Adolf Hitler

Benny and Friends by Chris Hall

Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini

For years I've held a secret fascination with dictators, perhaps ever since I first read Muammar Gaddafi's book of essays and short stories, Escape to Hell in 1998.  As someone who has always struggled to get by, struggled to be accepted, struggled with notions of autonomy, as someone who has always played the underdog, who has always been a big dreamer, but who has repeatedly had their dreams dashed and put down, learning about these dictators – many of whom have also come from a similar, humble background – has been something of escape for me.  Yet historically, most dictators have had a repulsive ideology and some have been outright criminals and monsters.  I also readily admit that even the very idea of a dictatorship government, even a benevolent one, such as Plato's idea of a Philosopher King, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  But still this fascination persists.  That someone can project their will over their environment with such ease, that the world can bend and have historical consequences based on their own volition, that kind of superhuman and god-like power is incredible to me.  I sometimes wonder what would happen if I had that kind of power, how I would use it for good instead of evil.  But then I realize that the world and the environment with which I would have my sway, is comprised of human beings, human beings who may have contrary and dissenting opinions.  I have no desire to make other people suffer, but for once it might be fun to not be one who is suffering instead.  Adolf Hitler was an artist, not a very good one, but an artist nonetheless.  Napoleon Bonaparte was a writer of fiction, not a very good one, but a writer, still.  Both came from humble origins – Hitler was even homeless in Vienna for a time.  Perhaps if we treated our creative types with more dignity and respect, they wouldn't turn out to be such dicks.  

Lately I've been sketching various dictators in my pocket notebook, in ink and marker, with the idea being that once I get a studio going, I may commit some of them to canvas.  In this way I continue my long tradition of exposing my darker side, taking a risk and telling my secrets, as it were.  I am no apologist for dictators and their deeds, but I do admit that this fascination exists for me.  It is a taboo subject for some, but still a subject worth investigating.  Sir John Dalberg-Acton once said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."  How could that not be a good story, in the tragic vein.  Napoleon, as a liberal revolutionary, was a hero, but slowly became corrupted to the point of becoming a paranoid, blood thirsty tyrant.  And as for comedy, who could not get a good laugh out such eccentricities as Muammar Gaddafi keeping an army of Amazon body guards trained in Kung Fu, or Hitler's habit of whistling the Disney tune, "When You Wish Upon a Star," or the ubiquitousness of all those ridiculous military uniforms covered with vanity medals.  This is rich territory to explore.  I hope people will have an open mind should I present a series of these works in a show, which, if it happens, I would like to call “Benny and Friends,” after Benito Mussolini.  Of them all, I think Mussolini is perhaps the most comical of the bunch, a bumbling over-reacher prone to exaggerated gestures when speaking, and like Vladimir Putin, has a penchant for having his picture taken without a shirt on.

Jackson Pollock Part One by Chris Hall

“Painting is self-discovery.  Every good artist paints what he is.”  Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is a legendary figure in 20th century art.  He was the first American artist to gain an international reputation as an innovator without having studied or worked in Europe, the birthplace of modernism.  His challenging abstract imagery and unusual painting technique are still controversial today.  Pollock is best known for his unique style of drip painting.  Regarded as reclusive, he had a volatile personality, and struggled with alcoholism for most of his life.  In 1945, he married the artist Lee Krasner, who became an important influence on his career and on his legacy.  Some have argued that the troubled and reclusive Pollock would not have been successful without Krasner's tireless efforts to promote him.  Pollock died at age 44.  Along with other American celebrities who died before their time, such as Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, his life has become mythologized and become a part of American collective identity.  

Pollock's Shift from Radical Politics to Mythic Visionary

Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, the youngest of five sons.  He grew up in Arizona and in Chico, California.  While living in Echo Park, California, he enrolled at Los Angeles' Manual Arts High School, from which he was expelled for protesting the  school's special treatment of athletics and the ROTC.  During his early life, Pollock explored Native American culture while on surveying trips with his father.  Pollock would count Native American art as his first and primary influence.

Growing up in California, Pollock's interest in art was supported by his father, Roy Pollock.  Jackson became interested in the work Albert Pinkham Ryder.  Another influence was his art teacher at Manual Arts High School, Frederick Schwankovsky.  Schwankovsky, who was a Communist Party member, would go with Pollock to Communist meetings at the Brooklyn Avenue Jewish Community Center in East Los Angeles and to spiritualist Madame Blavatsky's Theosophist Society, where he learned about the connection between avant-garde art and radical politics and perhaps gained an interest in the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.  

In 1930, Pollock followed his older brother Charles, and moved to New York City, where they both studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League.  Benton's rural American subject matter, know as Regionalism, would have little lasting influence on Pollock's work, but his rhythmic use of paint and his fierce independence were more lasting.  Benton used Pollock as a model for a steel worker in his mural America Today (1930 – 1931) in the New School for Social Research.  While Benton was not a Communist, he was sympathetic to leftist and progressive politics.  His art champions the working class and many parallels can be drawn between his work and Socialist Realism.  During the Great Depression, a lot more people were open to radical politics as a possible solution out of economic woe.  Pollock recalled his father frequently defended the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  Pollock, who grew up in a left leaning family, found in Benton a surrogate father figure.    

1933 was a watershed year for Pollock, America, and the world at large.  Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States, and Pollock watched as Diego Rivera painted his mural Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Center.  Soon, Pollock's taste for avant-garde art and radical politics led him to break away from Benton.  Pollock was becoming more interested in the Mexican muralist painters Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco.  All three were known for their radical politics, with Rivera and Siqueiros being active members of the Communist Party.  

In 1936, Pollock attended Siqueiros' political art workshop and quickly became a part of his inner circle.  Siqueiros was a Stalinist and would later attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky in 1940.  Pollock collaborated with Siqueiros and his entourage in creating a float for the May Day Parade which featured a Wall Street capitalist holding a donkey and elephant, indicating that both parties were controlled by big money and thus were enemies to the people, and a large ticker-tape machine being smashed by a hammer emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle.  When the Great Depression began to ease, thanks to Roosevelt's New Deal and his WPA programs, many people, including Pollock, began turning away from radical politics.  Siqueiros's experimental techniques, however, (such as pouring liquid paint) would have a lasting impact on Pollock's art.

From 1935 to 1943 Pollock worked for Roosevelt's Federal Art Project, the visual arts arts arm of the Work Projects Administration.  The FAP's primary goal was to employ out of work artists.  These artists were hired to primarily to create art for public spaces.  The FAP was divided into mural arts, sculpture, easel painting, and graphic arts.  Pollock worked for the easel division.  By 1936, the FAP employed over 6,000 artists.  FAP artists created more than 200,000 works of art.

“I don't paint nature.  I am nature.”  Jackson Pollock.

In 1938, Pollock had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for four months for alcoholism.  Recent historians have speculated that Pollock might have suffered from bi-polar disorder.  Whatever the reason, from 1938 to 1942, Pollock underwent Jungian psychotherapy, first with Dr. Joseph Henderson, and later with Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo.  When World War II broke out, Pollock's Selective Service status of 4F for medical reasons (neurosis) kept him from being drafted.  Henderson engaged Pollock through his art, encouraging him to make drawings exploring Jungian concepts and archetypes.  These would later feed his paintings and shaped Pollock's understanding that his pictures were not only the outpourings of his own mind, but also, perhaps, the universal expression of mankind's modern condition and the terror of having to live in the shadow of nuclear war.

During this time, Pollock grew more interested in mythology and began using his art and dreams as healing tool and a method to explore the inner self.  Henderson and  Staub de Laszlo had also reawakened Pollock's interest in Native American art.  Some Jungian analysts believe in the controversial theory that a colonizing people inherit the racial memory of the natives they displace.  Henderson and Staub de Laszlo encouraged Pollock's exploration of Native American inspired art.  Pollock began attending demonstrations of Native American sand painting at the Museum of Modern Art and attended a workshop hosted by the Austrian-Mexican Surrealist in exile, Wolfgang Paalen (which, incidentally, was also attended by future Abstract Expressionists Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottleib, and William Baziotes).  Paalen was famous for his fumage technique of making images from the smoke produced by candles.  He was also an expert on Native British Columbian Totem art.  Paalen's lengthy article, Totem Art, would later be a significant influence upon Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists.

In 1936, Pollock had for the first time briefly met Lee Krasner, but the two would not meet again until 1941.  In time, their relationship would bring Pollock some of the few spells of calm and happiness he would ever know.  Despite hs personal problems, Pollock remained bullishly confident in his art.  Krasner, impressed with Pollock's work, introduced him to her teacher, Hans Hofmann.  Hofmann was equally enthusiastic, and a friendship between the two men soon developed.  Once, Hofmann was said to have remarked that Pollock needed to work more from nature, to which Pollock replied, “I don't paint nature, I am nature.”

Pablo Picasso Part Two by Chris Hall

“There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence transform a yellow spot into a sun.” Pablo Picasso.

Referencing Picasso's earlier Proto-Cubist work, the Surrealist writer and poet Andre Breton declared in a 1925 article that Picasso was “one of ours.”  Picasso had largely sublimated eroticism and psychically charged ideas in his art since 1909, when he moved on to Cubism and Neoclassic art.  After things began to go sour with his wife Olga, these themes started to return to his work.  Although he retained the spacial relationships of Cubism, he seems to have rediscovered the primitivism and eroticism of his earlier works.  Picasso's work during the last half of his career did not vary in style as drastically as it did during the first half.  Still, there are subtle differences to be found.  Picasso's work during the second half of his life is often categorized by the woman he happened to be in love with at the time . . . and there were a lot of women.

“Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.”  Pablo Picasso.

“The chief enemy of creativity is 'good' sense.”  Pablo Picasso.

Marie-Therese Walter

Perhaps this new found primitivism and eroticism was due to the influence of Picasso's new mistress, the blond and athletic Marie-Therese Walter.  Pablo Picasso met Marie in 1927, as she lived across the street from the Picasso family.  Their relationship began when she was 17; Picasso was 45.  Marie, with her telling blond hair, became a model for many of Picasso's paintings.  Picasso managed to keep his affair with Marie a secret from his wife Olga until 1935, when someone informed Olga that Picasso had gotten Marie pregnant.  Olga and Picasso separated.  He refused to divorce Olga, to prevent her from acquiring half of his wealth, and they remained legally married until her death in 1955.  Meanwhile, Marie gave birth to a daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso.  Picasso, not wanting to settle down with a family, moved on from Marie in 1936.

 "What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician . . .? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world, whether it be harrowing, bitter, or sweet, and he cannot help but be shaped by it . . . No, painting is not interior decoration. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy."

Guernica

In January of 1937, Picasso was commissioned by the Republican government of Spain for a mural to be displayed at the World's Fair in Paris.  By this time, there was already a Nationalist Fascist uprising being led by General Francisco Franco, which threatened to collapse the democratically elected Republican government.  On the 26th of April, 1937, Hitler showed his support of Franco by sending his Condor Legion of Luftwaffe warplanes to bomb and strafe the Basque town of Guernica.  The bombing is considered the first raid on a civilian population by a modern air-force.  

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Picasso had already started working on his commissioned mural, but on learning the news of Guernica, he scrapped his original plan and began work on a new painting.  The completed work, Guernica, would become a Modern Art masterpiece, and is often heralded as one of the best anti-war works of art ever created.  For many people, Picasso's Guernica is to art what Beethoven's 9th Symphony is to music.  Following the World's Fair in Paris, Guernica embarked on a world tour, fostering international awareness for the plight of Spanish refugees following the Fascist Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War.  Guernica was eventually entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  Picasso stipulated that Guernica was not to return to Spain until liberty and democracy had been restored.  While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during the Second World War, one German officer, upon looking at a photograph of Guernica in Picasso's apartment, allegedly asked him, “Did you do that?”  Picasso replied, “No, you did.”  Francisco Franco died in 1975, and Guernica was returned to Spain in 1981.  

Dora Maar

Like Spain, Picasso's personal life while creating Guernica was also in disorder.  His mistress Marie-Therese Walter had given birth to their daughter, Maya  Widmaier-Picasso, but Picasso had already moved on to his next mistress, the photographer and painter Dora Maar.  Dora had met Picasso in 1936, and was documenting his painting of Guernica.  Marie became jealous when Picasso fell in love with Dora.  Marie and Dora once accidentally met in Picasso's studio while he was painting Guernica.  When asked about it later in life, Picasso said that the two women demanded that he choose between them.  He told Marie and Dora that they had to fight it out amongst themselves, at which point the two women began to wrestle.  Picasso described it “as one of his choicest memories.”  Picasso left Marie for Dora, though he continued to support Marie and their daughter, Maya, for the rest of his life.  In 1977, Marie chose to end her life by hanging.  With Marie out of the way, Dora became Picasso's constant companion, and the subject of many of his paintings.  While Marie is often shown as blond and bright, Dora is often shown as being sad, dark, and in pain.

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”  Pablo Picasso.

“It takes a long time to become young.”  Pablo Picasso.

Dora Maar stayed with Picasso for the nine years.  She wanted to have children with Picasso, but was often sad because she was sterile.  Dora was introspective, and Picasso called her his “private muse.”  She was his “woman in tears.”  Nevertheless, the always restless Picasso found a new mistress in 1943, Francoise Gilot.  When the relationship was revealed in 1944, the long suffering Dora entered treatment with the famous psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan.  Dora would return to art after Picasso, painting, taking photographs, and writing poetry, though she would die a recluse, poor and alone.   

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”  Pablo Picasso.

“To draw you must close your eyes and sing.”  Pablo Picasso.

Francoise Gilot

Picasso met the young art student Francoise Gilot in 1943.  She was 21, Picasso 62.  They would spend ten years together.  Francoise wrote in her diary that Picasso once took her to see an old woman, Germaine Pichot.  Germaine was Picasso's love interest in 1901, and the girl who had earlier spurned Picasso's best friend, Carlos Casagemas, leading to his suicide.  Picasso said to Francoise, “I want you to learn about life . . . That woman's name is Germaine Pichot.  She is old and toothless and poor and unfortunate now.  But when she was young, she was very pretty and she made a painter friend of mine suffer so much that he committed suicide . . . She turned a lot of heads.  Now look at her.” 

Picasso would have two children with Francoise, Claude, born in 1947, and Paloma, born in 1949.  During this time, Francoise reported that she was frequently harassed by Picasso's legal wife (he was still married), Olga Khokhlova.   Francoise grew tired of Picasso's many infidelities, and left him in 1953.  Eleven years later, Francoise published her book, “Life with Picasso.”  Picasso tried to stop the book from being published, unsuccessfully.  The book was printed in over a dozen languages and sold over a million copies.  Afterward, Picasso would refuse to see his children by her, Claude and Paloma, ever again.

“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs.”  Pablo Picasso.

“There are only two types of women - goddesses and doormats.”  Pablo Picasso.

Genevieve Laporte

Picasso began seeing the 24 year old Genevieve Laporte while still in a relationship with Francoise Gilot, in 1951.  Genevieve was a former French resistance fighter, writer, and model, and had met Picasso for the first time at age 17 in 1944, while conducting an interview for a school newspaper.  Picasso would dedicate some of his paintings to Genevieve, and when Francoise Gilot left Picasso in 1953, he asked her to move in with him.  Genevieve, aware of Picasso's reputation, refused, and shortly afterward, also left him.

“Every positive value has its price in negative terms... the genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima.”  Pablo Picasso.

“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”  Pablo Picasso.

Jacqueline Roque

1953 found Picasso dejected and alone for the first time in many years.  And while his work was still in high demand, the art world's attention had shifted away from Paris and Picasso, and toward New York and the Abstract Expressionists.  The ever optimistic Picasso soon rebounded, however, and later that year he met Jacqueline Roque, at the pottery where he created his ceramics.  She was 27, he was 72.  

Picasso romanced Jacqueline by drawing a dove on her house in chalk, and by bringing her a single rose everyday until she agreed to date him, six months later.  When Picasso's first wife, Olga Khokhlova died of cancer in 1955, he was free to marry.  Picasso and Jacqueline married in March of 1961.  He would paint over 400 portraits of her (160 of which were created in 1963 alone), more than any of his other loves.  She is recognized by her elongated neck, high cheekbones, and classical features.  They were together for 20 years, until Picasso's death in 1973.  Jacqueline prevented Claude and Paloma, Picasso's children by Francoise Gilot, from attending the funeral, and she entered legal entanglements with Francoise Gilot concerning the distribution of Picasso's estate.  In 1986, at age 59, Jacqueline Picasso killed herself by gunshot. 

“It means nothing to me.  I have no opinion about it, and I don't care.”  Pablo Picasso on what he thought about the first moon landing, quoted in The New York Times, (7/21/1969).

Toward the end of his life, Picasso's relevance had waned.  Some critics thought his later work was not as strong as his earlier work.  Many thought his style had changed little since the 1930's, while others detected subtle differences in his work each time he fell in love with another woman.  Late in his career, however, he began making interpretations of paintings by other famous artists.  These later works are now seen as being more expressionistic than his earlier surrealistic work, prefiguring the Neo-Expressionist wave of the 1980's.  Once again, Picasso was ahead of the curve.   

It seems so strange that Picasso, perhaps the 20th century's best known and greatest artist, can wreck such havoc on the lives of the many women whom he loved.  It is an irony that he was so cruel and insensitive to all those around him, yet he could produce such loving, and, at times, even sensitive art.  Picasso might have been a bastard in life to those around him, but he did great things for art and because of that, I believe it is alright to celebrate Picasso today.  Pioneers are the first to explore new territory, and Picasso was a pioneer.  Picasso was also a master, producing some of the 20th century's best known art.  After all he has done for art, how can we begrudge Picasso for his personal life problems?  We can't, we must take it all together in stride.  Certainly, we shouldn't gloss it over, but we should accept Picasso as a flawed human being and an artist.  

“Others have seen what is and asked why.  I have seen what could be and asked why not.”  Pablo Picasso.

Marc Chagall by Chris Hall

Marc and Bella Chagall.

Marc and Bella Chagall.

Marc Chagall (1887 - 1985) was a Russian-French artist and a pioneer of modernism.  Chagall was born near Vitebsk, Russian Empire (present day Belarus) in a poor Hasidic Jewish family.  Memories of his life growing up in Vitbsk would color much of future art.  Between 1906 and 1910, Chagall studied art in St. Petersburg, the political and cultural capital of the Russian Empire.  He frequently visited his home, Vitebsk, where he meet his first wife, Bella Rosenfeld.  In My Life, Chagall described his first meeting her: "Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me."  Completing his studies, in 1910, the ambitious Chagall moved on to Paris.  

In Paris he created his own style of modern art based on his childhood experience of Eastern European Jewish folk culture.  The Paris avant-garde was dominated by cubism at the time, and many viewed Chagall's colorful, dreamlike paintings as a curiosity.  In 1914, a Berlin art dealer, however, found promise in Chagall's paintings, and invited him back to Berlin to exhibit there.  Chagall accepted the invitation, thinking he would pass through Berlin on his way Vitebsk, where he intended to marry Bella.  His plan was to stay just long enough for the exhibition and the wedding, and then return to Paris, but World War I intervened, and the Russian borders closed.  Chagall spent the war years in Belarus and in 1915 married his beloved Bella.  

When the Russian Revolution started in 1917, Chagall found himself in a dangerous situation, but also one with opportunity. As an artist, Chagall was respected in Russia, and he accepted a job to be Commissar of Arts for Vitebsk.  This would result in his founding the Vitebsk Arts College.  Chagall tried to create an atmosphere of diversity at his school, with artists working in a variety of different styles.  This fell apart, however, when several key faculty members began pushing Suprematist art, a minimalist aesthetic focusing on squares and circles, disapproving Chagall's “bourgeois individualism.”  Chagall resigned his post and moved to Moscow to work as a stage designer.  Moscow was not a good place to be during this time, as famine hit the city hard after the war.  When the Russian borders finally opened back up, Chagall, with Bella by his side, was determined to move back to Paris. 

Chagall moved back to the Montparnasse district of Paris in 1923.  On his way back to France he stopped in Berlin to recover the many pictures he had left there on exhibit ten years earlier, before the war began, but was unable to find or recover any of them. With all of his earliest work now gone, Chagall tried to recreate new ones from his memories of the past.  Paris between the wars was modernism's “golden age,” with the Montparnasse district being ground zero for the world's intellectual elite.  In this Parisian crucible, Chagall synthesized the art forms of Cubism, Symbolism, and Fauvism to create his own unique style.  He had some success abroad, with his first show in the United States, featuring about 100 works, in 1926.  He finally began to receive some attention in France, when in 1927 art critic Maurice Raynal included him in his book, Modern French Painters.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany.  Anti-Semitic laws were being passed and the first concentration camp at Dachau had been established.  Almost immediately, the Nazis began to a campaign against Modern Art.  Expressionist, cubist, abstract, and Surrealist, along with anything intellectual, Jewish, foreign, socialist-inspired, or just plain difficult to understand was targeted for removal, to be replaced by more accessible, realist work, especially heavy with German and patriotic themes.  Chagall was declared an Entartete Kunst, a “Degenerate Artist,” and his work was included in the famous Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich, 1937.

When Germany invaded France, the Chagalls naively moved to the unoccupied south, in Vichy France.  They were unaware that the Vichy government was collaborating with the Germans to send French Jews to German concentration camps.  Chagall woke up to reality in October of 1940, when the Vichy government, under pressure from the Nazis, began to approve anti-Semetic laws, and French Jews were removed from public and academic positions.  By then, however, they were trapped.  America could be their only refuge, but they could not afford the ticket to New York, let alone the large bond that each immigrant had to pay upon entry to ensure that they would not be burden on the state.

Some circles in America, however, were sympathetic to the situation in France.  France had capitulated quickly, faster than Poland only the year before.  Paris was thought to be the center of civilization, and many were astonished to see it fall into Hitler's hands.  Chagall was not the only Russian or Jewish artist trapped in France; Chaim Soutine, Max Ernst, and Max Beckmann all sought to escape.  With help from Alfred Barr of the New York Museum of Modern Art, Chagall was added to a list of prominent artists whose lives were at risk and who the United States should try to extricate.  A rescue operation to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of Europe to the US by providing them with forged visas was started.  Chagall was one of over 2,000 people rescued by this operation and together with his family, he left France in May of 1941, when it was almost too late.

Chagall was awarded the Carnegie Prize in the United States in 1939, but he had no idea what kind of reception he would have stepping foot in America for the first time.  He found out that he was somewhat famous in the art world, and that his work was more appreciated in the United States than in France.  Chagall felt uncomfortable in his new role as artist-celebrity, in a foreign country where he could not even speak the language.  He felt lost at first, exiled in a strange place and time.  He spent a lot of time in Jewish communities, especially the Lower East Side, where he found familiar food and was able to read the newspapers printed in Yiddish.  Soon, however, he found that New York was full of artists, writers, and composers who, like himself, had fled from Europe during the Nazi invasions.  For the first time in his life, Chagall began to express interest in current events, and started painting the Crucifixion and scenes of war.  When he learned that the Germans had destroyed Vitebsk, the town where he was raised, he became greatly distressed.  He had also learned about the Nazi concentration camps.  During a speech in February 1944, he summed up his feelings:

Meanwhile, the enemy jokes, saying that we are a "stupid nation." He thought that when he started slaughtering the Jews, we would all in our grief suddenly raise the greatest prophetic scream, and would be joined by the Christian humanists. But, after two thousand years of "Christianity" in the world—say whatever you like—but, with few exceptions, their hearts are silent... I see the artists in Christian nations sit still—who has heard them speak up? They are not worried about themselves, and our Jewish life doesn't concern them.

On September 2nd, 1944, Chagall lost his beloved wife, Bella, due to a virus infection, which was not treated due to the wartime shortages of medicine.  Chagall's heart was broken, and he stopped painting for many months, and when he did resume painting, his first pictures were all concerned with preserving Bella's memory.  Chagall tried to fight bitter feelings.  He considered the possibility that their exile from Europe may have sapped her will to live, and that her death was just one of the millions of Jewish deaths that Germany was responsible for.  A few months after the Allies succeeded in liberating Paris from the Nazi occupation, Chagall wrote a letter “To the Paris Artists,” which was published in a Paris weekly paper.  In it he writes:

In recent years I have felt unhappy that I couldn't be with you, my friends. My enemy forced me to take the road of exile. On that tragic road, I lost my wife, the companion of my life, the woman who was my inspiration. I want to say to my friends in France that she joins me in this greeting, she who loved France and French art so faithfully. Her last joy was the liberation of Paris... Now, when Paris is liberated, when the art of France is resurrected, the whole world too will, once and for all, be free of the satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul—the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity.

By 1946, Chagall's art was becoming more widely recognized.  The Museum of Modern Art gave Chagall a retrospective, will work culled from his 40 year career as an artist.  America had welcomed Chagall with open arms, but France was his real home, and he began making plans to return to Paris at the first practical opportunity.  The Europe he returned to was a very different place from what he had left behind.  Paris was no longer the center of the art world; thanks in part to the influx of European immigrants during the war, New York was now the art capital.  But perhaps the most disturbing to Chagall was the fate of Vitebsk, his hometown in Belarus.  Vitebsk always had a sizable Jewish population.  According to the Russian census of 1897, out of the total 65,900 population, Jews accounted for 34,400, roughly 52%.  By the Second World War, Vitebsk's population had swelled to 240,000.  When the Nazis occupied the city in July 1941, they quickly established a Jewish ghetto, and from the 8th of October to the 11th, they massacred all of Vitbsk's Jewish inhabitants.  Later, much of  the city was obliterated in the ensuing battles between the Germans and the Red Army soldiers.  Of Vitebsk's 240,000 pre-war population, only 118 survived.  All Chagall had left of his past were his memories and his paintings. 

Chagall chose to retreat from Parisian public life and settled in the Cote d' Azur, south of France.  Matisse and Picasso also lived nearby.  Although they were close in proximity to each other, and they sometimes collaborated, their work was different enough that they viewed each other as rivals.  They never became long-term friends.  Picasso, however, did respect Chagall's work.  Sometime in the 1950's, he said, “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is.”

Chagall's post-war years were fruitful.  Through his daughter, Ida, he met Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, a woman from a similar Russian Jewish background.  She became his secretary, but after a few months agreed to stay only if Chagall would marry her.  The marriage took place in July of 1952.  Chagall's art practice also expanded to include sculpture and ceramics, as well as many large scale, public commissions for murals, stained glass windows, mosaics, and tapestries.

In 1963, Chagall was commissioned to paint the new ceiling for the Paris Opera, a majestic 19th century building and national monument.  Andre Malraux, France's Minister of Culture, wanted something unique and decided Chagall would be the ideal artist.  This choice would become a public controversy, as many disliked the idea of having the ceiling of the historic building painted by a modern artist, while the xenophobes objected to having a Russian Jew decorate a French national monument.  Magazines published condescending articles about Chagall.  Chagall commented to one writer that:

They really had it in for me... It is amazing the way the French resent foreigners. You live here most of your life. You become a naturalized French citizen... work for nothing decorating their cathedrals, and still they despise you. You are not one of them.

Despite the scathing criticism, the 77 year old Chagall continued to work on the project, which took him a year to complete.  The final canvas was nearly 2,400 square feet and required 440 pounds of paint.  The work paid tribute to the composers Mozart, Wagner, Mussorgsky, Berlioz, and Ravel.  Chagall was pleased with the work, and when it was unveiled in 1964, he felt vindicated when the press declared the new work to a great contribution to French culture.  Chagall had finally won over France.

Chagall would continue to paint until his death in 1985, age 97.  He was the last survivor of the first generation of European avante-garde artists, outliving Picasso, Matisse, and Miro.  The subjects that interested him most continued to be his memories of Vitebsk, musicians, lovers, the circus, Biblical subjects, and Jewish themes, always a colorful celebration of life and a defiant stance against the tragedies of the 20th century.  Chagall biographer Jackie Wullschlager writes that Chagall was:

a pioneer of modern art and one of its greatest figurative painters... On his canvases we read the triumph of modernism, the breakthrough in art to an expression of inner life that ... is one of the last century's signal legacies. At the same time Chagall was personally swept up in the horrors of European history between 1914 and 1945: world wars, revolution, ethnic persecution, the murder and exile of millions. In an age when many major artists fled reality for abstraction, he distilled his experiences of suffering and tragedy into images at once immediate, simple, and symbolic to which everyone could respond.

In his own way, then, it could be argued that Chagall was just as effective at combating darkness as some of the more politically motivated artists of his time.

John Heartfield Versus Hitler by Chris Hall

John Heartfield's  Adolf Hitler the Superman Swallows Gold and Shits Tin , 1932.

John Heartfield's Adolf Hitler the Superman Swallows Gold and Shits Tin, 1932.

Born Helmut Herzfeld on 19 June, 1891, he anglicized his name to John Heartfield to protest the growing anti-British sentiment and rampant German nationalism during the First World War.  Heartfield was a pioneer in the use of art as a political weapon in the 1920's and 1930's particularly against the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.  

Heartfield was a photomontage artist.  Heartfield would create his photomontages by cutting and pasting parts from several photographs (either ones he took himself, commissioned, or found), and then re-photographed the result to produce a single seamless image.  

Heartfield was declared unfit for duty during the First World War by feigning mental illness.  In 1917 he founded Berlin Club Dada, which quickly became the most politically engaged Dada chapter in the movement.  In 1918 Heartfield joined the German Communist Party.  During the 1920's , Heartfield came to conclusion that the only art worth producing was to be of a political nature, and he destroyed all of his earlier work.  

Together with fellow artist George Grosz, Heartfield founded the satirical magazine Die Pleite (The Bankrupt).  Heartfield also produced images for the daily paper Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), and the weekly paper Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (AIZ, Worker's Illustrated Newspaper).  AIZ was particularly supportive of Heartfield's work, publishing some 230 of his images, with more than half of them appearing on the front or back cover.  

Heartfield's work was also reproduced on many dust jackets for books, including Upton Sinclair's The Millennium, and on the many political posters that plastered the streets of Berlin at the time.  Heartfield also designed and built theatrical sets for Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht.

John Heartfield lived in Berlin until April 1933, when the Nazis took power.  On Good Friday, the SS broke into his apartment, and Heartfield escaped by jumping from his balcony.  He fled Germany by walking over the Sudeten Mountains into Czechoslovakia, where he continued making work denouncing the Nazis.  In 1938, he was forced to flee the Nazis again, during the occupation of Czechoslovakia, this time taking refuge in London, England.  

Following the war, Heartfield settled in East Berlin, East Germany.  He was looking for his Communist paradise, but did not find it.  Instead, the Stasi (East German Secret Police) treated Heartfield with suspicion, due to his lengthy stay in London and the fact that his dentist was being investigated for “collaboration.” Heartfield could not find work as an artist, was denied admission into the Academy of Arts, and was denied health benefits.  Eventually, with the assistance of Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Heym, he was finally accepted into the East German art community.  Heartfield produced some art warning of the threat of nuclear war, but he was never as prolific as he was during the 1920's and 1930's.  

Some Notes on Dada and Anti-Art

Dada and anti-art are often thought to be the same thing, and while they are thickly entwined, they are really two different things.  Dada was an art movement in the early 20th century, anti-art is an art process and product used and found in many different art movements, up to our present day post-modern art production.

Dada was born with the outbreak of the First World War.  For many of the artists, particularly in Berlin, Dada was a protest against the war, and against the bourgeois, nationalist, and colonialist interests responsible for it.  Dada was viewed as a revolt against cultural and intellectual conformity in art and society at large.  `

While some artists interpreted Dada as a celebration of meaninglessness and nihilism (Duchamp and his anti-art), many, like John Heartfield, used Dada to promote political change.  Dada does not mean an abandoning of all culture and aesthetics, only traditional culture and aesthetics.  If traditional art and culture was meant to appeal to our sensibilities, Dada was intended to offend.  But offensive art can be a useful tool to reshape our cultural landscape.  Anti-art, however, rejects even usefulness.

Anti-art rejects everything and abandons all aesthetic considerations.  Anti-art practitioners believe that bourgeois and capitalist “reason' and “logic” is the root cause of society's ills, and so they champion nihilist attitudes, embrace chaos, chance, and irrationality, destroying all culture and civilization in the process.  Dada nihilist artist Tristan Tzara once said, “I am against systems; the most acceptable system is on principle to have none.”  

Nihilism, at best, is a sign of resignation, apathy, or giving up.  At worst it is a barbarian's approach, wantonly destroying all aesthetic and cultural view points in its path.  I believe a lot things need to be dismantled and destroyed, but not everything.  Nihilists are usually poor students of history.  I believe there is much to be mined from the past, things that can guide us in terms of what we can reuse and reinterpret, but also things that we can avoid.  Nihilists usually have tunnel vision as well, and fail to see that some things in our present culture are also worth saving.  Instead of being selective and focusing on the small problems, individually, they would rather burn down the whole house and start from the beginning. 

Dada has always been a love/hate affair for me, as so many of its practitioners were nihilist anti-artists, like Duchamp.  I can not support the nihilist position nor can I support the production of anti-art.  I do not believe that everything is meaningless.  I have not lost my ideals and believe with hard work and cooperation, there is a small chance that we might just be able to make the world a better place.

John Heartfield was a Dada artist, but not an anti-artist.  He believed in something and had ideals, something he thought so highly of that he risked his life defying Hitler for it.  Marcel Duchamp the anti-artist did not.  John Heartfield, while he may have abandoned traditional aesthetics, he did not abandon aesthetics completely.  This is why Heartfield's art could so effectively carry his strong anti-Nazi message, why his work was deemed worth saving and not thrown away like a makeshift protest sign constructed out of poster-board and magic-marker, and why we are able to appreciate his work in museums today.

Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Weimar Berlin by Chris Hall

Otto Dix and George Grosz were both artists in Post World War I Weimar Berlin and participated in the New Objectivity art movement.  Both artists served in the German Army and their experiences during the war colored their art work.  Dix and Grosz were also ruthless, sharp observers of Weirmar Berlin decadence after the wartime defeat and the financial collapse.  The Weimar Republic encompassed the years between 1918 and 1933, when Hitler came to power.  The Weimar Republic was a Renaissance in intellectual production.  Germany was forefront in advancements in science, technology, literature, philosophy, and art.  Nine Germans won Nobel Prizes during the Weimar Republic, including Albert Einstein, for Physics in 1921.  Despite the progressiveness of the era, the Weimar Republic was far from stable.

 It was a strange and chaotic time.  Politics were passionate.  Roving gangs of Communists, Anarchists, Pro-Republics, and right-wing Nazi SA stormtroopers not only competed with each other for control of the government, but battled each other in the streets.  The treaty of Versailles, and later the Great Depression, produced inflation, effectively making currency worthless.  As a result, many people resorted to desperate means of survival, and crime and prostitution grew as a result.  During this time, police identified 62 organized criminal gangs operating inside Berlin.  Berlin became a capital of vice.  Aside from prostitution, it was also a hub for drugs (cocaine and heroin) and black market goods. Thrill seekers sought out Berlin as a destination and guide books were produced highlighting Berlin's erotic nightlife entertainment.  There were an estimated 500 venues, ranging from cabarets to brothels, with some catering to homosexual, lesbian, and transgender clientele.  Many Berliners, living in a world of sexual freedom and criminal violence. Became fascinated with lust-murders, or “lustmord,” and publishers met this demand by printing cheap crime novels called 'Krimi.”  

German art, literature, music, and film was made up of Expressionists, Dada, and a movement called the New Objectivity.  Expressionism and Dada had their roots before and during the War years, but the New Objectivity dominated German aesthetics starting in 1920.  Otto Dix and George Grosz formed their own version of New Objectivity called Verism in Berlin.  Verism refers to classical Roman aesthetic, Verus, meaning truth, warts and all.  The new Objectivity rejected Expressionism, with its reliance on Romanticism, fantasy, subjectivity, raw emotion and impulse, and focused instead on representing facts and real circumstances.  New Objectivity themes included the horrors of war, social hypocrisy, moral decadence, the plight of the poor, and the rise of Nazism.  Politically, the New Objectivity was left leaning and iconoclastic; they were hostile to big business and bourgeois society, as well as Prussian militarism and authoritarianism.  

Otto Dix, Self Portrait as Target, 1915

Otto Dix 

Otto Dix was a German Expressionist artist who volunteered for the German Army during the First World War.  He was at first assigned to a field artillery regiment, but in the autumn of 1915 he was transferred to a machine-gun unit on the Western Front and participated in the Battle of the Somme.  By the war's end, Dix had fought on both fronts, and was going to get training as a pilot before he was wounded in the neck.  Dix was  profoundly affected by his experiences during the war and would suffer recurring nightmares as a result.  In 1924 Dix produced a series of etchings that documented his experiences during the war.  Dix's etchings rival Goya's Disasters of War series from 1810-1820 for their gruesome depictions of the horrors of war.  

During the 1920's Dix tried to live a respectable life.  He married and had three children.  Dix began to have some success as a painter and was invited to teach art at the Dresden Academy.  As an artist, Dix viewed himself as both an Expressionist and an objective documenter of his times:  "Art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time." 

When the Nazis came to power, Dix was regarded as a degenerate artist and had him fired from his post as professor of art at Dresden Academy.  Dix had two painting, his War Cripples and The Trench, in the Entartete Kunst exhibition in 1937.  These works were later burned.  Dix was then forced to join the Nazi government's Reich Chamber of Fine Arts and had to promise to only paint inoffensive landscapes.  In 1939 Dix was arrested on a trumped-up charge of being involved in an assassination plot against Hitler, but was later released.  Later, during the Second World War, when Germany's fortunes reversed, Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm home guard.  He was captured by French troops and was held in a POW camp until February 1946.  

Photograph of artist George Grosz

George Grosz

George Grosz was a Dada artist who served in the German Army during the First World War.    After the war, Grosz, along with Dix, would become a New Objectivity artist and make art examining the Weimar Republic's wounded soldiers, prostitutes, politicians, and profiteers.  Grosz was an expert in depicting the despair and wretchedness of man.

In Novermber 1914, at the outbreak of the war, Grosz volunteered for the Army in hopes that  he would avoid conscription and being sent to the front.  Disillusioned, he became a strong opponent of the war and was released for being unfit for duty.  A year later, however, he was recalled into the Army and given the assignment of transporting and guarding prisoners of war.  In 1917 Grosz was diagnosed as suffering from shell-shock.  After he attempted suicide, he was hospitalized before being discharged.  For the duration of the war, Grosz, along with his friend John Heartfield, began making anti-war art.  In 1918 Grosz joined the Communist Party.  In January of 1919, Grosz participated in the Spartakus uprising.  Grosz escaped escaped arrest by using faked identification documents.  

In the late 1920's and early 1930's Grosz made art directly attacking Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.  In 1932 Grosz was forced to flee Germany and settled in the United States before becoming a citizen in 1938.  Critics of Grosz say that while in the United States his work became sentimental and Romantic.  After the war, Grosz returned to Germany, where he died on July 6th, 1959, from a drunken fall down a flight of stairs.

Post-Note

A few years back a friend of mine said my work reminded her of Otto Dix.  This surprised me a little bit, as Dix has not been a conscious influence.  It is true that since 2008 most of my work (particularly my drawings) has been a kind of social criticism.  I suppose I could chalk it up to post-graduate disillusionment and the fact that I graduated during a recession.  Before that my work had a more Expressionistic and Romantic tendency.  I don't mind being compared to Otto Dix.  There are worse people to be compared with.

Entartete Kunst by Chris Hall

Program for the "Degenerate Art" Exhibition in 1937.

The Entartete Kunst exhibition has held between 19 July to 30 November 1937 in Munich, Germany.  It was organized by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, as part of their culture programming.  The exhibit was meant to educate the public as to what kind of art would be approved, or in this case, not approved in Nazi Germany.  Also in Munich, coinciding with Entartete Kunst, was The Great German Art Exhibition.  It was a showcase for art approved by the Reich.

Images from Entartete Kunst.  Click image for more more information.

Of the 5,238 works confiscated from German museums, 650 were selected for the Entartete Kunst exhibit.  The work was specially selected to reflect what the Nazis thought were works demonstrating decadence, weakness of character, mental disease, and racial impurity.  The day before the exhibit opened Hitler delivered a speech where he declared “merciless war” on cultural disintegration.  Over two million people visited Entartete Kunst, an average of 20,000 people a day, making the exhibit the world’s first blockbuster art show.  For whatever its worth, The Great German Art Exhibition proved to be less popular with the public, if attendance is a factor.

Nazi approved art from the Great German Art Exhibition.  Click to enlarge.

112 artists were chosen for Entartete Kunst, including works by Marc Chagall, Georg Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, and Emil Nolde.  After the exhibition, more art was confiscated.  Many of these works were sold off to foreign collectors, while as many as 5,000 works of art were burned on 20 March, 1939.  

Nazis burning art and literature.

Kirchner and Nolde by Chris Hall

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Self Portrait as Soldier, 1917

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a founding member of the German Expressionist group Die Brucke (The Bridge).  Kirchner and many of his compatriots sensed the tension in air of pre World War One Germany, and they reflected it in their work.  When war broke out, Kirchner, fearing being drafted into infantry, decided to enlist as an artillery driver.  During the war he suffered a nervous breakdown and was put into a hospital.  The post war years were likewise unkind to him, and he became depressed with the growth of Nazism and the condemnation of his work.  639 works of his was confiscated from German museums and galleries.  Many were shown in the Entartete Kunst exhibit of 1937 and were subsequently sold off or destroyed.  In 1938 Kirchner shot himself in a cabin outside Davos.  

More work by Kirchner.  Click to enlarge.

Emil Nolde

Emil Nolde, Still Life With Carved Wooden Figure, 1911

Emil Nolde, another Die Brucke painter, had a better fate.  He managed to sit out World War One and his work met with success in the 1920’s.  Nolde joined the Nazi Party in 1920, shortly after Hitler.  Despite his support of the party, from 1935 on his work began to be confiscated from German museums, with 1,052 works removed in 1937 alone.  Nolde’s work was featured prominently in the Entartete Kunst exhibit, with 29 pieces, more than any other artist in the show.  In 1941 Nolde was told he was not allowed to paint anymore, even in private.  Despite the order, Nolde continued to paint in private, mostly watercolors on scrap pieces of paper.  He called these works his “Unpainted Pictures.”

More work by Emil Nolde.  Click to enlarge.

I was heavily influenced by both of these artists early on.  I liked their use of color and their championing of subjective expression.  I also empathized with their stories.  In Kirchner’s case, I related to his sensitivity to the environment, and in Nolde’s case, I liked that he felt compelled to paint, despite the risks involved in defying the Nazi government.

Recovering Beuys: Artist, Activist, Shaman, Teacher by Chris Hall

Zeige Deine Wunde - Show your wound.  Joseph Beuys

And when I say: “Show it! Show the wound that we have inflicted upon ourselves during the course of our development”, it is because the only way to progress and become aware of it is to show it.  Joseph Beuys  

Image from I like America and America Likes Me, 1974

The Origin Myth

Joseph Beuys remains a controversial figure to this day, nearly 30 years since his death.  Despite being on the vanguard of conceptual and performance art, the hard-core Post-modernists don’t want him because of his enigmatic myth making and his refusal to give up and become a pessimist and skeptic.  Beuys was in line with the artist as hero rhetoric of his Modernist predecessors and since Post-modernists like Benjamin Buchloh won’t claim him, I think I will take him for one of my own team.

As a young man Beuys was fascinated by animals and studied medicine.  But soon afterwards the Second World War broke out and in 1941 Beuys volunteered for the Luftwaffe where he trained as a radio operator and gunner for the Ju-87 Stuka dive-bomber.  But on 16 March, 1944, at the age of 22, something significant would happen that would alter the course of his life forever.  While flying a mission over the Crimea he was shot out of the sky, the plane crashing into the snow.  The pilot was instantly killed, but somehow Beuys survived.  According to Beuys, he was pulled unconscious from the wreckage by a group of nomadic Tatars, who then warmed his frozen body and cared for his wounds by wrapping him in animal fat and felt blankets.  The Tartars took him in as one of their own until Beuys was well enough to make his way back to German field hospital.  Later, returning home, Beuys fell into a deep depression.  It was in this state that Beuys begin to feel himself transformed.  He found help through making art in the form of drawings which at this time he produced in the thousands, and he began his fascination with Shamanism and healing.  Drawing would later remain a big part of his practice and teaching philosophy, even as his own work grew more conceptual and he began to make performance art.   

It is for certain that Beuys did crash in the Crimea, that is in the record, but as for the rest, his Shamanic initiation with the Tatars and the transformation through depression, that can not be substantiated.  It has led some skeptics such as Buchloh to believe that Beuys made the whole thing up in order to create a legend or myth about himself.  However, I am inclined to believe Beuys story, as I, too, have gone through a bit of a transformation myself when I was 19, when I had my first black, howling, soul shattering depression and my own Shamanic initiation dream.  But irregardless of whether it all happened as Beuys described it or not, the story still informs his art, and the subsequent art is more important than the origin story.

After recovering from his wounds and depression, Beuys saw that Germany, too, was sick and wounded, and was also in need of healing.  Beuys viewed his art as a healing tool, and viewed himself as an artist, healer, and teacher.  He sought to bring mystical truths to the people and genuinely sought to make the world a better place through art, politics, and education.  

Beuys the Activist, Beuys the Educator:  a Misunderstanding of Intent.

As a political activist he was one of the founding members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party.  Beuys would also run for a seat in Parliament, unsuccessfully.  Beuys’ merger of politics and aesthetics, plus his messianic myth making character, lead some people to distrust him and become skeptical of his intentions.  Despite Beuys democratic rhetoric, some viewed him as a totalitarian in disguise, reminiscent of Hitler.

To make people free is the aim of art.  Therefore art for me is the science of freedom.  Joseph Beuys  

Even today Beuys remains a controversial figure.  In a recent biography, Hans Peter Riegel writes, “Beuys was one of the first members of Germany’s environmentalist Green Party, and he spoke a great deal about democracy. Ultimately, however, the artist strove for a totalitarian society …” This assertion is made only because of Beuys willingness to be vocal about his politics through his art, and his supposed, tenuous connections with former Nazis (while this is in character for the messianic Beuys, to heal the wounded sinner, I might also argue that everyone among his peers would have been guilty, at least by association, in Post War Germany; to say otherwise would be completely naive).

Photograph from a performance at the Technical College Aachen, in 1964.  The performance was part of a festival of new art coinciding with the 20th anniversary of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.  The performance was interrupted by a group of students, one of whom attacked Beuys, punching him in the face. 

As an educator he taught at the university, where he was very popular with is students, but when the university fired him because of his unorthodox teachings, he founded his own university.   Despite being a conceptualist and a practitioner of performance art, Beuys was deeply invested in the power of aesthetics and would require that his students take drawing classes.  Beuys was often outspoken about his criticism of Duchamp for removing aesthetics from art.  Unfortunately for Beuys, who was politically active, the connection between aesthetics and politics was one of the major defining characteristics of Fascism.  This, of course, led many people to distrust him and misunderstand his intentions.

The esthetic conservatism of Beuys is logically complemented by his politically retrograde, not to say reactionary, attitudes. Both are inscribed into a seemingly progressive and radical humanitarian program of esthetic and social evolution. The abstract universality of Beuys’ vision has its equivalent in the privatistic and deepy subjective nature of his actual work. Any attempt on his side to join the two aspects results in curious sectarianism. The roots of Beuys’ dilemma lie in the misconception that politics could become a matter of esthetics …  Benjamin Buchloh  

So when I appear as a kind of shamanistic figure, or allude to it, I do it to stress my belief in other priorities and the need to come up with a completely different plan for working with substances. For instance, in places like universities, where everyone speaks so rationally, it is necessary for a kind of enchanter to appear.  Joseph Beuys

To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.  The rest is a waste product, a demonstration.
Joseph Beuys

Beuys the Artist, Beuys the Healer:  Two Significant Performances

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965.  

It was made “when he was almost entirely unknown. Visitors could view Beuys through a window, where they found him sitting and cradling a dead hare in his arms. The artist’s face was covered in the symbolic substances of honey and gold leaf, and his boot was weighed down with an iron slab. He mumbled barely audible noises into the ear of the inert animal, as well as explanations of his drawings hanging behind them. This action, both strangely hilarious and moving, puts us in mind of the impossibility of teaching, the skepticism of listeners, indeed the deaf ears of most of those we ask to listen. It speaks to the difficulty of making one’s work known in the world and the possibility of an unexpected transcendence of these limits.”  (Italicize mine, from Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974. 


For this performance Beuys flew to New York City and was taken to a room in a gallery on West Broadway. He “was transported by ambulance, lying on a stretcher and wrapped in felt. For three days, the artist shared the room with a wild coyote. Some of the time he stood leaning on a shepherd’s staff, swathed in his felt blanket. Other times he lay on a bed of straw and watched the coyote. The coyote watched him, circled him, and shredded his blanket to pieces. The artist did things like striking a large triangle, drawing lines on the floor, and other mysterious gestures . . . After three days, the coyote had grown quite tolerant of Beuys. The artist hugged him and returned to the airport in an ambulance, leaving without having set foot on American soil . . . A bit of context to remember is that the Vietnam War was in its last year when this piece was made, President Nixon was on the verge of resigning the presidency, and the international community had been looking askance at the United States for quite some time . . . In both works, Beuys is acting on our behalf both humorously—mocking our attempts to interact with the world—and shamanically—conjuring hidden languages with which to cross the boundaries of death, species, language, and cultural divides.”  (From Outsiders:  The Art of Joseph Beuys by Tim Segar for Potash Hill).  

Coda:


This is what Beuys tries to do: only through showing the wound – the pain and suffering caused by the past – and through repeatedly reliving these traumatic events can some form of coping take place and can one leave the past behind. Beuys pushes where it hurts and shows in which ways one can cope with a problematic past.  From Joseph Beuys and the German Trauma by Lisa VanHaeren.

Beuys fought against skepticism and doubt.  Through his art he sought to do well by both people and the environment, healing the rift between mankind and nature (in 1982 with the help of volunteers he planted 7,000 Oak trees in Kassel, Germany).  And yet many of his critics remained skeptical, if not suspicious of his work.  His ardor and artistic and political idealism tended to turn off and frighten people.  Beuys critics fall into two camps:  one group, represented by critic Stefan Germer, believed that art did not have the power to initiate political change; they were filled with skepticism and doubt, and viewed Beuys as a deluded fool.  The other group, represented  by critics such as Benjamin Buchloh, believed (in light of Fascism) that art and politics were a dangerous combination, and that aesthetics should not serve as a vehicle to effect political change; Buchloh and others were suspicious of Beuys and sought out ulterior motives in his politics.  Despite the harsh criticism, Beuys did not give up, he continued his work; he truly believed in his mission and in the power of art to change things for the better.  Beuys’ artistic altruism, his generosity, his dedication to his mission as an artist, his championing of artistic and political idealism, and most of all, his refusal to give up, these are all worthy and admirable qualities.  There should be more artists like Joseph Beuys.  

Drawings by Joseph Beuys

Not Everyone is an Artist by Chris Hall

There are too many artists, too many dealers, and too much art. If plumbing was as popular as art, we would have amateur plumbers running around in stained clothing, brandishing plungers and roto-rooters, climbing in and out of sewers, and writing gibberish about pipe systems.
And none of our toilets would work.

- Walter Darby Bannard

Every man is an artist – Joseph Beuys  


While I appreciate his Democratic impulse, Joseph Beuys was wrong.  Just like not everyone can be a surgeon, or not everyone can be an astronaut, writer, film director, or musician, not everyone can be an artist.  

It used to be the rare individual who was an artist.  You had to have both a technical ability (aka talent), and also have a visionary or poetic spirit (imagination).  Now neither of these two aspects is required in order to be an artist, or at least a postmodern artist.  With the new direction art has taken, art in the expanded field, (art as social experiment, art as data collection, even art as food service) it seems like a lot of people are producing what some people might call art.  Postmodernism’s destruction of hierarchies and a refusal to be critical of just what exactly defines an art practice (the pluralist “anything goes” attitude) has made for a bloated market.  

Instead of art and the expanded field, perhaps we should call it art and the expanding balloon.  Eventually the expanding balloon will pop.  

Christopher Hall  Spiderman Can't Paint , c 2010

Christopher Hall Spiderman Can't Paint, c 2010