Louis Soutter, “Head” (1939), oil on paper, 25 5/8 x 19 3/4 inches, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the artist (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

World War II signaled the death of figurative art, or so the High Modernist narrative once contended. Photojournalists, documenting the realities of the Bomb and the Holocaust, delivered images that surpassed the demonic inventions of a Bosch or Grünewald. The only recourse left for a serious-minded representational artist, faced with human wreckage on such an unprecedented scale, was to give up.

The institution most responsible for pushing this line of thinking, albeit inconsistently, was the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which for decades defined art’s postwar progress as a two-track system, with a drive toward reductive formalism on one and ironic takes on popular culture on the other.

However, more than a dozen years after the war ended, the museum paused to acknowledge that figurative art had never really gone away. New Images of Man, organized by Peter Selz, opened at MoMA on September 30, 1959, showcasing the work of American and European artists for whom, as Selz writes in the catalogue’s introduction, “Existence rather than essence is of the greatest importance.”

The exhibition featured 104 paintings and sculptures by 23 artists; the works all dated from the mid-1940s to the late ‘50s, but Selz mentions the war exactly once, and in passing:

These images are often frightening in their anguish. They are created by artists who are no longer satisfied with “significant form” or even the boldest act of artistic expression. They are perhaps aware of the mechanized barbarism of a time which, notwithstanding Buchenwald and Hiroshima, is engaged in the preparation of even greater violence in which the globe is to be the target.

The way that Selz skirts the impact of WWII could be taken as an implicit admission that the war remained unapproachable as a subject, rushing past Buchenwald and Hiroshima to address the existential threat of mutually assured destruction posed by the Cold War.

New Images of Man ran for two months, closing on November 29. Two and a half weeks later, on December 16, the epoch-making 16 Americans opened — an exhibition curated by Dorothy Miller that brought to the fore such artists as Jay DeFeo, Louise Nevelson, Alfred Leslie, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and the 23-year-old Frank Stella, whose Black Paintings struck the art world like a cannon shot — and the official narrative was back on course.

Louise Bourgeois, “Sleeping Figure” (1950), painted balsa wood, 6′ 2 1/2 x 11 5/8 x 11 3/4 inches, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Katharine Cornell Fund (click to enlarge)

Soldier, Spectre, Shaman: The Figure and the Second World War is a new show at MoMA that might be viewed as an attempt to fill in the historical blindspot afflicting the premise of New Images of Man. Invoking the war in its title, the show draws a straight line from that cataclysm to the work on view, with its introductory wall text citing the attempts artists made “to respond to a fundamentally and irrevocably changed world, one colored by the horrors of combat, revelations about the concentration camps, and the shock of the atomic bomb.”

Interestingly, six of the 23 artists from the earlier show — Francis Bacon, Leonard Baskin, Alberto Giacometti, Jan Müller, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Germaine Richier — are included in the new one, which was organized by Lucy Gallun, assistant curator, Department of Photography, and Sarah Suzuki, associate curator, Department of Drawings and Prints.

The concerns of the artists in New Images of Man, as described by Selz, are pretty abstract by contemporary standards: “Like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Camus, these artists are aware of anguish and dread, of life in which man—precarious and vulnerable—confronts the precipice, is aware of dying as well as living.”

Later on he notes, even more dryly, “The artists represented here—painters and sculptors, European and American—have arrived at a highly interesting and perhaps significant imagery which is concomitant with their formal structures.”

In contrast, the current show’s intro informs us, in what sounds like deliberately parallel language:

The artists represented in these galleries had vastly different experiences during the war years. Some were active members of the armed forces, having volunteered or been conscripted into service; others were interned in labor or refugee camps; more were forced to flee, taking shelter in neutral countries, hiding in mountainous or rural areas, or relocating to New York, as was the case with a number of European artists in exile.

In other words, all the artists in Soldier, Spectre, Shaman experienced the war under some form of distress (though, in a couple of instances, this may not have been the case). Many of the pieces were made while the war was raging, but the dates bracket the conflict by a margin of two to 17 years, ranging from 1937 to 1962. Nevertheless, the style of much of the work, all of which is from the museum’s collection, is indistinguishable from the art in New Images of Man, and in fact two pieces of sculpture — Giacometti’s “Standing Woman” (1948, cast 1949) and Paolozzi’s “Jason” (1956) — appear in both exhibitions.

(It should also be noted that the concept of shamanism, which is not explicitly explored in the current show despite its appearance in the title, is mentioned in the penultimate paragraph of Selz’s introduction, referring to the influence of African art on contemporary artists: “They may appreciate the tribal artist’s formal sensibilities; they truly envy his shamanistic powers.”)

The postwar humanist-expressionist style endemic to New Images of Man comes off, for the most part, as strained and dated; we sense that some of the artists are trying to wring every last drop of emotion out of a piece, and we instinctively step away. Not because the feelings the artwork generates are overwhelming or threatening to our cosseted lives, but because they seem so forced.

In this category I would put two of the five freestanding sculptures found in the first of the exhibition’s two rooms, David Hare’s almost entirely abstract “Figure Waiting in Cold” (1951) and Germaine Richier’s animal/human hybrid “The Devil with Claws” (1952). The Paolozzi, a robot-like agglomeration of machine parts cast in green-patinated bronze, also in that room, is not as immediately cringe-worthy, but it doesn’t make much of impression, especially in the company of its neighbors, the aforementioned Giacometti and Louise Bourgeois’ tall, black, and phallic “Sleeping Figure” (1950).

Both of these artists infuse the tragic with the ludicrous — Giacometti’s white-painted bronze looks as if it were poured out of a can — the head is especially tiny in contrast with its enormous feet — and Bourgeois’s black balsa wood sculpture takes the form of one of her menacing, oversized insects: a giant, black mantis terminating in a smoothly polished penis head.

Both works are fully realized within their own parameters, without the need for outside allusions (such as Richier’s devil’s claws or Paolozzi’s found-object armor) to situate our experience of them within the causes and consequences of war. And yet there are elements of caricature — Giacometti’s big feet and Bourgeois’ towering glans — that encompass the broader metaphor of the absurdity of war, as well as the acute absurdity of making art in the face of it.

Alberto Giacometti, “Standing Woman” (1948, cast 1949), painted bronze, 65 3/8 x 6 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches, Museum of Modern Art, New York, James Thrall Soby Bequest

These sculptures seem to inoculate themselves against Theodor Adorno’s timeless question about the possibility of poetry after Auschwitz by incorporating a quotient of self-mockery into their fabrication. Elsewhere in the exhibition, the works that offer sincere, unmediated responses to the casualties of war are routinely outmatched by the magnitude of the conflict’s devastation.

As Selz seems to have intuited, there is a limit to what art can directly express. Without an armature to set it at a remove from the blunt, unspeakable and  — paradoxically, thanks to the news media — utterly familiar horrors of WWII, it risks sentimentalism and triviality.

One example of such a remove is the work of Shōmei Tōmatsu, who photographed victims of the A-bombing of Nagasaki (the two pictures on display were taken in 1961 and 1962). The subjects’ disfigurements are partly cloaked in shadow or otherwise hidden from view, and our eye is drawn initially to the the lustrous white-to-gray-to-black surfaces of the gelatin silver prints. The scarred flesh then takes us by surprise, a visceral experience that invites our imagination to roam the victims’ personal landscapes of pain and solitude.

Indirection also succeeds in the photos of Frederick Sommer, whose images of a pair of dead coyotes (1941), a discarded artificial leg (1944), and a still life made from a doll’s leg stuck inside a doll’s arm (1950) succinctly articulate the surreality of war within distinctly demarcated areas of expression.

Chimei Hamada takes Surrealism in a different direction with a suite of Manga-inflected etchings from 1954 featuring realistically rendered bodies, many of them punctured by poles, as they tumble, sprawl, or lie dead across hostile terrain, a tangle of grotesquely extended legs, distended bellies and diminutive arms and heads.

These works, according to the wall text, document the artist’s “firsthand experience as a young soldier conscripted into the Sino-Japanese War, where he saw what he described as ‘the darkness of the Middle Ages transported into the present.’”

Hamada departs from such eyewitness accounts as Otto Dix’s great series of prints, The War (Der Krieg) (1923-24), by transmuting the barbarity he saw into a comedic theater of cruelty. It’s stunning to realize that Dix’s prints were done only thirty years before, with Hamada treating the repetition of history as a chiaroscuro farce.

The connection to the war is hard to fathom in some places. The British painter Edward Burra completed “Bal des Pendus,” a large Surrealist-looking watercolor on board, in 1937, two years before hostilities broke out, and its theme seems to be taken, not from armed conflict, but from the Arthur Rimbaud poem that supplies its title, about encountering dead men hanging from a gibbet.

And a powerful black, gray and clay-colored head, painted in oil on paper in 1939 (apparently with his fingers) by the mentally ill Swiss artist Louis Soutter, may reflect no actual experience of the  war (the artist had been confined to a retirement home in the Jura Mountains since 1923), but its tenor perfectly fits an aura of impending disaster.

It’s also not clear what where the Outsider artist Henry Darger fits into the exhibition’s wartime narrative. He had no military experience beyond a brief term of service during the First World War, where he saw no combat, and he spent WWII working as a hospital janitor in Chicago. He has apparently been included because war is the principle subject of his writings and drawings, though they constitute a fantasy project — The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion — one that involves extensive depictions of the torture and murder of young girls. In this regard, an unexamined celebration of Darger’s art is highly problematic.

It must be said that the selections for this show don’t shy away from the most disturbing aspects of Darger’s imagery, with the larger of the two works featuring graphic disembowelments and crucifixions, among other atrocities, of mostly naked prepubescent girls.

That the reclusive Darger made these pictures (which are undated, and thereby only hazily applicable to the show’s timeline) for his own private delectation is troubling to say the least, raising larger questions about the making and the viewing of art, and where the lines of unmitigated expression are drawn. We’ll never know the extent to which Darger harbored humanity’s basest instincts, but I believe it is fair to say that the sadism driving his imagination differs in degree, rather than kind, from the mindless savagery unleashed in war, and for that reason his work is appropriate for this exhibition.

Jan Müller, “Faust, I” (1956), oil on canvas, 68 1/8 x 10 inches, Museum of Modern Art, New York

The piece that makes the biggest impression in the show, however, touches not at all on the brutality of war, but the temptations of the flesh. Jan Müller, as the wall label reminds us, fled with his family from Germany in 1933, and finally arrived in the United States in 1941, when he was 19 years old. His most outstanding paintings explore one of Germany’s greatest literary works, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Part One, originally published in 1808.

The canvas here, from 1956, two years before he died of a heart ailment at the age of 35, is one of several versions the artist made of the drama’s Walpurgisnacht sequence, the witches’ sabbath in which the forces of irrationality and sybaritism run amok.

Müller paints the scene as an arena of alluring evil, much like Darger’s killing fields, but rather than indulging in the latter’s salaciousness, he maintains an aesthetic distance, arranging the flattened forms of the witches’ bodies into a Cubist construction. The color is stark and dazzling, dominated by ghostly white naked flesh and punctuated with sharp greens, yellows, oranges and blacks.

The witches, who come on to the viewer with the sexual menace of Picasso’s Demoiselles, are the embodiment of dark sensuality, but their seductiveness is found as much in the viscosity and translucence of the paint as in their lewd poses. The connection to the war, other than Müller’s status as a refugee, is perhaps partly iconographic — the selling of one’s soul for worldly gain — and partly psychological, in terms of the sexual roots of aggression. It’s a splendid work to see in any context, one that wholly fulfills the endless urgency to paint.

Soldier, Spectre, Shaman: The Figure and the Second World War continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through March 20, 2016.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

2 replies on “Bodies at War: ‘Soldier, Spectre, Shaman’ at MoMA”

  1. Never heard it said that WW2 was the death knell for figurative art.
    The narrative was always of an existentialism in art in which the human figure was central.

    If somewhat squidged and squooshed.

  2. One thing to keep in mind about Jan Muller is that it wasn’t just the war that affected him but the death sentence he had of having one of the very first heart valve replacements and knowing immediately that the operation was unsuccessful. For nearly 5 years this star student of Hans Hofmann known for his abstract mosaic paintings turned to figuration, and more importantly, allegory.

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