The poor relation of the art world

Traditional figurative art, particularly from the nineteenth century, is being shunted to the corners of museums

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

A few weeks ago, I travelled to Belgium to bid a fond farewell to one of my favourite galleries. Brussels’s wonderful Fin-de-Siècle Museum closes its doors on 3 April, with no date for its reopening. The Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, which manages the museum, has decided to convert the premises into storage space.

The closure is a grievous loss — but I doubt that its demise will be much mourned by the modern art establishment. Most of the artworks in this collection are unfashionable, painted in those halcyon decades before the First World War, when artists strove to depict the world around them, rather than gazing at their own navels.

The Fin-de-Siècle Museum contains the sort of art the public likes, the art the cognoscenti like to look down on. These paintings lift our spirits, they give us hope, but they’re not remotely tame or trite. And because they’re rooted in the real world, they’re accessible to anyone.

Yet despite its enduring popularity, figurative art — landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes — has become more and more marginalised: driven out of major museums; ignored by critics and curators. These painters weren’t trying to change the world. They were simply striving to evoke how it felt to stand in a certain place at a certain time of day — a country field, a city street — and survey the surrounding scene. Attractive and sensitive, their paintings were designed to give you pleasure. They made you feel glad to be alive. As the world they depicted disappears, they’ve become increasingly precious, yet they’re increasingly hard to find.

i used to think this process was a purely British thing, driven by trendy galleries like Tate Modern, yet sadly something similar seems to be happening all over Europe: traditional art, particularly from the nineteenth century, gets shunted to the corners of museums, and is eventually removed from view altogether. The closure of the Brussels Fin-de-Siècle Museum feels like the latest defeat in this long war of attrition. Anyone who believes that a painting should be a thing of beauty, a demonstration of skilful draughtsmanship, is made to feel like a weird old fuddy-duddy, out of step with modern times.

Looking around the Fin-de-Siècle Museum for the last time, full of wonder at the delicate artistry of these long-forgotten painters, I realise, with a mounting sense of shame, that I’ve played my own small part in the marginalisation of these artworks. A decent critic should be brave enough to say it as they see it. Yet far too often I’ve paid lip service to the latest fads and fashions, scared of seeming out of touch. Like an easy listening buff pretending to like drill music in a pathetic attempt to impress someone younger, I’ve been too cowardly to scorn the latest thing, and stick up for the art I love.

what brought about this rift between the art establishment and the hoi polloi? Why do we hang pretty, unpretentious pictures above our mantelpieces, then shuffle obediently around groovy galleries full of bleak, impenetrable art? On reflection, I believe that much of this malaise is due to the long shadow of the Second World War. To understand the current disconnect between popular taste and expert opinion, we need to understand how those two monsters, Hitler and Stalin, distorted — and continue to distort — our attitudes to art.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, he declared war on modern art. Modernist artists throughout Germany were forbidden from exhibiting or selling their work. Their pictures were removed from public galleries. They were fired from their teaching posts. This persecution reached its climax in the “Degenerate Art” show of 1937, in which modernist artworks seized from German galleries were displayed with contemptuous, mocking captions, in an exhibition designed to incite intense hatred of modern art.

Alongside this “Degenerate Art” show the Nazis staged a “Great German Art Show,” showcasing the traditional artists they admired. The old-fashioned landscapes and portraits in this stuffy exhibition were, by and large, far inferior to the artworks in the “Degenerate Art Show,” but they were a lot closer to bourgeois taste. Only a minority were overtly fascistic. Most were merely mediocre. A few were actually rather good.

The Nazis’ crusade against modern art had a disastrous effect on traditional artistry

The Nazis’ crusade against modern art had a disastrous effect on traditional artistry, not only in Germany but throughout the western world. Hitler had drawn up the battle lines, forcing art-lovers to pick a side. If you were against Hitler, you were against traditionalism. If you were for the Allies, you were for modernism. Hitler’s hounding of modernist artists put them above criticism, and put more conventional artists on the wrong side of history. Even today, a lifetime later, in Germany and beyond, there remains a marked reluctance among the chattering, gallery-going classes to criticise anything avant-garde, for fear of looking like a philistine ranting about “degenerate” art.

After the war, there was a fierce backlash against the traditional art the Nazis had espoused. Any artist they’d persecuted was lauded. Anything they might have liked was shunned. Within the art world, modernism became mainstream. This kickback was particularly pronounced in West Germany, where a generation of young artists who’d grown up under Hitler sought to make a clean break with the horrors of the Third Reich.

The poster boy of this iconoclastic movement was the West German artist, Joseph Beuys. An eccentric, charismatic figure, Beuys rebelled against every conventional notion of what constitutes fine art. In one piece of performance art, he spent three days in an empty gallery, alongside a wild coyote. In a similar art happening, he spent three hours explaining paintings to a dead hare. “Everyone is an artist” was his famous mantra. Yet if everyone is an artist, then surely anything whatsoever — and nothing at all — is art.

Hitler’s effect on British art was more oblique, yet equally profound. During the 1930s, Britain became a safe haven for many of the finest minds of Central Europe — 100,000 refugees arrived from the Third Reich — and after the war these refugees reshaped British culture in their own image. 

From fine art (Oskar Kokoschka, Kurt Schwitters) to classical music (Fritz Busch, Hans Keller) and contemporary dance (Rudolf Laban, Kurt Jooss), the list of creative emigrés was vast. George Weidenfeld introduced a new internationalism to British publishing. Martin Esslin introduced Bertolt Brecht to the BBC. Rudolf Bing established the Edinburgh Festival, transporting the Salzburg Festival to Scotland. In Glyndebourne, he established an English Bayreuth.

This influx of Continental talent took British culture off in a new direction. It made it more dynamic and diverse. It also made it more intellectual and esoteric. In 1938, the director of the Tate, J.B. Manson, declared that Henry Moore’s modernist sculptures would only enter the gallery over his dead body. In 1951, Moore had a starring role at the Festival of Britain.

Something similar happened in the United States, but there the driving force was Stalin. Like Hitler, Stalin appreciated the power and importance of visual art, and after he succeeded Lenin, in 1924, he decreed that Socialist Realism — paintings of happy workers toiling contentedly in state farms and factories — was the only acceptable style for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. When Stalin colonised Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, Socialist Realism became predominant throughout the Eastern Bloc.

Russia’s embrace of Socialist Realism pushed western art in the opposite direction

Russia’s embrace of Socialist Realism pushed western art in the opposite direction. Realism became aligned with communism — the dreary state-sanctioned artform of a totalitarian regime. During the Cold War the CIA actively supported Abstract Expressionism, which had blossomed in the United States, germinated by German Expressionists fleeing from the Third Reich. The aesthetic opposite of Socialist Realism, Abstract Expressionism was promoted by the US government as a manifestation of western freedom — an artform where anything goes — in stark contrast to the rigid strictures of Socialist Realism, where idyllic depictions of Soviet life were obligatory, and dissent was forbidden.

Like the art of the Third Reich, the art of the Soviet Union had a disastrous effect on the reputation of figurative art. Realism became synonymous with Soviet repression, just as it had become synonymous with National Socialism a generation before. Travelling around the former East Germany twenty years ago, I discovered that those Socialist Realist paintings, which had been ubiquitous throughout the German Democratic Republic, were now conspicuous by their absence — hurriedly removed from gallery walls, an awkward reminder of the old regime. 

In the art museum in Chemnitz (formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt), Socialist Realist paintings of the GDR era were locked up in the basement, hidden from the public. I had to persuade the curator to let me see them. I understood his unease. Realistic art had become tainted by its stylistic connection with a vanquished tyranny, just as it had done under the Third Reich.

Twenty years on, the realist artists of the GDR have finally been rehabilitated. The Düsseldorf Kunstpalast has mounted a landmark exhibition of art from the former East Germany. The Barberini Museum in Potsdam houses an excellent display of East German social realist art. Today, to be a figurative artist in Germany is no longer seen as reactionary. German art is no longer dominated by the phantoms of its genocidal past.

In Britain there has been no equivalent rapprochement with neglected realistic artists. For British lovers of figurative art, there are various oases dotted around the country, but they’re often in smaller provincial galleries in less fashionable places. The Watts Gallery, near Guildford, Penlee House in Penzance and the Munnings Art Museum in Dedham are among my favourites. Yet in bigger galleries in our big cities, figurative art is undervalued, and the avant-garde holds sway. 

A good deal of this, it seems to me, is due to curatorial vanity. The more opaque the art, the more the curator can impose their own personality and opinions upon an exhibition — explaining every artwork, telling us what to think. In a display of traditional paintings, the curator’s role is subtle and discreet. In an avant-garde show, the curator is a leading player, the star turn.

Meanwhile, back in Brussels, the Fin-de-Siècle Museum is about to shut up shop and I’ve come to say goodbye. “The masterpieces of the Fin-de-Siècle Museum will remain visible to the public,” promises the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, but although bigger names like James Ensor and Léon Spilliaert are due to resurface elsewhere, less feted artists in the collection will no longer be so accessible. I fear many of them may remain unseen for a long time. 

In the meantime, if you love figurative art, go to your local gallery and ask to see the landscape paintings they’ve got stashed away. The resistance starts here.

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