New York — Modern art has had its share of critics, but none as virulent as Adolf Hitler. Whatever art he didn't like -- and that included everything at odds with his vision of a romantically idealized Germany -- was branded degenerate and banned.
German artists whose works fell under this ban -- and they included some of the great names of 20th-century art -- were forbidden ever to paint or sculpture again. Most of them complied, a few went underground and continued to work in total anonymity, and others found employment in the less sensitive areas of commercial and industrial art.
Among this last group was a young surrealist named Juro Kubicek. Of German and Hungarian extraction, he was just beginning to make a name for himself in Germany when his art came to the attention of the Nazis in 1936. Forbidden to continue as a surrealist,he managed to survive until the end of the war as a graphic and exhibition designer.
But worse was still to come. His Berlin studio and all but seven of his prewar works were destroyed in a 1942 air raid. Undeterred, he began all over again after the war with a series of paintings and photo collages. The latter in particular received wide notice in Germany and placed him once again in the center of German cultural life.
A well-rounded selection of these photo collages is on view at the Prakapas Gallery here. Chosen from those executed in the 1940s and 1950s and limited mainly to works in color, these handsome, gentle, and provocative images should help restore Kubicek to his rightful place beside Hannah Hoech and Raoul Hausmann as one of the more original voices of German surrealism.
Surrealism's tone of voice in the first decade of its existence between the world wars was stark and uncompromising. What wit there was came out extremely sharp and pointed. And color tended to be garish and acidlike.
None of these qualities exist in Kubicek's post-World War II work, which is characterized by gentle wit, wry humor, and elegant color. In place of acidity and garishness we find elegance and sophistication. In place of starkness and shock, we find mild melancholy and paradox. We are, in fact, confronted by an overall vision of art and of life closer to the imaginative inventiveness of a Paul Klee or Joan Miro, than to the more typical surrealistic attitudes of a Max Ernst or Salvador Dali.
While this raises questions about his earlier work -- questions we will probably never be able to answer fully unless a secret cache of his things comes to light -- it doesn't in any way create problems in responding to the qualities in his more recent photo collages. While these may be minor in the overall scheme of 20th-century modernism, they are also very much on target as far as that same modernism is concerned.
Because these works date from after World War II when surrealism's momentum and impact had already practically ended, they not only articulate the surrealist point of view, but also comment on it from the perspective of historical hindsight.
Of the nearly 50 works on view, only a small percentage exist as straight expositions of surrealist principle. The rest, while true to its general vision , take mild exception to that movement's tendency toward exaggerated self-importance.
There is a bemused quality in many of these collages which one can safely assume comes from a veteran artist's reconsiderations of the intense seriousness of his youth. How else can one explain his delicious use of De Chirico figures to parody that artist's early surrealist masterpieces? Or the placement of a rooster's head and comb on a young woman's hair to function both as hat and as a sly dig at Max Ernst?
This quality of wry humor is also present in several pieces in which disparate elements are placed in incongruous relationships to one another to fashion -- or seem to fashion -- landscapes or figure compositions. In other instances, snippets of photographs are extended and transformed into more complex forms through the simple but effective device of adding a few pencil lines and a flat area of color.
In a way it's a kind of magic. But a magic created by a magician every bit as enchanted as we are at what pops out of his hat or results from his sleight of hand.
My first reaction to "The Smiling Eye" was that it was a very typical surrealist piece. It has all the elements of paradox, ambiguity, disassociation , and open space so beloved of the surrealists. But the more I studied it, the less certain I became that that label fit.
It's just too witty and elegant, too wry and equisitely designed, to belong to that category. There is human life and warmth behind its startling facade, and none of the sense of aching alienation so typical of surrealism.
And that is true of all but at most six of the other photo collages in the exhibition. The more one views them, the more delighted one becomes with them -- or at least with those which strike a personal chord. One doesn't normally smile while viewing a show of surrealist art, but I did at this one.
This exhibition will reamin at the Prakapas Gallery through July 11.