The shadow of the avant-garde

I was recently at the Museum in Essen. That had long been on my to-do list. And secretly I continue my 10×10 story with this visit. As a big fan of Classical Modernism (somehow it got stuck very deep in me during my studies) I naturally had to visit the exhibition “Der Schatten der Avantgarde. Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters”. There you meet old acquaintances (of course, when Kaspar König is the curator) and get to know them under completely new circumstances. One is amazed at the power of the outsiders and begins to think about the art business. I really appreciate it when exhibitions provide such impulses and you take one or two thoughts home with you.

The customs officer

Henri Rousseau plays a central role in the exhibition. His significance for avant-garde artists exemplifies what is meant by shadow. He made the leap from the shadow to the big stage. But his story is very special for many reasons. His status shifted between the factotum of the bohemians at Montmartre (which people liked to make fun of) and the muse of the artists at the beginning of the 20th century who were looking for fresh impulses. This also included a certain kind of formation of legends. Thus, the adventures in distant Mexico, which had influenced his style of painting, were told in a fervent manner. In truth, however, Rousseau never left Paris. And his fantasies about the mysterious jungle came from a catalogue of the Lafayette Gallery. But modernism needed it. Just as they needed the reports from paradise that Gauguin from the distant South Seas gave them. They weren’t allowed to know that Gauguin would have liked to return.

Picasso, Gauguin and the Stars of Modernity

The exhibition also features the avant-garde that cast the big shadow. Those who are revered today as the founders of classical modernism. Picasso, Gauguin, Mondrian, Brancusi, Nolde, Ernst … Today they guarantee streams of visitors. At that time, after the turn of the century, they were striving for an art that could keep pace with social changes. It was clear to them that academies were not places where progress could be taught into a new era. So they set out to find new sources of inspiration. Unadulterated, untouched, original … such terms were used as a guide. Non-European art and even the non-academic “naïves” or “outsiders” seemed to fulfil these criteria.

If one now wanders through the exhibition, one notices “condensed energy fields”. With a “non-hierarchical” architecture, the makers want to guide visitors through the small retrospectives of those who stood in the shadow of the avant-garde. I think the idea is good. But I also had to realize that the blogbusters magically attracted me. It was always this: “Oh look. THAT hangs here! The aura of an artwork also has to do with its reception, right?

You can’t see the one in the shade

That is of course the merit of this presentation, which was set up by Kaspar König and Falk Wolf. One discovers the outsiders, the forgotten ones, who do not appear in the usual canon of art history (the only exception is Henri Rousseau, who is therefore supposed to be a kind of mediator between the worlds). One is astonished at the power of her paintings and deciphers so much in them that one ascribes to classical modernism. The simplicity of forms, the immersion in mystical worlds, the consciously imperfect.

Especially the former cleaning lady Séraphine Louis and the slave Bill Traylor fascinated me. By the way, the latter is still very familiar to me from the solo exhibition in the Museum Ludwig in 1999. Traylor’s pictures touch you because they show you the world from the point of view of a lifelong oppressed person. And they do so in such a way that they go straight into the heart without being filtered. In Séraphine Louis, you also feel that the pictures open up an otherwise closed world. The paradise that could perhaps be discovered behind the lush planetary still lifes, however, gets a few cracks.

Each of the 13 exhibited shadow artists is a discovery in itself. The sculptures of Erich Bödeker, for example, or William Edmondson. One asks oneself involuntarily: why aren’t they included in the canon? Why don’t you see them in the large collections? The exhibition also wants to contribute to the discourse – and does so above all in the clever catalogue texts. It’s about the question of evaluation. Not so much art. Whether it is significant or less significant. It’s about taking a closer look at the origins of modernism. It’s about differentiating between modernism and modernism. For me, this is a very exciting – and admittedly new – idea.

“But why – and this is the decisive question posed by our exhibition – is it necessary to be modernist in the narrow sense of the word in order to belong to the canon of modernism as a matter of course? (…) The exhibition will not be able to show any way out of the dilemma. But it poses the question of whether and to what extent our category patterns adequately depict the artistic reality that we call modernity”.

An excellent appeal to question one’s own evaluation criteria. To approach art without prefabricated opinions. It is quite legitimate for art not to tell you anything. But that shouldn’t be tied to the question of how well known an artist is, should it? The exhibition has made me more awake in this respect. And I can definitely warmly recommend a visit.