“The Subversive Charm of the Bourgeoisie”

Like many European and American museums, the Van Abbemuseum was founded by a wealthy industrialist. In “The Subversive Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” artworks and documents from the museum’s collections were combined with recent works that are said to contain “bourgeois elements.” In a Europe beset by discussions about (the need for) a renewal of bourgeois values or of a bourgeois lifestyle, such an exhibition is timely, although it turned out to be at least as confused as those discussions. In the media, the historical—and by now largely defunct—bourgeoisie is often turned into a caricature; various characteristics are abstracted from this cliché and turned into a lifestyle option to be embraced by those who can afford it, and into a set of behavioral norms to be imposed on the rest. The Van Abbe exhibition mirrored this decomposition of the bourgeois past into a set of floating signifiers: The bourgeoisie has left behind “elements” to be appropriated at will.

Among these elements are traditional media such as easel painting and drawing. In several spaces, recent paintings and drawings were combined with early-twentieth-century works in the same media. A rather successful juxtaposition was that of a detailed portrait by Dutch symbolist Jan Toorop, Miss J. Janet Hall, 1899, with Iris van Dongen’s large and dark mixed-media drawings replete with reminiscences of Pre-Raphaelite and decadent imagery. There were also representatives of the rappel à l’ordre realism of the interwar years; a 1939 painting of a black man titled Kid Oliveira (by a certain W. van de Plas) was an oddly convincing juxtaposition to Lukas Duwenhögger’s elegantly hermetic installation G—An Interior, 2001. The show’s historical references oscillated between figurative works from the teens to the ’30s and less obviously bourgeois abstract and Constructivist art. Silke Otto-Knapp’s gold and silver paintings were exposed to the reflections cast by László Moholy-Nagy’s Licht-Raum-Modulator, 1922–30, becoming mere screens for Moholy’s dancing lights; rather more convincing was the juxtaposition of Mondrian’s sparse Composition No. II, 1930, with a large Pierre Klossowski drawing, Roberte et les collégiens V (vision du Professeur Octave), 1976, and a carpet by Paulina Olowska (Warsaw Rug, 2005), whose grinding, interlocking forms lay bare modernism’s often repressed libidinal pulse.

Reducing its historical referents to so many nostalgic retro signs, the show can be seen as a plea for aesthetics against conceptual practices that purged art of aesthetic qualities. Most convincing in this respect was a single painting by Karen Kilimnik, who wasn’t even on the show’s official roster of artists. Returning home from Washington through the jungle in fairmount park—Apollo’s pavilion (cupid’s folly), 2002, a dark landscape with a golden temple, did not really need the other paintings in the space; it constitutes a dialogue of its own. In brushstrokes that seem to work their way back from twentieth-century magazine illustration to Manet, Kilimnik revisits the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie’s nostalgia for the grandeur of the aristocratic past, shamelessly hawking harmony. However, “bourgeois elements” can also be found in starkly different forms of contemporary art.

Unfortunately, the purely stylistic, reductivist approach to Constructivism in this exhibition precluded an investigation of the transformation of elements from bourgeois modernist aesthetics by such avant-garde movements, which radicalized art’s promesse de bonheur by trying to reconstruct society along (in the final analysis) aesthetic lines. Intentionally or not, “advanced” forms of contemporary art that seek alternatives for the commodified objects also contain bourgeois elements: Many performative and social practices show their debt to the nineteenth-century ideology of the aesthetic in their evocations of carefree sociability and spontaneous harmony. “The Subversive Charm of the Bourgeoisie” barely touched on the things that can be done with, and to, bourgeois elements.

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