PRINT September 1963

Born Before 1900

A FEW SHOWS OF of New York City’s spring season had one feature in common: while the artists represented were born decades before the start of the present cen­tury, their work anticipated a great deal of what has become acceptable in painting or sculpture only dur­ing our own time. These fathers of modern art—to which must be added such mothers at Kaethe Kollwitz, and several “Blaue Reiter” ladies like Gabriele Münter, Nathalie Gontcharova and Marianna von We­refkin—had to contend with the attitudes of their contemporaries, ranging from dull indifference to ar­ticulate hostility, even more desperately than the now living parents of 21st century art. For in the peri­od in which the works discussed here were shown—roughly from the Revolution that put Louis Philippe on the French throne to the outbreak of World War I—art galleries were far from numerous in the great cultural centers of Europe, avant-garde critics were a rarity, and the members of the Third Estate were far less eager to gamble on untried, unacknowledged. art than are the suburbanites of 1963.

Many dates have, of course, been suggested to mark the start of what is called Modern Art. In his preface to the catalog of the “Birth of Impressionism” loan exhibition (Wildenstein Galleries, 67 oils), John Re­wald correctly points out that Impressionism, gen­erally considered the first break-through of Modern Art, was ushered in, not by Monet and his associates, but by the men who preceded them: Corot, Millet, Courbet, Delacroix, and others: “Possibly without even knowing it, they sowed the seeds for the next genera­tion, but more likely they even knew what they were doing since every innovator neglected by his con­temporaries counts on the future for his vindication.”

The Wildenstein show included chiefly French paint­ings, but also work by the Hollander Jongkind, the Englishmen Bonnington, Constable and Turner; and the American, Whistler, all much older than Monet. But the “Expressionisms” of Daumier and Delacroix, and the “abstract” manner of Turner (“View of Ven­ice,” lent by Oberlin College, and “The Shipwreck,” lent by Canada’s National Gallery) go far beyond the explorations of Monet.

Rodin was, of course, a contemporary of the Im­pressionists, yet the recent Museum of Modern Art loan exhibition (138 sculptures, drawings and prints) proved, if such proof was still necessary, that he was among the few great who are above and beyond Isms. He is a bridge between the proto-Baroque emotional­ism of a Michelangelo and the Existentialist Baroque of, say, Peter Grippe, the American sculptor whose re­cent show at the Nordness Galleries was well received. Rodin belongs in the “Pure Emotion” group that in­cludes Epstein (who, in his autobiography, wrote, “I find Rodin now much underrated” and who, current­ly, seems himself out of favor), Barlach (who admired the “Balzac”) and Lipchitz (who regrets that as a young man he had been unable to grasp what he now describes as the “immense chaotic richness” of Ro­din’s work). Not so many years ago adherents of the “Pure Form” school would dismiss Rodin’s work as gesticulating melodrama, but today, as Peter Selz, the Museum’s curator has pointed out, they no longer maintain that thought and feeling must have a de­structive effect on form, and even go so far as to ad­mire his exuberance and freedom.

The show failed to reveal to me any great merits in the master’s smooth and often bombastic marbles, but I left it with the conviction that he was the world’s greatest modeler, he who liked to transfer quickly into clay the spontaneous poses struck by his sitters, or to give immediate shape to the images born in his fertile mind. Rodin was giant enough to permit himself to be highly sentimental and at times even mawkish and, in his conversations with his Boswell, Paul Gsell, to drop a theoretical remark that would be contradicted by what he might say in the next minute. Yet he pro­duced an oeuvre that has survived the esthetic gyrations of the last hundred years. A smaller man might go completely astray, were he to indulge in the same preoccupation with lust, sorrow, passion without the corrective device of what still might be called, for lack of a better term, Significant Form. Our would-be-Ro­dins who, in the Museum, looked with fascination at Rodin’s almost barbaric “formlessness” might do well to consider the anecdote told about Diaghilev. “Stop eating peas off your knife,” the impressario said to a ballerina, “But you eat peas off a knife!” “That is a different matter. I am Diaghilev.”

There can be no greater contrast than that created by Nature in producing, along with that fabulous ex­trovert Rodin, the brooding, shy, introspective Cé­zanne. At the Knoedler Galleries, 71 of Cézanne’s nu­merous watercolors were shown. Rodin tended towards the grand gesture. Cézanne’s works in all media, but especially in the watercolors, have the silent elo­quence of the rocks and trees he liked to sketch. At this stage, there is no further need to extol these mas­terpieces of restraint, some of them even physically very limited (“Carafe et Bol” is only 5¼ x 4¾ inches), but a word must be said in praise of the fully illustra­ted catalog, which has fine essays by Meyer Schapiro and Theodore Reff, and excellent notes on the pic­tures, prepared by graduate students of Columbia University’s Department of Art History and Archae­ology which sponsored the show. Professor Reff quotes a French collector’s poetic observation: “A few touches of watercolor evoking the play of light on the branches of a tree will have the power to convey to us, if the hour is propitious, the emotion of the artist in the presence of beauty.

The Henri Rousseau loan exhibition at Wildenstein Galleries (62 oils) introduced to us many pictures never shown here before. Among them was a small “Basket of Flowers” (1884), owned by a Parisian collec­tor, that could have been a work of Seraphine, the frail little charwoman from Senlis who painted only assortments of flowers or fruit. Totally unknown to viewers was a very large unfinished painting, “The Battle of Reichshoffen,” lent by a Swiss collector, that, apparently, was only recently discovered, for it was shown for the first time at Wildenstein’s, and is nowhere reproduced except in the Wildenstein cata­log. (It is based on a painting by a 19th century aca­demician, a certain Aimé Morot, yet Rousseau’s pic­ture has something of a Byzantine battle scene about something of a Byzantine battle scene about it.) A surprise, too, was Rousseau’s “Garibaldi”—carefully copied from an old cover of “L’Illustration.”

German Art was presented to New Yorkers in three major shows, the Nolde exhibition*, (Museum of Mod­ern Art), “Der Blaue Reiter” (Leonard Hutton Galle,ies, 85 drawings and paintings) and “Lehmbruck and Other German Sculptors of His Time” (Otto Gerson Galleries, 33 sculptures). To be more precise: while the Blaue Reiter originated in Germany, the only major German artists who participated in the movement (and who were to be seen at the Hutton Galleries) were Franz Marc, August Macke, Heinrich Campendonk and Ga­briele Münter, while the others were Austrian, Swiss, Russian, Spanish, French and American (Albert Bloch, who died in his native country in 1961 and was recently honored with a memorial exhibition by the mu­seum of the University of Kansas, with which he was associated as a teacher). The start of the Blaue Reiter were, of course, Marc and Macke, both victims of World War I, and Klee and Kandinsky who survived the movement by many years. The Gallery was able to include only very few of the works originally ex­hibited in the revolutionary shows of 1911 and 1912, but it gave a good idea of what the Blaue Reiter stood for by presenting numerous paintings done by its members between 1905 and 1914. Curiosa were two small oils, one of them a self-portrait, by the celebrat­ed composer, Arnold Schoenberg. A pivotal picture that was shown in New York was Kandinsky’s “Last Judgment”—its rejection by the “Neue Kuenstler­vereinigung,” Munich, caused Kandinsky and Marc to resign and form the Blaue Reiter. Seen at the gallery also was the enlargement of a woodcut from a late 15th century Luebeck Bible that influenced Kandin­sky’s composition.

“Lehmbruck and Other German Sculptors of His Time” included Barlach, Kolbe, Kollwitz, and the still living Gerhard Marcks. One of the finest and most im­portant Lehmbrucks in the show was the small bronze, “Raging Man.” For with it, Lehmbruck moved away from the closed form that prevailed in most of the German sculpture, even in that of his coeval Barlach. Arms and legs extend far out from the elongated trunk, the arms strike out into the open in a true Ex­pressionist manner. One has a feeling that the body has become virtually weightless, that the entire object is a cry of anguished despair.

Alfred Werner



Artforum, July, 1963, pp. 21–26.