28 January 2013

Garish Days

“Now I am 31, or so they say,
With a small poetry business of my own.
Alas, my hair is starting to go gray,
And all my friends are getting overblown.”
 - Erich Kastner

Two of the best books to appear in 2012 are reissues from the 1920s, specifically the Weimar Republic.  One, Microscripts by Robert Walser(1878-1956)  has never been published in its complete form before.  Walser’s reputations as one of the great modernist writers becomes even clearer with this handsome edition that includes an off-kilter essay by Walter Benjamin and a charming appreciation by Maira Kalman.
Going To the Dogs by Erich Kastner (1899-1974) comes as a surprise.  Poet, novelist, screenwriter, Kastner is known to contemporary readers by his delightful children's book Emil And The Detectives (1929).  A happy coincidence gives license to consider these two writers at the same time.  Kastner, who endured more than a decade in the asylum that was the National Socialist regime in Germany has a darker vision than Walser who spent even more years in a normal insane asylum.  Indeed, Walser himself once declared: "I'm not here to be a writer, I'm here to be a madman."

The period from 1929 to 1933, was one of staggering unemployment as much as runaway inflation in Germany.   Kastner's protagonist Fabian tells his girlfriend Cornelia, “Formerly a gift and a commodity were two quite different things.  Now a gift is merely a commodity that can be bought for nothing.” Social relations were strained to breaking by the need to move in search of work.  Sexual relations were often reduced to little more than a room for the night. All these changes are presented most obviously in the lives of women.  For Kastner the sexual disarray that resulted from the economic freefall revealed more about the health of society than the morals of  individuals.   

 Night clubs had proliferated during the first world war when public dancing was forbidden, and became emblematic social life in Weimar Berlin,   In his book Weimar Etudes Henry Pachter remembered: “Going through the memoirs of some famous people who had access to high society …. I get the impression that they were all writing about the same party, the same one-legged prostitute, the same supplier of cocaine.”   Contemporary readers take pause; Kastner's unsavory cabaret spectacles and bars where patrons communicate by telephone from table to table and women dance in cages have become commonplaces today.

When we meet Jacob Fabian, he is ‘aged thirty-two, profession variable, at present advertising copywriter.’ At the Exotic Bar he is picked up by an attractive woman who takes him home with her.  Fabian feels compromised, however, when  her husband offers him an allowance if he consents to become a regular.  Fabian's landlady is also compromised, a voyeur who spies on her lodgers through keyholes.

Fabian does a lot of walking in the city but for him, it solves nothing.  Aimless, enervated by the impossibility of a normal life, he observes himself with the same detachment he brings to street-shootouts between Fascists and Communists,   most of them unemployed.   These brawls resolve nothing but suit the authorities just fine, he thinks to himself as he turns away.  Fabian loses his job, his girlfriend Cornelia abandons her stduies to work for the sleazy filmmaker Makart, and his friend Labude commits suicide, the victim of a cruel hoax   When Fabian finally commits a moral act, jumping into the river to save a drowning boy, we are told he cannot swim.  A hideous metaphor, but all too apt.

The public that had been charmed two years before by the sweetness of Kästner’s vision in Emil and the Detectives reacted with indignation to his diagnosis of social decay in Going To The Dogs.  Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera (1928) had couched its scathing portrayal of the metropolis in a heady blend of cabaret-style music with the classical avant-garde.  Alfred Doblin's modernist montage of a novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) tested the endurance of its readers with its dark and lengthy tedium.  Better known is British expatriate Christopher Isherwood's Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935) which has had several reincarnations, first as the  play I Am A Camera in 1951 and as a musical Cabaret (1966) and then a movie of the musical (1972).
Kastner, born in Dresden in 1899,  was marked by the fate of his parents: his father, a craftsman forced into low paid factory work by industrialization and his mother, a genteel woman who became a hairdresser and took in boarders to make ends meet  Yet Kastner managed to attend  teacher’s college and earned a doctorate in literature
When the Nazis came to power, Kastner was in Switzerland.  So, while his friends were busy escaping from Germany, Kastner was trying to get back in to care for his elderly  mother.   In the event, he remained throughout the war,  surviving multiple interrogations by the Gestapo only on account of the immense popularity of Emil and the Detectives.

Why Robert Walser chose to write  stories on strips of paper in an imitation of medieval German script is difficult to pin down.    Exactly when he began writing his little pencil stories is unclear but, taken altogether, they constitute a miniature world that we recognize as ours.  Walser explains his method best.   "(C)haracters in books  stand out better, I mean, more silhouettishly from one another, than do living figures, who, as they are alive and move about, tend to lack delineation.”
 “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary.  We already see so much.”

Listening to the radio, riding in an automobile, or waiting for a train, he reacted to modern technology with attentive interest.    “It’s almost romantic to think that in all these countries, be it in the sunlit daytime or at night, trains are indefatigably crossing back and forth.  What a far-reaching network of civilization and culture this implies.  Organizations that have been created and institutions that have been called into existence cannot simply be shrugged off.  Everything that I achieve and accomplish brings with it obligations.  My activity is superior to me.”

Walser's life reads like the plot for a novel by Franz Kafka: a bank clerk and a butler in a Silesian castle ends his days as an inmate in an asylum.   The Swiss-born Walser spent more time at the Waldau Sanatorium  in Berne (twenty-three years)  than he did in Berlin, from 1905 to 1913.   While in Berlin, Walser published three novels.  He was productive and optimistic there. Subsequent developments made him unable to support himself in the metropolis and, downcast, he moved on, the one constant in a peripatetic life that may have made the asylum seem welcoming.   Although Walser recognized the lineaments of mental illness in himself, he attained an enviable wisdom.   His writing is replete with the coming and going and coming and going of what we think of as happiness, "the shakiest of things and also the most solid."

Going To The Dogs by Erich Kastner, translated from the German by Cyrus Brooks, New York, New York Reveiw Books: 2012 (1931) .
Microscripts by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, New York, New York Review Books: 2012.

Images:   Dodo, given name: Dorte Clara Wolff (1907-1998)  The artist studied at the prestigious Reimann Art School.  She had a successful career in fashion illustration but is best known for her caricatures that appeared in the satirical magazine Ulk, published in Berlin.   If you think her images portray alienation between women and men, you have understood her work.
1. Wedding At The Dachgarten, 1929, Kunstbibliothek, Berlin.
2. Madame Baker, reprinted from Ulk, 1928, State Museum, Berlin.
3. In The Loge, 1929, reprinted from Ulk, State Museum, Berlin.
4. The Hero, 1928, State Museum, Berlin.
5.Sisters, 1928, Jewish Museum of London, UK.
6. The Man With The Glacier Eye , 1928, Jewish Museum of London, UK.

22 January 2013

A Bouquet For The Neue Galerie

One of the decisions I had to make in choosing the layout for this website was whether the background should be dark or light.  Which would better complement the images and which would make the text easier to read?  If there wasn’t a solution that harmonized both, then what?    If there had been an off-white shade, perhaps slightly textured, I would have picked that because it works well for looking at art in person.  A flat white background produced an ambiance similar to the experience of looking at art in museums where the hard surfaces (stone, concrete, and marble) favored by contemporary architects create a harsh environment, leaching color from  works that were never intended by their creators to be viewed in the equivalent of a commercial coliseum.  Minimalism, relying as it does on maximally sized works, has contributed to the popularity of  large featureless spaces that dwarf all other artworks.


Two new museums opened in 2001, one in New York and the other in Vienna, that offer an illustration of the ways that the arrangement of artworks affects our response to them.   Surprisingly, it is the museum in midtown Manhattan that does the better presentation of fin-de-siècle Vienna.  

The Leopold Collection, located in Vienna’s historic district, now its Museumsquartier, was built after not one but two, architectural competitions and the resulting  museum is as unsatisfactory as you might expect given its genesis.  High ceilings and often harsh lighting dwarf the paintings of Klimt, Moser, and Schiele and the interspersed Wiener Werkstatte furniture looks like toys from a doll’s house, robbed of a sense of their intended scale in its large featureless galleries.
In contrast, the Neue Galerie is housed in a 1914  Beaux-Arts townhouse on Museum Mile, within sight of the Metropolitan Museum. Its original architects were Carrerw & Hastings, the firm that designed the Frick Museum and the New York Public Library, also on Fifth Avenue.  Longtime friends and collectors of Viennese art,  Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky chose the German-born architect Annabelle Selldorf to direct the renovation from residence to museum.    In the original marble mantels, sinuous wrought-iron stair surrounds, and  the elegant grids that cover the air vents Selldorf recognized elements of a total aesthetic compatible with Viennese Art Nouveau, the basis of the Neue Galerie's permanent collection.

Which brings us to the paintings of Koloman Moser reproduced here.  If Moser’s landscapes remind you of Ferdinand Hodler’s paintings of Switzerland or his flower paintings make you think of the late flower paintings of Edouard Manet, you have identified the major influences on Moser's paintings. Moser had become accustomed to working within a square format as designer for Ver Sacrum, the journal of the Vienna Secession. The grid pattern on the ceramic jug is an allusion to the movement's introduction of geometric patterns into the mixture of Art Nouveau.

These paintings are small (2.5 centimeters = I inch) but you can’t see the individual sizes or relative sizes of images on the internet.  This is hardly a new problem; it is one that has bedeviled art book editors for decades.  Museums with  have greater latitude for making arrangements of artworks on display don't necessarily get it right either.  And that is why I posed the question in the title of this post.  

Viewing artworks on the internet is a recent phenomenon, one that comes with its own limitations.  Texture as well as scale can be difficult to see, and the temptation to alter colors (hue, saturation, lightness,,etc.) is present and not always easy for the viewer to detect when it occurs. The chance to see all kinds of work that has been hard to find is also new, and that is exciting.  These charming landscapes and still life paintings created a century ago by Koloman Moser were intended for the intimate spaces and domestic settings of Vienna are also....here...now.
1. Koloman Moser - Bergketten, 1913, Leopold Museum, Vienna.  Size: 38 x 50.3 cm.
2. Koloman Moser - Marigolds, 1909, Leopold Museum, Vienna.  Size: 50.3 x 50.2 cm.
3. Koloman Moser - Flowers And Ceramic Jug, 1912,  Leopold Museum, Vienna.  Size: 50.1 x 50.1 cm.
4. Koloman Moser - Wolfgangsee, 1913, Leopold Museum, Vienna.  Size: 32.5 x 32.5 cm.