New York

Egon Schiele, The American Impressionists and Childe Hassam

Various Locations

The show of watercolors and drawings by Egon Schiele at the Galerie St. Etienne was a very instructive one. Schiele has had a great deal going against him—I mean our understanding of him: he was talented, lived in a fascinating and very rich culture on the verge of extinction, and himself died young. And so we generally think of him as a tormented spirit who from the very outset produced masterpieces and, rather in the fashion of Rimbaud, left behind him a body of work that has the intensity and authenticity of the visions of prophets and seers. I think that what one finds is very far from all this, and the great merit of this show is that, consisting as it does of small things, often circumstantial or of no very great ambition, it enables us to see what kind of artistic problems Schiele was thinking of and to watch him as he tries, rather tentatively, to work out his ideas.

Certainly Klimt was his master, but only one of his masters—he owed quite as much to the realist tradition of Menzel and Leibl. This is after all not surprising: an alert artist just beginning to paint at that particular time in that particular place would almost inevitably turn to these predecessors for guidance; but it is true that they work against each other, at least if one considers style and subject matter conjointly. For me one of the great lessons of this show was to see that more often than not Schiele’s subjects are entirely traditional, and that they bear no mark at all of a personal vision. His Krumau—towns provided him on the whole with his best-realized motifs—is not so very different from Leibl’s Kutterling, and for that matter the symbolic tendency that often comes to the surface in Schiele’s work is not so very different from that of some painters in the orbit of Leibl, Thoma especially. But along with all this, Schiele had to absorb the line he found in Klimt. Klimt is a marvelous stylist, but like all really good stylists his manner is inseparable from a certain content, and Klimt’s content is at opposite poles from the realism of Leibl, and equally far from the sentiment of Leibl or some of his friends when they are symbolic. Klimt is the equivalent in painting of what Baudelaire called Gautier—the perfect artificer (which is not by any means to say merely a decorator), and so his spirit, also, was very far from the humility that a naturalistic style, whether objective. or moralized, tends to require.

During most of his brief career Schiele tried to treat objective motifs, which is to say solids, with Klimt’s kind of line, and it was too bad: if he had been able to choose a more curved kind of art nouveau line, such as van de Velde’s, he might more readily have seen how to make it design volumes. As it is his forms are angular, but the angles seldom define masses. And of course there were a great many other borrowings, of which the most typical was from Japanese prints; it only flattened what little roundness might have remained. Later, early Gauguin was a more intelligent idea, and so was Lautrec, who is the presiding spirit over Schiele’s studio nudes-both of them caused him to curve his line a little, and while his volumes were not very round even at that, once or twice his line came close to Matisse’s, as in a charcoal drawing of Two Nudes, of 1917. I have to say that I think the anxiety and the torment are a mystification: Schiele’s early death and the “image” of the Vienna of Freud and of the expiring Hapsburgs are responsible for it, and so is the neglect of subject matter, even by some critics who ought to know better. (Schiele’s own portrait of Schönberg says quite otherwise, with its reminiscences of Treubner!) In the last two years of his life Schiele worked more than previously from the figure, especially the female nude, and this obliged him to develop his sense of volume as it also relaxed his line—the work was almost expansive, and the line was certainly not crabbed. But of course that left the problem of finding a subject that might be moving! I think we ought to admit that we do not know what Schiele might have done next.

My remarks may appear more critical of Schiele’s quality than I am; I merely think that it is more useful to look at the work than to speculate about the man. The particular interest of the work in the present show is that, since it makes no claim to be definitive, it allows one to see more readily than one can in Schiele’s oils what was going on. I do not mean to deny that he has an introspective (“expressionistic”) side; only, since that is always what people talk about, it seemed best to bring out his ties, which were always strong and seem towards the end of his life to have been growing stronger, to the tradition of objective realism. Indeed for me a large part of the interest of Schiele’s work is in the opposition between the two tendencies. It is characteristic of his period, as are all the other elements in his work, which was still very much unresolved when Schiele died.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the show of American Impressionists at Hirschil and Adler is what it shows about the art market. It is, after all, a comprehensive show, and it is remarkable that a private gallery could put together an exhibition of this range entirely from works in stock—ten years ago it would not have been possible. Of course the situation with American art is so fluid that a great deal has been shaken loose from older hands in which one might have thought it was secure, and in view of the trend of prices there is no reason for the turnover of recently-acquired works to be less!

It is hard to know what kind of French painting these Americans thought they were admiring—at the present time, several views of Impressionism are current. But in any case, we can all agree that we do not find French Impressionism in the work in this show, and the question is, why? One reason, certainly, is that the Americans were simply not as talented. No doubt, but I wonder if this is not to beg the issue, since we may again ask, why? I think the reason involves the cultural situation of the Americans vis-à-vis Europe. One can put it in terms of timelag: the Americans always seemed to come upon events after everyone else did, and in addition they were often exposed to them at one remove. The result was that they could be much more eclectic than others, indeed their situation encouraged them to be, and being eclectic they tended not to make a commitment to anything but borrowing; in this way it became a matter of manners, not substance. Or to put it differently, the Americans found themselves limited to a kind of experience of which the quality was total and partial in a particular way. We must not forget that this was the world of Henry James and of his Florentine expatriate friend Elizabeth Boott, who married Frank Duveneck (very well represented in this exhibition). Theirs was an experience not just of European art, but of Europe, and as they saw it they came upon Europe after it had all happened, as of course the French avant-garde did not. So that for them the avant-garde was as much to be acquired as the civilization of the Renaissance, which is to say that it was equally external to them; and it was because of this fact, and because of the Americans’ heightened awareness of externality, that they so eagerly made its manner their own without ever (since we must include Sargent and Whistler) going far beneath the surface.

Of course the limitations imposed on the American painters by their cultural situation were reinforced by limitations of talent, but part of what we mean by talent in such cases as this is rather confidence or ease. To take an example, these painters might seem to have shared with their European mentors a single esthetic that we may call photographic: their brushing is casual, loose and often wet-on-wet, as if to render instantaneous impressions; and in their paintings objects are very often interrupted by the frame in such a way as to produce a candid-camera effect. But it is just an effect, not a way of seeing, principally because the eccentric composition and syncopated placing complemented by a tense kind of depth based on diagonals—this was beyond the Americans’ scope. What we find so often in this exhibition are objects interrupted by the frame and treated with a fluid brush, but resolutely static in their positioning, which only very seldom angles away from the surface into a dynamic depth. The result is no less attractive for that, but by the same token no more than attractive: in this show are some moments of poignant disappointment, as in the paintings by Dennis Bunker or Philip Leslie Hale.

In respect of subject, these painters’ situation is perhaps a bit more complex. The American painters found, in the European work of this period they copied, two very different ranges of material: the gentlemanly and urban images of Degas and Manet on the one hand, and the rural scenes and laborers of Monet and Pissarro in France, and of the Munich school as well, on the other. And of course Manet and Degas also painted in a different manner from Monet and Pissarro. It is not surprising that so few of these Americans achieved a satisfactory fusion of manner and motif, since their own attitudes (I mean toward life, not necessarily toward art) had been formed long before they came upon the dialectic of these two elements as they saw it in French Impressionism, and since they saw it from the rather rootless position of aliens. Only very rarely, when they were able or decided to take a permanent position, as did Sargent, or much later, as with Henri, the early Sloan and Prendergast, do the two cohere in one way or another. For the rest, these artists are at their best when, like Tarbell, they can give to middle-class subjects an aristocratic air; and it is logical that they so seldom tried to give to an elegant motif an ordinary air: their feeling of inferiority vis-à-vis where the action was encouraged them to idealize it terribly, in sum to confuse style with stylishness. I know it sounds silly, but I think that’s what there was to it.

Certainly all this can be said of Childe Hassam as much as of anyone, but his flag series, which was shown at the Bernard Danenberg Galleries, is perhaps a special case owing to the fact that this was an especially well-defined motif, to which both Monet and Pissarro had already devoted series of canvases. Here, once again, it is hard for us to know how the artist saw his sources. There is little doubt that when Monet first began to paint flag-bedecked street scenes his purpose was to learn to dissolve the massive cubes of the buildings in a vapor of flags, streamers and confetti, and so to remove still another obstacle between his art and the evanescent feeling that had become his world. In Pissarro, it was quite the opposite: Pissarro evidently looked to these chunks of building to restore to his style the mastery of solids and of their placing that he had lost as he had moved away from early Corot. To be honest, I think it would be generous to suppose that the particular unsuccess of Hassam’s flag scenes stems from the contradiction of his sources: he may not have had the pictorial intelligence to realize the contradiction was there! Certainly there are a few exceptions, but in a general way Hassam’s good work had been done by just a little after the turn of the century, say fifteen years before he painted the scenes in the present show, which I think we may take as another instance of how fully a man’s ability to deal with pictorial problems can disappear when he stops painting subjects to which he responds—in this case the genteel genre with which Hassam had begun, and which was so much less populistic than these flag scenes.

Jerrold Lanes