Friday, February 1, 2019

Art Book Review: New Worlds

The great problem with the Neue Galerie publication New Worlds is its subtitle, "German and Austrian Art 1890 - 1940."  The wording would lead one to believe that this is a comprehensive survey of developments in the art of those two countries from roughly the Vienna Secession to the outbreak of World War II.  Would that this were the case.  Instead, the book is actually a museum catalog, the Neue Galerie's first, that treats only those artists represented in the museum's collection and reproduces only the artworks actually owned by the Neue Galerie.  This inevitably leads to a skewed perspective on modern German art as a number of important artists have not yet found their way into the museum's collection.  Käthe Kollwitz, for example, is universally regarded as a major Expressionist (see my 2/5/2018 post) and yet she might just as well never have existed for all the mention she's given in this study.  On the other hand, a balanced evaluation of the artists who are included is hampered by the paucity of artworks taken from their various oeuvres. Examples include Max Pechstein, a co-founder of  Die Brücke, and Franz Marc, a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter, essays on each of whom are illustrated by only one work apiece.  Although several female artists are discussed in the final section of the book dealing with applied arts, only one woman merits inclusion in the fine arts section - Gabriele Münter, another founding member of Der Blaue Reiter and the partner of Wassily Kandinsky.

Fine artists are grouped together according to the movements they best represent, e.g., Vienna Succession, Die Brücke, Der Blaue Reiter, Bauhaus.  A short essay is devoted to each artist.  Although these essays have been authored by a number of different scholars, each follows the same format.  There is a brief biography that usually contains significantly less information than can be found in the corresponding Wikipedia article, a short discussion on the evolution of the artist's style that inevitably ends with his inclusion in the infamous 1937 Munich Entartete Kunst exhibit (here, of course, a badge of honor), and finally an overview of the artist's reception in the United States.  Considering that many German artists never set foot in this country, the last is somewhat perplexing.  There can be no doubt, however, that the catalog editors see this as an essential point.  Driving the point home, at some 31 pages, is "The Myths of Expressionism in America," by far the longest essay in the book.

The final third of New Worlds is devoted to an examination of German applied arts during the period under discussion.  This is divided into two sections: "Viennese Decorative Arts around 1900" and "Applied Arts and Architecture in Germany, 1890's to 1930."  Here the format changes.  Each section is prefaced by a short essay that is then followed by copious illustrations that are in turn followed by artist and architect biographies.  The longer of the two is the first, dealing primarily with the Vienna Secession, while the second is dominated by the contributions of the Bauhaus.  Again, emphasis is placed on the connection to America as the discussion, and for that matter the book itself, concludes with the essay "Moments in the Reception of Early Twentieth-Century German and Austrian Decorative Arts in the United States."

I would never recommend New Worlds to someone seeking an encyclopedic study of modern German art.  Nevertheless, the book does contain some useful information that may be of genuine interest to those who already possess some knowledge of the subject.  It might be particularly valuable to those planning a visit to the Neue Galerie on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue.

No comments:

Post a Comment