THE GETTY MUSEUM and GETTY RESEARCH INSTITUTE
The Getty complex overlooking the Sepulveda Pass houses several discrete institutions under one roof. Two of them, the Museum and the Research Institute, regularly feature exhibitions. Not so regularly, the exhibitions in different parts of the Museum align with one another and with that on view at the Research Institute. We have such an alignment at present–one that describes the changing face of Europe in the 19th century, through images of people, places, and events.
Zeitgeist: Art in the Germanic World
THROUGH MAY 17, 2015
To this day, we think of 19th century Germany and Austria – the latter a sprawling empire, the former an equally sprawling network of semi-independent states that ultimately congealed – as the heart of Romantic music and philosophy. Even after decades of superb scholarship and exhibitions, German visual art of that era remains entirely in the shadow of its much more expansive and experimental French counterpart. Such obscurity does not befit Caspar David Friedrich, one of the great picture-makers of all time. But it doesn’t befit Friedrich’s German-speaking contemporaries, either. By the end of the century, for instance, the Austrians, at least, were outdoing the French at their own avant-garde game. “Zeitgeist: Art in the Germanic World” puts forth this argument for a reconsideration of 19th century Germanic art, sparingly but convincingly, in two relatively small, compact rooms, bedecked with some 20-odd artworks, most of them drawings.
What drawings they are! The most breathtaking are Friedrich’s own, including a couple of vegetation studies whose brittle exactitude – best studied with a magnifying glass – brings their subjects to life rather than describing them to death; in his taciturn verism Friedrich brought atmosphere to everything he portrayed. Hardly less thrilling, however, are the large studies for the Times of Day painting cycle by Philipp Otto Runge. The cycle itself was an ambitious undertaking for a young artist (who stayed young forever by dying at age 33); but so were the drawings, so elaborate and yet so lucid they explain themselves at a glance. Precise and anatomically correct as Friedrich and Runge were, their stunning accomplishments could hardly be called academic; and, as in France, German art history of the period was written by those who strayed from the academy. For instance, a circle of mostly Austrian artists contemporary with Friedrich and Runge, the Nazarenes, defied the Vienna academy by living and working (communally) in Rome and romanticizing pagan myth and Christian iconography alike. Toward mid-century, the elegant bravado of Germanic Romanticism gave way to a more placid, charming, intimate expression, a comfortable and comforting approach to bourgeois life and traditional artistic themes we now know as Biedermeier. “Zeitgeist” makes the most of this modest period by presenting some of its less saccharine landscapes and figures; but the show can’t wait to get you to its fin de siècle apotheosis, the explosion of hallucinatory modernist eros personified here by Gustav Klimt (who could draw a woman’s back as if playing an instrument) – and, curiously, by the Czech František Kupka, whose early, intense figure study (done before his move to Paris) betrays the influence of Klimt while foretelling his own abstract experiments with color.
J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free
THROUGH MAY 24, 2015
But if you’re looking for radical experiments with color – and light, and line, and everything it’s possible to do with oil paint – dating from the middle rather than the end of the 19th century, proceed upstairs to a show of work that still looks wildly, almost unbearably, radical nearly two centuries hence. Joseph Mallord William Turner had the French impressionists beat at their own game before their game started; he died in 1851, when most of them were still in school, and had spent the last decade and a half of his life conjuring tumultuous seascapes and other light-swashed spaces out of cascades of brushstrokes and little else. “Painting Set Free” depicts the late Turner as a wild man who knew exactly what he was doing with every dab – although he had a reputation for always wanting to add one more dab to the maelstrom. Concentrating on depictions of the sea, the Englishman knew that nothing out on the water looks quite as it is, that fog, storm, night, smoke, and waves all conspire to blur the contours and even the tones of things. Turner had a penchant for yellow that seems peculiar until you realize that he was intent on capturing the diffusion of sunlight through sodden air. If he had a “best color,” however, it was the orange-red of the unimpeded sun – or of fire itself, as he demonstrated in the earliest works in the show, documenting the fire that consumed Parliament in 1834. Conversely, blue appears (in this exhibit, at least) quite rarely, most notably in his watercolors, many of them rendered in and of the Alps. (Ironic that the great sea painter of the 19th century would save blue for the mountains!)
It’s a grand and gratifying show, one that goes to fair lengths to give us a sense of Turner the man and the artist while staying out of the way of his glorious paintings. The wall labels are richly informative, the poetry quotes – many of Turner’s own verse – expand on the spirit of the artworks, and the show’s thematic rather than chronological organization clarifies the artist’s attitudes as well as technique(s) as manifested in the last, arguably best years of his career. The emphasis falls on his big story-telling canvases just in the last room, and by bringing together these proto-cinematic monsters only there, the show not incidentally gives us a glimpse into the narrative thinking of mid-century, early-Victorian England. Blighty defined itself by its empire at that moment, and Turner answered to that regard with an imperial vision – albeit an imperial vision giddily awash in the vagaries of the sea, the realm where it ruled above all nations, but could not rule above nature.
World War I: War of Images, Images of War
THROUGH APRIL 19, 2015
Implicit in both Turner’s maritime vision and the aspirations, cultural and political, that radiate from the Germans’ least studies of trees and huts, are the dynamics of national identity and international conflict. After Napoleon, the 19th century saw almost no large wars, but an almost continual sequence of small ones, face-offs between arguing neighbors, mutually offended states, and imperial rivals. Monarchies argued with each other and with their own populaces, refusing to acknowledge the impending obsolescence of the entire royal system. Everything came to a head early in the 20th century, in a massive conflict whose origins were as petty as they were inevitable. Indeed, World War I began as a shoving match into which every big power in Europe wanted to plunge; the nobles had scores to settle and the masses were convinced to regard the war simply as a soccer match waged by other means. Everyone thought the trouble would end within a year. Unleashing a whole new generation of deadly tactics and munitions that gave new meaning to the term “cannon fodder,” the First World War revealed fissures in old kingdoms far deeper than anyone had realized. Boundaries were profoundly redrawn; nationalistic aspirations turned triumphant and bitter at the same time; and a generation of Europeans – and Asians, and Americans – was implanted with both a horror of battle and a taste for revenge.
Artists were drawn into the war almost as moths to flame. Patriotism motivated the more conservative, while for the more radical, a lust for social reconfiguration and the new-found “modernity” of war itself made conflict seem revolutionary. A minority saw what was coming from the first and shrieked, ineffectually, in repulsion; by the end of 1915, however, with the power alliances churning up bodies and landscapes in a relentless torrent of bombs and blood, the pacifists’ voices had become the most convincing. As its subtitle infers, “World War I: War of Images, Images of War” documents this change of heart. It also implicitly pits traditionalism and modernism in a war of their own, applying academic realism and the offshoots of cubism to propagandizing tasks, normally in the form of magazines and broadsheets, while expressionism cries out in protest, usually in limited-edition prints. But these are over-simplifications; there were expressionists in Berlin and Vienna only too glad to salute the Kaiser and the Emperor, while the cubists cooled pretty quickly on the whole notion of war. World War I, in fact, muddied alliances as much as it hardened them, significantly rending asunder the pre-war alliance between avant-gardists in France and Germany, for instance, or isolating the Italian futurists in their persistent bellicosity from wearied experimentalists in other countries.
Compact yet rich in scope and substance, “World War I” takes a look at popular as well as high art of the era, in particular on artists’ exploitation of local forms of visual communication. Thus it shows Raoul Dufy riffing on a particularly French form of broadside, while Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Mayakovsky produce a series of patriotic postcards updating the Russian lubok leaflet. German artists’ heraldic renderings grace the front pages of military newspapers issued the troops. And the show features a veritable parade of parodic posters produced by the various warring nations belittling one another. The references in these mocking images are all but lost to us, explained here in superbly concise, patient wall labels. But their graphic oomph is as vivid now as they were a century ago. So are the photographs of the war, the first major conflict to be recorded with light, fast-acting cameras – and to be recorded from the air as well as the ground. “War of Images, Images of War” may brim with nasty and even horrific pictures (and objects, including several helmets and weapons art-ed up by the men who bore them); but it proves irresistibly compelling in its deep study of the effects of war on art, and vice versa.
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