Deutsche Kunst II

At Busch-Reisinger

Every so often an administrative coup occurs in the art world in which some large-scale exhibition gets arranged, not according to school, cult, period, or what-have-you, but along lines of that universal artistic ideal which Malraux termed "the museum without walls." The old categorical approach is usually used, however, if not out of sheer inertia, at least for convenience's sake. For the current exhibition at Busch-Reisinger, however, the old method is most appropriate, for there are precious few canvases in the whole lot which transcend their particular philosophy, genre or gestalt.

This is the second part of two exhibitions on German art at Harvard; it begins where the other left off, with expressionism, at 1917, and continues to 1957.

The affair begins with a canvas by E. L. Kirchner which has long been a source of particular exasperation to me. Why Kirchner puts a cat in front of a mirror which conflicts with it and behind a figure which jumps behind it in terms of color, is a complete mystery. Once a painting functions as an entity, poetic licence is justified. But until it does the word is meaningless. This painting does not. If the term "expressionism" means something more than emotionalism, then there is more expression in a plum by Chardin. There is more expression, for that matter, in the study by George Kolbe which accompanies his excellent sculpture. The drawing is a modest, simple statement; one note on pitch is worth a whole cacophonous symphony, theory and all.

Otto Muller's Standing Nude in Landscape cannot be called cacophonous, but the element of good painting it in fact possesses only makes its faults doubly inexcusable. The figure, standing amidst branches, two of which are her arms, possesses all the spiritual truth of a chic cosmetics ad. Like the surrounding stuff by Schmidt-Rotluff, Rohlfs, Pechstein, et al, there is a point here, a point there, a little theory everywhere, but not so very much cohesive painting when all is said and done.

Dadaism is passe. There are few epitaphs less devastating for any school of art. In fact, any school which comes into the world shouting about revolutions and complete detachment can usually expect not to outlive its own boisterous exclamations. Nevertheless, most of the things here are not high Dada. The studies of El Lissitzky, Max Ernst, Moholy Nagy, Malewich and Hannah Hoch more often reflect a kind of experimentalism which hovers tenuously in the nether regions of design, just outside the gates of one muse or another. Every so often, of course, a Mondrian or a Klee comes along who makes something of it. Then cometh the rear guard which inevitably ends up, again, indebted to the theories and left with little else.

And so to the Bauhaus. Paul Klee is an artist who needs no post-scripts or excuses. His touch may become a trifle too casual at times but it never loses its integrity. Its poetry is always there to dwarf the importance of titles and methods. In short, his work stands of its own strength. A comparison of Klee's work with a wall of Kandinskys opposite, is a course in aesthetics all by itself. The similarities involved are sufficiently tangible to have linked the names of Klee and Kandinsky in the public eye. The differences, however, are more significant. Klee is the depth and Kandinsky the surface. One rigorously defies tampering with; the other might be abandoned to the Freudian analyst without major aesthetic loss. It would be wrong not to mention, along with Klee, another painter whose work commands a similar respect, Lonel Feininger.

The greater a work of art is, the less there ultimately is to say about it. Most of the output here, however, invites literary comment, explanation and even rhetoric; there has been much material on the subject in the past year and more is forthcoming. Some hardy soul who cares not at all that dealers are finding French art increasingly scarce might try his hand at figuring out what happened to the painter's geist in Germany since the days of Durer and Chranach. It may well turn out to be a tragedy in the best Sophoclean tradition.