Art of a Century

Modern masters transcend the savagery and senselessness of the last 100 years.

During a BBC speech on contemporary music in 1953, Sir Thomas Beecham, England's most famous orchestral conductor at the time, said he had no doubt that future generations would dub the twentieth century "the silly, the savage, and the senseless century."

This statement, doubtlessly referring to two world wars and the Holocaust, still rings true. The new exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Modern Masterworks on Paper From the Israel Museum, is a compelling look at a troubled century through the finely honed lenses of some of its greatest artists. That creative impulses could flourish undimmed, though human beings were slaughtering each other on battlefields and in concentration camps all over Europe, is a cause for celebration and perennial astonishment.

The show, which includes drawings, watercolors, prints, and collages by modern masters as varied as Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Joan Mirò, Marcel Duchamp, and Kurt Schwitters, is the result of a collaboration between Israeli curators Meira Perry-Lehmann and Ruth Apter-Gabriel and their Cleveland counterpart, Curator of Prints Jane Glaubinger. How the curators settled on just these 114 prints is a matter for conjecture. It couldn't have been easy: As part of its encyclopedic collection, the Israel Museum boasts 55,000 works on paper, a goodly portion of which are from the twentieth century.

As a retrospective of twentieth-century art, this exhibit is unusually well-balanced, with surrealism not slighted by constructivism and dadaism given its due (Duchamp's Mona Lisa with mustache added on makes the cut) along with abstract expressionism. When artistic movements are given roughly equal emphasis, as here, one misses a sense of intensive focus, but there is a compensating gain: The viewer can more easily draw connections between works by different artists. Although one rarely has a sense of how an individual artist's vision deepened as he went along, there is an opportunity to appreciate how twentieth-century artists, in their own ways, sought distinctive answers in an age that posed many disturbing questions.

Not that all of the work at art museum exudes a doom-and-gloom atmosphere. Henri Matisse's paper works dating from his last years, of which the 1947 "Jazz" in the CMA show is an example, are full of a sense of delight for the pleasures of life. Crippled and in poor health, Matisse nevertheless fashioned a compelling collage built up from sharply defined black squares, irregular lavender shapes which would not be out of place on a tie-dyed shirt, and a succession of overlapping rectangles in solid oranges, yellows, whites, and greens. Formal coherence stands side by side with radiant improvisational gaiety. If the great jazz pianist Art Tatum could have painted some of his solos, he might have come up with something like this.

A far cry from Matisse's optimism are the doleful collages of Kurt Schwitters, in which the artist took old tickets, cloakroom tabs, and other debris and used them to fashion works that seem obsessed with the problem of transforming the feeling of nostalgia into a tactile thing. Near death, tired, and forgotten, Schwitters in the 1947 work "Merz-101: Prize Crop" seems to sum up his life's work. The railway tickets, cigarette carton pieces, and customs slips are, on the one hand, accidental pieces of trash that the artist has not bothered to alter. On the other hand, because he integrates these elements in a framework where unity of color, shape, and texture matter, he argues for the significance of the mundane. Typical of the work's complexity, a periscope shape is used as an organizing element. One sees it in pristine form just to the left of the frame's center. It is then artfully varied in size, color, and texture throughout the work. The periscope itself is an apt metaphor for Schwitters's work: He remembers well, but cannot touch that which he has remembered.

Also on view at the art museum is the anti-nostalgic art of Russian constructivists like El Lissitzky. Stimulated by cubism in France and Futurism in Italy, these Russian avant-garde rebels, in the brief time between World War I and the early '20s, took on the cubist interest in planar forms, but found a hard-edged dynamism all their own. Lissitzky is featured prominently in the exhibit, with emphasis paid to his development from chronicler of rustic Jewish life to avowed adherent of an abstract visual style.

The lesson here is that Lissitzky did not abandon his Jewish roots to follow an international style. He was merely replacing one Jewish worldview—the traditional one found in Chagall's work and mass-marketed by Fiddler on the Roof—with a new one made possible by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Insofar as death and birth seem connected in modern Jewish history (the Holocaust, followed shortly thereafter by the birth of Israel), this focus on Lissitzky (whose career is also about burial of the past and the assumption of the new) is a reminder that this CMA exhibit was also designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the birth of the modern Israeli state.

Surrealism has proved to be one of the most important and long-lasting movements in twentieth-century art, and the CMA exhibit, with examples by René Magritte, Yves Tanguy, and Salvador Dali, was not about to miss out. The standout here is a 1943 work by Tanguy in pristine condition which, like so much of that self-taught artist's work, finds haunting poetry in an assortment of inscrutable bone-like objects gathered in front of an ominous sky.

(There is an amusing side note to the Magritte works: These sketches were for a work commissioned by his good friend, the lawyer Harry Torczyner. The legal-eagle requested a large painting that would cover an office window with an ugly view. Magritte, ever the idea man, came up with three sketches for such a work. Aside from being a famous surrealist, he was also a good sport.)

No one ever accused Jackson Pollock of being a good sport. By most accounts, the hard-drinking Wyoming native who, in the 1950s, was unceremoniously dubbed "Jack the Dripper" because of his emotionally charged abstract expressionist canvases, had an erratic temper. A 1945 work on display at the museum catches the artist just before the breakthroughs that were to make him a household name. Bursting with visual incident, this untitled work is a chance to see an imposing personal style captured in mid-leap. Think of those stop-motion shots of the Olympic long jumpers photographed in mid-jump—about to break the world record but, for now, in limbo.

A word about the fine illustrated catalog that accompanies this exhibit: It has well-written discussions of each work in the exhibit by the Cleveland and Jerusalem curatorial staff, and it's an invaluable aid when viewing the selection of works by living Jewish artists who are, as yet, little known here in the States. Fine works by artists such as Moshe Kupferman give the exhibit a strongly contemporary feel in spots.

The catalog makes little attempt to draw these works together and speculate on what they tell us about the art of a century that nears its close. Such an absence is not only revealing, it's also achingly right. Any generalizations about the art of this century are bound to get it all wrong. Although the century of Hitler and Stalin has borne little resemblance to such enlightened eras as the Renaissance, and though doubt has been the linchpin of this millennium almost from the outset, exhibits like this, with their enormous range and the quality of their contents, certainly prove that creativity and originality have not been in short supply.

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