Post-War Humanism Revisited at MoMA

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Jan Muller, Walpurgisnacht – Faust I, 1956, oil on canvas

The devil is in the details in Jan Müller’s grandiose painting  Walpurgisnacht—Faust I (1956), which is the centerpiece of an exhibition called Soldier, Spectre, Shaman at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition – curated byLucy Gallun, Assistant Curator, Department of Photography, and Sarah Suzuki, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints – is a rare peek into MoMA’s collection of post World War II figurative art. What bonds these works is their concern for humanity in an age of crisis. The artists in this exhibition express sadness, confusion, anger, and complex reactions, as a result of being witnesses to the horrors of the second deadly world war.

Leonard Baskin, The Hydrogen Man, 1954, Woodcut

Leonard Baskin, The Hydrogen Man, 1954, woodcut

Being harbingers of visual culture, these artists evoked the turmoil that was reflective of a collective consciousness. Images such as Leonard Baskin’s The Hydrogen Man (1954) and Shōmei Tōmatsu’s photographs taken after the Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki, are haunting reminders of the ghastly destruction that humans have created and impart upon each other. These works were poignant reminders of the fresh wounds still seeping from the horrors of WWII. Giacometti’s and Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures are some of the best examples illustrating the absurd nature of war.

Another artist whose inclusion in the show is a damning indictment of war is the Japanese surrealist Chimei Hamada. Hamada was a soldier in the second Sino-Japanese War and his powerful series of etchings from 1954 draw disturbing and emotional references to horrific events during the war, particularly, the Nanking Massacre.

If this show reminds you of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1959 exhibition New Images of Man, you’re correct in your assessment. Some of these artists are enjoying the limelight inside the museum, where their work had not been viewed in such a manner since the 1959 exhibition curated by Peter Selz. Francis Bacon, Leonard Baskin, Alberto Giacometti, Jan Müller, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Germaine Richier who appear Soldier, Spectre, Shaman, were also exhibited in New Images of Man.

Selz’s show was controversial for a few reasons. It premiered during the heyday of the Museum’s burgeoning interest in Abstract Expressionism; and it focused on grotesque and often unsettling imagery. In fact, after the show came down, MoMA held Dorothy Miller’s famed 16 Americans survey and again returned to its course for showing Abstract Expressionism above figurative art.

Unfortunately, New Images of Man and Soldier, Spectre, Shaman, didn’t truly examine American Figurative Expressionism, the movement that was parallel to Abstract Expressionism and typically addressed issues of personal struggle and the body in conflict. Only two Figurative Expressionist artists, Jan Müller and Leon Golub, were in Selz’s show and only Müller is in the current exhibition. The inclusion of important artists (also in MoMA’s collection) like Bob Thompson, Lester Johnson, Nancy Spero, Irving Kriesnerg, and The Rhino Horn Group, would have shown an alternative mode of American art with the same staying power as Abstract Expressionism. However, it lacked the outspoken champions that their Abstract counterparts did.

Especially missed in Soldier, Spectre, Shaman, are Golub’s grotesque and epic paintings from the 1950’s of burnt men, which sum up the degradation of human nature. Golub’s signature process of building up his canvases in thick layers of paint and then chiseling away at the image, signifies the destruction of the psyche. Other strong additions would be Nancy Spero’s “War Series” and Bob Thompson, whose bright palette showed a concern for the nature between good and evil. Lester Johnson’s dark monochromatic paintings of metaphysical alienation within the urban environment would have also been a strong addition to this survey. Irving Kriesberg who was included in Dorothy Miller’s 1952 exhibition 15 Americans made paintings that were deeply concerned with the lingering implications of war and social justice on society at large. Each of the Rhino Horn artists, especially Benny Andrews, Jay Milder, Peter Dean, June Leaf, Peter Passuntino and Nicholas Sperakis, would have fit within the show’s theme particularly well.

Among the Figurative Expressionists, Jan Müller was sort of a patriarchal figure, having returned to the figure early on in his short but prolific career. Müller, was in a struggle against time, and perhaps that is why the story of Faust partly appealed to him. Having fled from Nazi Germany, Müller developed a heart condition that resulted in his having one of the earliest heart valve replacements. Müller died from heart complications when he was only 36 years old. In Walpurgisnacht – Faust I (1956), tells the story of Walpurgis Night, in the Harz mountains, where witches hold a Bacchanalia in honor of evil and demonic powers. The devil brings Faust there to distract him from his love of Gretchen, by thrusting him into a sexual plane. An overarching theme in Jan Müller’s work is, as Meyer Shapiro wrote in the 1985 catalog for Jan Müller: Major Paintings 1956-57, at the Oil & Steel Gallery, in New York; “the counterparts of the divine and the demonic in anonymous humanity.”

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Jackson Pollock, Untitled, 1947, guache, india ink, screen print

Elsewhere in the museum, a concise and highly recommended Jackson Pollock survey shows some of the artist’s early work being particularly socially engaged. One striking example is an untitled screen print from 1947 that depicts a familiar war scene of bodies clashing through a violent embrace of line and form. In the foreground, a clearly visible body lies lifeless. Pollock, was included in Selz’s New Images of Man and was indeed part of the zeitgeist that art needed to respond to the culture at large.

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