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