Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Germany brings modern classics to India - opens cross-cultural dialogue


New Delhi: The period in modern European art between 1914 and 1958 was one of changes — reactions and discourse on the oeuvres of expressions that were coloured by the great wars (World War 1 and II), recession, scientific inventions, backlash against violence, fascism and more liberal schools of thoughts — that triggered a curious economy of scale, compact and intimate interfaces among peer groups of artists who opted for smaller formats, in their art rejecting the grand expositions of largeness in 20th century Europe.

An exhibition of "Modern European Sculptures"— hosting 27 works in bronze and mixed metals — from the National Gallery of Berlin State Museum opened at the residence of the German envoy to India this week.  The works on display are of European origin — created by the best of aesthetes of the 20th century from Hans Arp to Henry Moore — providing insights into radical shifts in aesthetic sensibilities and the development in contemporary sculptural art at a time when Europe's political and social metabolism was in a state of flux - trapped in power struggles between forces of Fascism, Nazism, hardline Socialism and recoil against repression, constraints and expansionist designs by Hitler's and Stalin's forces. 

The focus was then on small scale sculptures — a format that several heavyweight practitioners preferred, eschewing the monumentalism of the Nazi period — when the mandarins of Furher's art salons sculpted German heroes who were larger than life, white, blonde, well-muscled in a show of material and physical strength. The rejection of monumentalism brought on an "look over the shoulder of the artist" approach to art by viewers who could gaze beyond the sculpural forms at the "undistubed, small breeding ground of the work"— a tight place where artists sought solace among friends and fraternity in the face of turmoil. 

The grand old man of 20th century western sculpture, Henry Moore described smallness of scale as gargantuan in sensibility - symbolic of lofty ideas. "A sculpture can be bigger than life-size, but also a small sculpture which has a big imagination behind it, is capable of evoking feelings of tremendousness and monumentality," Moore said about the small-format art movement in the first five decades of 20th century art in Europe. Moore's iconic 1944 sculpture, "The Family Group (in original)" which is the centrepiece of the show, is an expression of the artist's ideology of the "family" as the last post of succour for people distressed by conflicts and chaos. The amply endowed man and woman with their children carry the impression of "physical security and material abundance like the neolithic sculptures" — like a large shelter.  

Moore's defence of the "small format" finds resonance in the art of masters like Olexandr Archipenko, a Russian sculptor who migrated to France to escape cultural repression,  Hans Arp, Ernst Barlach, Karl Hartung, Georg Kolhe, Kathe Kollwitz, Henri Laurens, Manolo, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, Marino Marini, Gerhard Marcks and Renee Sintenis.

The works swing between Archipenko's Cubist torso — heavily influenced by friend Pablo Picasso's experiments by Cubist forms — to Renee Sintenis commercial small-format animals that inlclude the country's cultural mascot, The Berlin Bear and The Racer Nurmi, who had won several competitive races. Renee Sintenis —  a woman sculptor who made works of commercial value created the Berlia Bear — a playful little animal which is awarded every year to the winner of the Berlin International Film Festival in gold, silver and bronze.

"Sintenis was one of the highest earning artists in the Weimar Republic and in the 1950s Germany — a result of her commitment to small format. After the collapse of the monarchy in Germany, there was a marked decline in the number of connoissuers for public monunents. Small sculptures in contrast were expremely popular among smaller collectors," said Britta Schmitz, chief custodian of the Berlin National Museum.

Sistenis sculpted small animals because she attributed "affinity to anmials" than people. She made hundreds of animals figures — small format — rendered in playful poses. The most popular icons were the fox terriers and bears. "When the National Gallery acquired the artist's estates in 1982, it consisted of a multitudes of scilptures and copyright exploitation rights for recast of her works. The estate yeilded handsome sums every year to the museum, allowing it to buy new art every year. We use this money (from reproductions) exclusively for the acquisition of small sculptures to enhance our contemporary collection," Schmitz said. 

The chief custodian of the National Gallery said the "objective of the exhibition was to tell the audience how the 20th century artists took the genre of small sculptures beyond the traditional definition — exploring new means of expression to create a distinctive forms". Small format sculptures are not new to the history of three-diemansional art. Small sculptural figures as expressions of art were common in 17th century  and 18th century art collections in Europe. In the 19th century, new methods of reproduction enabled small sculptures to be reproduced in mass for the "parlours of the middle class".

Beside the shift to smaller forms around the periods of the World Wars, the trauma of loss cast its indelible shadow of sombre mounring on the art of several artists like Kathe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach (from the decade of the 1920s) who used Christian motifs mostly those of Mother Mary and Jesus after the crucifixion as a "transfiguration" device. Two works — "Peita" and "Tower of Mothers" — (on display) comment on the devastation wrought by wars. In 1937, the Nazis removed both the sculptures from an exhibition, justifying the step with the argument that "mothers in the Third Reich did not need to protect their sons, the state does it for them". The Nazis were offended by the artist's insinuation about "loss" and "constraint" of resources, shrinking avenues of expression and crackdown by the state. "It could be anywhere — Kashmir, Iraq or anywhere in the world in the cataclysmic eye of conflict," Schmitz said. 

The exposition addresses political issues about movements in German sculptural art. The chief custodian of the National Gallery of Berlin said "the genre of figuration which was the lifeline of the19th century and 20th century European art embraced new forms like abstraction, Cubism, expressionism and "abstract retelling of mythical stories". The figures became more symbolic in their visual volumes — challenging conventional notions of frontal profiles with deconstructed cublic realism. A sculpture, "Torso" by Archipenko on display plays with the contours of a woman's body in Cubist tradition in a way that the sculptural form resembles an array of icons when viewed  from the side and rear — it could be a tree, a new human figure or even a surreal shape snaking upward in twisted patterns. 

Italian sculptor Marino Marini, whose figurative sculpture, "Giccolier", is on display at the show, draws his inspiration from Etruscan sculptures — in which he reduces the body shapes to basic elements without neglecting the pure sculptural qualities of the work. He combines the icons of man and the horse — giving his figures dramatic emotional characters and sensousness. The figure is symbolic of a freedom — vibrating with a movement that breaks through the confines of the immediate.   
"Soon after the division of Germany, a rift between the practitioners of abstrction and figurative sculptures stopped dialogue between sculptors in East and West Germany. The west German sculptures rejected figurative works for abstraction while the East German artists still retained their figurative practises - under pressure from the Socialist (Communist) regimes which endorsed realism in art. After the Wall came down in 1989-1990, young artists from either side met to discuss new forms of expression. The dialogue continued  for five-six years and then ceased... Now, we have everything— the Internet, contemporary art, abstraction and new figurative traditions," Britta  Schmitz said. 

The exhibition has been trying to connect to the discourse in modern art in India, where artists are divded over figurative and abstract art as expressions. The tradition of fugurative art (including small scale historical miniatures) that steered the course of Indian art for nearly 5000 years has made way to more impressionist and abstract expressions post Independence - especially after the formation of the Bombay Progressive Group. The new generation of modernists were influened by contemporary European movements. "We have exploring the possibility of a cross-cultural dislogue between the two nations in modern classical art," the chief custodian of the Berlin National Gallery said. 

-Madhusree Chatterjee            .          

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