Narrative content and realistic verisimilitude--two of the mainstays of conventional academic art--are often considered inimical to the modernist aesthetic. Yet, as the twentieth century enters its final decade, it is abundantly evident that neither of these two characteristics has in any sense been eliminated from art. Rather it appears that modern art has seesawed back and forth between content and form. While some may credit French formalism with defining the modernist sensibility, French artists by no means eschewed content in their work. Conversely, although the German Expressionists more consciously charted the upheavals of the twentieth-century psyche, they equally shaped the modernist formal vocabulary.
Sue Coe is one of a number of contemporary artists whose work addresses narrative concerns--but, as the present exhibition demonstrates, similar tendencies have run throughout much art of the past decades. A turn-of-the-century renaissance in printmaking--coupled with the keen interest in beautiful books nurtured by the British Arts and Crafts movement and its various Germanic offshoots--in part abetted this pervasive interest in pictorial story-telling. Lithography, which began to flourish in the mid-nineteenth century, not only made pictures available to the public on a previously unequalled scale, but provided artists with an important new creative medium. Toward the end of the century, artists such as Felix Vallotton and Edvard Munch helped revive woodcut as an art form in its own right. Etching and drypoint, too, were increasingly favored by artists, not merely as a means of reproducing images originated in other media, but for their own intrinsic visual qualities. All the printmaking methods encouraged the production of cyclical art works that were implicitly if not explicitly narrative in orientation. Some of the resultant cycles--such as Emil Nolde's untitled series dealing with myth, religion and childhood fantasy--are only loosely interconnected, while others, like Vallotton's This is War! hew fairly closely to a cohesive theme. Many print cycles were published in book or portfolio form, with or without accompanying text.
Despite the demise of formal history painting, mythological, Biblical and literary subjects remained popular with modern artists. Lovis Corinth's illustrations of the Deluge and Ernst Barlach's and Oskar Laske's illustrations of Goethe are by no means anomalous within the context of twentieth-century art. Alfred Kubin found steady employment as an illustrator, and many avant-garde artists were closely allied with their literary counterparts. Thus Hans Arp illustrated the poetry of his Dadaist colleague Tristan Tzara, and Oskar Kokoschka an essay by his coffeehouse crony Karl Kraus. Painstaking fidelity to the text was not necessarily required in such collaborations; rather, the images frequently paralleled the words, forming a second, independent treatment of the theme that, by echoing the first, amplified its resonance. It is for this reason that all Kokoschka's illustrations (for example, of Bach's cantata O Ewigkeit--Du Donnerwort) are capable of standing on their own.
Another aspect of Kokoschka's work--and that of many of his contemporaries--is that its putative subject is often only a pretext for the exploration of more personal concerns. Therefore in both the Kraus and the Bach illustrations, one clearly recognizes the faces of the artist and his lover, Alma Mahler. Symbolism laid the groundwork for the personalization of allegorical subject matter. Munch's Madonna is a steamy seductress who seems deliberately to challenge accepted iconography, while Gustav Klimt's allegories of Medicine, Philosophy and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna evoked a flurry of controversy due to their unconventional presentation of intertwined nudes. Some artists--such as Marc Chagall in his series Mein Leben--were specifically autobiographical in their approach; many simply contented themselves with depicting everyday life as they experienced it.
During the early decades of this century, "everyday life," as it had been defined when the pioneer modernists were children, was undergoing a profound upheaval. World War I put a final end to the staid bourgeois society of the late nineteenth century, and although many artists embraced this end with gleeful nihilism, few had much to offer in the way of concrete political alternatives. The war itself--as brilliantly documented by Otto Dix in his monumental series--left in its wake horrific devastation and economic chaos. While Käthe Kollwitz was probably the most eloquent spokesperson on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised, even she shied away from the political infighting that came to characterize Weimar Germany. George Grosz chronicled the ongoing conflict between socialism and fascism with an acerbic wit, but when it became evident that fascism would triumph, he instinctively knew that he must flee.
In some respects, our understanding of the present moment--rife with manic pronouncements about the death of socialism--may well be enriched by a glance backward at the work of artists who, so many years ago, dealt with similar issues. The persistence of such artists, and of their work, should in a broader sense give pause to those who would contend that art and politics (or art and content) do not mix. It has become a truism that even the most seemingly innocuous art subliminally reflects the society of its day. In times of turmoil, it is natural that artists take the lead in responding to the social forces that surround them, and imperative that we listen.