Europe used to be haunted by a small subculture of displaced souls who lived in shabby hotels, wore ascot ties or black turtlenecks and spent endless hours sitting in cafes nursing small coffees and reading dog-eared volumes of Proust or Camus. Places that used to be called home forwarded small monthly stipends in support of wan ambitions to become writers, artists or both.
The wanderer, lost in book or museum, was inclined to forget what country he came from and the town he was in as well as what century. Creative aspirations were confused as it was never clear if the role model should be Moliere or Gide, Picasso or Pisanello. Very little was accomplished.
One somehow assumed that subculture had been washed away in subsequent decades of mods, hippies, yippies and assorted punks, but an exhibition on view to Sept. 1 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden proves that the sensibility continues to go its curious, spectral way.
Titled "Representation Abroad," the show presents vest-pocket solos of 16 artists living mainly in Europe but stationed as far afield as Colombia, often as expatriates. Artists range from 85 to 32 years in age and almost as broadly in style. Superficially, the common cause that binds them is dedication to depicting the real world more or less as it appeared to the painters' eye after the Renaissance but before the invention of the camera. More profoundly, it examines the state of the lingering shade of the artist as Existential Humanist Intellectual heroically going his own way in splendid isolation that confirms his integrity.
Hold it. How can anybody say that about a show that includes the art of David Hockney, an undeniable superstar? How can anybody say that of an exhibition that embraces artists like Luciano Castelli, Wolfgang Petrick, Klaus Fussman and Arthur Boyd, who work in accents identified with currently fashionable German Neo-Expressionism?
The point is well taken, but the fact of a certain celebrity or longing therefore does not finally alter the fascinating spirit of this show or its disturbing implications. It was organized as an evident labor of love by Hirshhorn exhibits chief Joe Shannon, himself a representational painter. His catalogue essay insists that the main purpose of the exhibition is simply to show some first-rate figurative work that is little known in this country.
While we must take Shannon at his word, the viewer is free to garner his own insights. We live at a moment when classic modernism is comatose and chic new-wave styles are largely unsatisfying. In such circumstances, it is impossible to encounter an exhibition like this without some glimmer of hope that it might suggest a way out of the impasse.
What is the answer, oh oracles of the maul stick? Well, the majority of these folks seem to think that the way to solve the dilemma is to inhabit the corpse of a great dead artist. Virtually everyone on hand is wearing some emperor's old clothes. Even Hockney has fun making witty comments about late Picasso ripping off Francis Bacon ripping off early Picasso. Hockney is in such a good mood he even does an uncharacteristic skin-mag-style creamy female nude in his Cubo-Polaroid photo-collage style.
Everyone else, rest assured, is grimly serious--even when witty. The most obvious body-snatcher is Hungarian-born Tibor Csernus. He works in Paris but he lives in the husk of Caravaggio, painting flaccid or sinewy female nudes fading into inky shadows and doing kinky things--ambiguously of course.
Briton Leonard McComb and Italian Nino Longobardi both seem to want pieces of Egon Schiele, even though he was a minor Austrian artist. Maybe that's why they like him. After all, we are dealing here with artists who glory in being minor. The only thing that's better than minor is decadent and neurotic. Schiele is the very symbol of decadent neurosis. The only thing better than minor, decadent and neurotic is tragic. Schiele died tragically of the Spanish flu at age 28. No wonder they like him.
Some of these artists are so great-spirited they cannot fit into the the body of a single great dead artist. They need a whole historical epoch. Italian octogenarian Francesco Messina writes poetry and art criticism as well as making sculpture. He has squatted on the entire style of Hellenistic Rome. Occasionally he cuts loose with a sexy-decadent Lolitaesque bronze nude like "Fabrizia" but most work is awkward academic kitsch.
Speaking of academic, the veteran international Rodrigo Moynihan has shifted from abstract to figurative art and back again enough times that neither a great dead artist nor a grand past period will contain his work so it lives in land that has blended everything into a kind of universal and timeless neutrality.
Close readers of current criticism may suspect that all this traffic with great dead artists may have something to do with a present fashion called "appropriation." It does not. Young Appropriators are trying to be coolly cynical like Uncle Andy Warhol. Artists here in question are passionately and lovably earnest in their admiration for the masters they emulate.
One might suspect a certain witty conceit on the part of Luis Marsans. A veteran aesthete, he lives in Paris and Barcelona and subleases the remains of three great dead artists. He blends Bonnard with Lautrec in order to make rather startlingly apt illustrations for the novels of Marcel Proust. He must occasionally tire of constantly being somebody else because once in a while he paints still-lifes of Proust's novels that are heartbreakingly affectionate.
In the current climate of hype and commercialism, one must warm to the very wrong-headed commitments of these people with their respect for history, literature and aesthetic isolation as ends in themselves. We would be poorer without them. At the same time, they offer little to break the stylistic deadlock of Post-Modernism. The way they turn the making of art into a ritual worship of the past becomes airless and fetishistic. Great technical skill is put in the service of expressing mental contents to the exclusion of the real world. The art feels closeted and suffocated, imprisoned in a vision of individualism forged by French poets and Viennese psychiatrists, narcissistic and saturated in sex and death.
Another tack taken in the show represents a potential that has crossed the minds of mullers on the Post-Mod mess. It is called Playing It Straight and represents the limpidly simple idea that maybe it would be nice if artists once again just took to painting the world with more attention to what is out there than their internal churnings.
Colombian Juan Cardenas has the jaw-dropping bravura skill of a Brazilian comic-strip artist. He tried to play it straight but got stuck staring at himself in the mirror. Endless self-portraits have the wry irony of Chevy Chase unable to fall out of love with himself.
Avigdor Arikha plays it straight as well as any artist around. Born in Hungary, he escaped death in the Holocaust because the Nazis liked his drawings. Today, he lives alternately in Paris and Israel. Bright, scrubby portraits of friends, landscapes and interiors seem like authentic responses to reality. Some have the reeling immediacy of a flash of deja vu .
Different but no less arresting are the works of Madrid's Isabel Quintanilla and her friend, Antonio Lopez-Garcia. They are the acknowledged leaders of a new school of Spanish realism and both paint with subtle authority. They update the sober elegance of Velazquez to modern times without plundering his art. Each patiently paints the everyday world. He will move from a gleaming rendition of a grimy laundry to a slow-surfaced examination of a nude in the bath which owes nothing to Degas. She captures the voracious shadows of Madrid's strange light in a night view out her window, then turns to a panorama of the city on a parched summer day.
They are wonderful paintings, but in the context of our larger expectations of art, there is something seriously lacking.
A clue to the missing element is provided by the work of Sandra Fisher, an American woman who lives in London, loves the opera and hangs out with Ron Kitaj. (It is a wonder, by the way, that R.B. Kitaj's work is not on view, as he is a godfather of the show's sensibility.) Anyhow, Fisher has painted Kitaj nude. The picture is clearly a woman's version of Manet's Olympia--a big hunk of a male odalisque--except its composition avoids the larger resonances that might make it a sociological statement. And thereby hangs the fail.
Fisher is a good painter. Arikha, Quintanilla and Lopez-Garcia are extraordinary painters. The latter three manage the unusual feat of expressing worry though their art. The Spaniards are also good at conveying isolation. The pictures say, "Madrid is a long, long way off."
Aside from that, none of them manage Manet's objectivity or his ability to talk about the life of the society through art. Manet's works imply novels. These "straight" artists imply only diaries. In the end, all the artists in the exhibition wind up unable to paint themselves out of their pictures to a sufficient degree to let in anything larger about what Baudelaire called "modern life."
A pessimist might conclude that painting is now divided between serving as a luxury consumer product or a personal record, a kind of connoisseur's photo scrap book. The optimist will hold ground, admitting we are in a bad patch but sure to to triumph by dint of honesty and hard work.