Exhibition Review

Post-War art. Munich

MUSEUMS HAVE BEEN struggling with how to present modern and contemporary art on a global scale ever since the landmark exhibition held in Paris in 1989, Magiciens de la Terre, brought together Western and so-called non-Western art.1 Soon thereafter the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Tate London, and the Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, launched new collecting strategies embracing cultures beyond North America and Western Europe. But all of these strategies privilege the acquisition of works indebted to Western modernism, repeating old colonial practices that value the familiar and discriminate against that which is inconsistent with prevailing narratives. This is what one might call narcissistic collecting. Magiciens made apparent the possibility that artistic traditions extrinsic to Modernism were equally valid and built on long-standing indigenous traditions barely, if at all, marked by Western influence.

Postwar: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945–1965 at Haus der Kunst, Munich (closed 26th March), would have been inconceivable had not Magiciens opened up this new territory that had been previously eschewed by such exhibitions as Westkunst, the exhibition of post-War European and American art that took place in Cologne in 1981.2 But, given its comparatively diminutive scale, Postwar struggled to have the same impact. Its ambitions were laudable, its scope considerable and its hefty catalogue stimulating and packed with informative essays.3 Its structure, however, was flawed and the displays reached sublime heights only to fall to the depths of banality.

Postwar was the first of three exhibitions: Postcolonialism and Postcommunism will follow. ‘Postwar’ is a contentious term, not least because wars in the Middle East, Korea and Vietnam succeeded the Second World War. For Okwui Enwezor, the director of Haus der Kunst, and his co-curators, Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes, it embraces both the period of European reconstruction and the struggles for independence of African and Asian nations. However, given that this exhibition was held in Munich, they might also have considered extending the period to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, since the annexation of Central and Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union was a direct consequence of the War.4

The exhibition was structured in eight thematic sections. It began by examining the harrowing impact of the atomic bomb. Joseph Beuys’s Monuments to the Stag (1958/82; cat. nos.5–6) provided a dramatic opening with its group of dismembered limbs scattered on the ground, surrounded by redundant tools. Continuing past Henry Moore’s Atom Piece (1964–65; no.39), bizarrely standing on the floor rather than raised on a plinth, one entered a room where photographs of Nagasaki laid to waste were juxtaposed with film footage of an American aircrew at its base prior to dropping the atomic bombs that would change the world. The crew lines up for a relaxed group photograph, apparently unaware of the devastation about to be wrought (cat. p.83). The rest of the section, spread over three rooms, combined works in various idioms ranging from the expressionistic and surrealistic to the minimal, showing the degree to which the spectre of nuclear war hung over artists, particularly in Europe, Korea and Japan. However, in a supposedly global exhibition there was a curious lack of any work from Africa in this opening section.

The organisers proposed that the abstract paintings that dominated the second section, ‘Form Matters’, responded to the devastation of war, but this is over simplistic: even before the War there was a growing emphasis on the material nature of paint. Yet the most disconcerting aspect of this section was its scattergun approach, which betrayed a lack of focus. In reality there is little that such artists as Frank Auerbach, Eva Hesse, Lee Krasner, Leon Kossoff, Maria Lassnig, David Medalla and Carolee Schneemann have in common. Moreover, juxtaposing them with the Abstract Expressionists, the Gutai artists and some of the French and Italian Informel painters led to some bizarre comparisons. But there were some wonderful discoveries here: the astonishing large paintings by the Turkish painter Princess Fahrelinissa Zeid (no.54), for example, and the assemblage by Emilio Vedova, Berlin ’64 (no.95; Fig.79), which, given its political content, would have been more appropriate in the final section of the show alongside the works of Robert Rauschenberg. A further problem is that the exhibition’s broad timespan encouraged the viewer to consider works made in the late 1940s and the 1960s as emerging from the same conditions and with the same motivations. The worlds of Jackson Pollock in 1945 and Joan Mitchell in 1962 are, in reality, far apart.

The third section, ‘New Images of Man’, took a familiar theme drawn from the chiefly European philosophy of Existentialism and extended it to African, Asian and Middle Eastern art. Here, the exhibition’s claim to represent art globally began to encounter problems. Many (though not all) of the non-European and non-American artists in this show travelled to and trained in Europe and inserted themselves into the modernist tradition. Modernism in this exhibition was viewed as essentially more progressive and more sophisticated than either indigenous or realist traditions. There is something very elitist and ironically colonial about this point of view.5 Modernism is a code understood by initiates, the outcome of a series of staged borrowings and exchanges between Western and non-Western artists. But for the colonised, speaking an indigenous language could be a way of remaining uncomprehended, of retaining secrets. So, by adopting the idioms of Modernism, such artists as the Sudanese Ibrahim El-Salahi, who somewhat tardily grafted Giacometti and Bacon onto his own culture (no.119; Fig.80), on the one hand subscribed to the négritude ideology that reclaimed African art for Africans, but on the other aligned himself with the colonisers, setting him apart from his fellow artists. Picasso had of course plundered his earlier ‘savage’ look from Africa, so there is an irony in this act of recuperation. But the hybridity of their work made the artists comprehensible and compatible with the Western herd and thus collectible and exhibitable in its institutions. This begs a further question about the Western canon: is an artist like Alice Neel, who rejected a modernist approach, any more or less interesting than, say, Robert Motherwell? Is the artist who runs with the pack more radical than the one who refuses its allure and develops his or her own distinctive idiom within a more traditional approach? The debate about centre and periphery is more than simply one of geography, but also of movements and taste.

Overall this section was disappointing, for many artists seemed to be missing. Yet two who were present stood out: Leon Golub and Francis Newton Souza. Golub’s numinous L’Homme de Palmyre (no.152), with its references to the Antique and the ruinous, resonates in today’s war-torn world, while the two paintings by Souza (nos.153–54), where the human image is painted in black on a black background, make explicit the invisibility of the black immigrant in a predominantly white European culture. In this sense, Souza anticipates the work of Glenn Ligon.

The ‘Realisms’ section was partly infelicitously crammed into a stairwell and concentrated on social realism. If the Cold War was an intended undercurrent in this room, some key works were missing, for example André Fougeron’s modern history painting Atlantic Civilisation (1953; Tate, London). It might have been more fruitful to have merged ‘Realisms’ and ‘Nations Seeking Form’ (sections four and seven) to present a single, fascinating display about how different nation-state identities were created and promoted in the Cold War era. Seeing Jasper Johns’s Flags (1965; no.272) close to Geliy Korzhev’s Raising the Banner (1957–60; no.174) would have stimulated discussion around Cold War politics, notions of the heroic, national pride and codification. Alice Neel’s Georgie Arce (1953; no.180) and Beauford Delaney’s Portrait of James Baldwin (1945; no.179), included in the ‘Realisms’ section, might have been more eloquent of racial tensions in America when viewed alongside Johns’s Flags, Larry Rivers’s The Last Civil War Veteran (1961; no.274) and Andy Warhol’s Mustard Race Riot (1963; no.277) in ‘Nations Seeking Form’. But there were some poignant juxtapositions in this latter section, for example the pairings of paintings by Ruth Schloss and Yohann Simon with those of Ismail Shammout (nos.283–87), which served to expose the impact of the founding of the state of Israel on the two opposing sides. 

The fifth section, ‘Concrete Visions’ (Fig.81), looked at geometric abstraction as a global language but struggled to define the differences between, for example, Latin American Concrete and Neo-Concrete art and American Minimalism. Carl Andre, Ellsworth Kelly and Ad Reinhardt seemed rather incongruous in this company, whereas Joseph Albers, Victor Pasmore and Kenneth and Mary Martin, together with such Eastern European artists as Henryk Stazewski, would have shown more clearly the globalisation of the Neo-Concrete or post-constructivist outlook. More space could also have been devoted to Concrete poetry, which was truly global.

The sixth section, ‘Cosmopolitan Modernisms’, was the weakest. Since the exhibition argued throughout for art being a product of transfer and migration (of both ideas and people) that privileges hybridity, it seemed odd to include a section that merely repeated this theme on a micro level. Other than Europeans travelling to Latin America, the migrations studied here were nearly all from Africa and Asia to Europe or America, and there was scant mention of reverse migration. Golub was one of the exceptions (but did not feature in this section), and Cy Twombly, whose African journey left an indelible mark on his work, could easily have been included.

The final section, ‘Networks, Media and Communication’, led the viewer out of the darkness of the post-War period towards a bright future of landings on the Moon, the triumph of democracy and the end of rationing. But there was a constant hint of trouble on the horizon. Günther Uecker’s TV (1963; no.339) is not simply an emblem of mass communication but, with the forest of nails hammered into one of its sides, a dangerous one. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965; no.345), shown in video form, alludes to the violence of the period, while the insidious Americanisation of the world is examined by Takamatsu Jiro’s assemblage of branded,mass-produced glass bottles wrapped in string (1963/1985; no.303). Resistance and celebration, optimism and pessimism were ever-present throughout this section. 

Postwar was about networks and encounters, colonisers and colonised, exchanges and appropriations and responses to historical events. It presented political and post-colonial arguments. Above all it was an attempt to shed an American and Eurocentric view of art history. The catalogue makes an essential contribution to the discourse, the exhibition a more equivocal one.

 

1 Reviewed by the present writer in this Magazine, 131 (1989), pp.585–86.

2 L. Glozer: exh. cat. Westkunst. Zeitgenössische Kunst seit 1939, Cologne (Museen der Stadt Köln) 1981.

3 Catalogue: Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945–1965. Edited by Okwui Enwezor, Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes. 846 pp. incl. 351 col. pls. and numerous b. & w. ills. (Stiftung Haus der Kunst and Prestel, Munich, 2016), €69. ISBN 978–3–7913–5584–9. An illustrated short guide with concise texts on the works in the exhibition is also available in English: Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945–1965. Exhibition Guide. 319 pp. incl. 351 col. ills. (Stiftung Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2015), €10. ISBN 978–3–7913–6728–6.

4 Tony Judt argues that the period from the end of the Second World War to 1989 was ‘an interim age; a postwar parenthesis’, T. Judt: Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, London 2005, p.2.

5 For an interesting discussion of the relationship between language and colonisation, see M. Warner: ‘Anglo-Egyptian Attitudes’, London Review of Books 39, 1 (2017), pp.17–20.