View of “The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters,” 2015–16. Foreground: Works by William Edmondson. Background: Works by Alfred Wallis. Photo: Jens Nober.

View of “The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters,” 2015–16. Foreground: Works by William Edmondson. Background: Works by Alfred Wallis. Photo: Jens Nober.

“The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters”

View of “The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters,” 2015–16. Foreground: Works by William Edmondson. Background: Works by Alfred Wallis. Photo: Jens Nober.

FINDING A TITLE to anchor a thematic group show is notoriously fraught, as “The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters” demonstrated. German art historian Veit Loers coined the titular phrase to refer to a corpus that is the necessary complement to the art of the historical avant-gardes, the negative or occluded partner in the pairing—namely, the work of those non-Europeans, “folk,” children, and other “primitives” whom the early modernists “discovered.” The show’s subtitle indicated that the exhibition would focus on the renowned Henri Rousseau, the first and still the best loved of those in the penumbral zone, and on his lesser-known affiliates, the maîtres populaires, or “masters of popular painting,” who, in the wake of Le Douanier’s recognition at the beginning of the twentieth century, were drawn into the limelight in the 1920s and ’30s. While the greater part of the exhibition did center on this group, the show’s organizers, veteran curator Kasper König and art historian Falk Wolf, ultimately cast aside their moorings and ventured into the postwar era.

The touchstone reference for the now mostly forgotten masters of the interwar era is a landmark exhibition, “Les maîtres populaires de la réalité,” which, after touring from Paris to Zurich in 1937, was revamped with the addition of a group of North Americans and presented at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1938 as “Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America.” An unprecedented success, the show confirmed that Rousseau’s star was still ascendant and introduced to a broad public the work of the maîtres populaires, who had been vigorously championed by leading curators, critics, and collectors in Germany, Switzerland, France, and, above all, the United States. In including several artists heralded in the 1937/1938 show, König and Wolf seem fueled by a recuperative impulse much in line with that of their predecessors, especially MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr., who wrote of the need to present the art of self-taught practitioners “without apology or condescension . . . as the work of painters of marked talent and consistently distinct personality.” Together with André Bauchant and Séraphine Louis, both alumni of the 1937/1938 exhibition, the Museum Folkwang show featured the African American sculptor William Edmondson and the Polish-born Morris Hirshfield, who were given solo shows at MoMA in 1937 and 1943, respectively; Louis Michel Eilshemius, the academically trained American painter who circa 1910 adopted a faux-naïf manner that caught the attention of Duchamp; and Bill Traylor, whose remarkable drawings were seen in the mid-1940s by Barr, who attempted, in vain, to buy examples not for the museum he directed but for his own collection. Tangential to that nexus was the work of Adalbert Trillhaase, a businessman, patron, and friend to Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, who later in life began to paint religious scenes in a medievalizing style. Historical context was provided by sundry canonical works by the autodidacts’ professional counterparts, such as Picasso, Gauguin, Léger, Nolde, Delaunay, and Ernst (curiously, no Americans), all of whom responded to the work of “primitives” of one kind or another.

The constellations of works at the Museum Folkwang by self-taught artists were, almost without exception, impressive, though many of their makers are far from forgotten: Hirshfield has long been a staple to MoMA’s audiences, Traylor is regularly acclaimed as one of America’s greatest draftsmen, and Eilshemius’s bucolic landscapes and levitating nymphs are once again a favorite among contemporary painters and critics. Perhaps it was the very familiarity of such contributions that tipped the scales for me toward some of those who really are lesser known today: Thus, among the show’s standouts were the riveting paintings of Louis. One of the few visionaries in this ensemble, Louis, a devout Frenchwoman who worked as a maid, generated lush, luminous bouquets and flowering trees via dexterously applied washes of thinned house paint. Neither still lifes nor landscapes, her works are as uncategorizable as they are unforgettable. Also remarkable was a self-portrait by Bauchant, a devotee of classical themes. Monumental and decorative, this singular study reveals the artist trimming an ebullient garden at the height of summer.

The dense congeries assembled in the exhibition had the makings of a focused, revisionist survey of early modernism’s tentative embrace of folk, self-taught, and popular painters. Such an endeavor would have been timely. In tandem with the academy, museums of modern and contemporary art now increasingly seek to articulate intertwined and multivalent histories, dispensing with so-called master narratives. (Ironically, such nonteleological histories were foreshadowed in MoMA’s complexly woven programs of the ’30s, although this fluid historiography was then effaced by the dominant discourse that arose from the museum’s much narrower, immensely influential postwar programming.) For example, in reinstallations of their collections, New York’s Whitney and Metropolitan museums (gingerly in the case of the former, more boldly in the latter) have begun to incorporate work by artists formerly deemed marginal, putting Hirshfield, John Kane, Horace Pippin, et al. on equal footing with familiar icons. However, no institution has undertaken a fine-grained examination of the reception of self-taught artists in the pluralistic interwar period. Such a project might productively tease out the ways in which divergent understandings of modernism’s breadth and origins were framed and debated on each side of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, what at first read as an initial attempt at this kind of investigation veered abruptly into an abbreviated survey of the postwar era as König and Falk homed in on three self-taught practitioners (Erich Bödeker, Martin Ramírez, and Miroslav Tichý), counterpointed by a trio of their academically trained counterparts (Hanne Darboven, Mike Kelley, and Blinky Palermo). Ramírez, a Mexican immigrant to the United States who created his extraordinary drawings while in an asylum in California, has been widely heralded in the past decade. So, too, has the Czech artist Tichý. Though the escalation of the Cold War greatly affected his sense of social and psychic alienation, his voyeuristic, erotic photographs, shot with cameras he constructed himself, are far from naïf. Only Bödeker, a sculptor from the Rhineland known during his lifetime within his immediate vicinity, has not yet found a preeminent place within the ever-expanding pantheon of self-taught artists.

A network of historical linkages binds many of the interwar autodidacts in the exhibition, whose work was known to generations of modernists, but no comparable connections tie Bödeker, Ramírez, and Tichý to one another or to their trained peers. The absence of identifiable coordinates to establish the postwar participants’ interrelationships made it difficult to chart an alternative narrative of this period, leaving one to wonder what determined who was worthy of inclusion within this coterie. Take Tichý, for example: In their handwrought frames, his pictures of women caught unawares are compelling, but so are the images created by other reclusive and obsessive outliers who paid homage to the tropes of pinup or cheesecake photography, not least Morton Bartlett and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein. Ultimately, König and Falk’s selection felt not simply arbitrary but willfully so. In addition to standard art-historical inquiry, the curators identified “intuition” as one of their guiding strategies. The paradoxical result was a show that is unlikely to have been intuitively accessible to all visitors; the viewers best equipped to unpack the methodology were insiders, who might have speculated, for example, that a painting by Mondrian was included because he championed Hirshfield’s work. Or perhaps because the Dutch artist, when fleeing Europe in 1940, was the likely conduit (at the behest of Ben Nicholson) for the safe passage to MoMA of a painted assemblage by seaman turned artist Alfred Wallis. If Palermo was there because one of his geometric works was inspired by the pattern he serendipitously spotted on a pinball machine, then how to explain the absence of Jim Nutt, whose late-’60s style and technique—painting on Plexiglas—were heavily inflected by his fascination with pinball machines, and who is, moreover, the person most responsible for bringing Ramírez’s work to the attention of the art world?

König and Falk argue in the catalogue that the Folkwang, founded in 1902 and hence the first museum in the world devoted to modern art, is an ideal venue for a show such as theirs: For while the mandate of the institution’s founder, Karl Ernst Osthaus, was capacious, encompassing graphic design and tribal and Mesoamerican art, Osthaus had a blind spot when it came to those whom Barr called “modern primitives.” In aiming to correct this oversight, the curators failed to acknowledge a more enlightened administrator elsewhere in Germany. Ludwig Justi, director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, opened a new department devoted to modern art in 1919. Within a few years, he had installed the work of a number of maîtres populaires, notably Camille Bombois (whose work was represented in Essen, though more sparingly than one might have hoped), Louis Vivin, and Adolf Dietrich alongside works by Neue Sachlichkeit contemporaries. Removed from his position by the Nazis in 1933, in a prelude to the regime’s wholesale suppression of “degenerate” art, Justi left no lasting legacy in Germany, where the gradual postwar reinstatement of early modernist artists was not accompanied by a parallel recognition of the self-taught. If in this regard Germany has lagged behind other countries, then the task at hand would appear to be more remedial than recuperative.

In place of scattershot gestures of advocacy that included inserting works by Hirshfield into permanent-collection galleries devoted to Surrealism, the exhibition might have undertaken a more sustained, specific exploration. What Justi and Barr had in common was historical vision, and this is what finally appeared lacking in “The Shadow of the Avant-Garde,” which, in rejecting teleology, drifted toward the opposite extreme: haphazardness. At the same time, a difference that should be collapsed was perhaps reinscribed. The very notion of curating such a show “intuitively” subtly ratifies the otherness of the “forgotten masters”; at least, it is difficult to imagine curators cheerfully admitting to having privileged intuition to organize, say, a Cubist exhibition. The implication is that less rigor is justifiable in the case of self-taught art because it is, in some sense, impervious to history. That said, the spotlight that was shone on the less familiar self-taught masters illuminated the crepuscular gloom in which they have long languished, and that in itself makes the exhibition memorable.

Lynne Cooke is senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.