Articles, Blog

It’s Our Community – Jan Schall

November 9, 2019

I’m so glad you’re here. It’s our community,
you know, and the neighbor I want you to meet today is a very special person. She is a friend
of mine as well, but she is the Sosland curator of modern art at the Nelson Atkins Museum
of Art, and her name is Jan Shaw. Hi Jan. Hi Mary. It’s so good to be here with you
I am delighted, and we are going to talk about the, well actually it’s a show at the
Nelson, but it’s even larger than that. It’s the history of the art of the world
war one era, and the Nelson has been cognizant of the fact that we are
celebrating the 100 year anniversary of the commemoration of the war, and Jan
has put together, I think, 60. You have 60? About 60 works of art, yes
Not all belong to the nelson.
No So
that’s trouble to find all that stuff, but she has done a magnificent job, and
are you ready to discuss art? Of
course You know, the exhibit is
interesting, because it goes from corpses to teacups, and I think that analogy
is simply part of the chaos that came out of that era between maybe 1890 to
1919, 1920, somewhere around in there. Talk about the chaotic state of the
world when these artists were producing. Well
that late 19th century was, in general for Europe, and throughout America as
well, a very dramatic moment of shift, and it had to do with the industrial
revolution, and what that did was to bring a lot of people into the cities,
away from the farms. It upset the agrarian economy. It created a sense of
alienation, because people were apart from their families. All sorts of new
inventions, you know, we went from horses and carts, to cars. We went from cars
to airplanes in that amount of time, and it was very speedy. It was very
dramatic, and it very much upset the apple cart as far as people’s expectations
were for their lives, and it had political ramifications as well.
You know, and that, I think I want to pull out
a little thread here. You talked about the instability of their families because
of the industrial revolution, and the changes taking place, and that was
the beginning of the separation of families, because before that they all stayed,
they worked together. They lived together. They lived in the same town. They
did their parents business, I mean, nobody left
It was such a strong community, and for that to be
shattered by the industrial revolution, and then the other thing that
happened of course with the industrialization, was that people went to
work in these factories. There were no labor laws, so people worked extremely
long hours for very low wages, and they began to feel really inhuman. They began
to feel like they were simply cogs in the machine, which in effect, they
were. I was
going to say And
when anything happened to them, they were wounded on the job, or they died,
they were just replaced by someone else. Well,
you know, I was reading something where women worked in a factory painting
luminescent dials on watches, and of course you know that’s radioactive, and
they would lick the end of the brush to sharpen it, and it was horrible,
horrible. There really wasn’t an
awareness as we have today. We were still discovering things that need to be
adjusted in the workplace, but back then there were absolutely no controls, and
people were dispensable. Well not only that, but
they lived in very squalid conditions, I mean it was just bad. So now we’ve
kind of set the stage here, but I always think that artists have a third eye,
and that they see the world sometimes before the rest of us do, and they
interpret it, not standing on a soapbox in Washington square in New York, but
through their art. So how did the war affect the art, and the artists? Could
you discuss that, I mean, I think that’s so interesting.
Well the war itself affected the art world in specific
ways, I mean, some of the artists, of course, had to serve in the war.
Some volunteered. Some were conscripted. Some had mental breakdowns. Some
were wounded physically. Some died, so directly the war impacted artists
in many ways. Indirectly, all of the other aftermath, and response in their communities
changed everything. When your country’s at war, when you are at war,
physically you’re in the trenches, and you’re worried about your family, it
changes everything. Well I
think too that everybody was in upheaval. Yes
Everything was vibrating at that time, and it think that…
you made the remark that not since the Renaissance had there been such
a watershed moment in art, as there was in the modernism.
That’s right. It was a major cultural shift, and
I would say, analogous to, perhaps more dramatic, but analogous to what we’re
going through with the information age, shifting. It’s a whole shift of mindset
which is changing the way we do business, changing the way we think, changing
the way we interact, all of those things. So it’s very interesting that it’s
100 years later, we’re going through a comparable event.
My father always said, everything is circular,
he always said “You sit in the same place for a while, and it comes around again.”
That’s right, it happens again, in different ways.
It is true, but I think that… I look at technology,
and I think it’s the same as people here. I look at technology, and I think
“I don’t understand that at all.” I mean, you say hello to the techie
people, and then I’m done. I don’t know what else to say, but I think upheaval
caused art to be even more creative. It’s
interesting that people didn’t see it coming. They didn’t expect there to be a
war. Nobody expected there to be a war. But we
marched right up to it. Well
we did And
the archbishop, archbishop, the archduke was not, you know. His death was only
the newspapers said precipitated the war, but we were on the road to war for a
while. Many,
many years before hand, there where all sorts of uncertainties, and
difficulties that were happening among various countries that were stirring the
pot, shall we say, and that was just that kind of final excuse to jump into
something. It was, and I think you
used the word avant-garde, which I think is interesting too, because that means
the cutting edge, and there are always people that want to be, or that find
themselves, by virtue of the fact that they’re standing there on the cutting
edge, and these artists, I think, all of them in their own way, where on the
cutting edge of that change to modernism. Absolutely,
they certainly where. They defined what modernism would become known as, and
for, and it’s interesting though to elaborate on the term avant-garde, of
course it’s a military term. Yes
And it really was the first force, this goes way
back in time, but it was the group of the forces that went forward with their bayonets
pointed, and they were sort of scouting for what was going to happen next
behind them, and clearing the way, and in a way, it was interesting that that
metaphor would be used by the artists, or by the critics.
Let me ask you this question. How were the avant-garde
artists received by the public in general at the time?
I think people were completely confused, if
they even knew about it, because there weren’t that many of them, and they
were exhibiting in small places, they weren’t a major force. If the general populace
was even aware of them, they didn’t get it.
They thought they were a little strange
Well certainly, I mean they’d had a little lead
up, because of impressionism, and post-impressionism, but that was even still
beyond their comprehension, because it didn’t conform to the way they understood
the world, but what was happening with the artists is that they were responding
to new ideas in science, and mathematics, and ideas about space and time, and ideas
about the way the eye actually sees color, in terms of rods, and cones, which
are, you know, dots and dashes of color, and then the mind puts it all together
Oh, so it was pointillists that did it.
That was pointillism, but all of the kind of leads
to this dissolution of the absolutely refined, configured, reality.
Well that is true, and you know, I have found too
that one thing kind of Segway’s into another, and time marches on, as they
say, but I think if we look at the Kandinsky, we’re talking about the Blue
Riders here. Yes
And the Blue Riders School was probably on the
forefront of that movement of modernism.
They were definitely one of the forerunners of
modernism, and their approach was expressionistic. It was very gestural. It
was very colorful. It was intense, and it, as you can see in the Kandinsky painting
here, from 1909-1910, and you actually see in the center of that painting,
a kind of abstracted horse. It’s white, and you see a figure riding on it wearing
blue, and that really was, in a sense, the emblem of their movement, based
in Munich, Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, August Macke, and others were
all part of that movement, and they actually had a really interesting notion about
what the future would bring. they saw themselves as avant-garde, leading
the way into this new world, and if you look at that painting, up in the left
you see kind of a dark, kind of gloomy scene. They saw that as the world of
now, and over on the right side, you can see something like a church window,
a stained glass window reference, and lots of color, and the idea was, that
Kandinsky envisioned, that we were moving into a new spiritual era, a world of
illumination, and brilliance, away from the dark old way of looking at things.
I’m not sure how correct he was.
What I’m saying is, in 1910, his vision was the
dawn of a new spiritual era. Four years later, the world is at war, and it is
a cataclysm. It was
indeed, and I think we had, he is no longer living, but a member of the Blue
Riders in our midst, because he, in the last part of his life, was at the
University of Kansas, and this is an Albert Bloch, and he is entirely
different, and talk about Albert Bloch just a little bit, because this happens
to be mine, I have to say, and I just love that, because look at him. His name
is Mephisto by the way. Ah,
probably a character from the Cabaret, presented in that way probably form a
dramatic event that he captured, but Albert Bloch was American.
Born in Saint Louis
Yes, born in Saint Louis, but of German ancestry,
and so, as a young artist, and someone who wanted to be where the action
was, went to Munich, and became affiliated with Marc, and Kandinsky, and Macke,
and the others that were a part of the Blue Rider group, the Blaue Reiter,
and he was an absolutely integral part of it, and documented the Cabaret scenes,
and life in general as he saw it. And so
the movie Cabaret would be sort of… Cabaret,
that cabaret, that move was really more about the lead up to World War 2
But I love that, and I think most people don’t
know that we had this really very well-known artist internationally, and he
was part of the scene at the University of Kansas. He had to leave Germany.
He had to leave once the United States entered the
war. so he was there, 1914, the war began, 15, 16, he was still there, 1917, when
the United States entered the war, he suddenly became an enemy combatant,
and he had to leave, and beyond that he was also very concerned about the
impoverished situation that he and his family were living in. by that time, him
and his wife had a child, and it was not a good place to be.
Well and Mephisto was done in 1910, so he was still
in Munich then, and he was a German impressionist.
Interesting, the same year the Kandinsky painted the painting
we just looked at. Exactly,
so I thought it would be interesting to look at both of them, because they’re
both a little bit different, but very, very expressive. I think that, you know,
as we move along to the different schools of painting, we need to move to the
expressionists. Mmhmm
And there is a Schiele at the gallery. Is he in
the show? Yes,
he is. We have an Egon Schiele in the exhibition. He was an Austrian artist
based in Vienna, and his approach to art was very figurative. He was not
abstract in the sense that we just saw, Kandinsky, very figurative, and kind of
exploring the dark side of life. I remember
the Schiele that I saw was gray, and dark, and it shows buildings.
Oh, landscapes, he did a lot of landscapes, and
cityscapes as well. The piece that’s in the exhibition is I think a figure
of a woman seen from behind, and she’s partially nude.
You know, I think it’s also to note that Schiele died
at 28. He got the flu. He was in that horrible flu epidemic.
He died in 1918, or 19, 18 I think it was. So
the influenza epidemic, or pandemic, it really became, was spreading like wildfire
during that era, and it’s called the Spanish flu. An interesting thing that
I learned in this process was the reason it was called the Spanish flu was because
no one else would talk about it. They didn’t want to admit that there
was this horrible flu, and not just stomach flu, this was just horrible, and nobody
wanted to talk about where it started, or how it began, and so the only
paper, the only newspaper that would cover it, was in Spain, and they therefore
got the moniker of having it called the Spanish flu, just because they were the
ones to publicize it. They talked about it
They talked about it But I think there’s
another one that is in the show, you know I knew about Marsden Hartley, but I never
focused on when he painted, so he was in this era too, and I think you
will see that the Marsden Harley is, and I love these bright, bright colors. I
mean, you know, does that mean anything to you.
Well sure this is a, you know, this is an abstract.
I mean he is an impressionist artist. He’s part of the Blaue Reiter a
little bit, but more specifically, an expressionist artist whose based in Berlin.
He was not in Munich with Kandinsky and the others. He was in Berlin, and yet
he adopter, and was part of that whole expressionist movement, and this painting
is called Himmel, and you can see the word in blue with the stars there
by it. H-I-M-M-E-L, it means heaven in German. I always have thought why did he
call it just Himmel, because really it’s about the dichotomy between heaven,
and hell, and the word that’s upside down on white with red letters with the two
little dots is hölle, which in German means hell. So
it’s really heaven, and hell. So we
want to stay away from the bottom of the picture. Well
it’s about the situation. There where bombs exploding, and bursts, and this
equestrian monument which is kind of a delicate reference to war, and also to
the fact that his lover was conscripted into the German service, and went off
to war, and was killed. It was
not a happy time, but you see the artist interpret life as they see it around
them, and a lot of these paintings that you will see in the show are what you
might find if you go to the internet. They have corpses in them.
Some do Yeah,
some do, and then others are like this, and you can read a lot into them. Let’s
move to the Bauhaus. Big
jump It is
a big jump. They are about what? 1919? Yeah,
1919 the Bauhaus opened in Biomer Germany. This is post-war now.
Well not exactly, because the conference of Versailles
was in 1919. Yes,
and just 1919, and then in the fall of 1919. They were in the summer of 1919,
and then the fall was- But I
think that it’s well to tie into history, because the conference of Versailles,
and we might take a moment to remind you that it was at that point that the
Ottoman Empire was destroyed, and the middle-east was created as we know it
now, and Turkey, they were the Ottoman Empire, so we had all of these small
states in the middle east created as a result of this, that we are still
having, as I might remind you, difficulties with. So that was-well let’s then
talk about- it was a school. Yes it
was. And
see I think we mustn’t call it a movement. We have to understand that it was a
school, and that they taught design. They taught fine art. They had classes.
Absolutely And I
think that this is where I want to show you a beautiful set of cups. They’re
silver. It’s a tea service, and let’s take a look at those, because I think
those are absolutely, and those look, to me, like they might have been created
just today. Well, frankly,
the Bauhaus aesthetic is alive and well, and all you have to do is go to Ikea,
and you can see the most recent ramifications of the Bauhaus aesthetic, what
really happened as a result of the war is that the idea became about making
things that are economical. Germany was destroyed. Germany was deeply
impoverished. People starved to death. Bread
lines forever Bread
lines, the money that they had to use was so worthless that people used it as
wallpaper on their home in their houses, because it was worth less than
wallpaper. It was a terrible, terrible time. Literally, people starved, and
people actually starved at the Bauhaus, students came to the Bauhaus, and they
actually had a garden there, but they developed a way of making art, and, in
this case, design. This happens to be a woman.
Yes it is. She was a student at the Bauhaus, and
became a teacher, stayed long enough to become one of the teachers, and the idea
was to make a prototype, and she made a beautiful prototype in silver, which
is what you see here, and then it could be produced in various ways. It could
be produced in silver. It could be produced in silver plate. It could be produced
in a metal which was just a metal, a nice, shiny, silvery metal, but it
wasn’t really silver. So depending upon your income bracket, you could buy that
same design but in different degrees of preciousness.
Well you know, we need to look at another Kandinsky
that was a little bit different, and takes from the earlier one that we saw,
to now. There
it is Frankly
I like the other one better. Well
this one, this later Kandinsky, this is a piece he did while at the Bauhaus,
while teaching painting at the Bauhaus, as a member of the faculty, and it was
a very esteemed faculty I might add, what he is bringing to it now is lessons
that he learned while he was back in his home of Russia. He was born in Russia.
He grew up in Moscow, came to Munich, and when the war broke out, of course,
when Russia entered the war against Germany, he was an enemy combatant, he had
to leave. See,
all these people where just- They
were all displaced, and went flying back in different directions, and he had to
go back to Moscow, and when he got back to Moscow, he got reconnected with the
art scene there, which is very much- now again, 1917, the Russian revolution
had occurred, and now it’s the USSR, and so there was a new aesthetic there as
well, and it was really about- Did he
get in with that? Yes,
he jumped right into it But
did his art fit in with the… His
organic expressionist art did not, and he changed tunes. He adopted the
aesthetic of the constructivists, and the suprematists who were making art at
that moment. Like
this piece Like
that piece, very geometric Flexibility
is the name of the game. Well
and it was a new time. It was a new era, and being in the Soviet Union was a
new adventure. It was a new experiment. No one had ever done that before. So, bi
Well, exactly, I think the next on that we want
to talk about is Juan Gris, and he was around 1913, so we, you know, we’re
skipping a bit. You’re
jumping around a bit. A
little bit but… This
painting is from 1915. So it was painted while World War I was going on.
Remember World War I began in 1914. He was Spanish, so he could continue to
paint. He continued to live in Paris. He continued to make paintings. Spain was
neutral. Now he
was a cubist. He was
a cubist, and so as opposed to the expressionist point of view, which was very
organic, and dramatic, and expressive gestures, the cubists were looking at
other ideas about a reality, and they were responding to new notions of time,
and space. They were not reading Einstein, but these sorts of ideas were in the
air, and people were talking about the fact that there-how can you separate
time from space, really, it’s a continuum, and so the idea that you would make
a still-life, and the word for still-life in French is nature morte, dead
nature, which means that it’s absolutely still, and holding in place, that that
was a fallacy, that that was not a reality, that in fact, everything was
shifting, and so what you see here is, you now, glasses, and newspapers, and a
coffee grinder, and venetian blinds, and it’s all in motion
Now did he have any influence on Picasso?
Well it’s the other way around. Picasso had influence
on him. See, I
get my dates twisted around. In
fact, their families knew each other in Spain, and so when young Juan Gris
wanted to go to Paris, of course, they put him together with Picasso. He lived
in the same building with Picasso, and so forth.
So the inoculation occurred.
Yes, he became part of the cubist entourage.
Well we have a photograph that’s kind of interesting
too. Photography has really come into its own, of recent, but this is
an older one, and this almost looks cubist as well.
Well it’s a variant of cubism. This is Alvin langdon Coburn,
who was an American artist, photographer, who went to Great Britain, and lived
most of his life in Britain, and he became a member of, what was called, the
vorticists’ group, and this is called a vortograph, and so it’s a
photograph. It’s taken with a camera, but it’s a very unconventional approach. It’s
not that he set something out there, and took a picture of it. What he did was
he created a little, kind of a window with little fragments of mirrors that he
attached to the end of his lens, and he took a picture of that, and so that’s
what you’re looking at, and what you see is very cubist.
Like a kaleidoscope? Kind of like that, it’s analogous to something
like that, but it’s not a picture of diamonds, or metal or anything like that, that would
be out in the world. It was right around the frame of his lens.
I think that’s kind of interesting. It’s a fantastic piece, and the vorticists
were very active at the same time as the cubists were, as well as the futurists, and like the
futurists, they had a greater sense of dynamism. Are the Dadaist futurists?
The Dadaists are a separate category entirely, you can see all these little movements that
where happening. Right, busy little time
It was a very, very cacophonic time. Let’s put it that way, many different voices speaking
simotainously, but the Dadaists were interested in, actually, what they were responding to
was the war, and the absurdity of the notion that supposedly civilized nations could come
to this end, you know, the borders closed up when they could be me free to move back
and forth to Paris, and they were off to Barcelona, and they were back and forth on to Munich,
to Berlin, and so forth. It was a world of no borders, and suddenly you’re locked in
to where you are. And they didn’t like that
Well some of them, and where Dada took off, a lot of them went to Switzerland, it was
neutral. Switzerland was a neutral country, and not all together they went en masse, but
they found each other there in Zurich. I think if you want to take the time to look
up the Dada movement, Man Ray would be a good one to-
He would one I would just say google Dada. Google Dada and you will find all about that
movement. You know, some of the artists of this era
did not end well. Some of them were paged with mental illness. Some of them had to flee
to their other country. It was a terrible upheaval for them as well.
It was, it was, in fact, very sad, very sad, and I made myself some notes here so I could
just remind everyone just what happened here, who fought in the war, who died, what happened
to people. So Paul Klee was from Switzerland, but was from German extraction, served in
the war. Franz Marc, a German artist, part of the Blaue Reiter movement, the blue rider
in Munich, served in the war for Germany, was killed at Verdun. August Macke also served
in the war. George Braque from France, served in the war, was wounded. Ernst Kirchner fought
for Germany, but suffered a mental collapse, what we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder,
today. We have different names for things, and then of course Egon Schiele died just
a few weeks before the war ended in 1918, along with his wife, and, she was pregnant,
also their child. I think it’s appropriate as I say thank
you to you for this wonderful conversation about the show at the Nelson, please go see
it. I want to quote the poem that you quoted in the paper by Ms. Estes. She wrote In the
Splendor, and her poem is about the artists who create in times of upheaval, and she said
“What if incubation can only occur in darkness. What if hope and new life that truly endure,
are not born from airy happiness, but from the black dirt of grief.” And there you
have it Profound statements
It is Thanks Jan
Thank you miry And I have to thank the Nelson Atkins Museum
of Art for making us the loan your wonderful conversation.
Oh it’s good to be here. You’ll have to come see the exhibition again, and again.
Again, and again, and I urge you all to goa and see it as I say thanks so much for being
with us, and we’ll be back again soon, because it’s our community.

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