Magazine article Artforum International

"The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters": Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

Magazine article Artforum International

"The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters": Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany

Article excerpt

"The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters"

MUSEUM FOLKWANG, ESSEN, GERMANY

FINDING A TITLE to anchor a thematic group show is notoriously fraught, as "The Shadow of the Avant-Garde: Rousseau and the Forgotten Masters" demonstrated. German art historian Veit Loers coined the titular phrase to refer to a corpus that is the necessary complement to the art of the historical avant-gardes, the negative or occluded partner in the pairing--namely, the work of those non-Europeans, "folk," children, and other "primitives" whom the early modernists "discovered." The show's subtitle indicated that the exhibition would focus on the renowned Henri Rousseau, the first and still the best loved of those in the penumbral zone, and on his lesser-known affiliates, the maitres populaires, or "masters of popular painting," who, in the wake of Le Douanier's recognition at the beginning of the twentieth century, were drawn into the limelight in the 1920s and '30s. While the greater part of the exhibition did center on this group, the show's organizers, veteran curator Kasper Konig and art historian Falk Wolf, ultimately cast aside their moorings and ventured into the postwar era.

The touchstone reference for the now mostly forgotten masters of the interwar era is a landmark exhibition, "Les maitres populaires de la realite," which, after touring from Paris to Zurich in 1937, was revamped with the addition of a group of North Americans and presented at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1938 as "Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America." An unprecedented success, the show confirmed that Rousseau's star was still ascendant and introduced to a broad public the work of the maitres populaires, who had been vigorously championed by leading curators, critics, and collectors in Germany, Switzerland, France, and, above all, the United States. In including several artists heralded in the 1937/1938 show, Konig and Wolf seem fueled by a recuperative impulse much in line with that of their predecessors, especially MOMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr., who wrote of the need to present the art of self-taught practitioners "without apology or condescension ... as the work of painters of marked talent and consistently distinct personality." Together with Andre Bauchant and Seraphine Louis, both alumni of the 1937/1938 exhibition, the Museum Folkwang show featured the African American sculptor William Edmondson and the Polish-born Morris Hirshfield, who were given solo shows at MOMA in 1937 and 1943, respectively; Louis Michel Eilshemius, the academically trained American painter who circa 1910 adopted a faux-naif manner that caught the attention of Duchamp; and Bill Traylor, whose remarkable drawings were seen in the mid-1940s by Barr, who attempted, in vain, to buy examples not for the museum he directed but for his own collection. Tangential to that nexus was the work of Adalbert Trillhaase, a businessman, patron, and friend to Marc Chagall and Max Ernst, who later in life began to paint religious scenes in a medievalizing style. Historical context was provided by sundry canonical works by the autodidacts' professional counterparts, such as Picasso, Gauguin, Leger, Nolde, Delaunay, and Ernst (curiously, no Americans), all of whom responded to the work of "primitives" of one kind or another.

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The constellations of works at the Museum Folkwang by self-taught artists were, almost without exception, impressive, though many of their makers are far from forgotten: Hirshfield has long been a staple to moma's audiences, Traylor is regularly acclaimed as one of America's greatest draftsmen, and Eilshemius's bucolic landscapes and levitating nymphs are once again a favorite among contemporary painters and critics. Perhaps it was the very familiarity of such contributions that tipped the scales for me toward some of those who really are lesser known today: Thus, among the show's standouts were the riveting paintings of Louis. …

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