tv France 24 Mid- Day News LINKTV November 6, 2013 2:30pm-3:01pm PST
in his work funeral procession of 1918-- a city on the verge of chaos. in france, the sequel to victory was a period of stability. in this era of reconstruction, many artists who had been involved with cubism before 1914 injected into their work a new realism and order. fernand leger was one of these. his painting, mechanical elements, is an image of the machine not as destroyer, but as the precise, yet infinitely powerful tool with which a new france would be built. it was at this point picasso remade his links with the classical past. matisse continued to paint untroubled evocations of life in the south of france. in germany,
the sequel to defeat was revolution-- a bitter struggle between nationalists and revolutionaries. grosz's observations of nationalist brutality made him one of the left's most powerful propagandists. "i felt the ground shaking beneath my feet," he said. "and the shaking was visible in my work." his caricatures of weimar germany reject a society depraved by greed and power. grosz's contempt was shared by wider artistic developments in europe and america. those developments became known as dada. dada was like a storm that broke over the world of art. it had many centers-- from zurich to hanover, from cologne to new york-- and many sorts of artistic expression. unlike grosz in berlin, these dada artists didn't see the exposure of class divisions
as their central purpose. they attacked the foundations on which nations were built-- truth, beauty, reason, science. in the wake of the catastrophe, all these values were brought into question. in paris and new york, marcel duchamp produced his ready-mades-- a hat stand, a bottle rack-- ordinary everyday items promoted to the status of art objects simply because the artist had signed them. and by signing this urinal and wanting to show it as a piece of sculpture, duchamp pierced western art with ridicule. despite the international activities of the dadaists, they were running against the tide. in paris, there were several artists whose pursuit of utopian ideals was pushing french modernism towards an age of abstraction.
this is the studio of constantin brancusi, a rumanian who moved to paris in 1906. throughout the years of the war, he evolved a highly pared-down, figurative style, constantly reducing elements of his subject to the simplest of forms. this is a crying head. this is a seal. a bird. a pretty hungarian girl. and this is his bird in space, rubbed and smoothed down to a single ascending convergence of long curves that simply express the spirit of the bird. though brancusi's sculptures are highly abstract, they still have an object at their center. the problem for many abstract painters
was how to justify removing the object and to go beyond into what they saw as a higher order. many took cubism as their starting point. geometric abstraction was a logical extension of cubism, which had freed western artists from traditional representation, giving them the freedom to produce more conceptual images. in the early twenties, piet mondrian became one of the first western artists to paint in a pure abstract manner. if we look at his series of tree paintings he completed in 1908-1912, we can trace his development away from figurative work to the use of cubist grays, cubist composition, and to an altogether more subtle cubist image. in paris, in 1914, he turned his attention to buildings. this church on the left was one of his subjects.
he analyzed the facade and finally distilled it into completely abstract compositions. by reducing the church to a series of vertical and horizontal lines and carefully worked out rectangular oppositions, the church begins to disappear. this would lead to a visual embodiment of the oppositions fundamental to existence-- vertical/horizontal, active/passive, spirit and matter. mondrian was a utopian. he wanted to build a geometric world that would so totally satisfy the human psyche, it would render painting obsolete. although mondrian's ambitions were never realized, there was one event where such utopian ideals did find practical expression.
the russian revolution of 1917 was not only a momentous event in world history, it had great significance for russian and stern art, although, as one russian painter put it-- vladimir tatlin-- "we artists had achieved our revolution before 1914." but for a brief time, art and politics seemed to join hands in expressing that dream of a utopian society. artists, politicians, people in the street saw art as one way of helping to reshape the world, and artists were able to break out of their traditional confines of museums and galleries and grapple with the practical problems of everyday life. "put art into production," "put art into technology," were the slogans of the day, and even, "down with art. long live technical science." the artists, then, saw themselves
as part of the political struggle, consciously breaking with the bourgeois traditions of western art. revolutionary politics had demanded and received revolutionary art. the revolution's message had to be communicated in every way possible-- posters, pamphlets, public demonstrations, even trains painted with images of revolutionary victory. they were sent on propaganda missions across a vast, devastated country. artists such as tatlin, rodchenko, lissitzky, who were on the margins of artistic life before the revolution, found themselves at the center of the leading avant-garde group-- the constructivists. women like popova and stepanova worked on an equal basis with their male comrades in constructing this new world based on function and materials appropriate to the needs of their future society. the constructivists paved the way with new ideas for typography,
architecture, and furniture design. this is the interior of a moscow workers' club around 1920. they produced costumes and set designs for constructivist theater, such as these by popova. ceramics were also an effective way of continuing the themes of work and revolution. these designs were based on the suprematist compositions of malevich in 1923. the revolution had given artists a unique opportunity to express their utopian visions. this structure was to be the constructivist masterpiece-- vladimir tatlin's tower, designed as a monument to celebrate the third anniversary of the revolution. it would have been the communist party's headquarters. the sphere at the top was to be a broadcasting station, the cylinder-- an information center, the pyramid-- to house the secretariat, the cube-- a debating chamber. the structure was to spring from the ground,
standing twice as high as the empire state building. but in 1919, there wasn't enough steel in russia to build tatlin's tower. many other constructivist projects were never realized because of lack of resources. between 1914 and the early 1920s, russia was isolated from the rest of europe and, rather like a closed laboratory, developed their own unique theories about the role of art in the modern environment. and then, from 1921 onwards, when the allies lifted their blockade of russia after their attempt to crush the young revolution, many western artists were simply inspired by what they saw of the boldness of the russian artistic experiment. then russian avant-garde ideas flooded into europe, especially through germany, and through artists like lissitzky and kandinski, who worked at the bauhaus. established in weimar in 1919, the bauhaus was a design school
where the objective was to rethink all aspects of the environment-- painting, architecture, sculpture, furniture, decorative objects, even photography, the theater, and the dance-- and unite them in a single vision which would be appropriate to the needs of the new society. unlike the russians, whose utopian dreams for a new society were never fulfilled, many of the bauhaus projects were, in fact, put into practical expression, these are the things which provided the guidelines for much of the great design in the 20th century. modern architecture is also synonymous with the bauhaus. this house was designed by walter gropius, the first bauhaus director. bauhaus architects were synthesizing constructivist ideas of functional materials with modern methods of prefabrication. on this experimental housing estate
near dessau, germany, built in 1926, they could erect a house in three days, thus realizing the dream of many families who wanted clean, light, and economical housing. one might say the bauhaus marks the beginning of the modern era in architecture. if we're looking for that which expresses the modern movement's highest ideals, it must be the villa savoye, completed by le corbusier in 1930. this villa shows le corbusier's ideal, in microcosmic form, of a city raised on stilts. at first sight, even the most ardent modernist might be caught unprepared by its abstract conception, but one should not be deceived by the simplicity of its geometric exterior. as one approaches the villa's main entrance, a complex interior begins to reveal itself.
the owners of the villa would ascend to their living area along a grand ramp that rises up through the house. le corbusier defined architecture as "the magnificent, knowledgeable, and correct play of volumes in light." he saw architecture in highly idealized formulations. the villa savoye is at once a superb illustration of his ideal of formal harmony and a precise application of design principles derived from an analysis of reinforced concrete construction. the body of the villa savoye
is lifted off the ground by columns. the internal spaces are opened into each other since the walls no longer support any load. windows are extended freely in strips across the facade, and on the flat roof is a garden. another architect idealist, but of a very different kind, was at work in america-- frank lloyd wright. wright's contributions to 20th-century architecture emerged well before world war i with his so-called prairie style, seen here in the robie house of 1908-1909, with its horizontal thrust, sheltering overhangs, terraces, and enclosed gardens. although always identified with a peculiarly american vernacular, wright's inspiration was eclectic, including viennese, japanese, and mayan sources.
his work would be published in europe as early as 1910 and would have an influence internationally, including on the architects of the bauhaus. wright's concern for a marriage between architecture and landscape would lead to his 1936 house outside of pittsburgh-- falling water-- built on a natural rock over a small waterfall. but at the same time, in the difficult years of the 10s, he became more socially conscious, focusing on the needs of urban life. he remained nonetheless attached to nature, seen in the organic forms and use of natural light in such buildings as the johnson wax building of 1936. but these developments in modernist art and architecture did not go uncriticized. many people felt such work was elitist,
that it didn't speak the language of ordinary people. why strip a building of all its decoration? or reduce a picture to a few lines? ironically, at its most progressive point, modernism was still widely unacceptable. many architects did not follow its lead. you can see this in new york buildings of the period-- the chrysler building of 1928, the empire state from 1930, and the rockefeller center, here from 1932. the problem was what style would appropriately express the enthusiasm for progress, industry, and democracy in america? ironically, the solution was in a more narrative, decorative style that became known as art deco. this building is both a monument to the power of capitalism and a clear statement that the figurative tradition is still alive.
in the entrance hall, the rockefellers commissioned a huge mural from the mexican painter diego rivera. he called it man at the crossroads. for rivera, there was a simple choice facing working man-- whom he places as if at the controls of world history-- a choice between capitalism and socialism. for rivera, virtue lay with socialism since the ruling system in mexico had already passed successfully through its own revolution. to place such a propaganda image in the headquarters of a leading capitalist dynasty was to invite disaster. the press expressed outrage at the mural's inclusion of lenin. the rockefellers dismissed rivera and had his work destroyed in 1934. only a replica survives. it may seem surprising that such an artist could have painted for american cities.
where his theme was the power of the machine and the marvels of technology, he overrode political opposition earlier in the thirties. his populist realism and a strong traditional sense of compositional order appealed to the widest public in the states and mexico. rivera's art corresponded to a notion of revolution and social realism. elsewhere, in europe, another revolution was taking place, led by a poet who saw himself so much as a revolutionary, he traveled to mexico to visit rivera and trotsky-- andre breton. the surrealist revolution also emerged as a reaction to the abstract aspects of modernism. for the surrealists, art opened a route to the marvelous, or the surreal. this is rene magritte's le double secret, painted in 1927. the surrealists understood, perhaps better than any group, that man is like an iceberg,
of which only a small part is visible in the light of the conscious mind, the rest of which is submerged, moved, and guided by darker currents of the human subconscious. the problem was how to find ways into the subconscious, how to release the spontaneous flow of imagery that would be as unsettling as the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table. andre breton advocated two routes into the marvelous-- through dreams and automatism. influenced by psychoanalytical theory, breton decreed that subconscious images could only become available if the oppressive control of reason was evaded. the transcription of dreams attracted the so-called "painter" painters such as rene magritte and salvador dali. dali's painting,
soft construction with boiled beans-- a premonition of civil war, seems to embody his ambition to visualize images of complete irrationality with incredible precision. through his highly naturalistic style, dali gives a sense of reality to images that are unreal, inspired by nightmares and visions. the second kind of surrealist artist, the painter poet, is exemplified by the sculptor alexander calder and the painters joan miro and max ernst. using poetic techniques of free association, they explored ways of reducing the conscious control of the rational mind. miro's paintings from the twenties, like siesta, seem to have no structure, just a loose, free flow of images
which seem to come out of the blue. max ernst-- using a technique of rubbing natural objects such as wood, shells, and leaves-- managed to bring forth unforeseen images, creating landscapes that are truly surreal. this painting of 1927 is called forest. ironically, it was in those societies which claimed the most far-reaching utopian ideals that the fiercest backlash against modern art and abstraction took place. stalin in russia, hitler in germany, reviled modern art as degenerate, decadent, and elitist, and they sought to replace it forcibly by an art portraying the proletarian glories of their new order-- a kind of heroic social realism, in which, ultimately, the political meaning was absolutely unambiguous and totally controllable, which it could never be in modernism.
for hitler himself, the modern artists were babblers, dilettantes, and art swindlers, who should be abolished in favor of the creative power of the masses. as the nazi director of the museum in essen put it, "the most perfect artifact of the last era "did not come from modern artists. it is the steel helmet." spain, immersed in civil war, offered the opportunity for the nazis to test germany's war readiness. in a show of fascist solidarity with franco, the luftwaffe tore apart the little basque town of guernica. this was a signal for picasso to offer a response to the savagery of the times.
in a period of just a few weeks, he painted the canvas guernica to hang in the spanish pavilion at the 1937 paris exhibition. extreme distortion, licensed by cubism, comes together with symbols of violence, horror, and fear, reaching back to europe's oldest myths and rituals-- the myth of the minotaur, the ritual of the bullfight. some wished for something simpler. but its effect as a political statement by a modernist against blind cruelty of those who claimed to stand for civilization was instant. in 1937, an exhibition of so-called degenerate art opened in munich. it was organized by the nazis to demonstrate the jewish, bolshevik, and anti-aryan nature of modern art from gauguin onwards. art approved by the third reich portrayed idealized images of labor, maternity, and family life
in a figurative style untroubled by any considerations of form. unsere deutsche nation... unser deutsches volk! sieg heil! the storm clouds gathering over europe threatened to devastate the continent physically and culturally, to submerge the western humane tradition. as war grew inevitable and the nazi persecutions, especially of the jews, grew more intense, many writers and artists fled to freedom to london and especially the united states. from a dozen once free and democratic nations are coming scholars and artists, doctors and scientists, who have found that the practice of the free arts is no longer possible in nazi europe. it's no accident that around 1939 to 1940 the center of creative vitality in western visual arts
moved away from paris here to new york. of the many hundreds of artists who came to new york, many would not return to europe for some years, if ever. for mondrian, ernst, and more, this was now their new home. and here, at the museum of modern art, founded in 1929, their work was already being collected and displayed. they would be influential on a new generation of american artists-- pollock, rothko, and motherwell. if we try to summarize the art of those astonishing 40 years at the beginning of the century, we have to say it was an art based on optimism, despite war and fascism-- an art based on the freedom of human creativity.
perhaps no work expresses that idea more poetically than miro's birth of the world, painted in 1925. its theme is the creation of the universe, expressed through the metaphor of artistic creation, through the process of painting itself. the gray canvas has been washed with thinned paint, and then dripped, spattered, rubbed, and dragged with rags, and then, out of a formless void, emerge defined shapes-- a bird, perhaps, a person, a shooting star. it is a painting which anticipates much, a precursor of abstract expressionism, which came after world war ii. in all these developments we've traced-- through cubism, abstraction, surrealism, to the cosmic visions of malevich and kandinski-- we're asked to look not to the past, but to the future. as miro put it, "to open a door to a different future,
annenberg media ♪ art of the western world is by movado, makers of the movado museum watch, the watch dial design in the permanent collections of museums throughout the world. additional funding for this program made possible by the financial support of... and for mollowing individuals and foundations. and other annenberg media programs call 1-800-learner and visit us at www.learner.org.
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