Innovation, Contradiction and Modernity - Encountering the 30s with the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid
This article was previously published on Kunstpedia. The exhibition is running until the 7th of January 2013, so you have a few days to still catch it.
The volatile decade of the 1930s saw the rise of totalitarian regimes and the advent of the Great Depression, while advances in film and photography offered artists the opportunity to explore new art forms and medias of communications. It’s impossible generalise the 1930s, since as an era it’s represented by eclecticism and contradiction, where art became a complex debate between totalitarianism and individualism; realism versus abstraction; and where nationalism took on international collaboration.
The 1930s inherited the artistic fever for experimentation from the previous decades of the 1910s and 20s, however the 30s can be viewed as a time when avant-garde and modernity went their own separate ways under the imposed political and economic climate.
The Modern was perceived as individualistic and went against the collective identity imposed by the dictatorships in Europe. Yet, the rise of new advances in photography, publishing and poster art gave artists the chance to break away from the status quo, inspiring innovation and continued experimentation in the world of art. Debates rose up on abstraction and realism, while surrealism expanded on an international basis. The “isms” blended together in an international melting pot where artists like Pablo Picasso took a playful approach to combining styles.
The exhibition on display at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid takes us on a journey back to the 1930s. Like its era, the exhibition is eclectic and extreme, revisiting this fascinating time through the innovation and creativity that gave birth to abstraction, surrealism and new forms of expression through photography and film, while acknowledging the influence the era’s politics. Artists of the 1930s showed the world they had the ability to challenge, aggravate and provoke the conventional order.
We’re introduced to the artistic scope of the 1930s through the channel of realism, a broad artistic movement that encapsulated the “New Vision” through to the rise of social realism.
Realism became an artistic device used to communicate en masse with the public. It expressed a desire to reach out to broad audiences, resulting in increased eclectic depictions of the style from the photographic impressions like Josep de Togores’s “Group around the Guitar. L’Ametlla de Vallés,” to those with a more experimental edge like Antonio Berni’s “New Chicago Athletic Club” or Philip Guston’s “Mother and Child”.
Realism sought to bring art into a public sphere, and despite its name, it refers to an orientation in art rather than an aesthetic connection to reality. Naturalism, a style used to convey “realistic” forms in art as seen in the 19th century, is not a branch of realism. Whether seen in the canvases of the exhibition or in photographs of realist murals from Mexico or the Soviet Union, we see that realism isn’t an aesthetic concept, but rather an ideological one that expresses “true values” such as a social preoccupation with daily life in the interwar-war period.
Pursuing the experimental spirit of modernity of the prior decades, the perseverance of abstraction in the 1930s as a form of creative research and expression transformed this innovative art form into a conversation on utopian reflection, form and even politics. Abstraction not only challenged perspectives on the use of form and colour in art, but also considered dimensional space by playing with textures and solid objects imposed on canvas.
Laszló Moholy-Nagy’s “AL6 Construction” is a three dimensional composition of oil on aluminium. The forms in Moholy-Nagy’s abstract construction demonstrate interplay of texture and depth; circles of oil paints are contrasted against circular holes, whose depth is emphasised by the aluminium sheet that’s offset from the background.
Abstraction in the 30s also became a play of form and colour, sometimes with a regression to childlike naivety as seen in the canvases of Joan Miró to the carefully crafted compositions of Wassily Kandinsky.
“Succession” by Kandinsky, demonstrates the artist’s fascination with geometry and colour, where his forms display a mathematical progression of pictorial music as the notes explode into colour on the canvas. Paul Klee’s “Halme (Straw)” also imitates a musical language through paint in his own position on abstraction.
While Europe saw the imposition of realism by authoritarian regimes, that considered abstraction as “bourgeois” and “individualistic,” a transatlantic dialogue between European abstract artists, such as Moholy-Nagy and Kandinsky, and artists in the United States was taking place. Across the Atlantic, abstraction was embraced as a visual language not only for private experimentation, but also for public commission, and even though many critics and members of the public favoured realism abstraction grew in popularity, flavouring modern art for decades to come.
While surrealism met with significant criticism and even disdain from art critics such as Clement Greenberg in the US, the movement exploded at an international level in the 1930s. While it began as an underground movement with left wing politics, thanks to Salvador Dalí surrealism was ushered into the mainstream and would leave a lasting impact on modern art and popular culture.
Through an expanding print and media culture, surrealism embraced modern technology with an ever-growing medium of surrealist photography with artists such as Man Ray. Surrealism was also fused to other movements such as abstraction or even realism, as seen in the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró.
Picasso’s “Le Sauvetage,” whose unique perception propelled the artist beyond the cubist styles of his earlier career into his own individual brand of surrealism, whereas Miró’s “Deux Baigneuses [Two Bathers]” is a marriage between surrealist composition and abstract style.
On display, you’ll find “pure” surrealist works, such as Salvador Dalí’s “Sketch for the work ‘The Invisible Man’,” and “Surrealist Composition, Fraud in the Garden,” by Yves Tanguy, whose distorted forms and elongated shadows on a deserted plane expresses the classical aesthetics of surrealist painting.
While print photography and film reeled in the world of the avant-garde in the 1920s, in the 1930s this new and exciting medium became the gateway to the masses for many artists. While the 1930s saw works of experimental photography rise up in the art world, especially in surrealist circles, many photographers such as Man Ray entered the mainstream by working with fashion magazines like Vogue.
Photography served not only as an artistic medium for design and propaganda, but captured the spirit of the decade through themes of applied psychology and the search for non-traditional forms. Many artists turned to the art of the photomontage and photocollage as an alternative form of expression to connect with the public.
The display at the Reina Sofia also discusses the use of public space and exhibitions in the 30s. The dictatorships of the totalitarian regimes that dominated European politics acknowledged the importance of art and culture. The theatrical and monumental dominated the European landscape where buildings and public spaces took on a new symbolic meaning; they became an opportunity to inspire ceremony and nationalism among the people.
The rise of new technologies also changed the way space was used, with the rise of the science and art of projecting light onto a building to creative light shows. But it was not only illumination that gave exhibitions multimedia feel, sound and film also became an important part of the display.
The exhibition spaces of the 1930s saw the rise of world fairs and large-scale exhibition halls, where the exhibitions played to local political and economic climates.
Exhibitions became a marriage between fiction and fantasy, and like the spirit of the 1930s were full of contradictions and extremes. Themes of hand made versus the machine; miniature versus the monumental; industrial versus the primitive; individual versus the collective and democratic versus totalitarianism. Through paintings, murals, tapestries, posters and postcards, we can see through the Reina Sofia “Encounters with the 1930s” how the exhibitions of the decade merged the larger than life with the everyday world.
One factor crucial in a conversation on the 1930s, especially in Spain, is the effect of the Civil War. The exhibition is structured round Picasso’s iconic “Guernica” painting, which celebrates its 75th anniversary. Spanish artists were active participants in the creative world of the 1930s, and with the rise of the Civil War many artists were exiled either by choice or by force.
The Civil War’s influence on art manifested in different ways. Many artists used realism an idiom to document the events and horrors of the war, through realism many artists could include an emotional dimension into their paintings that photography could not, turning these works into historical archives.
Although, the use of art to record horrific acts of war wasn’t limited to realism. Picasso’s “Guernica” conveyed the atrocities of war through stylised form, yet the symbolic and emotional effect the painting has immortalised the tragedy and the horror that took place in the small Basque village of Guernica.
The Civil War turned many artists towards the concept of violence as a narrative, some drew stimulus from the conflict, while others joined ranks to do something about the war, inspiring a huge cultural and creative production in Europe and America, both by Spanish exiles and their supporters.
To summarise the impact the 1930s had on art is futile, it’s a complex decade that spawned some of the most innovative works of the 20th century. Fully understanding art of the 1930s is one that will require a lifetime of study, but the exhibition leaves you with an impression, a feel for a time when the world was on the edge between war, economic depression, new technology and globalisation.
I would like to offer a very special thank you to Milena Ruiz and the staff at the Reina Sofia Museum for their help in preparing this article.
References: Exhibition Catalogue: Encounter with the 30s, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia and La Fabrica (2012)
Jennifer is a freelance writer specialising in art, travel & culture. This blog is a melange of her published articles and independent thoughts.