The many masks of modern art
Very few things define the modern position so clearly as its notion that anger and rage are legitimate subjects for art. It would never have occurred to any painter before Goya, for instance, to have focused his wrathful attention upon what was wrong with this world. He would, rather, have striven to give form to an ideal, or to portray what was essentially good, beautiful, or interesting about human existence.
Michelangelo, it is true, thundered and railed against evil and corruption. But it was an Olympian sort of rage directed against human and demonic violations of the divine ideal, and toward the saving of human souls, and not the personal, vindictive kind that is often grounded in bitterness and despair.
But then, Michelangelo and the vast body of earlier artists had faith in a spiritual and cultural ideal that both supported them emotionally and gave theme , structure, and meaning to their art. Although there is some indication that Michelangelo's religious faith faltered at times toward the end, his cultural ideals still exercised control. Art, after all, was one thing, one's personal feelings and problems were quite another. An artist was a public figure with responsibilities to speak for all, not merely a private one speaking only for himself.
Goya himself, if truth be told, hesitated about violating the more classical traditions of art by letting his true feelings show - until, that is, the horrors of the Napoleonic War forced his hand. Even then, however, he didn't really commit himself until his late etchings and Black Paintings, the latter of which he painted strictly for himself upon the walls of his own home.
Prophetic as these works were, it took almost a full century before other artists could echo the depth of Goya's personal feelings (most particularly his rage) in their own art. And once again it was a war that helped bring that about.
It's not so much that World War I represented a turning point in world art - most change had already taken place during the preceding decade - as that it represented the end of many Western ideals and illusions. War, in particular, lost a great deal of its glamour, as did patriotism and nationalism. Political and other leaders were no longer automatically assumed to be wiser and better intentioned than those they led. And even such near-sacred things as family, home, parental respect, and education became subject to ruthless and often cynical reappraisal.
Art, of course, followed suit. Novels, poems, and plays increasingly predicated their identities upon exposing what was wrong, rather than upon detailing what was right. Anger, frustration, and a sense of betrayal were in the air, and with the erosion of cultural, religious, and political ideals, they could no longer be held in check. The visual arts were among the very first to reflect this change. In place of Romantic war paintings of cavalry charges with flying banners and brilliantly colorful uniforms, there began to appear starkly realistic and rage-filled paintings of the destruction, filth, horror, and pain of war. And in place of wonderfully elegant and wise-looking generals, kings, and political leaders, artists were painting derisive and brutal pictures of those who seized or held power for no other purpose than to serve themselves.
The Germans in particular turned their frustration and sense of betrayal into art of such ferocity that it remains unmatched by anything else of its kind in this century, with the exception of Picasso's Guernica, some of Rouault's early watercolors and prints, and a few of the more socially bitter murals painted by Orozco and Sequeiros in Mexico during the 1930s.
Of all the Germans, Otto Dix zeroed in most specifically on the horrors of war, and did so with such an uncompromising attitude, and such a sharp eye for detail, that his art leaves very little to the imagination. Although justly famous for his anti-war paintings, it is in his etchings that he most successfully and convincingly vented his rage. Although not as great by any means as Goya's series of etchings, The Disasters of War,m Dix's prints occasionally go even deeper than Goya's in portraying the sheer chaos and confusion of war.
Anger also played a very important role in the paintings and prints of Max Beckmann and Kaethe Kollwitz. Both, however, avoided the hysterical extremes into which Dix's art occasionally fell. Kollwitz especially was able to temper her anger with compassion for war's victims, and produced, as a result, a number of magnificent images that speak positively about human survival and hope.
But if Kollwitz was compassionate, another German, George Grosz, was slashing and vitriolic. More than any other twentieth-century artist - Picasso included - Grosz could distill a world of fury and contempt into a few lines, and end up with images that literally seethed with rage at human cruelty, hypocrisy, and indifference, and at the corrupt excesses of human society.
Grosz's drawings of post-World War I German society were so devastatingly effective that he was arrested three times and fined twice during the 1920s for his satirical attacks upon the authorities. His work became so dangerous to his own safety that with the rise of Hitler to power in 1933, he thought it wise to accept an offer to teach in New York.
It was a well-timed move. Based on what he had already directed against Hitler and those who supported him, it's highly unlikely that he would have survived Hitler's attentions, let alone have been permitted to continue working.
What made Grosz's drawings so effective was not only that they clearly pinpointed their subject's corruption, inhumanity, or hypocrisy, but that they also so successfully held these individuals up to ridicule and contempt. It's bad enough to be portrayed as vicious and evil. To also be portrayed as ridiculous and foolish is intolerable. And this becomes increasingly true the higher the subject stands in the social or political hierarchy.
Grosz could be relentless and unforgiving. He saw nothing redeeming, for instance, in the fact that a fat industrialist, whose workers were overworked and underpaid, could become a loving family man at home. Or that a Nazi storm trooper could wax sentimental over a flower after having smashed the windows of a Jewish grocery store.
Grosz made his point by creating a style of drawing that was at once simple and precise, and that permitted him to seek out and focus upon the tiny telling detail, the particular fragment of reality that would give both interest and authenticity to his characters and their environment. This style could define character, indicate age and social position, pinpoint psychological states, underline a moral, or remain devastatingly detached - and all with an absolute minimum of lines. He had a talent approaching genius for drawing, and yet he was at his very best only when he was consumed with rage.
Proof of this can be seen in his later work executed in the United States. While all of it is technically accomplished, if not brilliant, it lacks the concentrated focus and fire of the work he did while surrounded by the villains of German society, and by the victims of both World War I and the Nazi Party.
His 1921 ink drawing Red Army represents Grosz more as an illustrator and as a compassionate humanist than as an angry and acidic satirist. As such, it pinpoints the more quiet and benign side of his creative personality, and presents us with a ''slice of life'' rather than a sharply pointed barb. It is a study of men working that seems innocent enough at first, until we notice the gun in the foreground, and the two armed men in the back. Beyond that, however, we have no real clue as to what is going on, except that the work's title allows us to assume that the men are communists preparing a trench or barricade.
I must admit I'm not particularly interested in what actually is going on. For me the real subject of this drawing is the tangy and very real flavor of humanity Grosz has managed to distill into and project through a handful of simple lines and dots. And the sense of character and urgency he has been able to convey through a composition that seems as simple and easy as child's play.