El Lissitzky, Prounenraum (Proun Room), 1923/1971, wood and paint. Installation view, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 2007. Photo: Peter Cox.

El Lissitzky, Prounenraum (Proun Room), 1923/1971, wood and paint. Installation view, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 2007. Photo: Peter Cox.

“Forms of Resistance”

El Lissitzky, Prounenraum (Proun Room), 1923/1971, wood and paint. Installation view, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 2007. Photo: Peter Cox.

“FORMS OF RESISTANCE: Artists and the Desire for Social Change from 1871 to the Present” is not an exhibition one is likely to see in a major venue in the United States, given how politically restrained and financially driven our big museums are today. Organized by Will Bradley, Phillip van den Bossche, and Charles Esche for the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (where Esche is director), “Forms of Resistance” is as much seminar as it is show, one that explores, selectively and polemically, the relations between modernist art and leftist politics in Europe and America as punctuated—put into crisis, the curators would say—by five events: the Paris Commune in 1871, the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Popular Front in the early 1930s, the May Revolts in 1968, and the fall of the Wall in 1989.

These are obvious dates for any account of political art in the modern West, but the chosen artists are sometimes obscure and the curatorial juxtapositions often unexpected. Such is the method of the exhibition: a calculated montage—which sometimes lapses into a mere mix—of different works and contexts that seeks to break down any strict opposition of art and historical document or art and political life. To this end, the curators highlight instances of applied art, especially when most experimental and/or most engaged—from the Arts and Crafts wall­paper of William Morris, through the abstract fabric designs and theater sets of Liubov Popova, the Proun Room of El Lissitzky, the Workers’ Club of Aleksandr Rodchenko, and the Bauhaus weavings of Gunta Stözl, to the Atelier Populaire posters of May ’68, the Communist murals produced by the Brigadas Ramona Parra in Chile under Salvador Allende, the activist designs of the Dutch group Wild Plakken in the 1970s and ’80s, the anti­nuclear photomontages of British artist Peter Kennard (who receives a separate but related retrospective elsewhere in the museum), and the myriad interventions (from the Italian “workerist” movement to antiglobalization struggles today) documented in the “Disobedience Archive” curated by Marco Scotini. There are also paintings, drawing, prints, photographs, films, and videos along the way; the curators are not precious about originals, much less about masterpieces—for the most part, these categories do not apply.

Deployed in ten rooms in the old part of the Van Abbe, the exhibition begins with Manet sketching the barricades of the Commune and Courbet urging that the Louvre be given over to artists and the art schools to students. Hounded for his part in the toppling of the Vendôme column, Courbet is soon in exile, where he paints the small dark landscapes also on view, and we are left to ponder the (dis)connections among these diverse images and events. Then there is a jump, as abrupt as a jump cut, to the London of William Morris and Walter Crane, whose productions for the Socialist journal Commonweal include “cartoons for the cause” that feature not gritty pictures of murdered Communards, but a medieval angel of revolution. The contrast prompts us to reflect on how related political positions come to be expressed in divergent artistic languages.

If Morris and Crane invited comrades to step back in time, the Russians urged them to leap forward, and so the show turns, briefly, from “forms of resistance” (to the ancien régime, to capitalist modernity) to “the construction of utopia.” Courbet and the Commune notwithstanding, the Russian moment is as close as the exhibition gets, as the avant-garde got, to a catalytic contact between modernist art and political power. As rich and diverse as this moment was—it is also evoked here by a Suprematist abstraction by Kazimir Malevich, a hanging construction by Rodchenko, and footage shot for Pravda by Dziga Vertov—it was, of course, fleeting and failed. And in the next gallery, which is given over to the anti-Nazi photomontages of John Heartfield and associates, we are quickly returned to the dominant narrative of resistance and suppression, defiance and doom.

So far, good enough: One has questions (e.g., why doesn’t Zurich Dada qualify?), but that is the intention, and the presentation is didactic enough to educate newcomers and elliptical enough to provoke initiates. In the next room, however, the curators get a little idiosyncratic, for here, apart from a few anti-Franco images by Picasso, they represent modernist opposition to Fascism largely through some textiles by Stözl, a few protests about the Bauhaus from its Communist students, and a photograph of four British Surrealists in Neville Chamberlain masks in a 1938 May Day parade. Stözl is an important figure, but not in this story, and the foregrounding of the other marginal episodes seems almost perverse. No other artistic manifestation of the Popular Front (let alone of Surrealism) is both modernist and engaged enough to suit the curators? Here their montage is not constructive; it just makes one question the device.

The show returns to form in the galleries devoted to 1968, where we see posters by the Atelier Populaire, whose emphatic graphics aimed to embrace both Parisian students and French workers in one call to action; the Chilean murals by the Ramona Parra Brigades, which began as simple slogans and developed into complex images that recall the great Mexican muralists as well as Fernand Léger and rival both in the process; and the insurrectionary designs of Emory Douglas, the minister of culture of the Black Panthers, published in the party paper with a circulation that peaked at four hundred thousand. Somehow this constellation works, for these traces allow one to glimpse again a revolutionary moment that was more multitudinous than our own. But it, too, was fleeting, and the curators also acknowledge failure here through documentation of the “Ball in Zalesie” put on by artists and critics associated with the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw. A boisterous farewell to spring—to the student uprisings of March 1968 suppressed by Communist authorities—the ball was part Cabaret Voltaire, part Pieter Bruegel (indeed, it included a staging of The Land of Cockaigne); in other words, it was an absurdist cocktail of bitter requiem and defiant hope.

Although notice is taken of the interventions of the Art Workers Coalition and Guerrilla Art Action Group, the post-1968 galleries relate various departures from the institutions of art. Some of the projects here are quixotic, while others are pragmatic (for example, performance artist Bonnie Sherk founded Crossroads Community, aka “The Farm,” an extensive settlement under a San Francisco freeway that combined culture and agriculture). Toward the end the show returns to interventions within an expanded art world, in particular to projects concerning issues of sexuality and identity by artists and groups like Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, Zoe Leonard, and Gran Fury. Also included here is a piece by Hans Haacke, But I Think You Question My Motives, 1978–79, which documents the connections between the Dutch corporation Philips and the apartheid policies of South Africa. The work remains provocative, especially in this context, because Eindhoven is the Philips company town. Even so, in these spaces, artistic practice and collective action tend to drift apart.

Will Bradley speaks of the sections of the show as “anecdotes”—that is, as semilegendary episodes that still have lessons to teach. Clearly, he is not ready to bid farewell to the transformative project of modernism. Meanwhile, Charles Esche stresses the application of social art history to the museum, in a way that might prompt, through the very gaps opened in this montage of episodes, both a recollection of radical moments not included and an imagination of possible scenarios to come. Both are worthy ambitions; that said, there may be a limit to what a museum space can accomplish discursively—a limit in part acknowledged by the publication of a reader of documents to accompany the show (Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader, edited by Bradley and Esche). It is also the case that an exhibition like this cannot escape some of the vicissitudes of its subject, above all of a political art that is often either too direct or too obscure in its articulations. As Theodor W. Adorno wrote in his famous critique of Walter Benjamin, the juxtaposition of charismatic images and texts can produce connections that are more magical than mediated, and so it is sometimes in this show.

Yet these concerns are only intermittent, and even the worries raised by the exhibition are useful. What is the “social” that “desires” to be “changed,” and how might “forms of resistance” bear on this change? Do radical art and politics converge only at moments of crisis? To what degree are these points of convergence transformative, and to what degree compensatory? For the most part the show is a vale of tears, a history of failure, but then one recalls a document in the first gallery, the Situationist “Theses on the Paris Commune” (1962), which reads in part: “The apparent successes of [the classical workers’] movement are actually its fundamental failures (reformism or the establishment of a state bureaucracy), while its failures (the Paris Commune or the 1934 Asturian revolt) are its most promising successes.” The pessimism of this paradox is strangely heartening, but do we still want to indulge its romance of failure? Is this the only romance left to the Left? One hopes not. Finally, the exhibition compels the question, Why the apparent poverty of “forms of resistance,” the apparent paucity of “desire for social change,” today? On the one hand, the show demonstrates that these forms do indeed exist; on the other, it conveys how fragile, how precarious, they are.

“Forms of Resistance” remains on view at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, through January 6.

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin Professor and chair of art and archaeology at Princeton University.