New York

“Collages and Reliefs 1910–1945”

La Boetie Gallery

“Collages and Reliefs 1910–1945” was a knockout of a museum-quality show jointly sponsored by this New York gallery and Annely Juda Fine Art in London. With works by such Dada and Constructivist artists as Jean Arp, Raoul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters, László Moholy-Nagy, Alexandra Exter, and Liubov Popova, as well as Picasso, the exhibition captures the visionary conviction and intellectuality that drove the artist pioneers of early-20th-century Modernism to esthetic heights rarely matched today.

Picasso’s and Braque’s injection of collage into their Cubist paintings of 1912 opened the eyes of many artists of their own and later generations to the expressive potential of this technique. At the same time that Picasso was experimenting with collage he was also making reliefs, using found objects which he altered by painting. The practice strongly attracted the attention of the textural- and facture-minded Russian avant-garde; they too tried their hands at both collage and relief. Their work is well represented in the fine international selection of artists here, but because reliefs from this period have a worse track record of being lost and destroyed than do collages, the majority of examples in the show are in the latter form. Some superb examples are by Popova, El Lissitzky, and Exter; Exter’s is a stunning study in neutral tones of a helmeted mechano-figure, in an ambiguously flat setting consisting of a pattern of planes executed in collage, watercolor, and pencil. Her dynamic image, so full of mystery, is probably related to the innovative work she did for the theater during the early ’20s, first in Russia and later in Western Europe. Not surprisingly, the works by both Popova and Lissitzky recall each one’s characteristic paintings during the early ’20s—her constructively dynamic color studies and his Prouns.

While the Russians dominated, it would be unfair to say that they stole the show. Other national groups represented also did rather well. It is no exaggeration to say that examples by the Swiss/German Dadaists and avantgarde—Arp, Hausmann, Hannah Hoch, and the brilliant husband and wife team of Ella Bergmann-Michel and Robert Michel—astound. Bergmann-Michel’s Meine Fische (My fish) 1918, intercuts traditional line illustrations of fish with a provocative drawn mechano-environment of wheels and gears, in a direct and personal image which invites reflection about nature and the forces of destruction so much in the air during the war year in which this work was made. Michel’s Weimar-Mechanik A/3, 1919, is a painted relief, a hypnotic figure-eight composition which conveys the power and speed of the machine with intriguing simplicity.

There are fine and sensitive pieces from the French, Belgian, and Dutch avant-gardes, as well as from the Polish and Hungarian Constructivists. The “who’s who” roll call includes Jean Cocteau, Paul Joostens, Cesar Domela, Henryk Berlewi, Karol Hiller, László Peri, and Moholy-Nagy. A special part of the show was devoted to Hiller’s little seen and virtually unknown heliographs. Like Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, Hiller investigated the image-making potential of photographic techniques, applying them to nontraditional materials to make a new species of picture. His examples stress the graphic aspect in landscape like arrangements of abstract forms.

What is striking throughout the show is a respect for materials and an obvious joy in giving visual expression to ideas and insights that bring closer together the inner world of the self and the outer world of reality. The collages and reliefs of this period are authentic works of art which deserve further and fuller attention; fortunately, the show was accompanied by an illustrated catalogue.

Ronny H. Cohen