John Klein, associate professor of art history and archaeology, discusses Face and Figure in European Art, 1928-1945, which he curated for the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Photo by Whitney Curtis/WUSTL Photo Services.
The early 20th century saw a series of revolutions in Western society and art.
Innovations in mass production and transportation laid the groundwork for modern global capitalism, just as World War I brought industrial efficiencies to the business of slaughter.
In the visual arts, Cubism’s aggressive fracturing of space and time echoed the instabilities proposed by quantum physics and relativity. The rise of abstraction challenged the aesthetic centrality of the human figure.
“Utopian conviction about the promise of artistic abstraction was widespread,” says John Klein, associate professor of art history and archaeology in Arts & Sciences. And yet, “It turns out that, in the interwar years, the body was the site of a great deal of consequential artistic activity.”
So argues Face and Figure in European Art, 1928-1945, which Klein recently curated for the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
Drawn largely from the permanent collection, Face and Figure complements the museum’s Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928–1945, also now on view. In all, it collects 55 works in a variety of media — by Max Beckmann, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso and others — that together explore the stubborn persistence, and continuing relevance, of the human image.
A constant in a whirl of variables
Willi Baumeister, Still Life with Head, 1930. Oil on canvas, 26 x 32 1/4". Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Morton D. May, 833:1983. © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild‐Kunst, Bonn.
“Faces are irresistible,” Klein says. “Human beings are hard-wired to be drawn to faces for comfort, confirmation, information and empathy.”
Klein notes that some modern artists — such as the sculptor Aristide Maillol, known for his classical bronze nudes — never really abandoned the body. Others, such as André Derain and Jacob Epstein, re-engaged with it following periods of radical experimentation.
“Portraiture, with its conventional focus on the face, emphasizes a material particularity that for many artists answered their disenchantment with the abstract and universal,” Klein says — particularly in the wake of World War I. Wyndham Lewis, a geometric abstractionist turned portraitist, “celebrated the dynamic energies of the modern technological world until he too was blindsided by the actual horrors the Machine Age brought.”
(Lewis, notably, is represented by his 1944 Portrait of Mrs. Ernest W. Stix, which depicts the wife of a prominent St. Louis businessman and former member of the WUSTL Board of Directors. For many decades, the portrait hung in the family home, now the site of Stix International House.)
Klein says that the exhibition presents the modernist face and figure according to three broad approaches: traditional, late Cubist and Surrealist.
However, “these groupings are not definitive, and they are not discrete,” he adds. “One of the fascinating things about the art of this period is the way in which many artists cross style or ‘movement’ boundaries — which themselves are not firm distinctions in the first place.”
For example, Beckmann’s Film Studio (1933) and Léger’s The Divers (1941) both combine the spatial play of late Cubism with fluid, dreamlike atmospheres more typical of Surrealism. A similar hybrid characterizes Moore’s Reclining Figure (1933) and Stanley William Hayter’s Amazon (1945), both of which depict large, elegantly distorted figures enmeshed in webs of schematic line.
“For the artists represented in the exhibition, whatever their stylistic allegiances or personal inclinations, the figure is a constant in a whirl of variables,” Klein says.
“This constancy in the midst of profound change may be the key to the continuing relevance of the body as an expressive vehicle of human identity in the artistic imagery of the first half of the 20th century.”
Face and Figure in European Art, 1928-1945, remains on view through April 21. A free brochure, featuring a curator’s essay by Klein, is available in the exhibition.
The Kemper Art Museum is located near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards. Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The museum is closed Tuesdays.
Support for this exhibition is provided by James M. Kemper, Jr., the David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation, the Hortense Lewin Art Fund and members of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
For more information about the exhibition, call (314) 935-4523 or visit kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu.