The twenties for the most part were a blur, and by blur I mean that everything in society, culture, politics and art was consolidating and speeding forward at a breakneck pace. The War was over, but the ramifications of its outcome were still being felt. The “winning” side had decided to punish the German people so badly that they would never again have the will or means to begin another war in Europe. This was done through exorbitant reparations and stringent economic sanctions, basically assuring that the German economy would languish and die. There was no understanding that causing such instability would be disastrous to the new German government, their very fragile economy and fractured society. Shortsighted views of human nature would prove to be one of the major reasons for the rapid rise of Nationalism, particularly among the classes most affected by the economic fallout. In fact during the 1920s fervent Nationalism was on the rise all through Europe, and it came hand in hand with the so-called “Return to Order,” a nostalgic “movement” looking to reclaim a “golden age” of respectability and social cohesiveness. You have to understand that there were all kinds of Modern-looking organizations spouting reactionary blinkered beliefs and outright prejudices. Italy, Spain and Germany were all experiencing the rise of dangerous warrior classes which were made up of men and women ready to fight and die for warped ideals of purity and power. (And these two things, purity and power, seem to come up again and again when we look at the Modern world.) It wasn’t long before the “right of purity” rhetoric began to be taken seriously, especially as Western countries fanned out across the world looking to exploit new trade routes, newly discovered natural resources and cheap (slave) labor. Modern modes of travel made such economic expansion possible. Southeast Asia, Japan, India, Africa, the Middle East, were all becoming more and more important to the life of Western Civilization, and a real nasty bit of competition began to manifest among those countries. The supremacy of one’s race, country or alliances made foreign intrigues seem like a natural right. Needless to say dominos were being set in place.
In Russia the new Communist government was starting to look a little less like a Marxist Republic and lot more like a strong man dictatorship. They were trying to consolidate the republic while fighting famine, armed resistance funded by European governments and civil dissent in the failing cities. The country was fracturing under the strain. Stalin saw this as an opportunity and came to power through a “house cleaning” that was miles away from anything in the Communist Manifesto and more like a chapter right out of Caligula’s diaries. All the while the USSR was busy building its manufacturing and economic capabilities in an effort to become a Modern technological world power. Russia was also making inroads into China exporting the “revolution” to a country torn by poverty, civil war and deep political unrest. It was in the 1920s that Mao began his rise by using constantly shifting military/political alliances to gain and consolidate power. In the United States Prohibition was instituted with an amendment to the Constitution. Suddenly the entire country had become dry. No alcohol served here, at least not over the counter. The new law transformed the once local underground, creating a nationwide shadow economy run by a newly empowered and very organized crime syndicate. A whole new chapter of illicit social business was practically formed overnight. America’s Puritan heart, once again, guided the nation into a Protestant world of sin and redemption, good and evil, right and wrong. All of these changes show that a radical reformation of society was happening around the world, all at once, so it seemed.
In the meantime the social and cultural worlds were exploring new indulgent experiences. The twenties, as it turned out, were about to turn into the Roaring Twenties. Stock markets soared, money was on the ground, the Arts flourished, people got loaded, laid and languished. The twenties presaged the sixties; lots of sex, drugs, but instead of Rock and Roll, they had Jazz. The rich became famous and the famous tried to get rich. Youth was sexy, skirts were short and the Charleston was all the rage. There was the rise of Hollywood, the proliferation of air travel, radio and transatlantic telephone communications making the world seem smaller. Photography was becoming ubiquitous along with the rise of magazine publishing. Advertising was quickly becoming an art form. In fact you could say that everything that our society esteems today came from the consolidation and institutionalization of Modernity and Modernism in the 1920s. Paris was still the place to be especially for American artists with avant garde ambitions. Most all of them had buggered off to Europe where the moral climate was more conducive to bohemian culture. African Americans found Paris more receptive, less overtly racist and absolutely mad for their cultural contributions. American writers and artists gathered at Gertrude Stein’s to learn, to engage and to make waves. The truth is that America’s Lost Generation was not so much lost as they were banished from Puritan America. So, they all went to the city where they could find encouragement, get involved in the conversation and mix it up with other like minded souls.
At the beginning of the twenties Paris was busy looking for the next big thing, the next party. This is what happens, or at least it used to, in the cultural capitals of the world. Dada was losing its edge looking a bit tired and predictable to a new generation searching to define themselves. Andre Breton, a theorist, author and publisher, had been a part of that earlier Dada crowd, a kind of Johnny-Come-Lately to the movement. He was eloquent, combative and provocative. He liked the experimental nature of Dada, but found that it left something out of the mix. Dada was an entertaining and clever critique of culture and society, but little else. Its artists were content to point out the absurdity of Life and Art without risking themselves in a real way. Breton thought that there should be something more to it. Something that could and should provide a deeper experience of the strange fractured nature of Modern existence. He wanted art to explain and exploit the feelings and needs of the Modern individual, to examine our very primitive urges and desires. Needless to say when looking at the problem of Art from this perspective Sigmund Freud’s theories were liberating. His work delivered insights and solutions for the way that people lived their lives in the highly bureaucratic, highly stylized Modern world. Breton began to experiment with Freud’s ideas of consciousness and unconscious living, the dream life, the darker more shaded world of human passion. After all, this is what the 1920s were all about, the liberation of the Id, the release and confrontation of one’s inner desires and demons after facing death and destruction.
“It was only fitting that Freud should appear with his critique on the dream. In fact, it is incredible that this important part of psychic activity has still attracted so little attention. (For, at least from man’s birth to his death, thought presents no solution of continuity; the sum of dreaming moments – even taking into consideration pure dream alone, that of sleep – is from the point of view of time no less than the sum of moments of reality, which we shall confine to waking moments.) I have always been astounded by the extreme disproportion in the importance and seriousness assigned to events of the waking moments and to those of sleep by the ordinary observer. Man, when he ceases to sleep, is above all at the mercy of his memory, and the memory normally delights in feebly retracing the circumstance of the dream for him, depriving it of all actual consequence and obliterating the only determinant from the point at which he thinks he abandoned this constant hope, this anxiety, a few hours earlier. He has the illusion of continuing something worthwhile. The dream finds itself relegated to a parenthesis, like the night. And in general it gives no more counsel than the night.”
Andre Breton, “The First Surrealist Manifesto.” 1924
This kind of thinking was taking the cultural world, particularly the younger artists, by storm. It seemed to open a new unchartered world of illicit passions and theoretical defiance. There was something Romantic and sexy about the inner struggle. Paintings, both abstract and representational, took on the appearance of “dreamscapes,” weird and woolly depictions of the absurdity of Modern life, Modern passions. Breton hoped that this work would be made through “pure expression,” a purity that came about from thought without reason, existence without control, passion without morality. He was after the very life of passions stirring beneath the facade of civilized existence. For Breton the unconscious is where art came from, where art was made. All through this series we’ve come across this mania by the early Modernists to hook into “purity,” and it seems it was also rife in society as well – purity of blood, race, country, allegiance, expression, art, culture – you name it. And it’s the idea of “purity” that the later Postmodernists would take to task.
The painting above by Max Ernst is classic Surrealism. Sexy Maxy hits all the highlights; machine culture, classical mythology, Modern abstraction, incidental lighting, antithetical collage, empty dreamscape. It’s strangeness comes from the dissimilar and fragmented imagery all clustered together in the same pictorial non-space (or as we might say today Junk Space.) It’s a “grab bag of arch references” all designed to make the viewer question what’s going on in the picture, a “Where’s Waldo” of unconscious distraction. There is no “correct” viewing, no “point” explicitly laid out in the picture itself, just an image that cuts into our preconceived notions of propriety and comfort. The logic of A to B to C has been deliberately thrown into turmoil. Nothing clicks into place, and it’s up to the viewer to find connections and meanings in their own subconscious, their own understanding of the meaning of images. (A very similar use of “meaning” would become a prominent strategy in much of Postmodern painting.) Additionally, Surrealism was heavily sexual filled with anxiety and pain. There are plenty of references like this in Ernst’s painting, and I’ll leave you to it. Death also plays a role in the “unconscious” life, and I dare say that you’ll find that referenced in this painting as well.
“Most of the pain we experience is of a perceptual order, perception either of the urge of unsatisfied instincts or of something in the external world which may be painful in itself or may arouse painful anticipations in the psychic apparatus and is recognised by it as “danger.” The reaction to these claims of impulse and these threats of danger, a reaction in which the real activity of the psychic apparatus is manifested, may be guided correctly by the pleasure-principle or by the reality-principle which modifies this.”
Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” 1920.
It is perception itself that so many of the Surrealists latched on to. Where does perception begin? What do we perceive? How do we perceive? How does it define our reality? For the Surrealists our “expected” ways of seeing and understanding the world were up for questioning. But even more pressing was how one’s perception would make one feel, how it could make one react. The uncertainty, the fragility is paramount in Surrealist work. It’s why so many of them screwed around with the standard techniques of realism and illusion. Nothing is as it seems. This feeling was part of the realization that humanity was becoming more expendable with every head count, with every charge over the trenches, every shelled village. The Surrealists were desperate to understand the moment, the aftermath of survival. They were fascinated by the ferocity that lay within the human psyche and how quickly it merged with technology, how quickly it accepted these mechanical extensions, how quickly it overlooked the consequences. In Fritz Lange’s movie Metropolis, these themes are all played out. The faceless legions servicing the machines, the melding of technology and human life, the tragic consequences of Modernity itself. And for painting Picasso’s ferocious masked prostitutes were the order of the day, more so than the clarity and order of Malevich’s geometries or Matisse’s nostalgic reveries. Demoiselles D’Avignon, would be the precedent for Surrealism, a precedent that Breton freely promoted.
“Le Signe de la mort”
Paris, January–mid-February 1927
Oil and aqueous medium on glue-sized canvas, 28 3/4 x 36 1/4” (73 x 92 cm)
Private collection. Courtesy MaxmArt, Mendrisio, SwitzerlandMaxmArt, Mendrisio, Switzerland. © 2008 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Truthfully, I can do without the melting watches, empty theatrical townscapes, and limp phallic hoses. But there is one painter that I think is truly wonderful. Miro was able to bridge the gap between process and psychology, experimenting with new forms and materials all through his career. He was particularly attuned to materials, to the way they worked in the paintings, the way the unconscious would immediately gravitate to the look and feel of things. In the show at MOMA a few years ago we got a taste of Miro’s experimental work. It looked and felt contemporary in every way, which I found a bit disappointing. There didn’t seem to be any stylistic distance between what I was looking at in the galleries of Chelsea and what was on the walls of MOMA, paintings made 80 years ago. How could that be? Truly, the only real difference was the scale. Where had we gone so wrong? Why had we not moved on? Seriously, if these had been 7 foot paintings made in Brooklyn two weeks ago they could easily have been featured at Gagosian and sold for scads of money. Oh well, c’est le vie, POMOs.
For now let’s have a look at this repro. First, there is the raw ground. Not many paintings of that time let the ground be in just this way. Miro’s scraped a brush lightly over it, just marring the pristine surface with a bit of white paint. There’s something about the beauty of raw linen, yes, like paint straight out of the can? But what’s really ‘new’ and antithetical to Modernism of the time is the composition itself, the spareness of the “things,” the “imagery” that’s collaged onto the painting. Here the abstract nature of process, the multiple meanings inherent in the happenstance of the forms, begins to play with our unconscious. We have to connect, engage our subjective lives to get meaning. The cryptic phrase over the red spill adds some heat to the picture, the cross and the number enigmatic and final somehow. Miro is letting the paint, the specific color, work like found objects, all the while directing us to mortality. It seems absurd, but Miro uses that, makes the absurd visually poetic. The spareness of this painting, the rawness of its means, are its beauty and its immediate power. No wonder Miro became the go-to guy for the Abstract Expressionists.
Consolidation and Acceptance
The Roaring Twenties were the decade when Modernity and Modernism finally gelled in the consciousness of society. This is how the world was going to look from that moment on. All of the experimentation and speculation had been done and now began the process of fleshing out this new life. We can also see the coming critique of Modernism, the beginning of a backlash for its failings. The Frankfurt School was formed. Husserl and Heidegger were the philosphers of the day. Adorno, Benjamin and Arendt were beginning their lives as thinkers. All of these writers would later become central figures in our understanding and practice of Postmodernism. Artaud was producing new plays at the Alfred Jarry. The Ballet Russe was working with Stravinsky. It’s really quite astounding, the depth and breadth of cultural progress! For the most part you could hang a sign at the beginning of the decade that says the 19th Century ends here. When we look back most of us working today have to understand that the basis of what we do, the very foundation of what we are as artists begins here - the need for “expression,” the questioning of perception, the reliance on materials and objects, the beginning of the age of the photograph, advertising culture. All of it.
I’ll end this post in 1931 with a bit more popular culture of the time. After the market crash and the start of the Fascist rise, the movie Frankenstein immediately invaded the imaginations of people around the world. Mary Shelley’s harsh Romantic story struck a chord. In the movie a “mad scientist” creates a man from dead body parts and brings him to life using technological wonders. The revived corpse then goes off to wreak havoc among the populace killing or maiming any and all who had a hand in his current damnation. The monster, feared though he was, was a victim, a tragic anti-hero of Modernity itself. People went nuts for this movie. I mean seriously nuts. It was a blockbuster. But for me the movie’s become a kind of turning point in my view of the Modern/Postmodern divide. You have to understand that by 1931 the survivors of the Great War generation were now middle aged with families of their own. The roaring 20s had been good for populations after all, and there was a bit of a baby boom. But the Great War was still there, still to be seen everywhere one went, not only in the remaining destruction and political intrigues, but in the people themselves. There were thousands and thousands of the “walking wounded” missing arms, legs, faces, still experiencing psychoses and illness, all of them trying desperately to fit back into the populations. All looking to get back home. If they didn’t have families they were shunted aside, left to fend for themselves, a veritable tribe of “monsters” reminding the world around them of the cost of Modernity. There were many artists greatly affected by this new world and they painted it, painted the brutality of it. Additionally, all through the 20s there was the spectre of things to come, that the so-called civilizing aspect of Modern society, were a sham. Beneath the calm face of acceptance and respectability monsters lurked. No one wanted to believe that such atrocities, such destruction could have ever happened or would every happen again. The refrain was said over and over in the media of the time. When Frankenstein appeared on the silver screens it hooked into those memories, hooked into the possibility that the ferocious destruction of life could happen again. The Monster could rise from the ashes and set the world on fire once more.
“You are in the wrong,” replied the fiend; “and instead of threatening, I am
content to reason with you. I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not
shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and
triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities
me? You would not call it murder if you could precipitate me into one of those
ice-rifts and destroy my frame, the work of your own hands. Shall I respect man
when he condemns me? Let him live with me in the interchange of kindness, and
instead of injury I would bestow every benefit upon him with tears of gratitude
at his acceptance. But that cannot be; the human senses are insurmountable
barriers to our union. Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery. I
will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and
chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear
inextinguishable hatred. Have a care; I will work at your destruction, nor
finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, 1818.