Abstraction as an international Language
After the end of the Second World War people yearned for a new start. They were glad that the murderous war that had left Europe in rubble and ashes between 1939 and 1945 was finally over, and hoped for a better life in peace and prosperity. If possible, people did not want to be reminded of the horrors of war - particularly in Germany, where the most recent past weighed on the conscience of the people. Fascism, war and holocaust had shaken all moral and ethical values to the core. The dropping of the first atom bombs by American troops on the city of Hiroshima in the summer of 1945 had shocked humanity into realization of the devastating effect of modern technologies. Fear of the exterminating atom-bomb dominated the coming decade. In the 50s, the era of the Cold War, when the two super-powers, the USSR and the USA, faced one another as two irreconcilable adversaries in a world now decided into two ideological camps, the danger of a new war was menacingly and acutely in the air on more than one accession. There was no question of heaving a sigh of relief at this point.
In the art of the immediate post-war period, particularly in Europe, a certain lack of direction was dominant at first. Where do we go now? People looked for things to latch onto. The National Socialist iconoclasm had produced an artistic impoverishment. A series of important avant-gardists like Chagall, Albers, Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, Duchamp, Grosz and Dali had, in order t escape persecution by the National Socialists or the effects of the war, emigrated to the United States, where the war’s consequences were least in evidence.
The comparatively favorable economic situation in the USA also made for generous private sponsorship, which would have been unimaginable in Europe. In America there was a tradition of artistic sponsorship. Since the «Armory Show», which had brought the European avant-garde to the attention of the New World, those who were interested in the arts in the first half of the 20th century had a certain weakness for the Expressionists, Cubists and Surrealists, and looked with some envy at the rich artistic landscape in Europe, whose unquestioned centre since the days of the Imressionists was Paris.
In order to overcome the «artistic deficit» which was left to be a painful cultural gap. but also, as Mrs Rockefeller, one of the cofounders of the Museum Of Modern Art, put it, to spare contemporary artists such a dramatic fate as that of Vincent van Gogh, who as long as he lived never earned enough money with his paintings to buy bread. A museum was opened in 1929, privately funded and financed, devoted entirely to modern art. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is now one the most important and famous museums of 20th-century art in the world.
Following the example of this private commitment to art, ten ears later, also in New York, the Guggenheim Museum opened, at first programmatically calling itself the «Museum of Non-Objective Art», and thus identifying the focus of the collection, although this later changed. It is down to these two institutions, and to many private collectors and patrons, that throughout the 40s New York became the new artistic metropolis, and thus outranked the tradition-filled artistic city of Paris.
Not least under the influence of the European emigre artists, the American art scene, which had hitherto attracted little international attention, and which was marked by a realism not unlike «Neue Sachlichkeit» - whose most important representatives included the painters Grant Wood, Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper - came set the tone in the international concert of the visual arts after the war. The piece being played was called ABSTRACTION. The tune was well known: in the first twenty years of the century a few sparrows had whistled it from the rooftops (of Functionalist buildings): The Expressionists Kandinsky and Klee, the Bauhaus Constructivists, the painters of the Russian avant-garde and the Surrealists had prepared the ground with their art. The veterans of Classical Modernism, or those who were still living, formed the link between the prewar and post-war eras.
All forms of figurative punting were rejected in the West after the war, less on aesthetic than on ideological grounds. In an over-hasty defensive reaction, all forms of figurative representation were equated with Nazi art or the state-commissioned Socialist Realism propagated as a politically correct artistic expression in the Eastern Block.
Abstract painting, on the other hand, because of its openness and its free-floating content, was seen as the only art that could be appropriate to the «free West». In addition, people were probably more likely to delight in non-figurative pictorial worlds than in pictures such as the Man Amongst Ruins of Carl Hofer - a picture that vividly captured the misery of war and the immediate post war period. It was in this way that abstract painting became the clearly dominate style in the western hemisphere in the 50s.
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