New York

Lasar Segall

In 1920, the Expressionist poet and critic Theodor Däubler contrasted the Egyptians, children of the sun, to the Israelites, whose migrations and adaptations he likened to the constantly changing appearance of the moon. Däubler cited this Jewish “racial character” as central to the work of Lasar Segall, as curator Stephanie D’Alessandro notes in the catalogue that accompanied the show. “Still More Distant Journeys: The Artistic Emigrations of Lasar Segall,” the painter's first major retrospective in this country, reevaluated his oeuvre within the various cultural contexts that informed it. Segall was deeply influenced by what he took to be his roots—religious, geographic, and ethnic. As the subtitle suggests, however, the exhibition reflects Segall’s equally far-reaching stylistic perambulations, which tend to dilute our sense of who he was as an artist. Keenly aware of the dilemma facing Jewish artists who failed to assimilate to dominant culture and aesthetics, Segall in effect overcompensated; where we see sometimes dramatic evolutions in the oeuvres of many of his contemporaries, we see in Segall’s almost a cacophony of styles, abrupt shifts that seem to come more from his surroundings than from his own developments.

Segall was born in 1891 in Vilnius, Lithuania, and moved to Germany at fifteen. The son of a Torah scribe, he began by making scenes of ghetto life and religious practice (like the woodcut Prayer at the New Moon, 1918) that reflect an earnestly spiritual sensibility. He soon became a painter in the Expressionist mode, and in 1919 he cofounded, with Conrad Felixmüller, the radical Dresden Secession group. After migrating in 1923 to Brazil, where he had family, he settled in São Paulo and remained there for the rest of his life. The dichotomy between exotic, primitive cultures and the decaying, repressive society of the Old World was a cornerstone of Segall’s thinking, like that of many German artists of his day; in Brazil, he embraced an idealized projection of the native culture (which, in fact, departedsignificantly from his modern, urban milieu) about which he had only fantasized in Berlin and Dresden. But Brazilians were not simply a picturesque “other” for Segall: his romanticization was charged by his need to assimilate. “Despite the strangeness of their language and customs,” he wrote, “I felt [the Brazilians] were my people.” This identification is nowhere more evident than in the portrait Encounter, 1924, in which he depicts his estranged first wife, Margarete, as a pale European, and himself with the coloring of a mulatto.

The primitivizing tendencies underlying the Cubo-Futurism of Segall’s Dresden style were quickly subsumed into the actual spectacle of lush vegetation, colorful clothing, and vivid arts of his adopted country. A work made in Germany, Eternal Wanderers, 1919 (later confiscated by the Nazis for the “Degenerate Art” exhibition), for example, shows Segall melding Cubist faceting and disjuncture with Expressionist emotional values to capture the suffering and dislocation caused by World War I. By contrast, in the tropical Brazilian Landscape, 1925, or in watercolors such as Geometric Landscape, 1924, or Figures against Hills, 1924, the fractured syntax and muted palette have been transmuted into a spontaneous, simplified architectonic world of abstract and natural forms, colorful but still. An entirely different and quite heady emotionalism prevails.

The artist’s absorption into his “new and different world,” where he “imagined that all around me was happy and carefree,” is reflected in the flushed palette of Red Hill, 1926. The painting depicts a native mother and child sitting before a seashore town. The woman impassively regards the viewer with the ethereal majesty of a Byzantine Madonna, even crowned by a halo of balmy cloud. And, as if literally to mark his own gradual passage into this world of repose and order, Segall renders the backdrop of the town theatrically, in classical linear perspective.

World events returned Segall to harsher themes, and to his European Jewish roots. In the 1940–43 notebook Visions of War, he depicted the horrors inflicted by soldiers and prison camps; he dealt again with persecution and displacement in works such as Exodus I, 1947. His late urban scenes, by contrast, show the subtler miseries of emptiness and disconnection from others (as in Street of Wanderers I, 1956). Given that Segall’s work of this period remains as figural as anything in his oeuvre, it is startling to come upon his late flirtation with abstraction, here represented by Forest with Glimpses of Sky, 1954, a luminous, prismatic grove of trees viewed close-up. This work integrates formal motifs from the course of his career (for example, in the way the trees relate to the isolated vertical figures of the city scenes) and powerfully returns us to Segall’s spiritual beginnings. In this final phase of his stylistic development, when his quasi-religious, humanistic tendencies came to the fore, one finally sees the artist settling down.

Mason Klein