Postwar: A Revisionist Vision from Munich
This review from two years ago is re-posted to our cover by way of tribute the exhibition’s curator
Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965 at the Haus der Kunst, Munich
October 14, 2016 to March 26, 2017
It has been clear for some time now that received accounts of art in the decades following World War II are deeply unsatisfying. It is no longer plausible to speak of “the triumph of American painting”. Equally unwilling to accept October magazine’s ultimately conservative retelling of that story, however, we need a radical revisionist history of this period. Entering the first gallery of Haus der Kunst, which is also the first of eight “chapters” telling this story, titled “Aftermath: Zero Hour and the Atomic Age,” you face the mammoth Joseph Beuys installation, Monuments to the Stag (1958/82). Other works you see include two of Morris Louis’s early political paintings, of which Charred Journal, Firewritten II (1951),is one; Frank Stella’s black-striped Arbeit Macht Frei (1958); Barnett Newman’s The Beginning (1946); Every Atom Glows: Electrons in Luminous Vibration (1951), by Norman Lewis; and Gerhard Richter’s Coffin Bearers (1962). Form Matters,” the next chapter, includes major pieces by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and a large Lee Krasner picture along with a gargantuan abstract painting by Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid, a Turkish artist who worked in Jordan; John Latham’s Untitled (Roller Painting) (1964), which uses a spray painted cloth, hung horizontally to mark the passage of time; and three black, densely gridded paintings by Rasheed Araeen, the Pakistani painter who lives in London. The fourteen high-walled galleries all mix art by well-known figures with strong works by lesser-known artists. Thus “New Images of Man,” for example, included Picasso’s Massacre in Korea (1951), and sculptures by Giacometti alongside artists who will be discoveries for many westerners, —such as Maqbool Fida Husain, who uses layers of paint to surround his figure in Man (1951) and Alina Szapocznikow, whose Head VII (1961) is a heavily slashed cast lead sculpture. And “Realisms,” which takes you upstairs, includes Vasiliy Jakovlev’s over the top Portrait of Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union (1946) as well as Chinese and Egyptian social realist paintings; an Alice Neal portrait; and Andrew Wyeth’s Young America (1950).
Curated by Okwui Enwezor (director of the Kunsthalle), Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes, “Postwar” shows artists responding, whether in figurative or abstract works, to subjects as diverse as the beginning of the end of European colonization, the postwar reconstruction of ruined Western Europe, the Holocaust and the American atomic bombings of Japan, the coming to power of communism in China, the birth of a consumer economy in Western Europe, the American Civil Rights demonstrations and the start of US intervention in Vietnam, the cold war rivalry of the USSR and the USA, the history of South America, and the development of cybernetics and novel information processing technologies. All this in a building so fraught with history: formerly The House of German Art, it was opened by Hitler in 1937 as a showcase of Nazi culture. The catalogue states, incidentally, that the exhibition is coming to the Brooklyn Museum, but alas that is not to be.
Sometimes the artists respond simply by virtue of the sheer scale of their art. This would be the case for Lee Ufan’s Pushed-Up Ink (1964), Lygia Clark’s Obra mole (1964) and Alfonso Ossorio’s mixed-media panel Rescue (1951). At other times, however, they present these subjects through the iconographical content of their pictures: Ibrahim El Salahi’s Self-Portrait of Suffering (1961), a harrowing portrait of stress, Ben Enwonwu’s Anyanwu (1954-55), an elegant elongated figure based upon traditional Nigerian sculpture, John Biggers’ The History of Negro Education in Morris County, Texas (1955) and Boris Taslitzky’s astonishing Riposte (1951), which depicts the violent breakup by the French police of a 1949 dockworkers’ strike against arms shipments for the colonial war in Indochina. But sometimes, the artists employ a synthesis of subject and its form. In a section titled “Concrete Visions” Gyula Kosice’s Variation in Blue (1945), a shaped canvas meant to inspire utopian reflection, or Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961) are good examples. And there are examples of a synthesis of formal and inconographical approach in works such as Jasper Johns’ Flags (1965), Yosef Zaritsky’s Yehiam (Life on the Kibbutz) (1951), a painting honoring that agricultural utopia, and Ben Enwonwu’s narrative painting, Going (1961) which shows Nigerians celebrating national independence.
Displaying well-known artists alongside lesser-known figures could easily become a pious exercise in political correctness. And dealing with so many, very varied subjects, using artworks, most of them large, by 208 artists, could generate visual cacophony. The show might easily have been a disaster. In fact, however, this oddly harmonious visual feast was, in the three days I visited it and looked closely, entirely visually convincing.In part, this was because you saw how artists from visual cultures everywhere responded to the traumatic events. But it is also because the skillful installation frequently identifies suggestive visual correspondences. Sometimes the catalogue drives a group show of this nature. But although a massive catalogue, with essays by thirty-seven scholars, accompanies “Postwar,” it is the visual evidence that inspires conviction. This powerful exhibition changes permanently your sense of the history of postwar art. It demonstrates that it is now possible to present a world art history in which the American Abstract Expressionists and their immediate successors are legitimately set alongside their peers from not only Europe, but also Africa, Asia and South America. And it shows the power of a social history of art. If “the truth is the whole”, as Hegel famously proposed, then what follows is that in a world where artists from everywhere are in contact, as was the case between 1945 and 1965, no merely partial presentation of art can be entirely satisfying. And sometimes, as “Postwar” shows, more is more.