As is traditional, the Galerie St. Etienne presents its survey of Recent Acquisitions this summer, in the process of recapping some of the highlights of the past year. Three major retrospectives—of Lovis Corinth, Egon Schiele and Sue Coe—formed the cornerstones of the gallery’s 1990-91 season, and these artists to some extent typify the concerns that have historically preoccupied the Galerie St. Etienne. Several years ago, we mounted an exhibition titled The Human Perspective, and it has remained true that this gallery is primarily interested in the humanistic aspects of modern art, as exemplified by the Expressionism of Egon Schiele and the social commentary of Käthe Kollwitz and Sue Coe. Yet if the St. Etienne artists seem, on one level, to represent a unified aesthetic strain—as distinct, say from the more formalistic or abstract tendencies in twentieth-century art—there are also fundamental differences in each artist’s individual approach. By grouping the works according to common themes—such as nudes, portraits, self-portraits, social statements and landscape—the present exhibition pinpoints not only the similarities, but also the variations among the disparate artists.
As might be expected, the female nude—pillar of the academic curriculum over the course of many decades—elicits divergent responses from male and female artists. Gustav Klimt’s nudes are almost purely passive objects of appreciative voyeurism, languorous sometimes to the verge of catatonia. Nudes from the latter phase of Schiele’s career have a comparable serenity and remoteness, but his earlier nudes radiate a distinctive sexual tension. The erotic energy of these works is less an expression of the subject’s own desires, however, than a reflection of the artist’s personal anxieties and obsessions. This is made clear if one compared Schiele’s depictions of nude and adolescents (a favorite motif) with Paula Modersohn-Becker’s etching of a similar subject. In Schiele’s work, personality remains somehow unfathomable, whereas in Modersohn-Becker’s piece nudity opens a window to the girl’s vulnerability and fragility. The female nude figures prominently in Modersohn-Becker’s oeuvre, but it is rarely erotic; when sexually charged, Modersohn-Becker’s nudes tend to focus on fertility and the reproductive function—aspects of femininity with which the artist came increasingly to identify.
For Modersohn-Becker, who was to die following childbirth, motherhood presented a risk that was both physical and professional, and a subtle foreboding is evident in many of her portraits of children. Schiele, particularly in his later years, was by comparison a more objective portraitist, and his portrayals of adults and children alike are sensitive, probing explorations of the sitter’s psyche. Yet a third approach is evident in Klimt’s portraits, which appear more concerned with confirming social status than with revealing personality. The women in Klimt’s canvases have beautiful but somehow mask-like visages, and indeed preliminary studies seem to concentrate more on costume than on facial characteristics.
It is admittedly difficult, when viewing portraits of strangers, to determine whether the expressed personality derives from the sitter or from the artist. For example, Kollwitz’s portraits—predominantly of women—are often nearly indistinguishable from her self-portraits. Both reflect an unflinching stoicism that may be interpreted as a bold challenge to the world. One can imagine that Kollwitz, as a woman, felt compelled to constantly reaffirm her identity in her self-portraits, rather than to question it. This is in sharp contrast to the male artist, Schiele and Corinth, who turned most frequently to self-portraiture during periods of insecurity and fear, and whose strongest self-portraits are reflections of soul-searching confusion.
There is, of course, a profound difference between such self-obsessed artists as Schiele and artists like Kollwitz, whose concern for human suffering was always presented in universal, rather than personal, terms. To the extent that Kollwitz’s mission entailed a critique of the contemporary socio-economic order, context was important, and thus her first major statements—such as the Weavers and Peasants’ War cycles (shown here in their entirety)—illustrated elaborately worked-out scenarios. Sue Coe, like Kollwitz, is interested in telling tales of political abuse—often in serial form—but the stories detailed in her art relate more directly to current events. Kollwitz had a tendency to allegorize her observations, first through references to literature or history (as in the two aforementioned cycles) and later by eliminating spatial or temporal references to create iconic figural representations of human emotions. In this, she may have been influenced by Ernst Barlach, whose sculptural stylization of the figure often transcends specific associations. Such generalized images of suffering—though eloquent and compelling—manifest an implicit stasis or even complacency that runs counter to Coe’s call for action in the here-and-now.
Although artists such as Coe and Kollwitz are very concerned with articulating the social landscape, they are, not surprisingly, almost wholly uninterested in the natural landscape, except insofar as (in the case of Coe) it is viewed as a victim of physical abuse. On the other hand, for Schiele and Corinth, landscape offered a congenial surrogate for a broad range of emotions. Nature to them represented both a retreat from the human sphere and an anthropomorphized emblem of decay and regeneration. How at odds with this romanticized, elegiac conception of the landscape are the visions of the American folk artists John Kane and Grandma Moses! There is no mysterious “otherness” to nature in their paintings, nor is there any sense that the interaction between people and environment can be anything but mutually beneficial. Both Kane and Moses portray a matter-of-fact harmony between humankind and nature that seems sadly untenable today. Here, as elsewhere in the current exhibition, the divergent responses over time and in varying places provide a broader spectrum of views than may, at first glance, be evident.