Post War: Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic 1945-65

Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany

With 350 works by 218 artists from 65 countries, ‘Postwar’ is an ambitious attempt to re-evaluate some of the previous century’s key artistic movements. The show’s intention can be summed up by the following question: What form of ‘global modernism’ might emerge if postwar artistic practices are seen through a postcolonial lens? Curated by Haus der Kunst director, Okwui Enwezor, in collaboration with Katy Siegel and Ulrich Wilmes, ‘Postwar’ draws on recent research on artists from diverse geographical regions who were making art during this period and is bookended by the geopolitical reconfigurations that followed World War II, and the formation of the global artistic networks of the late 1960s.

‘Aftermath’, the first of the show’s eight sections, groups Henry Moore’s skull-like bronze sculpture, Atom-Piece (1964–65), with the trauma-tinged paintings and drawings of Polish painter Andrzej Wróblewski (including Liquidation of the Ghetto/Blue Chauffeur, 1948–49). In Joseph Beuys’s primal, shamanic installation Hirschendenkmäler (Monuments to the Stag, 1958/1982) mythical, zoomorphic inchoate forms are arranged across a room. Postwar humanism is the theme of ‘New Images of Man’, which places Fateh Al-Moudarres’s semi-abstract painting Untitled (1962) with works by Magda Cordell and Asger Jorn. At the show’s conclusion, the systems-themed ‘Networks, Media and Communication’ examines forms of mass communication and cybernetics and looks at Öyvind Fahlström, The Independent Group and Lynn Hershman Leeson, among many others.

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Affandi, Mexico, Mother and Child, 1962. Courtesy: Collection of Museum Lippo

Affandi, Mexico, Mother and Child, 1962. Courtesy: Collection of Museum Lippo

The exhibition’s strength lies in its inclusion of numerous under-acknowledged artists working outside of European and North American contexts. The self-taught painter Affandi, who died in 1990, is represented by two paintings, one of which, Pengemis Cirebon (Beggar in Cirebon, 1960), depicts a kneeling mendicant from the artist’s native Java emerging from a swirl of abstraction. Also from this period is an oil-on-board work by Avinash Chandra, Early Figures (1961), in which four teeming, erotic, humanoid figures are rendered in geometric abstraction. Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, who was born in Tehran in 1937, combines calligraphic and ornamental imagery in his The Sun and the Lion (1960). The painters Malangatana Valente Ngwenya from Mozambique, born in 1936, and Hervé Télémaque, born in Haiti in 1937, both devised vivid images replete with pop-cultural and folk iconography.

In shedding light on such ‘blind spots’ of postwar art history, the exhibition’s curators aim not to re-write a single coherent art-historical narrative but to present – in Enwezor’s words – a ‘multivalent network of relationships and differences, affiliations and cultural solidarities, singularities and multiplicities’, attempting to ‘shrug off’ the burden of ‘canonical’ art history, letting it ‘fall, gracefully, by the wayside’. But what, exactly, does Enwezor mean by ‘canonical’ art history? The target of ‘Postwar’, it would seem, is the universalizing tendency of Western modernity and the way this plays out in the artistic canon of European and American cultural history. So, does the exhibition succeed in its aim?

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Avinash Chandra, Early Figures, 1961. Courtesy: Osborne Samuel Ltd. and Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection 

Avinash Chandra, Early Figures, 1961. Courtesy: Osborne Samuel Ltd. and Leicestershire County Council Artworks Collection 

In the case of the show’s section on abstract painting, titled ‘Form Matters’, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Here, Jackson Pollock is represented by a single, small canvas, which is overshadowed by large-scale paintings by abex women painters such as Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell. Yet, the due attention to female artists nonwithstanding, this section nonetheless adheres very closely to the existing Western art-historical canon. Nowhere in ‘Postwar’ is there a single reference to the relationship between the historical context of war and abstract painting. This seems all the more curious given that another recent exhibition, ‘Kunst in Europa 1945–68’, curated by Peter Weibel and simultaneously on view at the ZKM, Karlsruhe, questions precisely the ‘dominance’ of abstract art in the postwar period. The ZKM exhibition reveals, for instance, that even non-figurative works, such as Yves Klein’s Fire Paintings (1961), were provoked by the artist’s traumatic visit to Hiroshima, where he saw human shadows burned into the walls. (This context has been much ignored: who, in the triumphant US, would want to be reminded of such images?)

But ‘Postwar’ paints a different picture. Instead of examining the history of postwar abstraction as a response to the historical conditions of war, here the established categories of Western abstraction are merely expanded. Presented in this way, artists from Iran, South Korea, Lebanon, Pakistan and South Africa all appear to submit to the dictates of this abstract universalism – a submission (contrary to the postcolonial aims of the exhibition statement) that is not subjected to even the most glancing postcolonial criticism. If this isn’t simply the glorification and imposition of a pre-existing canon, I’m not sure what is.

The section ‘Concrete Visions’ reveals the consequences of this universalism. In this section, the neoconcrete art of Lygia Clark and others in Latin America is joined by the likes of Carl Andre (Timber Piece/Well, 1964/70), Max Bill (22, 1953/1980) and Ad Reinhardt (Untitled, Composition #4, 1954–60): advocates of a geometric abstraction made sublime by its elevation above the everyday. This is the same form of rational abstraction that the conceptual director of the first three editions of documenta, Werner Haftmann, claimed attested to the superiority of Western culture. Here, installed across from these works, is Metaesquema (1955), a gouache by the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, whose practice, the catalogue tells us, ‘subverts uniform grid structures by using tilted rectangles and, thus, ‘challenges our habitual ways of seeing’.

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Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Sun and Lion, 1960. Courtesy: Grey Art Gallery and New York University Art Collection. Gift of Abby Weed Grey

Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Sun and Lion, 1960. Courtesy: Grey Art Gallery and New York University Art Collection. Gift of Abby Weed Grey

In fact, with his 1967 manifesto and installation Tropicália, Oiticica parodied Haftmann’s claims for the superiority of Western rational modernity by deploying elements of folklore and popular culture, bringing the tropicália movement to life. Oiticica did not only challenge ‘ways of seeing’ but, more importantly, the very practice of a specific cultural canon that believed itself to be universal. Oiticica’s attack on Western modernity’s claims to superiority reveals singularities and difference – though not, as the section ‘Nations Seeking Form’ seems to suggest, the search for national imagery. (Such an attempt always risks simply erecting one canon in place of another.) In this section, paintings by the Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu and the Egyptian Inji Efflatoun are placed alongside Jasper Johns’s Flags (1965) and Andy Warhol’s Mustard Race Riot (1963). However, despite superficial affinities between such works, they differ both in artistic intention and historical context. The exhibition, however, fails to elaborate on this fact. Had ‘Postwar’ managed to get beyond similarities of style and to demonstrate how art across the globe had freed itself from the dictates of Western modernity, then it might have offered one of the most insightful examples of overcoming canonical art history to date.

In the ‘Realisms’ section, the mural From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz to the Revolution – The People in Arms (1957–65), by Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, depicts a scene of revolutionary emancipation. Across from it hangs a 1948 portrait of Josef Stalin, by the Soviet painter Fjodor Schurpin, titled The Morning of Our Fatherland. Both are painted ‘realistically’. Neither, seemingly, has anything to do with the other. An image glorifying brutality and power is presented next to a work depicting people who fight precisely against this kind of power. In this juxtaposition, it becomes clear that a purely formal universalism can lead to the levelling of values, intentions and consequences. And here a blasphemous thought occurs to me. The act of stripping messages of their original contexts and motivations brings to mind one movement in particular: populism.

Translated by Philipp Rühr and Stanton Taylor

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.

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