Guggenheim, New York, Highlights Mid-20th C. Avant-garde Painting

Richard Friswell
Print Friendly

77.2395The current exhibition of abstract painting at the Guggenheim is an acquired taste. While some European artists returned to figuration and pictorial order after the horrors visited on many by World War I, others strived to reject the formal ordering of colors, curves and context typical of the late 19th century modernists that we have come to love. The avant-garde artists of the post-war period had their sights set on more serious matters; that is, to revolutionize the world of art, and provoke a serious re-working of a broken social order (as they saw it) along the way.

Above: Joaquín Torres-García, b. 1874, Montevideo, Uruguay; d. 1949, Montevideo, Composition (Composición), 1938, Gouache on cardboard, 81.3 x 101.3 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Nelson Pharr. © Joaquín Torres-García. artes fine arts magazine

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

This summer the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum will examine an important facet of its twentieth-century collection with an exhibition exploring trends in abstract painting embraced by international artists working in Europe between the world wars. Taken from the title of a 1936 painting by Paul Klee—an optimistic work of utopian geometry reflecting the artist’s interest in color theory and musical composition—New Harmony: Abstraction between the Wars, 1919–1939 features approximately 40 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by some 20 artists, including Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, and Joaquín Torres-García. The exhibition included some rarely-viewed and iconic works from the Guggenheim’s permanent collection. The exhibition will be on view through September 8, 2013.

New Harmony embraces the avant-garde practices of abstraction, as artists gathered in small communities of like-minded colleagues across Europe. The turmoil of borders being reopened or redrawn in response to political conflict meant that creative thinkers, like so many of these artists were, kept on the move, just ahead of repressive government policies. The response to the tumult of war and social unrest was the formation of newly-invigorated centers of creative exchange—emerging particularly in European cities—during the 1920s and ’30s.

Many artists of the day believed fervently in the power of art to change the self-destructive features of society, in evidence all around them. Their many manifestos proclaimed a bold new existence was just over the horizon—one based on the power of mechanization, like the automobile, airplane, mass-production of goods and scientific innovation—to lead the way to a revolutionary shift in cultural values. Old government institutions would crumble and the creative impulse of humankind would ultimately prevail. Kandinsky, who wrote widely on the topic of art and spirituality said, “Painting is…a power which has a goal and must serve to the evolution and to the refinement of the human soul, to the moving of the Triangle. It is the language speaks to the soul, in its proper form, of things which are the daily bread of the soul and which it can receive only under this form” (1912).

De Stijl, one of thbauhaus1919-1928ese movements, posited a radical vision, as conceptualized by Dutch artists, Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. They sought a universal aesthetic language formed from principles of geometry, suggesting that balance and equilibrium would foster harmony in art and society. Russian Constructivists like Naum Gabo, who believed in idealistic theories of geometric abstraction, migrated west as Soviet policy began to support more conservative expression against the avant-garde arts in 1921. Likewise, the Weimar Bauhaus—a German artistic and educational community dedicated to developing a universally accessible design vocabulary—became home to artists with socially minded ideals devoted to abstraction. The faculty included Josef Albers, Vasily Kandinsky, Klee, and László Moholy-Nagy, among others.

Other interwar artists endeavored to provoke reactions by surrendering rational control or turning to Freudian theory. Kurt Schwitters explored unexpected combinations incorporating detritus of everyday life among abstract formal elements in a quest for “freedom from all fetters,” as evident in his Merz works, collages, paintings, and environments. Even among the largely representational imagery of Surrealism, the abstract realm of biomorphic forms became a primary element of expression through the influence of Joan Miró’s paintings and Jean Arp’s sculptures and reliefs.

Abstract art, born in the prewar heyday of the avant-garde, remained vibrant in the interwar period and offered opportunities to artists for reflection and continued exploration. Through the presentation of diverse abstract styles drawn from the Guggenheim’s holdings, New Harmony brings together some of the most influential artists working in Europe between the world wars.

In 1922, Vasily Kandinsky accepted a teaching position at tkandinsky striped 34he Bauhaus, the state-sponsored Weimar school of art and applied design founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. The school’s curriculum was based on the principle that the crafts were equal to the traditional arts and was organized according to a medieval-style guild system of training under the tutelage of masters. Kandinsky conducted the Wall Painting Workshop and Preliminary Course and taught at all three of the school’s sequential locations in Weimar, Dessau, and Berlin until 1933, when the Bauhaus was closed due to pressure from the National Socialist (Nazi) government.

Right: Vasily Kandinsky, b. 1866, Moscow; d. 1944, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, Striped (Rayé), November 1934, oil with sand on canvas, 81 x 100 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Geometric shapes came to play a dominant role in Kandinsky’s pictorial vocabulary at the Bauhaus; the artist, who was interested in uncovering a universal aesthetic language, increased his use of overlapping, flat planes and clearly delineated forms. This change was due, in part, to his familiarity with the Suprematist work of Kazimir Malevich and the art of the Constructivists. Kandinsky’s turn toward geometric forms was also likely a testament to the influence of industry and developments in technology.

In 1912 the poet Guil2000.31laume Apollinaire applied the French term Orphisme to the visionary and lyrical paintings of Robert Delaunay, relating them to Orpheus, a poet and musician in Greek mythology. It also applies to the paintings of Sonia Terk Delaunay and is often mentioned in connection with František Kupka and a group of then-contemporary American and Canadian artists, called Synchromists, who painted according to a system of “color harmonies” that equated hues to musical pitches.

Left: František Kupka, b. 1871, Opočno, Bohemia; d. 1957, Puteaux, France, Form of Blue (La Forme du bleu), 1925. oil on canvas, 80.3 x 72.4 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, Andrew Powie Fuller and Geraldine Spreckels Fuller Collection.

The term Orphic Cubism is sometimes used instead of Orphism because of Robert Delaunay’s roots in a Cubist style. Departing from the limited palette of Georges Braque’s and Pablo Picasso’s initial phase of Cubism, the Delaunays’ paintings are full of brightly colored circular forms, the color combinations of which are based on the “law of simultaneous contrast of colors,” developed in the 19th century by French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul; Chevreul’s theories had already influenced painters such as Eugène Delacroix and Georges Seurat.

During the 1920s, Fernand Léger was closely allied with Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant, leaders of the41.877 Purism movement, which concentrated on the pristine representation of everyday objects. Perhaps as a result of his large-scale mural projects and the cleaner contours of Purist art, the space in Léger’s paintings became less crowded and the forms grew increasingly flat. By the 1930s, the compositional tensions in Léger’s earlier work gave way to calmer, freer forms and a greater openness of space. As Léger described it, “I placed objects in space so that I could take them as a certainty . . . I selected an object, chucked the table away. I put the object in space, minus perspective.”¹ The new buoyancy in his work was achieved less through contrast and dissonance than through lyrical rhythms and harmonious shapes.

Above, right: Fernand Léger,b. 1881, Argentan, France; d. 1955, Gif-sur-Yvette, France, Composition with Aloes, No. 4 (Composition à l’aloës, no. 4), 1934–35, oil on canvas, 113.3 x 146 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

At least five oil versions of Composition with Aloes are known to exist, all dating from 1933–37. In Composition with Aloes, No. 4 (1934–35), Léger grouped the elements in a tripartite arrangement against a uniform brown ground. Two crisp vertical bands are surrounded by curvaceous forms, with the animated outline of the aloe plant twisting and swelling on the right. The composition deftly combines the organic and the geometric, the abstract and the representational. The human and the natural spheres gracefully coexist in this work, signaling, by extension, a larger harmony of humankind and nature.

In 1925 Joan Miró48.1172.504’s work took a decisive turn, stimulated, according to the artist, by hunger-induced hallucinations involving his impressions of poetry. These resulted in the artist’s “dream paintings,” such as Personage (Personnage), in which ghostly figures hover in a bluish ether. Miró explored Surrealist automatism in these canvases, attempting to freely transcribe his wandering imagination without preconceived notions. Although these images are highly schematic, they are not without references to real things, as the artist made clear. “For me a form is never something abstract,” he said in 1948. “It is always a sign of something. It is always a man, a bird, or something else.” In these works Miró began to develop his own language of enigmatic signs: the forms in Personage depict a large vestigial foot and a head with three “teeth” in its grinning mouth. The star shape often represents female genitalia in Miró’s oeuvre, and the dot with four rays symbolizes the vision of a disembodied eye.

Left: Joan Miró, b. 1893, Barcelona; d. 1983, Palma de Mallorca, Spain, Personage (Personnage), summer 1925, oil and egg tempera (?) on canvas, 130 x 96.2 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Estate of Karl Nierendorf, By purchase. © 2013 Successió Miró/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Two years later Miró reverted to imagery somewhat more grounded in reality. In Landscape (The Hare) (Paysage [Le Lièvre]), among other works, he also returned to one of his favorite subjects, the countryside around his family’s home in Catalonia. Miró said that he was inspired to paint this canvas when he saw a hare dart across a field on a summer evening. In Landscape (The Hare), this event has been transformed to emphasize the unfolding of a heavenly event. A primeval terrain of acid oranges and red is the landscape in which a hare with bulging eyes stares transfixed by a spiraling “comet.”

By the late 1940s Miró was making canvases on a much larger scale and with broader markings. Painting (Peinture) of 1953 is more than 6 feet high by 12 feet wide and is characterized by loose, gestural brushstrokes and stained pigments. The calligraphic drawing style and open field of works such as Personage has, in Painting, metamorphosed into bold, energetic lines in a vast, cosmic atmosphere. Yet the star and sun, the animal-like forms, and the sprays of dots are signs of the artist’s symbolic language developed in the 1920s.

An assiduous student of music, nature,klee current 6 threshholds 29 mathematics, and science, Paul Klee applied this constellation of interests to his art at every turn. Even his purely abstract works have their own particular subject matter. In the Current Six Thresholds, an austere composition of horizontal chromatic stripes divided into smaller units and intersected by vertical bands, has been compared to landscape painting. A late Bauhaus work, it is part of a series of grid-like canvases that Klee painted after he returned from a trip to Egypt. His visual impressions of the Nile river valley are represented here through a highly schematized, geometric analogy composed of a square lattice motif and restrained tonal variations. Another geometric painting, New Harmony, demonstrates the artist’s long-standing interest in color theory. Such flat configurations of painted rectangles appeared in Klee’s work as early as 1915 and evolved as expressions of his equation of chromatic division with musical notation. This late canvas, painted in 1936, is the last such composition and, in typical Klee fashion, looks toward the new and innovative, rather than nostalgically backward. According to a71.1960rt historian Andrew Kagan, the composition is based on the principle of bilateral inverted symmetry (the right side of the canvas is an upside-down reflection of the left) and the tonal distribution of juxtaposed, noncomplementary colors evokes the nonthematic, monodic 12-tone music of Arnold Schönberg. Kagan notes, in conjunction with this reading, that Klee used 12 hues in New Harmony, save for the neutral gray and the black underpainting.

Above right: Paul Klee, b. 1879, Switzerland; d. 1940, Switzerland, In the Current Six Thresholds (In der Strömung sechs Schwellen), 1929. Oil and tempera on canvas, 17 1/8 × 17 1/8 inches (43.5 × 43.5 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 67.1842. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

 Left:Paul Klee, New Harmony (Neue Harmonie), 1936. Oil on canvas, 36 7/8 × 26 1/8 inches (93.6 × 66.3 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 71.1960. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Klee revealed a more socially and politically relevant side in his 1937 painting Revolution of the Viaduct, of which the Guggenheim’s Arches of the Bridge Break Ranks is an earlier version. Created when Fascism was on the rise in Europe, the image of rebellious arches escaping from the conformity of a viaduct invokes public dissension while promoting individuality. It is a flippant but foreboding reference to Albert Speer’s monolithic Nazi architecture as well as to official Soviet imagery of workers marching forward in unison. There is a poignant postscript to Klee’s social critique: after the artist fled Germany in 1937 to his native Switzerland, 17 of his works were displayed in the Nazis’ Degenerate Art exhibition, a show of Modern painting and sculpture that they considered too free-spirited and libertarian.

Francis Picabia abandoned his successful career as a painter of coloristic, amorphous abstraction to devpicabia child carburator 19ote himself, for a time, to the international Dada movement. A self-styled “congenial anarchist,” Picabia, along with his colleague Marcel Duchamp, brought Dada to the New York art world in 1915, the same year he began making his enigmatic machinist portraits, such as The Child Carburetor, which had an immediate and lasting effect on American art. The Child Carburetor is based on an engineer’s diagram of a “Racing Claudel” carburetor, but the descriptive labels that identify its various mechanical elements establish a correspondence between machines and human bodies; the composition suggests two sets of male and female genitals.

Right: Francis Picabia, b. 1879, Paris; d. 1953, Paris, The Child Carburetor (L’Enfant carburateur), 1919. Oil, enamel, metallic paint, gold leaf, graphite, and crayon on stained plywood, 49 3/4 × 39 7/8 inches (126.3 × 101.3 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 55.1426. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Considered within the context created by Duchamp’s contemporaneous work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), as art historian William Camfield has observed, The Child Carburetor, with its “bride” that is a kind of “motor” operated by “love gasoline,” also becomes a love machine. Its forms and inscriptions abound in sexual analogies, but because the mechanical elements are nonoperative or “impotent,” the sexual act is not consummated. Whether the implication can be drawn that procreation is an incidental consequence of sexual pleasure, or simply that this “child” machine has not yet sufficiently matured to its full potential, remains unclear. Picabia stressed the psychological possibilities of machines as metaphors for human sexuality, but he refused to explicate them. Beneath the humor of his witty pictograms and comic references to copulating anthropomorphic machines lies the suggestion of a critique—always formulated in a punning fashion—directed against the infallibility of science and the certainty of technological progress. The Child Carburetor and Picabia’s other quirky, though beautifully painted, little machines (which he continued to make until 1922) are indeed fallible. If they are amusingly naive as science fictions or erotic machines, they are also entirely earnest in placing man at the center of Picabia’s universe, albeit a mechanical one.

László Moholy-Nagy’43.900s utopian view that the transformative powers of art could be harnessed for collective social reform—a tenet embedded in much Modernist theory—reflected his early association with the leftist Hungarian group MA (Today), a coalition of artists devoted to the fusion of art and political activism. It was also tied to his long-standing affiliation with the Bauhaus, the German artistic and educational community founded by Walter Gropius and dedicated to the development of a universally accessible design vocabulary. With his Bauhaus colleagues, who included Josef Albers, Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Oskar Schlemmer, he strove to define an objective science of essential forms, colors, and materials, the use of which would promote a more unified social environment.

Above: László Moholy-Nagy, b. 1895,Bácsbarsód, Hungary; d. 1946, Chicago, A II, 1924, oil on canvas, 115.8 x 136.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection © 2013 Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Moholy-Nagy firmly believed that the art of the present must parallel contemporary reality in order to successfully communicate meaning to a public surrounded by new technological advancements. Hence, he considered traditional, mimetic painting and sculpture obsolete and turned to pure geometric abstraction filtered through the stylistic influence of Russian Constructivism. Inspired by the structural and formal capacities of modern, synthetic materials, Moholy-Nagy experimented with transparent and opaque plastics, particularly Celluloid, Bakelite, Trolitan, and Plexiglas. In 1923 he created his first painting on clear plastic, giving physical form to his profound interest in the effects of light, which would later be manifest in film and photography as well as in transparent sculptures, such as the kinetic Dual Form with Chromium Rods.

A II and AXL II illustrate how Moholy-Nagy translated his efforts to manipulate light “as a new plastic medium” onto the painted canvas. In the first painting, the colored parallelograms and circles appear to be almost translucent as one plane overlaps the next and their hues shift accordingly. In the second, the intersecting transparent forms read as converging beams of light. A sense of layered space, echoing the artist’s three-dimensional plastic “paintings” constructed with clear, projecting planes, was thus achieved. The contrived play of shadow and illumination on these canvases underscores the artist’s conviction that light could be harnessed as an effective aesthetic medium, “just as color in painting and tone in music.”

After serving as a draftsman in the military in 1917, Kurt Schwitters experimented with Cubist and ExpressioniMerzbild 5 B (Picture Red Heart-Church)st styles. In 1918, he made his first collages and in 1919 invented the term “Merz,” which he was to apply to all his creative activities: poetry as well as collage and constructions. This year also marked the beginning of his friendships with Jean Arp and Raoul Hausmann. Schwitters’s earliest Merzbilder date from 1919, the year of his first exhibition at Der Sturm gallery, Berlin, and the first publication of his writings in the periodical Der Sturm. Schwitters showed at the Société Anonyme in New York in 1920.

Right: Kurt Schwitters, b. 1887, Hannover, Prussia; d. 1948, Kendal, England, Merzbild 5 B (Picture Red Heart-Church) (Merzbild 5 B [Bild rot Herz-Kirche]), April 26, 1919, tempera, crayon, and paper on cardboard, 83.5 x 60.2 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York© 2013 Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

With Arp, he attended the Kongress der Konstructivisten in Weimar in 1922. There Schwitters met Theo van Doesburg, whose De Stijl principles influenced his work. Schwitters’s Dada activities included his Merz-Matineen and Merz-Abende at which he presented his poetry. From 1923 to 1932, he published the magazine Merz. About 1923, the artist started to make his first Merzbau, a fantastic structure he built over a number of years; the Merzbau grew to occupy much of his Hannover studio. During this period, he also worked in typography. Schwitters was included in the exhibition Abstrakte und surrealistische Malerei und Plastik at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1929. The artist contributed to the Parisian review Cercle et Carré in 1930. In 1932, he joined the Paris-based Abstraction-Création group and wrote for their organ of the same name. He participated in the Cubism and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibitions of 1936 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Nazi regime banned Schwitters’s work as “degenerate art” in 1937. This year, the artist fled to Lysaker, Norway, where he constructed a second Merzbau. After the German invasion of Norway in 1940, Schwitters escaped to Great Britain, where he was interned for over a year. He settled in London following his release, but moved to Little Langdale in the Lake District in 1945. There, helped by a stipend from the Museum of Modern Art, he began work on a third Merzbau in 1947. The project was left unfinished when Schwitters died on January 8, 1948, in Kendal, England.


The Guggenheim exhibit lacks the monumental splash and scale of many of its past and current shows, but the slected works of New Harmony: Abstraction between the Wars, 1919–1939 read like a Who’s Who of the avant-garde movement of the early 20th century. The title work, Klee’s modestly-sized, New Harmony, is a perfect metaphor for the Age, as its gently wavering, checkerboard pattern, in earth tone hues, attempts to capture a newly-ordered world, one where radically new ways of thinking are influencing art, music and literature. Like a sampler quilt, it reflects on other works from the period—and on view—when artists viewed themselves as a prime moving force in the cultural climate of the inter-war period. They believed in their heart-of-hearts that a painting—conceived and executed in accordance with the latest principles of color, form and progressive messaging—could change the world.

By Richard Friswell, Managing Editor

New Harmony: Abstraction between the Wars, 1919–1939

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

1071 Fifth Avenue, New York

Annex Level 4

Visit the museum at:

New Harmony: Abstraction between the Wars, 1919–1939 is organized by Tracey Bashkoff, Senior Curator, Collections and Exhibitions, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Leave a Reply

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.