Ernő Kállai’s “Vision and the Law of Form” (1930)
Translated from the German by Steven Lindberg. From Between Two Worlds:
A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930.
(The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).
• • •
The turn away from Impressionism was also a turn away from the visual appearance of things and toward their essence, from perspective to vision, from representation to construction. Art was no longer content to produce a perspective from cross sections of nature. Art came to realize that it bore the experience of totality in its own blood and spirit. As the raging force of primal urges and as the harmony of objective law. As Expressionism it rooted up all the passions of color and as Constructivism it revealed the most delicate relationships of number and scale among surface, space, and form. If we trace it back to its first definitive beginning in the work of Cézanne and van Gogh, its first portents in the lightning flashes of Redon and Ensor, then this much-debated art has passed through fifty years of evolution and through other unforeseeable possibilities. Even so, from every rooftop one hears the critical cackling of crows: the isms are dead, back to nature, back to reality. Granted, visionary depth and strict laws of construction are ideals that in the stilted intellectual alienation of our social forces — no matter whether they are petty bourgeois, chic, or Marxist — demand from every painter and sculptor an unusual degree of intellectual distance and the courage to be isolated. These are virtues that are less frequent today than ever before. Their representatives in the arts are incomparably rarer than the academics and genre painters of modern stripe. Nothing is easier than to overlook or make light of the relatively few examples of abstract design among the generous offering of easily absorbed realisms.
This makes it all the more urgent to demonstrate that there are also outsiders at work who fulfill the visionary and constructional aspects of art with new creative impulses and convincingly disprove the banal chatter about the end of Expressionism and “isms of that sort.” The exhibition at Ferdinand Moller’s gallery shows only a limited selection of very recent works. Fundamental creations are missing — like the works of Hans  Arp, Meyer-Amden and Ozenfant, Mondrian, Lissitzky, and Gabo, to name but a few. The impression is nevertheless lively. Rich in stimulating forms that reveal the decisive impulse in the essence and consciousness of our time. Their technical vivacity. Their utopian faith in the bold intellectual perfection of life. At the same time, though, their expanded and penetrating insight into physical and spiritual qualities. Its hotly overflowing feeling of being deeply connected to every creature in a community of beings. Human beings are spiritual powers, perceivers, and constructors of high rank. And still they function in the same circulation of the natural forces of blood, sex, and hunger, of reproduction and death that animals and plants do. We have recognized — as artists, writers, and metaphysicians have long since suspected — that our most literal daily actions are permeated and fatefully codetermined by the irrationalities of the subconscious. What spaces and dimensions, hitherto imagined at most only by visionaries, are ready to enter into scientific and practical consciousness? What kind of new questions, new abysses of existence, lurk behind them as unseen directors of our reality, which we consciously try to master in ever bolder systems of order, which we tirelessly seek to civilize? We carry all the urgent currents and nocturnal inventions of the formless in us, and all the luminosity of organizing thought. Heaven and hell — with their transfiguring and obscuring spirits, with their saints and demons — have more effect on us now than in any period since the Middle Ages. The difference is simply that we localize and label these forces differently. We do not believe in gods and devils, but we are aware of enormous dialectical tensions within existence — social tensions are merely one resultant of them. We know the creative aspect of contradiction, the fundamental condition of the dissonant pairing of instinct and spirit, of chaos and construction in the structure of our world. This image of the world, which explodes the confines of the bourgeois settlement of 50 percent materialism-idealism, was buried for centuries until Nietzsche brought it to its violent new dawn, and now it will celebrate unimaginable triumphs of culture. The decisive creative achievements that have been accomplished in the visionary and constructivist art of the past fifty years are already its triumph. A magnificent advance in several ranks and stages: Les Fauves, Die Brücke, the futurist manifesto, Der Blaue Reiter, Der Sturm, L’Esprit nouveau, De Stijl in Holland, Obmochu, the Realist manifesto in Moscow, and last but not least the Bauhaus…a tremendous series of artistic creations and stimuli.
The exhibition at the Mbller gallery is dedicated mainly to more recent examples of this development. The simultaneous presence of several representative works by masters like Kirchner, Nolde, Schmidt-Rottluff, Heckel, Otto Muller, Feininger, Kandinsky, and Klee is intended to attest to how much the work of younger artists is indebted to these pioneers. This debt does not take the form of personal dependencies; rather, a trenchant breakthrough into world of realistic and impressionistic pictorial forms was necessary in order to make the field fertile for a freely blossoming intellectual landscape of art. Kandinsky and Klee are not merely pioneers, they are already productive figures in this landscape. Their closeness makes particularly clear the new turn that the visionary element has taken in the work of younger painters like Kuhr and Winter. It is not a romantic rapture over distant worlds — no ghosts any longer — but is instead dominated by an awareness of the real presence of irrational elements pushing and germinating inside us, in our flesh and blood. Held together, condensed. In Klee’s work the element of the miraculous is still motivated by sorcerer’s masks and physiognomies, far removed from the earth. Even the landscape, the figure of the real motif, becomes fairytale-like, dreamlike. In the work of Kuhr and Winter even the most concealed flicker of the soulful has its own fleshy, as it were, sensual closeness and physical lust. A new naturalism is afoot, certainly not one of bourgeois realist perspective but of universal perception. A stripping away of studied superiority, as if the complicated circumstances of our lives, conflicts, achievements, our artfully constructed bridges from birth to  death were in essence something else, something “better” or “more perfect” than the living space and life practice that characterize the fates of animals and plants. In the work of Fritz Winter in particular one sees forms that are reminiscent of microorganisms and that contain a sensibility that establishes space and image, occasionally achieving the monumental (his Bird’s Head!) Behind all the external limits and value judgments of our reality a great unified stream of more profound life runs rampant — no less effective, no less real. Otto Coester explodes the shells or makes them transparent; the spaces of his etchings and drawings are populated with turbulent reality, enlivened by shapes and fates that we have carried with us in our blood, in our forms, since the beginning of time. No more sunken stars, no more sunken bells. The great enigma of existence is truly revealed only in the visible.
Even when it appears in forms of ultimate simplicity and constructional stability. The exhibition presents a considerable number of works that know how to affect the deepest sources of the lyrical and the musical in us, even though they are dominated by a clear, logical tension of the pictorial idea. Take the woodcuts of Mataré. They superimpose a few planar contrasts and animal contours in infinite distance as a deeply concealed animal peace: broad and deep. What naturalist ever placed us so lovingly at the heart of nature as Mataré has, with his simple forms of the most austere restraint? Or look at the paintings of Schlemmer, Nebel, Muche, Neugeboren, Hoerle, Seiwert, and Bortoluzzi. In varying degrees of depth and delicacy or strength, all of them share an absolutely transparent, often architecturally conceived order of colors and forms. Surfaces are laid bare equally, which allows all the relationships of spatial depth to resolve into a two-dimensional plane, and this plane remains flat because it is compressed and self-contained in the total rhythmic correspondence of all its parts to one another. Rhythm: it runs through the circulation of colors and forms in these paintings like an invigorating pulse, like an intensity that both stimulates and regulates.
Rhythm: the common denominator of such extreme contrasts in the exhibition like Coester, Kuhr, Scholz, Tinzmann, and Winter, on the one hand, and Baumeister, Vordemberge-Gildewart, Nerlinger, and Engelien, on the other. Here a visionary passion that flows like nature; there a coolness that is enthusiastic about reason. Precision in the spirit of the engineer, a joy in movement that is stimulated by sports and technology, hard, energetic tension. Is it still proper to speak of abstractions where the relationships to the most immediate reality of our time are so clear? Nerlinger’s industrial painting, with its oppressive superiority of object over human being, reveals social issues more mercilessly and more fundamentally than all the so-called Proletkult paintings of the new art of the poor. The fact that paintings by Nerlinger or Vordemberge-Gildewart could be made into posters without further ado is not the ultimate advantage of their appropriateness, mirroring and intensification, even a utopian and optimistic transfiguration of our technological and intellectual civilization. Vordemberge-Gildewart in particular brings extreme reduction and condensation to formulas that could be considered the aesthetic analogy to the whole obsession with planning and construction of our age.
A wise old saying notes that extreme contrasts converge in their essentials. An Expressionist like Fritz Winter is contrasted with a Constructivist like Vordemberge-Gildewart. It becomes clear that both the most profound animal contemplation and highest intellectual exuberance of art, both vision and architectural form, must be enlivened by the same heartbeat if they wish to grow to become the purest expression of themselves: of rhythm. The circle is closed.
[Originally published as “Vision und Formgesetz,” from Ferdinand Möller Gallery catalogue (1930)]