socialist housing went up in the midst of highly charged, and often violent, political conflict. During the civil war of February 1934, Red Vienna came to a tragic end, as the austro-fascist chancellor Dollfuß ordered Karl-Marx-Hof shelled with artillery, forcing the socialist fighters to surrender after two days of heavy fighting.

 February 1934: Surrender of the last socialist "Schutzbund" fighters. 200 of them died. The Social Democratic Party and all Trade Unions were forbidden, and eight party leaders executed.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Gerd Arntz: The cut-out Revolution

Gerd Arntz, Street, 1924

Gerd Arntz (1900-1988) was born in the industrial town of Remscheid, Germany, into a family of business and factory owners. Prior to the First World War (where he served with the Prussian field artillery), his contact with art involved little more than fleeting visits to exhibitions and lectures. After the war, Arntz entered one of the family businesses, the Eisenfabrik Greb & Co., as a common factory worker. These experiences would inspire his later woodcuts. In 1919, Arntz enrolled in the Düsseldorf Art School and quickly became part of a revolutionary circle of young artists centered in Cologne and Düsseldorf who called themselves Das Junge Rheinland. Opposing the conservative instruction at the school, Arntz derived his own knowledge of art mainly from contemporary publications such as Der Sturm and Die Aktion.

August Sander, Proletarian Intellectuals [Else Schuler, Tristan Rèmy, Franz Seiwert, Gerd Arntz], ca. 1925

In 1920, Arntz joined a movement of artists who wanted to turn Germany into a radically socialist state based on direct popular democracy. He created woodcuts for the anarcho-syndicalist Allgemeine Arbeiter Union (General Labor Union) as well as the Communist Intenationale Arbeiterhilfe (Workers International Relief). In 1923, Arntz married Agnes Thubeauville, and, two years later, took over Otto Dix's studio in Düsseldorf.

Gerd Arntz, Schaufenster (Shop Windows), 1925

As a revolutionary artist, Arntz made the acquaintance of the painter Jankel Adler, and, through him, joined the Cologne based Gruppe progressiver Künstler Köln (Group of Progressive Cologne Artists). With his comrades, the Cologne artists Franz Seiwert and Heinrich Hoerle, he read Marxist and anarchist literature and developed his own style of portraying society as segregated in classes and depicted the life of workers and the class struggle in abstracted figures on woodcuts.

Gerd Arntz, Civil War, 1920s

Published in leftist magazines, his work was noticed around 1926 by the multi-talented Otto Neurath, who is today perhaps best known as the main author of the Vienna Circle manifesto and his contributions to Logical Positivism. Neurath had joined the German Social Democratic Party in 1918, and ran the office for central economic planning for the short-lived  Bavarian Soviet Republic . After its defeat, Neurath was imprisoned in Munich but could return to Vienna after an intervention of the Austrian government. There, he opened in 1925 the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum, (Social and Economic Museum), which led him to work on graphic design and visual education.

Gerd Arntz, ISOTYPE of a Drinker, c. 1930

Neurath had developed a method to communicate complex information on society, economy and politics in simple images. For his "Vienna method of visual statistics", he needed a designer who could make elementary signs, pictograms that could summarize a subject at a glance. Arntz's clear-cut style suited Neurath's goals perfectly, and so he invited him to come to Vienna in 1928, and work on further developing his method, later known as ISOTYPE, International System Of TYpographic Picture Education. Arntz moved to Vienna in 1929 and took up a full-time position there.

This chart from Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft is titled "Numbers of motor vehicles in the world" (USA and rest of the world). Even if one cannot read German, the subject reveals itself through the speaking signs of the automobiles, each of which represents 2.5 million vehicles.

During his career, Arntz designed around 4000 different pictograms and abstracted illustrations for this system. His simplified graphic style benefited the design of repeatable pictograms that were integral to Isotype. The influence of these pictograms on today's information graphics is immediately apparent, although perhaps not yet fully recognized. Produced under Arntz’s creative guidance, a collection of 100 visual statistics (see above example), Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft (Society and Economy), was published in 1930. The success of this collection lead to an invitation to come to the Soviet Union and set up an institute for visual statistics, Isostat, in Moscow. So, in the early 1930s, Neurath and Arntz regularly traveled to Moscow (where they met, amongst others, with Tatlin and El Lissitzky).

The image shows the cover of the book Pictorial statistics and the Vienna Method, published in 1932. It was the work of Ivan Petrovich Ivanitskii, a Russian employee of IZOSTAT who worked with Neurath and Arntz.

In 1934, under the new Austrofascist regime in Austria, the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum was closed, and Neurath and Arntz fled to the Netherlands, where they set up the International Foundation for Visual Education in The Hague. During the 1930s, significant commissions were received from the USA, including a series of mass-produced charts for the National Tuberculosis Association as well as Otto Neurath’s book Modern man in the making (1939), a high point of Isotype on which he and Arntz worked in close collaboration.

Gerd Arntz, The Third Reich, 1934

After his emigration to the Netherlands, Arntz also published a series of prints warning against the danger of Nazism. His concise and biting depiction of the build-up of the Third Reich (above), published in a Dutch communist magazine in 1936, was removed from an exhibition in Amsterdam after complaints by the German embassy that it insulted a "friendly head of state". In 1943, while living in The Hague, Arntz was conscripted into German military service, but deserted to the French Resistance in 1944. After the war, Arntz stayed in The Hague, and worked on Neurath’s legacy in the Foundation for Statistics. Between 1951 and 1961, he also worked as a graphic designer for the UNESCO.

Image from Nader Vossoughain's book Otto Neurath - The Language of the Global Polis: "Neurath felt that cut-outs allowed the masses to feel as though they were participating in the production of knowledge, which was central to his philosophy of reform in general."

Arntz continued cutting his social and political critique into linoleum until he was seventy years old. He died in The Hagues on December 4, 1980. In an interview recorded in 1980, he remarked that his intention was to produce "educational pictures", directing the viewer to the next tasks: "occupation of military caserns, factories, and such things." Who would have thought that our daily icons had a revolutionary past? You can read more on Gerd Arntz on this excellent website.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Kees van Dongen - Her Body is my Landscape

 Kees van Dongen, Tango of the Archangel, 1922

Kees van Dongen (1877-1968) was a somewhat cynical cuss, but with a sense of humor. He cut a flamboyant figure in Paris. His lifestyle was controversial, his lavish nightly studio parties were attended by film stars, masqued politicians and artists. "Woman" was his muse, her body his landscape, and the young Brigitte Bardot his most famous model. What Andy Warhol was to New York in the 1960s, Kees van Dongen was to Paris - a society artist and bohemien who brought added colour and excitement to the upper classes of the city.

 Kees van Dongen, Masque articulé, "Les oiseaux bleus", 1920s

Kees van Dongen was born in Delfshaven, a suburb of Rotterdam. Showing early artistic promise, he studied in the evenings at the Académie des Beaux-Arts of Rotterdam from 1892 to 1897. He spent much of his spare time at the docks, sketching sailors and prostitutes. He earned his living by day, illustrating for satirical journals including Groene and Rotterdam Nieuwsblad. His spicy drawings of life at the harbour caused some scandal.

 Kees van Dongen - Buveuse d'absinthe, 1902

In 1899, van Dongen settled in Paris. Shortly thereafter, he married a fellow painter, Augusta Preitinger, whom he had met at the Rotterdam Academy. Van Dongen's primary source of financial support was the illustrations he did for anarchist and other publications, including Le Rire, Gil Blas, and La Revue Blanche. One issue of the left-wing review L'Assiette au Beurre - a special issue devoted to prostitution in contemporary Paris, a phenomenon thought to be symptomatic of the degeneration of the bourgeoisie - was illustrated entirely by van Dongen.

Kees van Dongen, Nightclub: The Singer Johnny Hudgins, 1927

In 1904, van Dongen exhibited some 100 works at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, a champion of avant-garde art. The catalogue of the show was introduced by the famous anarchist and art critic Félix Fénéon. The next year, he showed pictures at the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d'Automne alongside a loose collection of like-minded painters of which Matisse was the ringleader. The riot of color in their work caused a somewhat hostile critic, Louis Vauxcelles, to dub these artists "les fauves" (the wild beasts). Femme Fatale is a typical Fauve painting by van Dongen:

 Kees van Dongen, Femme Fatale, 1905

In a sense, the Fauves were exploring a similar territory to their contemporaries among the German Expressionists, and it is therefore no surprise to find that in 1908, Van Dongen was invited to exhibit alongside the Dresden-based group, Die Brücke. This had followed his making the acquaintance of Max Pechstein during the latter's trip to Paris the previous year. The Brücke artists featured that same year in Van Dongen's correspondence, when he referred to their first exhibition, although he somewhat ungraciously termed them "boches", a deliberately teasing act of provocation considering the letter was addressed to his German dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler

 Kees van Dongen, Self-Portrait as Neptun, 1922

In Paris, van Dongen had found lodging in the famed Bateau-Lavoir (the laundry barge), the name coined by the poet Max Jacob for the seedy Montmartre tenement whose most celebrated resident was Pablo Picasso. Picasso and van Dongen became fast friends, and van Dongen painted Picasso's mistress, Fernande Olivier. Thrust into this fertile artistic and literary milieu, van Dongen cultivated a carefree bohemian image typified by his comment: "I've always played. Painting is nothing but a game." 

 Kees van Dongen, Hassan Badreddine el Bass Raoui (Conte des 1001 nuits), 1918
Van Dongen’s travels through Spain, Morocco and Egypt in 1910 and 1913 resulted in a series of sombre but striking landscapes. His continuing attraction to the exotic led him to accept a commission to illustrate an edition of Les Mille et Une Nuits by Mardrus (above). Van Dongen gained celebrity through the outraged reaction to his large nude of his wife, Tableau, painted in 1913 and now in the Centre Georges Pompidou (below). This picture, shown at the Salon d'Automne the same year that it was painted, was considered so salacious and licentious that the police removed it. 

  Kees van Dongen, Tableau [Augusta Preitinger, the artist's wife], 1913

"For all those who look with their ears, here is a completely naked woman. You are prudish, but I tell you that our sexes are organs that are as amusing as brains, and if the sex was found in the face, in place of the nose (which could have happened), where would prudishness be then? Shamelessness is really a virtue, like the lack of respect for many respectable things.", van Dongen commented upon the virtual detention of his wife.

Kees van Dongen's typical working setup - the subject on a platform and a not-much-smaller than life-size canvas in place.

Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, van Dongen acquired a reputation as a socialite, hosting a masquerade party at this home, now in Montparnasse, that was the talk of fashionable Paris in 1914. His licentious nudes and erotic subjects caused a stir among critics and admirers alike. Van Dongen's connections with the rich and famous led him to chronical the Age des Folles and its excessive habits. His portraits of the time range from the world-weary garçonne to well-known figures such as Anatole France. 

 Kees van Dongen, La Femme au canapé, c. 1930

At the end of World War I, van Dongen was discovered by the upper classes, who commissioned him to paint many celebrity portrait. With a playful cynicism he remarked of his popularity as a portraitist with high society women: "The essential thing is to elongate the women and especially to make them slim. After that it just remains to enlarge their jewels. They are ravished." A remark that allies itself to another of his sayings - "Painting is the most beautiful of lies."

 Kees van Dongen, Jasmy Jacob, c. 1920

From 1917 to 1927 van Dongen formed a liaison with Jasmy Jacob, who managed a haute couture house. He seemed as much a participant in as an observer of the fastpaced Roaring Twenties, yet claimed to maintain aesthetic distance: "I very much like being as they say, the painter of elegance and fashion! But I am not, as many wish to believe, a victim of snobbism, of luxury, of the world." But in 1927 van Dongen wrote a biography of Rembrandt that proved to be a largely autobiographical account of a painter encumbered by his own fame. Two years later van Dongen, who had so successfully captured French society in his art, became a French citizen.

Kees van Dongen, Le narrateur et Albert Bloch à la maison close. lllustration pour Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, 1930s

With the economic crash of 1929 van Dongen's artistic fortunes, so dependent on a prosperous society, suffered a temporary setback. Yet he continued to garner significant portrait commissions in the 1930s, including that of the Aga Khan and King Leopold III of Belgium. He complemented his work as a portraitist with a steady stream of book illustrations, including writings by Proust (above) Kipling, Montherlant, Voltaire, Gide, and Baudelaire. In 1938 he met Marie-Claire Huguen, who bore him a son, Jean Marie, in 1940. They finally married in 1953. His career was briefly stalled in the mid-1940s thanks to a sponsored 1941 cultural visit to Nazi-Germany in the company of other French artists including André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. The trip was organized by the artist Heinrich Ehmsen, at that time a German cultural liaison officer in Paris.

 LIFE cover (March 28, 1960) with Kees van Dongen's Portrait of Brigitte Bardot

In the waning years of his life, spent in Monaco, van Dongen was honored by frequent museum retrospectives. He disappeared from this world on May 28, 1968 in Monaco, the same day, all the world had its eyes turned toward the burning barricades in Paris. To disappear almost unnoticed was his final artistic act. Until almost the end he sustained what Apollinaire had called his blend of "opium, ambergris, and eroticism".