Man Ray, La Prière, 1930, Fotografie auf Leinwand, 32 x 23 cm, Galerie À l’Enseigne des Oudin, Paris, © Man Ray Trust, Paris / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2008.
Giorgio De Chirico, The Great Metaphysician, 1917, Öl auf Leinwand, 104,8 x 65,5 cm, Privatsammlung, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2008.
Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967, Glas, Neonröhren, Transformatoren, 150 x 140 x 5 cm, Kunstmuseum, Bâle, Photo : Martin Bühler, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2008.
Eli Petel, Might This Thing Be, 2007, Perlen, Draht, Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv.
Haus der kunst
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Traces of the Spiritual
September 19, 2008- January 11, 2009
Serving the Divine
The beginning of the 20th century is marked by the impression of faith's foundation being shaken to the core. Nietzsche's declaration, "God is dead" (1881/1882) and Max Weber's assertion of the "disenchantment of the world" (1904) revealed just how much people's relationship to religion had changed.
Yet this did not signify the end of the metaphysical in art; rather it is metaphysical questions that maintained their significance for artists from Wassily Kandinsky to Francis Bacon, from Joseph Beuys to Damien Hirst.
Kandinsky believed that painting represented "pure art in the service of the divine" (Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1910). Even today many artists believe that "the ability to summon a vision of the divine without sentimentality, thus of a secular divine that is embedded in history, is one of the highest skills of the artistic profession". (Jannis Kounellis)
The exhibition brings together 200 works from the 19th and 20th centuries up to the present day, testifying to the continuous artistic interest in the spiritual and in the human structure of knowledge and perception. Themes from different periods are shown in 16 chapters: Götterdämmerung [twilight of the gods]; syncretism; beyond the visible; cosmic revelations; absolutism; homo novus; masks, ritual, trance; ecstasy; profanation; homo homini lupus; religious art; divine ornamentation; myths and shamans; doors of perception; Zen; epilogue.
Paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations and videos by 120 artists are presented, including works by Joseph Beuys, Maurizio Cattelan, Paul Chan, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Giorgio de Chirico, Marcel Duchamp, Lucio Fontana, Caspar David Friedrich, Francisco de Goya, Andreas Gursky, Damien Hirst, Ferdinand Hodler, Huang Yong Ping, Alexej von Jawlensky, Wassily Kandinsky, Martin Kippenberger, Paul Klee, Daniela Leiter, Kasimir Malewitsch, Piet Mondrian, Edvard Munch, Bruce Nauman, Barnett Newman, Hermann Nitsch, Patti Smith and Paul Thek.
Milestones since 1800
Francisco de Goya's etching series, The Disasters of War (ca. 1819-1823), was created under the influence of the atrocities committed during the French Revolution. In the etching Nada. Ello dirá a corpse holds a message in his hand that had been sent to him from the hereafter: there is nothing — nada. In these works God has retreated infinitely far.
Just a few years later Caspar David Friedrich began examining the question of how the spiritual could be rediscovered without resorting to a biblical imagination in such works as Ruinen in der Abenddämmerung (Ruins at Dusk, ca. 1831). Like other artists of the Romantic period, Friedrich saw the answer to this in nature charged with a cosmic energy.
Phases when art functioned as a utopia and was meant to serve the creation of a new society as well as a new human being, were followed by other phases characterized by the disappointment that it was precisely this task that artists could not fulfil. Yet the desire to take part in a radical renewal runs like a thread through early 20th century art. In 1913 Kandinsky conjured up a flood in Composition VI in order to reach a new spiritual harmony following the chaos.
During the pursuit of renewal, between 1909 and 1918, politics were also entrusted with the function of leading to a promised land. Amongst the Futurists and Expressionists, in France and Russia, followers of the irrational idea of a holy war could be found. War — "the world's only hygiene" as Marinetti claimed — is considered to be a necessary step on the path towards a new society.
But the horror of the trenches quickly caused the myth of a new human being to collapse. In 1916, in the midst of the war, Wilhelm Lehmbruck presented his work Der sterbende Soldat (The Dying Soldier). This no longer depicted the Wagnerian hero, the infallible victor of evil who is killed by betrayal, but rather the banality of death in battle. The ideal of the new man disappeared shortly after the end of the First World War.
In the following years ideologies that perverted the idea of a new society including national communism, fascism and National Socialism gained ground. This period of totalitarian regimes, however, simultaneously gave way to several aesthetic revolutions. The Dada movement produced a renewal of poetry; Surrealism gave the subconscious and its Dionysian ecstatic urges an artistic form; Malewitsch and Mondrian aspired to dematerialization and absolutism. Their works are reduced to symbols of the essential: instead of colours light; hardly any shapes but energy instead. Everything superfluous disappeared from this "thinned-out" world.
The renewal of man had failed and the art of abstraction was created out of the emptiness that was left behind: and this without falling back on the discredited traditions or the political vocabulary of the Modern movement. It was no longer a question of changing reality but rather one of asceticism and spiritual practice. Barnett Newman believed that the highest object of art was "the defence of human dignity". His art is a meditation on the perceived tragic meaning of life. This newly imagined human being is confronted with the sublime. The image does not represent this but rather invokes it.
With this new establishment of western culture, artists called on sources and reference points that had been more or less spared from totalitarian ideologies. Joseph Beuys looked for insight in the old rituals of the Siberian and Celtic civilizations. He believed that through art society could be healed of its degenerate pathologies and that mankind could win back its creative potential. Beuys aspired to the reconciliation of mankind with its natural environment.
For the first time artists once again devoted themselves to exercising religious practices. Yet here they were less interested in the Christian background; rather they discovered shamanic and tantric practices of ecstasy, explored the effect of mind altering drugs, celebrated love, devoted themselves to oriental mysticism and Gnosticism, the cabbala, black magic or mystical poetry, all this to the sound of jazz and rock. The vitality of this movement could be felt from John Cage to Robert Filliou and Paul Thek. All Doors of Perception — the title of Aldous Huxley's book published in 1954 — were open to the psychonauts. For them art was the vehicle for self-realization and such a roadworthy one that they hoped to transform society with it.
Over the last 30 years, globalization has eventually made us familiar with artists who have maintained their connection to religion and the culture of their origins, and who have simultaneously enriched their formal language with elements from western art. The letters from "Jahve" in a bead curtain by Eli Petel have become the question Might This Thing Be? (2007); the over-dimensioned prayer wheel by Huang Yong Ping resembles a medieval catapult (Ehi Ehi Sina Sina, 2006). There are many more examples of formal, independent solutions. And whether Paul Chan recalls Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" with his shadow figures or Maurizio Cattelan wishes to startle with the image of a woman's body viewed from the back in a crucifixion pose (Project Synagogue Stommeln, 2008) — to touch, "refine and enrich" the "soul", the "spirit", is today as much a central concern for many artists as it was for Kandinsky.
The exhibition was realised by the Centre Pompidou, Paris, with Jean de Loisy, independent curator who also provided the concept, and Angela Lampe, curator of the exhibition and curator at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou. The German version of the catalogue is published by Prestel Verlag.
The exhibition was made possible by Gesellschaft der Freunde Haus der Kunst, supported by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung.
Kendall Geers, Master Mistress of My Passion vii, 2010, jesomite and glass, Courtesy Gallery Rodolphe Janssen, Bruxelles.