The history of painting is tied to that of humanity.
Postwar proposes something obvious: to present art made around the world at the moment when the modern world as we know it came into being. Why has no museum done this before? Most obviously, the amount of work, the number of loans from places around the world—from Johannesburg to Copenhagen to Hara to Qatar—is totally logistically mad. The global reach, the intellectual ambition, the amount of research, the diplomatic-level bargaining for loans of Postwar would not have been attempted by anyone else but Okwui Enwezor. Last week it seemed like there were hundreds of people in the galleries, from all over the world, measuring, unpacking, hammering, inspecting paintings with magnifying glasses, driving little trucks and forklifts around; one of the conservators said that if you looked outside, there were no more people on the streets of Munich-- they were all inside the Haus der Kunst, working on Postwar. This was a physical manifestation of the enormous amount of collective work that went into the research for this exhibition—Ulrich Wilmes and myself joining Okwui, as well as the four younger scholars on the curatorial team who worked tirelessly on the exhibition, speakers at two international symposia, the thirty-six catalog authors, and the countless scholars, critics, curators, and artists and families of the artists who built the knowledge base, a kind of informal archive we relied on. When we were looking through the research ephemera last week, still finding new things and complaining that we hadn’t had time to read them, Daniel Milnes, assistant curator at the Haus der Kunst, said something consoling. He offered that the depth of Postwar was its breadth, and this is a beautiful way to put it. This breadth is an act of open eyes and of equality. It also changes the way we see history; adding names and art objects never leaves a context, its categories and concepts intact. It renders a new picture, and a moving picture, of things and people and institutions in relation to each other. We hope very much that this first draft inspires engagement and dialogue, new shows and research.
The other reason that this exhibition has not been done before this moment is that Postwar depends on what is a very difficult idea for many if not most people: taking seriously not only the existence but the equal importance of multiple viewpoints, experiences, and positions around the world. This seemingly obvious, even bland idea, turns out to be highly ideological. How to express it in an exhibition? In thinking about how to structure Postwar, we of course first thought of dividing it by region and nation, but quickly dismissed this principle as not reflecting the moving nature of our picture (and the very concept of area studies in Western-based humanities has itself recently been critiqued as reflective of Cold War logic and motivated by the U.S. and Soviet demand for intelligence and political relations with Third World nations). Instead, we decided upon a thematic approach that addressed the artistic and political production of the postwar period (rather than being iconographic), and I will touch on those eight chapters or sections tonight. In addition, there are four very broad structuring proposals that we believe characterize the postwar period in their coexistence and conflict. 1. The world was a single entity for the first time. Of course, globalism began much earlier, with capitalism itself, but in the wake of the atomic bomb not only was there an almost universal recognition of the photographic imagery of the mushroom cloud, but as Sukarno pointed out in his 1955 welcoming speech at Bandung, for the first time, oceans and distance provided no protection or isolation from other nations. 2. The world was divided by a number of broad, dualistic conflicts: East vs. West, Communist vs. Capitalist, traditional vs. modern. 3. Single or autonomous identities figured importantly, in the specificity of individual artists and newly formed nations. 4. Relations were transnational, in preexisting, often pre-modern and pre-colonial ethnic and religious identities, and in newly chosen affinities and relations, such as the non-aligned movement.
Why begin in 1945? 1945, the end of the second world war, is the conventional place to begin this story: histories from the early Documenta exhibitions of the 1950s through to today’s art history text book begin with this year. Almost immediately, however, the proposition begins to become complicated. The year was first chosen because things restarted after a traumatic period in European history, the period that the Haus der Kunst deal so ably with, as addressed in exhibitions, archival presentations, and Ulrich Wilmes’ essay. Documenta obviously looked to begin history anew in 1945, often referring back to the early 20th to connect Kandinsky, etc. to more contemporary work, and skipping the war years. French exhibitions did much the same. Although the second world war, as it is called in the West, was proposed as a global condition—which many nations do not agree with—it nonetheless puts particular emphasis on Europe and its concerns, and art histories and exhibitions after the war persisted in this. France, because it was still the center of modern art and hoped to regain this centrality and prestige; Germany, because it sought a fresh start after the war.
While the very first histories of the postwar period continued this pattern, including the United States as a relatively minor player, one among 13 nations, for example, in the first Since ’45 textbook, soon the “triumph” of America as a geopolitical power was accompanied by the increasing artistic importance and political promotion of its artists. Many histories and exhibitions since the late 1970s, and still today— attack this political promotion, emphasizing a Cold War struggle not between the East and West, but between the US and European nations over leadership of the west. I think this is a mistake. Lost in this account is the actual role of artists, their own political attitudes, imposing on the artists—French, Italian, German, American, etc.— the nationalist politics of their governments, who used their cultural products to advertise national importance. This is particularly odd in the case of the U.S. artists, so many of whom were immigrants, African Americans, Jews, with a complicated relation to the notion of America (like that of Lee Krasner, who as a Jew strongly objected to the Whitney Museum of American Art and its nationalist position).
We are presented with the problem: how to think about politics and art together and to do it globally? One answer to both questions has been to revisit the question of what the end of the war meant around the world. And so perhaps the most obvious action of Postwar has been to make Japan central to the understanding of 1945: how can we talk about the end of the war and the use of the atomic bomb without beginning here, at ground zero, a story of destruction equally important to the ruin of Europe? We often speak of nuclear anxiety and imagination, but here was reality. This first section takes an event so large and awesome that it had global implications, as if it belonged equally to all places in the world-- and underscores its physical reality. This dialectic between the universal and the local is one of the main structural elements of the postwar period, and the exhibition.
The other very strong re-understanding of the meaning of Postwar was that decolonization was clearly equal in importance to the struggle between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. This is clear in recent histories; in the apt imprecation of a scholar of Algeria, one must “take off the Cold War lens” in order to see the world situation clearly. The end of the war, with the economic defeat of European powers of the Allied as well as the Axis, also rang the death knell for older forms of colonialism. Although resistance to colonialism could be found throughout its history, now those battles begin to be won. New nations were founded, and art and culture was often deeply imbricated with the new states, as artists sought to create representations of independence, and also became in involved in civic institutions, art schools, etc.—we have devoted a section to such images, called “Nations Seeking Form.” This raises the perpetual question, how much does art reflect politics? There are many specific and different answers to the question, not a single reply for or against the possibility. In this period, politicians and critics often made nationalist claims using art. Far more interesting are the actual claims by artists, the belief and participation in independence movements and new nations. Ben Enwonwu said it succinctly and directly: “My aim was to symbolize our rising nation.” In Going, painted in the first year of Nigerian independence, Enwonwu emphasizes African tradition and imagery, with masks, figures, and textiles from regions across the continent, including Liberia, Cameroon, and Mali. Enwonwu celebrates Nigeria, and also pan-African identity. Hamed Owais commemorates Egyptian sovereignty in his Nasser and the Nationalization of the Canal of 1957, showing the Egyptian President issuing the directive to take back the Suez Canal, rejecting British imperialism, and raising money for projects of national self-interest, such as the Aswan Dam. Some of these national images are fraught, as in the double-sided formation of Israel, and the destruction of Palestine, another direct outcome of WWII. The critique of America from within, the struggle of African-Americans to change its racist fundamentals was strongly represented by many artists. As with Enwonwu’s pan-Africanism, there was a nationalist sentiment with, again, transnational implications, as the artists used the popular photographs by Charles Moore and others directed around the world, to non-aligned nations, particularly in Africa, whom the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. each sought to impress with its version of freedom. This external pressure directly influenced the legal changes to U.S. racial policies in the period.
As in this particular imbrication of the Third World and the Cold War, it is not an issue of eradicating the foci of earlier scholarship, but putting them into proportion and, even more, in active relation within a bigger picture. The Cold War split has been extensively explored as it manifested in Germany in the split between East and West, in the work of Eckhard Gillen and many others. The larger Cold War struggles between the U.S., the U.S.S.R. and China, as well countries such as Poland, North Korea, have been the subjects of much new scholarship, beginning with the release of documents in 1989, but have less often figured in exhibitions. The Communist regimes had mandates for political representations and acceptable subject matter, depicting powerful leaders and model citizens. Those mandates fluctuated, however. In the so-called thaw after the death of Stalin Soviet painting had a range of styles, including “severe” and romantic, reaching back to nineteenth-century Russia. The art in the “popular democracies” of Eastern and Central Europe was much less regulated and more varied: artists like Ivo Gattin engaged material abstraction, others, such as Wroblewski incorporated expressive and surrealist elements in their social subjects. In China, during Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flowers campaign artists were allowed more flexibility; traditional Chinese ink painting techniques were sometimes forbidden and sometimes allowed, depending on the content and the individual artist. Art by Communist artists also appeared in the work of the many socialist and Communist artists in the West, such as André Fougeron, Renato Guttuso, Boris Taslitzky and Alice Neel. One of the most fascinating transnational stories in the research for Postwar has been the perpetual appearance of David Siqueiros, appearing all over the world, an important presence for artists as varied as On Kawara and Inji Efflatoun.
On the other side of the divide was a competing version of modern life and freedom, most commonly called abstraction, in the section we have named “Form Matters.” Perhaps even more clearly in this section, looking at the larger picture allows us to see affinities between what is going on around the world and also to unsettle a seemingly absolute category. This means seeing artists usually categorized as Abstract Expressionism and informel—labels that art critics adore, but almost all of the artists hated—together, even if critics of the moment and since have loved to pit them against each other. And together with artists from around the world, some who did choose to work collectively, including Shiraga of Gutai, and the Progressive artist Mohan Samant, and many more, including Vladimir Boudnik, and Marcos Grigorian. Seeing these artists puts in perspective the art work coming from New York, as belonging to a global interest and conversation. It also allows us to rethink materiality, away from the very provincial account of form as pure formalism, a Western ideology or belief in form devoid of content, again, propagated by art critics and not by artists. Most of these artists refused the concept of an absolute abstraction, finding the term not useful. What we have referred to as the subcategory of “ruin and refuse” speaks of many kinds of content, including the trauma of war, waste of industrial capital, and a gleeful, anarchic destruction of old orders. Many others refused the exclusive association between the modern and the European or American. Lee Seung-taek used traditional Korean weight measures and earthenware fermentation vessels to make sculpture, returning to a time before the Japanese occupation of Korea. Condemning the falsely posed set of categorical oppositions, Aimé Césaire wrote, “In other terms, we are summoned: ‘Choose between fidelity and backwardness, or progress and rupture,’” and many artists saw abstraction not as a product of the modern, but rooted in traditional aesthetics and impulses, even as a universal need. Artists such as Lygia Clark perceived a human right to be related to, to belong to the material or natural world, temporarily liberated from social control and even from the confines of one’s own self, in contrast to the assertion of ego we hear so much about in relation to modern art. Even animism was not outside the realm of possibility-- David Medalla considered himself a hylozoist, and his Cloud Canyon sculptures embodies life, growth, change.
This interest in humanity led many artists to refuse altogether the choice between abstraction and figuration. Their number would include German artists such as Gerhard Richter and Georg Baselitz, who had moved from East to West, been instructed in both styles and their corresponding ideologies, and found the choice absurd and also seriously destructive. The battle between Communist and capitalist ideologies, socialist realism and dogmatic abstraction, gave rise to the idea of a lost middle ground, a missing center of feeling and expression, where humanity should reside. Among the most famous events inspired by the situation were the 1950 Darmstadt conference Das Menschenbild in unserer Zeit, “The image of man in our time” featuring abstract artist Willi Baumeister and the conservative art historian Hans Sedlmayr, as well as an audience that included Theodor Adorno, and MoMA’s New Images of Man. Sedlmayr and Adorno found unlikely common cause in complaint about the missing center of modern life. One of the revelations of the research for Postwar has been how widespread, how worldwide were the discussions of the New Man, including the Tokyo roundtable “Toward a new human image” in 1955, art-critical debates in London and Paris, the publication of essays in such cultural journals as Présence Africaine and the Syrian Al-Adab, and the formation of an artists’ group in Buenos Aires (Otra Figuración). Artists seeking to imagine this figure sometimes rendered it as female or a body of color. Or interrupting conventional representation, artists such as Fateh Al-Moudarres, Karl Appel, Alfonso Ossorio, Francis Souza, and Jack Whitten aggressively merged it with materiality-- lumps of oil paint, metal objects, charcoal, sand, detritus, and gestural marks. For artist Ernest Mancoba, the division between abstraction and figuration was symptomatic of all of the problems of modernity: “Our history has brought about, little by little, this dichotomy between abstraction and figuration which provokes, more and more, a terrible atomization in the very essence of life. In no domain more than in the arts has this systematic dichotomy caused such destruction of the very foundation to the human identity.”
Adding these artists and images to the discourse is the historically correct thing to do. It also more fundamentally changes the questions being asked and the answers about the human condition. Some of the international discourse was based on a humanism flowing from the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist writing, which saw the individual pitted against faceless social forces, in universal and timeless conflict. But many discussions offered still more specific traditions, such as a humanism embodied in a cultural tradition stretching back to ancient Sumeria, taken up in Baghdad by artist Jewad Selim. Souza, Kawara, and Husain asserted that the right to contemplation, to conceptualization did not lie solely with the West. That tradition had in any case been damaged and discredited, much of the speaking and writing more specifically critiqued the West as the agent of World War II and of colonialism. Franz Fanon’s wrote scathingly of “this Europe, which never stopped talking of man, which never stopped proclaiming its sole concern was man; we now know the price of suffering [that] humanity has paid for every one of its spiritual victories.” Fanon might have been speaking for artists like Gerard Sekoto, whose Prison Yard condemns not humanity or “man” writ large but European colonialism. As Europe lost its presumed right to define the human condition and universal morality in the wake of the War and its depredations, many there retreated to an antihumanist stance. Writers and artists in former colonies however did not capitulate to a nihilistic view— decolonization for obvious reasons looked forward with hope. Instead they claimed the right to define a new human, as Fanon and On Kawara called him. A human subjectivity that was not predicated on conflict with the social and with other humans—for Selim, for example, every individual Iraqi was both himself or herself, and also an authentic symbol of the people as a whole.
To assert that what has been seen as solely local in fact defined a universal or an ideal inverted the old order of things. Along with this overturning goes a cascade of other assumptions. The dualistic category of form and content too depends on the opposition of universal vs. local, West vs. non-West, and demands that an artist choose a single mode between these. What an art historian might understand as an (unanswerable) question about style was experienced by artists as an (impossible) demand that the artist choose between social and artistic identity, as when Iba N’Diaye spoke of the pressure on Senegalese artists to “be ‘Africans’ before being painters or sculptors.” Succinctly describing this conceptual structure as one that “divides art into form, which is learned and borrowed from the West, and content, whose raw material is abstracted from national cultures,” art historian Shiva Balaghi finds this dilemma at the root of a forty year-old question in her field: “Is this art modern and is it Iranian?” Perhaps the greatest revelation of moving Postwar from an idea to a reality—unpacking the work-- has been the revelation of just how good this art is, how beautifully made. If apparently material work also can be filled with content, the reverse is true: the representational work is gorgeous, meticulous crafted and experimental, made with intense intent. Seeing Postwar in person should put an end to this dichotomy—to the idea that figurative art or art with clear social content somehow neglects aesthetic or formal attention.
This at-onceness is perhaps most clearly on display in the art that Iftikhar Dadi and Salah Hassan have called calligraphic abstraction. One reason why this category has been so compelling as a description is that it allows for the individual to communicate in a way that is specific and legible, and also to express a feeling, a state of being, that is so specific it needs to be physically experienced as mark, line, color, texture. This art, which we feature in Cosmopolitan Modernisms, like that of the Concrete Poetry and Communication sections, also traces transnational affinities and experiences. Experiences move between colony and metropole, as these are artists who have moved between a home and school or career in London or Paris, belonging in both places or neither, and affinities cross national boundaries, speaking to shared cultural and religious identities.
Mohammed Khadda wrote a 1962 essay, “Elements for a New Art” (from which I take the title of my talk) that spoke not only of transnational affinities, but stressed internal diversity and complexities. Writing of the pressure for art to reflect social realities and respond to a popular audience, wrote, “a people is not a single entity—its tastes, its needs are multiple.” He criticized equally the other official position, modern art regulated by capital and its laws, which he saw conferring only a relative liberty on the artist, who was dependent on the upper class and accommodated his art to its apartments (now the apartments are bigger, of course, and the rich have museums). Yet Khadda said, don’t condemn easel art for this, but aspire to other larger possibilities. Reveling in the “treasures of our culture,” he lists the enigmatic frescos of Tassili, pottery, tapestries, calligraphy, the miniature. Here too he refuses to picks sides, admonishing the reader that along with these traditional or native forms, it would be a mistake to ignore black art across the West since 1900, Aztec art, Siqueiros in his prison, the calligraphy of the Far East, and even the Americans satirizing and rejecting the American Way of Life. And for Khadda, unlike the Western avant-garde or developmental model, history is not a arrow of progress that leaves everything previous invalidated: “Revolutions in art don’t destroy, they accumulate.” He describes a piling up, a layering of incredible richness that is temporal as well as geographic. A few years earlier, in 1955, On Kawara spoke in similar if less ecstatic terms (under the U.S. occupation) of the condition of history in Japan: “At the same time, feudal institutions and sentiments remain, permeating every aspect of our life. I suspect that these different historical stages are layered…. we cannot proactively change our reality, unless we shed a Westernized monolithic viewpoint and accept these contradictions as autonomous subjects…” Khadda, reveling in Algeria’s recent liberation, positively echoes the call for a layered historical subject: “We are the sum of all of these marvels.”
The coexistence of supposedly incommensurable modes of life and art arises again and again: traditional and modern, the one and the many, abstract and non-ideological. The artists in Postwar don’t deny the choice offered, the conflicts and divisions that actually exist, even if solely because they are legislated by society. The reason that art is so imbricated with the social, that it does more than reflect the social is that it offers the possibility of experiencing, expressing, and also testing the nature of the conflict; of modulating and nuancing the choices to be made; of choosing more than one side; or of simply not choosing at all—that is, refusing to perceive a conflict or contradiction between being Senegalese and being a painter, between inheriting a tradition and living in a modern city, between collective and individual identity. Art also offers the possibility of rewriting the given names and terms, suggesting their obsolescence or inaccuracy, and of offering one’s own—of making history as well as reflecting it.
Katy Siegel is one of the cu-curators of "Postwar", as well as the Senior Programming and Research Curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the inaugural Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Endowed Chair in Modern American Art at Stony Brook University.