Latin American Art

Going Global: Modernism Reconsidered at Düsseldorf’s K20

By Holly Black
Though present-day politics might suggest otherwise, the notion of looking outwards and adopting a critical global perspective has become increasingly urgent for art institutions throughout the “Western” world.

T hese include Since 1989, when Jean-Hubert Martin presented Magiciens de la terre at the Centre Pompidou as an antidote to “100% of exhibitions ignoring 80% of the earth”, museums have begun to deconstruct the singular narrative that canonises predominantly white, male, European artists. Haus der Kunst’s recent exhibition Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, as well as new collecting strategies that seek to redress the balance, such as the recent gift of almost 100 Latin American works to MoMA, and Tate Modern’s radical “global rehang” that better represented the museum’s new holdings.

Tarsila do Amaral, Antropofagia, 1929. © Kunstsammlung NRW, photo by Isabella Matheus.

The latest endeavour comes from museumglobal: Microhistories of an Ex-centric Modernism at the Düsseldorf’s Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (K20). This survey exhibition focuses on seven distinct moments from the history of modern art in Japan, Georgia, Brazil, Mexico, India, Nigeria, and Lebanon. Works related to each of these case studies are placed in dialogue with the museum’s extensive modernist collection, which was founded in 1960 with a selection of works by Paul Klee and portrays a conventional reading of post-war art dominated by Europe and the USA.

Uche Okeke, Ana Mmuo (Land of the Dead), 1961. © Kunstsammlung NRW.

The show begins with the Japanese avant-garde and the release of A Green Sun manifesto in 1910, and concludes with the heralding of “natural synthesis”, which was established by the Zaria Art Society in Nigeria as the country approached independence in 1960. “We could never create a whole expansive history of the globalised art world,” says Dr Doris Krystof, one of seven curators who have researched these individual strands. “We wanted to be sharper. Our idea of this international history is really about an exchange.”

Laser Segall, Encontro, 1924. Photo © Kunstsammlung NRW.

Placed within the context of the museum’s existing collection, the works on show highlight the reciprocal nature of many international relationships. Examples includes Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair’s critical dialogue with French counterpart Fernand Léger, and Mexican painter Diego Rivera’s time with the Parisian modernists.

Krystof also stresses the importance of representing the significant contributions of female artists within these microhistories. “For a long time we had absolutely no women in our permanent collection. In this exhibition we have made sure that these important women have a real presence, and their contributions are recognised.”

Tokyo, 1910

In 1868 the Meiji Restoration thrust Japan into a new age of modernity. The country finally opened its borders after years of isolation and underwent rapid industrialisation. The publishing of poet and sculptor Takamura Kōtarō’s essay The Green Sun in 1910, at the tail-end of this era, marked a watershed moment for the nation’s culture. This love letter to individualism declared: “If someone paints a green sun, I will not say it is wrong […] The good or bad of the painting has nothing to do with whether the sun is green or flaming scarlet.” The statement was informed by Takamura’s time in New York, London and Paris, where he embraced Impressionist principles, but was also galvanised by the recent institutional acceptance of Yōga (Western painting) as being equal to Nihonga (Japanese painting).

Amrita Sher-Gil, Self-Portrait as a Tahitian, 1934. © Kunstsammlung NRW.

This concession saw a huge uptake of artists working in oils, and avant-garde painter Yorozu Tetsugorō came to be considered one of the masters of Japanese modernism. Yorozu cited van Gogh as an undeniable influence, a statement that transforms the Dutch Post-Impressionist’s own interest in Japanese woodblock printing into more of a reciprocal discourse.

Another Western artist fascinated with Japonism was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, as seen in his painting Girl under a Japanese Umbrella, 1909. Just two years later Yorozu presented Nude Beauty, 1912, a vibrant and sensual portrait of his wife, which eschewed traditional formal conventions and appeared somewhat scandalous (professional models would not pose nude at that time). His European influences are clear, earning him the title of the “Western painter”, but Yorozu was more of a peer than an imitator. When seen in dialogue with Kirchner his work clearly echoes the instinct of his international counterparts by celebrating the visceral realities of life in Tokyo in a distinctly personal way.

Here we take a closer look at two of the microhistories explored in the exhibition.

Paul Klee, Omphalo-centrischer Vortrag, 1939. © Kunstsammlung NRW

Beirut, 1948

When Saloua Raouda Choucair left the Lebanese capital for Paris in 1948, she had already studied with renowned painters Moustafa Farroukh and Omar Onsi. She was keen, however, to expand her practice under the eye of Fernand Léger, and the three years she spent working as part of his international group of students form the basis for this micro history. It shows how she became an important critical voice in the field of European modernism, denouncing dismissive and reductive theories spouted by “backwards Orientalists”, engaging with burgeoning feminist theory and even taking on Léger’s moves towards figuration (of which she did not approve).

Paul Klee, Exhibition poster, Israel Museum Jerusalem, 1966.

Choucair’s commitment to her own form of Arab abstraction, which was informed by Islamic geometry and traditional calligraphy but not defined by it, escaped established categorisation. When exhibiting her paintings in 1951 a representative of the Lebanese Embassy said: “Your art is interesting, Miss Raouda. But haven’t you created any Lebanese works for us?” Equally, European critics attempted to attribute the success of her powerful abstract sculptures to the influence of the Parisian set. The artist pokes fun at these oppressive suggestions in a series of gouaches titled Les Peintres Célébres, which feature several nude women examining catalogues filled with the work of “famous artists”. The reference to Léger’s Le Grand Déjuner is clear, but in Choucair’s version the women survey their male counterparts with an air of repose. “It’s a new gaze on modernity” says Krystof. “It is beyond the Western, but also beyond the male.”

Mexico City, 1923

Taking a portrait of Diego Rivera by Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani as its starting point, this chapter explores Rivera’s international standing, alongside his position as one of the “Big Three” mural painters. The group, which also included José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, garnered huge acclaim for works commissioned by the post-revolution government, and elevated Mexico City as an important centre of cultural production in the eyes of the Eurocentric art world.

The show traces Rivera’s progression from cubist to symbolic, figurative works celebrating indigenous Mexican cultural identity, known as Mexicanidad. This was a philosophy shared by Frida Kahlo, who faced her own battles against exoticisation at the hands of the art establishment. It was also a struggle endured by María Izquierdo who, though celebrated in her lifetime, is largely eclipsed by Kahlo today. As this section will show, Izquierdo also looked to self-portraiture to investigate her cultural identity and that of the wider Mexican people.

A guided tour of the Paul Klee exhibition, Museo Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, 7.11.1972. Photo: Carlos Coelho da Silva, © Arquivos Gulbenkian.

Another figure brought to life here is Luz Jiménez, the muse of the mural movement. She was championed as a “universal and monumental indigenous person”, but was much more than an idealised poster girl. Jiménez was intrinsic to the reclamation of indigenous heritage as a teacher of Nahuatl language, and she also published books on linguistics and history, which offered in-depth critical analysis of indigenous life.

By revealing the important contributions of these overlooked women, museum global does not eradicate the perception of the Mexican mural group as male-dominated, but it does soften it. It also challenges the representation of idealised indigenous life that was all but manufactured by government-sponsored propaganda.

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