Monday, February 7, 2011

European Monsters

It begins with the image of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, aged 37, resting languidly and almost casually onto a sofa of ancient marble. The setting is the Roman countryside, ca. 1786. Next to the great poet, the broken fragment of a bas-relief is artfully covered in fruit-bearing vines. Johann Tischbein has painted this. Then some time in the 1840s the portrait comes into the possession of the Rothschild family, who in 1878 donate it to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, in time for the opening of its new building. The museum in turn had been founded following a bequest by Frankfurt banker, merchant and prominent art collector Johann Friedrich Städel back in 1817.

Art and capital amongst the ruins: this is Europe. The story of how the painting came to be, how it was bought and sold, and where it ended up – in the principal art gallery of one of the financial nerve centres of the continent – is a European story. And the European Masters touring exhibition, comprising 96 works by 70 artists from the Städel collection, is an impressive art history sampler, covering all the key movements – which conveniently are also the only ones deemed worthy of committing to memory – of the 19th and 20th century, from neoclassicism and romanticism to expressionism and modernism; but it is also, and much more compellingly, a series of windows on history, as if the visitor were sitting on a train that travels through time, contemplating at first nature and civility and the wonders of light and impression, later a progressively darker, more disjointed and suffocating landscape as the train pulls into the final station that is World War II. Apocalypse the first, the end of that world: at once the peak of European influence on planetary destinies and the time of its bloody Fall.

Seeking to find in the likes of Tischbein’s landscape with German poet a presage of the eventual rise of Fascism is a deeply instrumental reading, but also one that is underscored by the museum’s own historical circumstances, highlighted in the exhibition’s literature for the benefit of the visitor: more specifically, its closure and the confiscation on the part of the Nazis of a number of its holdings, many of which were made to embark in another, far more sinister touring exhibition so that they could demonstrate to the public the un-value of degenerate art. And the chosen time span gives yet more impetus to the teleology: for if the Goethe portrait is the earliest painting on display, the latest is Beckmann’s Frankfurt Main Station of 1943, as if to say that the train ride is by now something more than a metaphor, and that there is no future at the end of the line. The journey, then, links the great writer and high mark of pan-European culture – bridging the glories of Europe’s pre-Christian humanism to its enlightened, secular present – with the inexorable progress towards madness and mass murder, which reaches its destination with the punctuality of a train schedule.

The extent in which the art of these two centuries holds up a mirror to the fall of Europe or is itself a symptom of it becomes a further cause for imaginative reflection. What is it that so fascinated Anselm Feuerbach and his contemporaries with figures of patrician Roman ladies at a time of upheaval and revolution? Conversely, where is the art that responds to these great social movements? Feuerbach’s Roman woman in a white tunic (1862-66), above, which greets you on a giant promotional banner even before you get to the exhibition rooms, is one of the show’s chief attractions, and finds a more contemporary echo in Max Klinger’s Portrait of a woman sitting on a rooftop in Rome (1891).

It’s a really curious image of aestheticised isolation, this, as if art couldn’t operate at street level, whereas in fact this is only true of the art that found its way into the Städel collection – Rome itself at this time had its share of painters interested in popular subjects, as has been true of most epochs. But in the world of the Masters, society, camaraderie, family life only find exquisitely genteel expression through the likes of Evenepoel’s Parisian Café d’Harcourt (1897) or Auguste Renoir’s La fin du déjeuneur (1879).

It is Renoir who is reported in the exhibition’s audio guide to have said: ‘Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.’ It’s hard to judge that statement out of context, but equally as hard not to draw a contrast with his own son’s masterpiece, La règle du jeu, so wonderfully laden with ominous premonition. And so the search for the monsters of Europe looks also for the absence of signs, for the depictions of the calm that fail to warn us about the impending storm; or, worse, insists on seeing those signs in the savage beauty of nature, especially when it is pitted against the insignificant scale of passing humans.

Johan Christian Dahl. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in December 1820 (1826).

But isn't this reading of mind terribly simplistic? Didn’t the febrile formal experimentation that accelerated so steadily from the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth reflect a dissatisfaction with our ways of seeing, and didn’t the fascist – in decrying those radical artists – implicitly validate those efforts and give them an anti-totalitarian value?

Pablo Picasso. Portrait of Fernande Olivier (1909).

No: you look again up close at the impressionist’s brushstrokes and remind yourself that the politics of representation are not exhausted by the choice of subject. You also recall that Renoir senior wasn’t a man of independent means, and that unlike most of his colleagues he had to sell his paintings in order to make a living: a certain jollity was demanded of him. You look at how Picasso peeled off and sliced up the human figure to create beautiful monsters, and are reminded of the unabashed genius of those times, and in that genius, the imprint of another humanity. Because finally seeing a teleology in this particular collection of artworks also implies that fascism was the inevitable endpoint, the only future that could come out of those converging pasts, and as a European citizen who is still fond of certain aspects of my culture and of some of its intellectual and social traditions, I am not quite ready to make that concession to history.

Rather, as in the case of Haneke’s White Ribbon, I think it might be said of European Masters that it poses certain questions, this time regarding the relationship between art, ideology and history, questions that cannot be properly understood – let alone tentatively answered – without giving some consideration to the role of finance capital in establishing the institution and the tensions inherent in the paintings’ double life as both cultural and financial assets. According to this other narrative, Europe is no longer primarily the cradle of fascism, but of capitalism, and the monsters in the title of this piece suggest a likeness to the Monsters of Rock: as in thoroughly marketed touring attractions, still laying claim to the power to challenge and defy but in fact carefully sanitised, made to perform within a rigid time frame and in the most controlled of conditions.

Here we don’t just acknowledge the conspicuous roll of powerful sponsors – Accor, Deutsche Bank, DHL, the Goethe Institute, Siemens and that most unfailing of Te Papa’s partners, Visa – but also that show within the show that is the gift shop experience on your way out. So not only the catalogue, which until the end of the exhibition is yours for the recessionary price of $19.99, or the small collection of monographs on the principal artists; not only the postcards and the posters and the inevitable key rings, or the reproductions encased in acrylic bricks that handily double as potential murder weapons; but also a baffling selection of branded consumer products which bear no relationship whatsoever with the artworks: the European Masters Soap, the Nail and Hand and Cream, a range of paint and pencil sets, and my personal favourite – the European Masters 100g black forest chocolate tablet, yours for the modest price of $9.99 (which is to say that you can either get two or the catalogue).

A truly flavoursome-looking object, I think you’ll agree, and also one that made me regret not having visited the gift shop at the start, so that I could look at the paintings with those wonderful wares in mind. Pretzel chocolates, tea towels, coasters – this is what’s left of European Mastery. We’re just trying to recoup some of the costs now, of creating and sustaining for three thousand-odd years a civilisation that could eventually come up with a Beckmann or a Picasso.

Image from a Visa promotion associated to the exihibition.
The painting used is August Macke’s Little Walter’s toys (1912).

I am these days a European out of Europe. Looking at an exhibition like this – in spite of my scant foreknowledge of many of the painters involved, the Germans in particular – I get a sense of stifling familiarity, of claustrophobia; the moment of recognition is rarely accompanied by a sense of joy, even when I get to point out mount Vesuvius to my nine-year-old son. I am looking at a heavy past, and how it weighs on the range of available futures. I recognise the feeling from when I lived there, walking streets that were steeped in that past, and where you couldn’t get away from the masters nor the monsters.

The European Masters exhibition will be showing at Te Papa until 27 February 2011. Prices as per this table. If you're interested in the audio guide but wish to save a cool $7, you can download it in mp3 format here


George D said...

First reflections:

I see these exhibitions and think that there's a rush to hold on to a canonical and safely defined "Europe". There was a similar, huge one at the National Gallery of Australia this year, which broke all records. People lined for hours in their thousands outside the gallery door, and snaked through the building. As they shuffled, they went past a huge multi-canvas work by Emily Knawarraye, possibly Australia's most important impressionist painter, an equal of the works inside. Her works are breathtaking, and beyond belief, and have achieved the international recognition that Australians and New Zealanders usually require in order to value cultural works.

But to do so would be to disconnect from what they are trying to do; identify themselves with a symbolic European tradition, and engage in their own presence in a strange land. It would also ask them to step outside easily pre-digested works and simply appreciate. Since the 2009-2010 redevelopment of the gallery, this disconnection has been made deliberately more difficult, with the Aboriginal galleries and the gift-shop placed front and centre at the entrance.

Te Papa Tongarewa does not have quite the same problems, as the designated refrectory of nationhood, and with its role in explaining the nation. But, as I have noted, the 'need' to challenge colonial identities has retracted, the purpose of the museum as a host to wild travelling exihibitions has increased.

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook engages in wonderful <a hre=">decontextualisation</a> with Thai villagers, sitting them down and inviting them to engage.

Wellingtonians flooding the exhibition space do not sit and evaluate the artworks wholely without to their cultural signifiers. They could not. But they do interpret them stripped of a cultural-historical context that would allow them to digest them as representations of a certain place, rather than as "masters". That they are so amenable to easy consumption is represented in their commercial value to the sponsors, who want to be associated with the values these images represent to New Zealanders.

This is a particularly post-colonial form of engagement. Taking the symbols of the metropole, dropping their complexity, and using them to create a comfortable space.

This is not to say that everybody who pays to see these works also fails to engage their surroundings, or lacks the critical capability to engage these works in more than the most superficial way. Clearly, some do. But there are plenty who do, and the exhibitions I have seen are deliberate aimed at this kind of consumption.

Also, I wish Google made these text windows a little larger, and did not eat my comments.

Giovanni Tiso said...

There was a similar, huge one at the National Gallery of Australia this year,

You mean Canberra or Melbourne? Malbourne hosted European Masters before Wellington. The set up however was quite different (in Wellington it’s a small loop, starting with a long narrow corridor that does evoke that train image I’ve described).

That they are so amenable to easy consumption is represented in their commercial value to the sponsors, who want to be associated with the values these images represent to New Zealanders.

While the way that the exhibition was conceived did lend itself to a couple of straightforward counter-readings, as I’ve tried to argue in the post, easy consumption – preferably followed by impulse buying in the shop – is definitely the default, expected behaviour. Most notably both the brochure and the audio guide fail to mention any influence on local artists or suggest alternative ways of looking at the material, and there are no resources on site to explore the collection in more depth. It’s all terribly conventional, and you could so easily forget where you are – which of course is entirely consistent with the retreat of our national museum from its original aspirations. And it still is a worthwhile exhibition because some of artworks are brilliant, but I continue to expect more of Te Papa.

jim said...

The hyped up gift shop prices apply to the exhibition's title as well. You might go along expecting to see masterpieces, not minor works by masters. The Exhibition of the Century was similarly misleading in name.

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

When I was in Singapore at about this time last year I spent some time in art galleries. Most of the art was local and the volunteer guides were superb at explaining the importance of said art in the development of Singaporean identity.

Now, I'm not much of a fan of art (except when I'm travelling; I seem to only appreciate art when I'm in another country. I suspect it's something to do with being a tourist rather than cultural cringe) but I did enjoy my wander through the galleries and I wanted to get some postcards of some of the more important works I had seen, or even a glossy book of reproductions as a gift for a friend. I thought obtaining such things would be the work of a moment; just pop into the gift shop, pay some monies and be done with it.


The gift shops in the galleries I went into looked like, and stocked the same goods as, the gift shops I had seen at galleries in Auckland, Dublin, London, Roma, Venezia and the like. Indeed, so similar was this particular gift shop to the one that used to be in the Auckland Art Gallery that I really did think I might be able to get back to Auckland just by finding the right exit.

My point; whilst exhibitions can be overwhelming or frankly just rubbish, gift shops in art galleries and museums seem to exist not to provide visitors with some tangible object of the things they have seen as a memento but rather to show that art and retail are not mutually exclusive activities.

Also, it allows us to buy novelty chocolates knowing full well that whoever you give them to will throw away the grand master on the cardboard sleeve to discover that the chocolate itself has no aesthetic value.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I found one of the most perplexing articles to be the European Masters tea towel, which has the names of the masters in block letters on it and no artwork at all. I’m not quite sure what that signals, but it does speak to Jim’s objection to the exhibition as well (as in: we’re keen on the masters, but not so much on the pieces).

George D said...

Masterpieces from Paris the exibition spoken of.

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

There is a hidden message in that tea towel.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Masterpieces from Paris the exibition spoken of.

I can fully understand why people would line up for that.

Giovanni Tiso said...

There is a hidden message in that tea towel.

I give up. Tell us.

Unknown said...


Danielle said...

I wonder if the tea towel is a reference to this:

Perhaps unwitting. But there are lots of similar things floating around out there in pop culture land.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes you could say it's not terribly original. I note too that it's made in New Zealand - it wasn't the Städel's idea. Which would indicate that that's the extent of the museum's local input, outside of the events series.

francesca said...

Without that heavy past, maybe you wouldn't have asked yourself all those tough questions. I'm still leaving in Europe, I'm still asking myself similar questions, but I haven't found any reasonable answer yet.
By the way, since I lived in Frankfurt for 4 years, I was particularly touched in reading your post.
I just note that the country where fascism was invented -as you certainly know - merely gave birth to one avant-guard, futurism.

Giovanni Tiso said...

We also had the De Chirico brothers – Giorgio was an influence on some of the later painters in European Masters – Renato Guttuso, Fausto Pirandello and a few others. I don’t know if you saw it, but there was a great exhibition on ‘the art of freedom’ in Genova in the mid-nineties (the catalogue, unaccountably out of print, is one of our most treasured possessions) which was all about the reaction to fascism in art, esp. in Italy and Germany, yet somehow I felt a greater sense of foreboding in the far broader and less monothematic Städel selection.

(Incidentally, Francesca runs a fantastic blog that is one those places that help me to see that past as something other than a weight. I never promote it here because I have so few Italian readers, but I’ll need to find a way to account properly for what she does at some stage – it’s a brilliant model of memory work.)

Stephanie said...

Brilliant reading of the exhibition. Thank you.

Douglas Kretzmann said...

"I am looking at a heavy past, and how it weighs on the range of available futures. "

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living."

I am a European who has never lived in Europe, born and raised in Africa, living in America. In Africa I found the Alp to be rather a comfort than an oppression, though that was probably just a nostalgia for things that never existed. I have a print of "The Artist's House At Argenteuil" which saved my life in the Army - often the only pleasure in the day was looking into the picture.

The S.African approach to art in those days was much as George D notes, international recognition was required in order for it to have any value. As best I can tell from a distance, now this is rather reversed, the perceived alien traditions are denied quite. The pictures of Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook are apposite indeed, thank you.

We went to an Impressionist exhibition in Chicago once. My wife has a sweatshirt from the gift shop, just like your tea towel, with nothing but the counterfeit signatures of the artists on it; sheer commodity fetishism.

I wonder what the secret life of art is, when it is neither cultural nor financial asset..

francesca said...

Correct, but they remained single artists and they didn't really give rise to collective groups or movements. That's what I meant and I think we can agree on that.

No, unfortunately I didn't see the exhibition in Genova you mentioned.

The Städel collection is rather interesting because it has nothing to do with other much better known European art museums. It houses valuable pieces of art, but not real masterpieces, I mean at least it cannot compete at all with the Louvre, El Prado, etc. The path offered to the visitor reflects much more the history of the local bankers and tycoons and the development and change of their artistic taste over time than a complete historical path of German and European art. That a museum shows much more than art per se is true for any museum, but it's sooo patent for the Städel. That means that now you know already quite well Frankfurt.

(You're too kind, Giovanni. Thank you.)