New York

Leonid and His Friends: Tchelitchew, Berman and Berard

The New York Cultural Center

“Leonid and His Friends: Tchelitchew, Berman and Berard” is an exhibition that brings back much of the lost savor of the New York art scene of the ’40s and ’50s. At that time Leonid’s heady illusionism was accessible on the upholstered walls of the Durlacher Gallery and the artists here assembled again were to be seen in a special room at The Museum of Modern Art under the sobriquet “Neo-Romantics,” an empty tag first put forth in 1926 by art critic Waldemar George. Leonid and his cadet brother Eugene Berman contributed to the tone of a certain taste consciousness in New York art life, a taste so pervasive as to render invisible the all-important distinctions that we insist upon between taste and art. What is so striking in this exhibition (and so acute in my memory) is the unquestioned value system implicit to this kind of painting.

What is perhaps most interesting today about these painters is a certain kind of interchange between a social pose and art as taste. In our more up-front culture, this taste with mixtures of Surrealism might easily pass for “crypto-gay.” By this I do not mean that some artists were gay and others weren’t, a fact neither interesting nor pertinent. What is interesting is that the cumulative effect of this artistic position fostered in its way its own art-society manner, a way of “seeming” that found a perfectly ambiguous metaphor in the preferred locus of Leonid’s painting, that boggy area of drain and seepage between land and sea, the lobster fisherman’s littoral.

In his remarkable guide to the progressive taste of the 1920s, Virgil Thomson, remembering “new Romanticism” in his autobiography, distinguishes between the “Neo-Romantics” and the broader range of Surrealists. The former induced feelings that were “humane and tender,” the latter “the subversive and the cruel ones.” Thomson recognized that these painters were drawn to “the grande bourgeoisie, that their politics were conservative, and in some cases even royalist. . . .” Leonid and Berman came to Paris from the Russian upper classes dispossessed by the revolution of 1918. Not only were the Neo-Romantics opposed to the leftist activism of the committed Surrealists, but they rejected the orthodoxies of Synthetic Cubism as well.

The rise of fascism once more relocated the group, transposing their decorous elegance to our highly provincial situation, one that easily accepted their focus on manner at face value. At length, the reinvention of the primitive—the central lesson of Abstract Expressionism—came to overshadow the profound effect of the Leonid circle. Personally, I find the American emphases salutary, but after 25 years the principles of Abstract Expressionism in their turn have become academic pieties—as uncompelling as the color theories of the Nabis had become by the 1920s when this essentially Russian circle first arrived in Paris. John Russell’s deft catalogue introduction brings this point to light, adding still another style rejected by the adversary consciousness of this group. It is only natural that, granting such a rejective view of modern art, the Leonid circle could only look backward, a glance that recognized as its own the illusionistic traditions of the Italian Baroque as it moved from the 17th to the 18th century. Neo-Romantic painting can be moving, but primarily on an associative level. And, although it is an association totally opposed to our analytical and fundamentalist sensibility, it is nonetheless extremely moving in that it marks in my memory a once-viable heroism of taste as an alternative to the brawn of art.

Robert Pincus-Witten