Henryk Berlewi’s “The International Exhibition in Düsseldorf” (1922)

Translated from the Polish by Wanda Kemp-Welch.  From Between

Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes,

1910-1930.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 2002).

• • •


At the end of May, in the large commercial building of Leonhard Tietz in Düsseldorf, the First International Exhibition of Modern Art was opened with great ceremony.  A dozen nations were represented.  It seemed that all these people from different, faraway countries came to the town on the river Rhine in order to shake hands fraternally and to clear the path for a new art emerging from the chaos.  Antagonisms of a non-artistic nature have all but disappeared for the good of one great cause: art.

The fact that the exhibition is hosted not in some traditional Kunstpalast or other “Pantheon of art,” reeking of the old, but in a building belonging to Mercury, ought to be treated with great enthusiasm.

It shows that the new art is slowly breaking away from the mortuaries called “museums,” or “art salons” and is erupting with unstoppable force into our everyday lives, becoming an article as necessary to us as any other on sale in Tietz’s department store.

As for the character of the works, their overall standard, and the size of the exhibition, it has to be admitted that given the state of contemporary communication, the organizers (Das Junge Rheinland) gathered together a body of material significant both in terms of quantity and quality.  Der Sturm has to a large extent contributed to this.  The [398] exhibition lacks a uniform character.  In addition to Impressionism, one can see almost all the movements of the last decade here, such as Neo-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, Constructivism, and a whole range of variants on these movements.  The exhibition can be regarded as an attempt at reviewing and taking stock of the achievements of the new art so far.  The great differentiation of forms apparent at the exhibition can be explained by 1) the fast pace of the development of art in recent years, and, 2) its uneven pace — different,countries are at different stages in the development of the new art.  For instance, white in France or Russia Cubism has reached its peak and then been transformed into new systems (Suprematism, Constructivism, Purism), in Germany so-called Expressionism lingers on (the symptoms of its death throes are already apparent: Dadaism, the Novembergruppe).

It would seem that in the search for new plastic forms all warfare should cease.  But it is not so.  Differences in opinion are insurmountable and innovators do not care for compromises.  The reason that agreement is difficult is that while one group is more advanced in its development, another, perhaps also regarded as “progressive,” has not in fact managed to free itself from parochialism.  The notion of progress in art has until now been entirely relative and usually subject to local conditions.  This kind of particularism in art could have no rationale.  Recently, in some countries, artists have shown the will to break down barriers, to have mutual moral and material support, to have a universal exchange of values, and to engage in common action.  The internationalization of art — art belonging to the whole of humanity — has turned out to be an unavoidable necessity.  The Düsseldorf exhibition is the best illustration of clashes and divergences within the contemporary art world, as well as being the most persuasive argument for the necessity of uniting all, hitherto isolated, creative individuals into one big collective.  French art, dominant both in the quality of the works and in progress, is represented here by the leading Cubists and Post-Cubists, such as Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger, [Louis] Marcoussis, [Georges] Braque, [Pablo] Picasso.  Everyone knows the role they have played in the recent breakthrough in art.  Of particular historical importance are Picasso’s discoveries in the analysis of form.  Only in France, with its culture of pure painting, free of literary content, could it be emancipated from alien elements and rise to the heights of abstract (non-objective) forms.  For instance Léger’s City, a large-scale picture in which the rhythm and dynamics of the contemporary city are rendered by non-objective (in the sense of Realist) — but at the same time real (in the sense of non-objective) — forms, already stands on the threshold of the new era in art.

Besides France, a leading place in today’s art, although not well represented in this exhibition, belongs to Russia.  Tatlin, the Suprematist Malevich, and some other Russian artists are missing.  Those exhibiting belong rather to the center and represent the tendency of, let us say, “objective aestheticism”: Ivan Puni, [Ksenia] Boguslavskaia, [K.] Zalit, [Pavel] Tchelitchew.  Amongst the more radical we should include Rodchenko and Lissitzky, whose Prouns have lately been the topic of much discussion.  Kandinsky occupies a separate place among the Russians, not recognized by his compatriots (of the Left or Right) and adored by the Germans (en masse). Then there is Aleksandr Archipenko, whose serious interest in form became stuck in ultra-aestheticism.

The most radical group of artists at the exhibition is the Constructivists.  Their aim is to create a monumental, collective style — subordinating painting and sculpture to architecture — and to show the supremacy of utilitarian over aesthetic aspects.  Though not formally organized, he group has its own international organization in the form of numerous international periodicals.  The Constructivists go hand in hand with the French Cubists, with whom they are united by common goals.  The group includes: Theo van Doesburg, a Dutchman, the author of several theoretical articles; the [399] Hungarians — Moholy-Nagy and Péri; Lissitzky; Viking Eggeling, a Swede, the creator of abstract-dynamic films; and the Belgians Peeters and Wolfs.  As for the Germans, represented in great numbers here Inos.  459-812), the majority of their exhibits are characterized by literary and romantic tendencies.  “Expressionism,” as it is known, is still the all-powerful master and rarely opposed, by brave individuals (like Raoul Hausmann).

Among the most outstanding representatives of the Expressionist movement are Marc Chagall, [Heinrich] Campendonk, Lasar Segall and Oskar Kokoschka.  The works of the first are particularly strong coloristically and very intense.  Separating the purely pictorial and constructive aspects from the literary ones, their standard is on a par with that of the Cubists in their first stage.  Marc Chagall is a painter whose painterly sensibility and sense of scale compensates for his exaggeration of the literary (mysticism).  Like any strong artistic personality, he exerts a significant influence on the new generation.  This exhibition contains plenty of instances of faux Chagall.

Futurism, regarded today as passé, also has its representative at the exhibition: Umberto Boccioni.  His picture Laughter belongs to those works of art whose value is timeless.

I have given a brief description of the Düsseldorf exhibition.  As we have seen, two conflicting tendencies, diametrically opposed to one another — namely, material-constructive and individual-destructive — emerge from this exhibition, which is, after all, a reflection of almost all the tendencies in the art of the last fifteen years.

It is undeniable that the so-called “new art,” from the first Cubist works to the Purism of today, has — despite constant persecution from blind conservatives — extended its influence to the point where it is the dominant force in modern culture.  A worldwide network of periodicals has appeared, propagating and arguing for new ideas and new forms: the organization of cooperatives on economic and ideological grounds; the generally international character of the whole movement — all these substantiate the claim that we are going through a period of transformation of traditional notions about art.

The other fact that plays an important role in this transformation, and is itself decisive in the whole process of the struggle, is the unprecedented development of industrialism and the transformation along with it of social and economic conditions.  The disappearance of country settlements, the growth of cities, the diminishing importance of the individual, centralization and the growth of cooperative movements — all have further consequences for our spiritual life.  Art, which hitherto operated mostly on some sort of Olympus, isolated from the rhythm of everyday life, has been forcefully shoved out into the streets.  Art has new tasks.  Today more than ever before, the tendency is to achieve a uniform style — not only in the art supported by patrons, but in all spheres of our work and in all manifestations of life.

[Originally published as “Miedzynarodowa wystawa w Düsseldorfi’e,” in Nasz Kurier (August 2,1922)]

~ by Ross Wolfe on October 22, 2010.

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