Originating in Renaissance Europe, the Wunderkammer (chamber of wonders or cabinet of curiosities) was the predecessor of both the modern museum and the university. A heterogeneous display of human-made and natural objects, the Wunderkammer mirrored the world in microcosm. It was an encyclopedic assemblage of undifferentiated information and material. The hodgepodge might include crocodiles and cacti, musical instruments and manuscripts, engravings, bronzes, gems, seashells and unicorn horns. The real and the fanciful stood side by side. Over time, the contents of such collections were categorized, ranked, evaluated and dispersed to more specialized institutions. By the end of the nineteenth century, academia had become a congeries of distinct disciplines, each controlled by its own set of rules. Art history and museums were shaped by similarly cohesive narratives.
Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the narratives that once structured the art world have been breaking down. The formalist "story" that was used to unify the multivalent strands of modernism has been largely discredited. The concatenation of sequential "isms," with its aura of inevitability, has been replaced by a broader, more open-ended view. Traditional hierarchies—between "high" and "low" culture, Western and non-Western art, professional and amateur—no longer seem particularly relevant. The aesthetic credo espoused by the collector Albert Barnes, who interspersed Impressionist masterpieces with weathervanes and wrought-iron hinges, seems no less valid than the dictates of MoMA’s Alfred Barr. There is no one "right" way to order the art and artifacts that surround us. Curators and artists alike are reverting to the Wunderkammer paradigm.
Leonard Baskin (1922-2000) was always more in sync with a Wunderkammer sensibility than he was with the art of his own era. Early schooling at a yeshiva imbued him with a profound respect for the written word, while simultaneously separating him from mainstream American culture. Although he admired some modern artists—notably humanists like Käthe Kollwitz and Ernst Barlach—Baskin did not see himself as part of the prescribed modernist trajectory. Rather, he constructed an ad-hoc lineage from sources across all time. He found his mentors in the likes of William Blake, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Thomas Eakins and Tino da Camaino. Sculpture, Baskin’s first love, was gradually complemented by printmaking, book making and drawing. He became sensitized to the myriad ways in which form, technique and scale affect a work’s expressive impact. The various mediums fed upon and played off against one another in much the same way as the artist’s literary and visual influences. Moreover, Baskin collected not just influences, but objects: paintings, drawings, etchings, small bronzes, casts of reptiles and crustaceans, skulls, dried pomegranates and lemons, dolls’ heads, medals, inlaid boxes, carpets, shells, thousands of books. He lived in a Wunderkammer.
Baskin was keenly attuned to the magical relationships that can arise among disparate objects. In his house, portraits of artistic role models hung alongside those of his own family, suggesting a shared ancestry. As in a classical Wunderkammer, the juxtaposition of artworks with natural specimens referenced a perceived continuum between human creativity and divine creation. “Art,” as Baskin put it, “is one of man’s remaining semblances to divinity.” Traditional memento mori—skulls of all descriptions—alluded to the inevitability of death. The artist knew that one cannot fully appreciate life without acknowledging its evanescence. "Life is calibrated by death," he said.
Baskin’s vast library, like that of a Renaissance scholar, reflected an encyclopedic thirst for knowledge, which resurfaced in the activities of his Gehenna Press. The artist’s publications often bore Latin or Greek titles (Diptera, Laus Pictorum, Iconologia, Florilegium) derived from historical prototypes. He loved to create pictorial catalogues of the world’s wonders: flowers, insects, birds, fish and sundry other living creatures. Similar catalogues compiled in the early age of exploration could not distinguish mythical from real beasts, but Baskin knowingly embraced whimsy. Compendia of invented species, monsters and grotesques testified to humankind’s imaginative capacity. Visual treatises on nonexistent artistic forebears joined homages to genuine masters. Baskin’s literary proclivities made him an inspired illustrator of works by favorite authors, from Homer and Dante to his close friend Ted Hughes. These were not, however, conventional illustrations, but parallel explorations of kindred themes.
Baskin recognized that there is a spark of divinity in every human being, but he condemned humankind’s unchecked barbarism. Much of his work deals with this seemingly irreconcilable dichotomy. The figures in his monumental woodcuts Man of Peace and Hydrogen Man are simultaneously potential victims and perpetrators of nuclear annihilation. Predatory birds are recurring symbols of human rapaciousness. Baskin liked the birds’ ambiguity; the way, for example, an owl could symbolize both wisdom and tyranny. Perceived as "swift and startling bolts of death," raptors were also visually compelling. The artist reveled in the textural contrasts of hard beaks, soft feathers, scaly legs and piercing talons. A favorite trope was the bird-human hybrid, a means to "join man to the intentless beast, to render acutely perceptible man’s stupefying, intentful capacity for horror." Which, then, is the superior creature: the raptor driven by instinct, or the man who kills willfully?
Regardless, Baskin had a boundless faith in humankind. “Our human frame, our gutted mansion, our enveloping sack of beef and ash is yet a glory,” he wrote. “Glorious in defining our universal sodality and glorious in defining our utter uniqueness.” He was driven by a need to explore the human condition, and his primary subject was the human figure, “the image of all men and of one man.” Baskin crafted iconic characters that encapsulate emotional states. Eschewing complex compositions, his drawings and watercolors are sculptural, while his sculptures, more concerned with texture than with elaborate poses, are painterly. Often the artist derived his thematic content from Biblical or mythological tales, which offer commentaries on enduring existential quandaries. His goal was to forge a universally comprehensible communicative language.
Baskin understood that art consists of three elements: content, subject and form. Content, the meaning of a work, is not the same as its subject, the work’s “story” or visible pretext. Form, comprising a work’s physical attributes, connects the two. The artist was incensed that contemporary formalism was undermining, if not entirely destroying, this fundamental triumvirate. Abstract Expressionism, ascendant in the 1950s, lacked substantive subject matter and had, Baskin opined, no more meaning than a Rorschach blot. Moreover, by abandoning the human figure, formalism rejected a subject that had given meaning to Western art for centuries. In the process, the thread of common human experience was broken, and art lost its communicative capacity. When, with the advent of Pop Art, recognizable subject matter reemerged, it no longer had any underlying humanistic meaning. The image represented only itself, a commodity in the capitalist marketplace.
By the late 1960s, the new American painting—abstract and Pop—was a juggernaut, enshrined at the Museum of Modern Art and pushed down Europeans’ throats at events such as the Venice Biennale. Anyone who challenged this trajectory was instantly branded a Philistine. Thus Baskin’s protests were dismissed as the rantings of a retrograde academician. However, the artist was as opposed to conventional realism as he was to rote formalism. "I decry naturalism as useless and uninforming," he said. "Works of art…probe at reality [which encompasses] the totality of human experience, nature, all personal-emotional relationships, the visible and invisible links and synapses…the structures of being." Such immensity could perforce only be grasped piecemeal, through a process of "necessary distortion”: simplification or exaggeration, paring down or elaborating. Baskin’s work was as revolutionary in form as that of earlier modernists who, without abandoning representational subject matter, rejected academic naturalism in pursuit of deeper human truths.
Although at odds with contemporary trends, Baskin’s brand of figural humanism won a considerable following among collectors, critics, artists and curators. He exhibited widely, received numerous awards, and starting in 1953, was a professor at Smith College. Even the Museum of Modern Art bought his work and featured it prominently in a 1959 exhibition, “New Images of Man.” Life magazine profiled Baskin in 1964, and in 1966 the New York Times pronounced him “one of the best artists of his generation.” Three years later, the artist made it into the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale. However, these triumphs did not ease his sense of malaise. Echoing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted maxim, “there are no second acts in American lives,” Baskin worried that he would be destroyed by the pleasures and pressures of professional recognition. “Do the rewards of acceptance and success necessitate the relaxation of beliefs?” he asked. Or “does one discover a second modified voice, alive with new modulations, nuances, ranges and subtleties?”
In 1974, at the age of fifty-two, Baskin serendipitously decided to move with his family to England. Here they stayed for the next nine years. Distancing himself from the American scene, the artist gained a new perspective on his mission. England, home to Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Henry Moore, was less in thrall to formalist orthodoxy than America. The poet Ted Hughes, who lived in Devon, encouraged Baskin to buy a house near his, resulting in an intensification of their collaborative synergy. The Gehenna Press flourished, and the artist’s work grew increasingly colorful. Raising a family with his second wife, Lisa Unger, made him less dour, more playful. Lisa was not only as passionate a collector as Leonard, but she brought a woman’s perspective to his musings on the human condition. It is owing to her influence that characters like Medea joined Hydrogen Man and Man of Peace in Baskin’s pantheon of victim/perpetrators. The Sybil, often partnered with the owl, became a new emblem of wisdom’s dangers.
Baskin’s art rested on the embrace of ambiguity and the melding of archetypal contradictions. He was appalled by the degradation of the modern world; by the destruction of the natural environment as much as by the unprecedented brutality of twentieth-century warfare. How, he asked, could such a society produce “an art that does not bleed when it is pricked? Indeed an art so bloodless that the notion of pricking it would not occur?” Baskin saw the renunciation of human subject matter by his colleagues as a capitulation to the despair of the modern age. His alternative was to confront that despair head-on, and to balance his own anguish with a belief in the possibility of redemption.
Now that the myopia of the “American century” is clearing, it is possible to see Leonard Baskin’s achievement in an objective light. His amalgamation of disparate literary and artistic traditions no longer seems like the conservative retreat of an embittered curmudgeon. Rather, Baskin’s example offers a model for our own time. The Internet is a contemporary Wunderkammer, confronting us with a torrent of undifferentiated images and information. Artists today are free to assimilate these inputs as they wish. It is fervently to be hoped that, in so doing, they will once again infuse their work with humanistic meaning.
Where applicable, checklist entries are accompanied by references to the catalogues raisonnés, The Sculpture of Leonard Baskin by Irma B. Jaffe and The Complete Prints of Leonard Baskin by Alan Fern and Judith O’Sullivan. All quotes by Leonard Baskin, ©The Estate of Leonard Baskin.