The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters (October 2, 2015–January 2, 2016), at the Museum Folkwang, in Essen, Germany, will examine the radicalism and originality of twentieth-century art by self-taught artists and reconsider its relationship to the canonized art of the time. The exhibition will include works by artists traditionally associated with modernism alongside works by William Edmondson, Louis Michel Eilshemius, Morris Hirshfield, Martín Ramírez, Bill Traylor, André Bauchant, Erich Bödeker, Séraphine Louis, Nikifor, Henri Rousseau, Miroslav Tichý, Adalbert Trillhaase, and Alfred Wallis.
The following interview with the exhibition’s co-curators, Kasper König (KK) and Falk Wolf (FW), details the impetus behind the exhibition and discoveries they made along the way.
Where did the idea for the exhibition come from?
KK: The basic idea has been in the back of my mind for decades. I vividly remember visiting the exhibition Das naive Bild der Welt (Naive Art of the World) as a pupil at the Historisches Museum Frankfurt in 1961. I encountered some works there which had a rough and very intense energy, like being confronted for the first time with authentic blues, flamenco or other unique genres of world music. The exhibition was grouped geographically and according to different cultures—such as Haiti and Vodou, and Yugoslavia and peasant reverse glass paintings. It was seductive, but it eventually became commercial Kitsch and discredited the phenomena of the “naive.” However some images stayed strongly in my mind. I myself never separated “official” from “non-official” art but was constantly interested in good or bad art, pretty much trying to stay away from mediocre art. When I decided to do an exhibition called Remembering Forward: Australian Aboriginal Painting since 1960 at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 2010 (where I was director from 2001 until 2012), my initiative was met enthusiastically by young art historians Emily Joyce Evans and Falk Wolf. In that instance, we found ourselves confronted with artistic phenomena that did not fit into the schema of art history and that raised questions regarding alternate readings of modernity. Subsequently, the longstanding desire to realize such a project matured again, and in a dialogue across our generations, Falk Wolf and I developed an exhibition concept that drew equally on my more intuitive approach to the works and his approach, which is based more on art historical scholarship. It was clearly our aim to do a popular exhibition but avoid any populist view. The Folkwang Museum Essen as the exhibition venue seemed to be almost predestined for our ambition, in that it makes it possible to experience the radicalness and freshness of these paintings and sculptures, in juxtaposition with key works of modern and contemporary art.
Why should self-taught art be viewed as a counterpart to modern art movements?
KK & FW: Over the course of the previous century, sharp lines were drawn between “official” art under the name of modernism or of the avant-garde, on one side, and the art of the other side, alternately defined as naive, outsider art or art brut. Artists were sorted along these lines, and the categories mentioned show that definitions and diversification were not limited to the side of canonized art. Non-European and non-academic art are comparable in their reception by the avant-garde and in the conceptualization of their place in art history. Both are conceived historically as something different, as a cultural practice outside the explanatory possibilities offered by the history of (Western) art. The discourse on naive and outsider art is characterized by drawing boundaries with the aim of asserting and protecting the purity and authenticity of this art. What we are trying to do is to surpass the categories of self-taught and academic art—first, in order to familiarize as broad an audience as possible with works that in some cases have not been present in the public awareness for decades, and second, in order to pay tribute to them in all their complexity.
What was the relationship between self-taught artists and members of the avant-garde in the twentieth century?
FW: Looking at the history of the interest in self-taught art of any origin whatsoever, we repeatedly encounter the paradoxical structure of exclusion, on the one hand, and great fascination, on the other. A very small number of progressive artists were not only inspired by non-European art but also looked at the paintings by nonprofessional, exceptional artists, who make up the core of our exhibition. If we now assert the modernity of these artists, indeed the ineluctable modernity of the phenomenon of non-academic art as such, we are not assuming these artists took up the ideas and ideologies that defined the avant-gardes. Rather, the metaphor formulated by curator Veit Loers—“the shadow of the avant-garde”—opens up the possibility of speaking of self-taught artists as the constant companions of the avant-garde. That makes it possible to avoid the traditional labels and to relate to the artists of the avant-garde those who have either been excluded as outsiders or domesticated as naïve. The artistic stimulation was in the vast majority of cases a one-way street. Self-taught artists did not really allow themselves to be directly influenced by the artists of the avant-garde or to appropriate their specific ways of working or pictorial concepts. It was, however, only the reversal—motivated by the avant-garde—of the assessment of that which happened inside, versus that which happened outside of the academy that made it possible to appreciate non-academic artists. Only within this historical configuration did it become possible for artists who were operating outside the paths of dissemination, and who fit neither into the traditional artistic categories nor into the ones now forming, to work as artists as they saw themselves. Only in this way could Henri Rousseau, André Bauchant, and Séraphine Louis paint their large-format works that took up the aims of the traditional grand style of history painting. For example, whereas Louis was working within the idiom of peasant painting in her early work, in the 1920s she began laying claim to being a radical artist in her paintings. Her largest works, the six so-called giant paintings, are shown together in our exhibition for the first time. But we also find such ambition in artists whose work was even more remote from the processes of modernism. Martín Ramírez’s large-format drawings and collages articulate an artistic self-confidence that leaves no doubt that he saw himself first and foremost as an artist, albeit one with a very limited audience. But that, too, is not infrequently a feature of the avant-garde. Scholarship of recent decades has emphasized how much these artists drew from popular culture and from the images in their immediate surroundings. Ramírez’s oeuvre can thus be seen as an astonishingly self-confident approach to the images he took from newspapers, which was an absolutely contemporaneous method. The sources for Louis’s pictorial concepts can be found in the botanical encyclopedias of her time, which she very likely knew from her employers in her work as a cleaning woman. Mechal Sobel has recently demonstrated that the work of the great American draftsman and former slave Bill Traylor has such a significant political dimension that he can almost be regarded as a chronicler of the South in the decades after the American Civil War.
Most of the art included in the exhibition is by European artists—why did you choose to include work by US artists as well?
KK & FW: There is certainly as much energy coming from the works of artists from America as those coming from Europe—so we chose to include five of them, due to their outstanding artistic quality. Moreover, in the early 1930s the Museum of Modern Art dedicated itself to representing these artists too. For example, William Edmondson was the first African American artist to have a show there. And when Morris Hirshfield had a one-person show at the same institution in 1943, it was met by strong protests among New York artists—who wondered why a retired businessman-turned-painter should be privileged—he was supported by European exiles, such as Piet Mondrian. Our presentation of Louis Eilshemius’s paintings can be looked upon in relationship to Clement Greenberg’s quotation that insists on the possibility of comparing the works of Rousseau and Eilshemius: “But it is worth considering that both artists were indeed a little bit mad; both wanted to paint academically; both showed real facility at times. … [A]nd neither, in spite of himself, did paint academically. For which we are thankful.”
Did you discover anything during your research or while preparing for the exhibition that surprised you?
KK & FW: The experience of our intensive travels—as a principle, we have seen all the works in the exhibition with our own eyes, not only as reproductions—was fascinating and frustrating at the same time, since the categories used for these works mostly lead to institutional and aesthetic ghettoes. However, we believe that our exhibition—presented in a non-hierarchical exhibition space by architect Hermann Czech, with singular, key works from modernism—will release an energy that transcends categories and presents an important aspect of modernism.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about the exhibition?
KK & FW: Take a look at the catalogue, we have both an English and a German version.