ART REVIEW : From the Ashes of WWII : Two Exhibitions at the Guggenheim Explore Italian, Japanese Postwar Art


The fall season at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is marked by a pair of big, dutiful survey shows that leaves a visitor feeling grateful for having seen them, if not exactly inspired by the result. They're of interest mostly as historical exercises--they might even be called landmark shows--with a few choice nuggets encountered along the way.

"The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968" is a huge survey of painting, sculpture, architecture, design, photography, fashion and film, made in the 25 years following the fall of the Fascist regime. Guggenheim curator Germano Celant and a team of nine consultants have pulled together more than 1,000 works, from the slashed paintings of Lucio Fontana to the pop-historical dress designs of Emilio Pucci, which jam the spiral ramps and side galleries of the Fifth Avenue building on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Downtown, at the Guggenheim Soho, independent curator Alexandra Munroe has assembled 200 works of art for "Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky," which surveys its subject up to the present day. The title comes from a 1961 Conceptual music score by Yoko Ono, who also directed a vocalist to scream "against the wind" and "against the wall." In this show's context, however, "Scream Against the Sky" inevitably alludes to the bombing of Hiroshima in the final days of World War II.

Together, these two exhibitions examine art made during decades of rebuilding after the wartime defeat of the two smaller Axis powers. They repeatedly demonstrate the ways in which Italian and Japanese artists wrestled in their own work with the influx of American art and popular culture, skeptically or not, and with lingering traditions of European Modernism.

The Guggenheim, like many other museums, has actively presented German art of the past quarter-century, a period of remarkable efflorescence in significant work. Especially since the 1960s, German artists engaged in an unblinking and diverse program of self-examination that bore abundant fruit. By contrast, the Italian and Japanese shows suggest a generally more parochial endeavor.

In fact, the single most powerful image produced in postwar Italy was the radiantly impish face of Giulietta Masina. In a gallery where film clips are continuously shown, fleeting moments of performances by the great actress pretty much make you forget Italian painting and sculpture of the period.

On this exhibition's evidence, Italian art floundered amid rather narrow interests. Cinema and product design are the principal accomplishments of Italy's immediate postwar era.

Film had the bloated specter of high-flown Fascist propaganda against which to react and re-create itself, from the ground up. Directors as diverse as Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini made the most of it. Other, subsequent directors, such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini, were given a new and lively tradition on which to build.

Artists, meanwhile, seem to have been in search of a reason for being. At worst, sculptors such as Fausto Melotti and Marino Marini cling for dear life to the precedents of Picasso.

Experiments with new materials and techniques, apparently undertaken for their own sake, abound. The canvas is a battered, ruined site in Alberto Burri's burned pictures, Piero Manzoni's bandaged canvases, Fontana's slashed ones and Emilio Vedova's hapless efforts to transform Abstract Expressionist paintings into rickety environmental sculptures.

More convincing is the Arte Povera ("poor art") of the 1960s, although its principal motif of the tensions in contemporary life between nature and industrial production gets sort of goofy when it's represented by a head of lettuce wedged between two carved blocks of granite (Giovanni Anselmo).

Designers, in fact, seem to have a firmer grasp on the modern dialogues between industrial and natural forms. Whether it's a streamlined Vespa motor scooter by Corradino D'Ascanio or a pair of swooping, metallic shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo, design (but not, oddly enough, architecture) is usually of more sustaining interest in the show.

One artist whose evolving work is consistently compelling is the Greek expatriate Jannis Kounellis. In paintings of the early 1960s, the stuttering appearance of letters, numbers, signs and floating words begins to suggest the multisensory, mixed-media work for which he would become widely known. The show's most arresting sculpture is Kounellis' horizontal plane of iron, low to the ground, from which a half-dozen spiky cactus grow, like hardy and eccentric personalities in a bleak, industrial landscape--De Chirico redux.

Incidentally, it's worth noting that "The Italian Metamorphosis" represents almost exclusively male activity. Of its 32 artists, only two are women; of the scores of designers and craftsmen, a bare handful are.

Surprisingly, things are not quite so biased against women in Japanese art, probably because that survey continues up to the present day so it includes the rise of feminism. The rigidity of traditional Japanese culture gave feminist artists a big target.

"Scream Against the Sky" doesn't boast the multimedia scope of the Italian show, even though its time-frame is twice as long. It focuses on art.

Coincidentally, however, a large survey of postwar Japanese design currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art attests that industrial design is likewise the most consistently inventive postwar achievement in Japan. By comparison, much of the art feels tentative.

Among artists, the big exceptions are Yayoi Kusama and the late Hijikata Tatsumi. Both were born around 1930 and came into their own in the 1960s. And both give new meaning to the word obsessional .

Kusama's repetitive "accumulations" of everything from airmail stickers and polka dots to painted pumpkins and phallus-forms made from stuffed cloth are delightfully absurdist celebrations of mass-produced glut. The neurotic repetition ritualizes the motif, salvaging a loony kind of meditative transcendence.

Hijikata was an originator of the Butoh style of dance, a dark, expressionistic revel in irrationality and primal sexuality. (Butoh--and Hijikata--were inspirations to the notorious Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.) A grainy, hand-held, black-and-white film of a 1968 dance in Tokyo--featuring a strangled rooster, a massive golden phallus, a pig on a royal litter, a red-satin dress and the demonic-looking artist's Christlike ascension into a pitch-black heaven (don't ask)--is that rarest of performance-documents: It makes you wish you had actually been there.

* "The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968," Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave., (212) 423-3500, through Jan. 22; "Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky," Guggenheim Soho, 575 Broadway, through Jan. 8.

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