Thursday, 15 Nov 2018

Is there a difference between national art and nationalist art?

Criticism of art and architecture

Nothing makes me happier when I travel abroad than to discover a national museum of art that is not on the usual tourist circuit. In Mexico, the great treasures of the Aztec and Maya are on display at the National Museum of Anthropology, which is absolutely not to be missed. But the National Museum of Art, older and older, is even more interesting in some ways. I have fond memories of several visits to the famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, but perhaps even more vivid memories of the Russian State Museum, which has been much less visited.

The official national or national museum is often a little more old-fashioned, organized chronologically and full of art that corresponds to the description that composer Richard Strauss gave of himself: "I may not be a first-rate composer but I am a first. second-rate composer. We see the best of these artists who have never achieved international stature and, very often, the worst of those who have done so. You will also find an exceptionally good art of artists who refused to follow the trends of their time, an academic art diverted from the mainstream as the world turned to new trends emerging in Paris in the late 19th century, or a figurative art from the middle of the world. last century, while abstraction became an international style.

There will often be a gallery devoted to the great narrative and historical paintings of the nineteenth century. These works may be too large to be moved while containing the essence of the idealized identity of the country and the core of its nationalist mythology. The travel writers tell us that we get to know a foreign country by mixing with its inhabitants and eating their food, but if you only have one afternoon in St. Petersburg, go and see the paintings of Ilya Repin or Vasily Surikov, virtuosos of the great way that applied painting to the acre.

The exhibition "Nordic Impressions" from the Phillips collection, which traces some 200 years of Danish, Icelandic, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and other Nordic art, offers many of these same pleasures. It has the sprawling and slightly diffuse synoptic feel of a national museum. It covers a dizzying array of different types of art, from nineteenth century landscapes to contemporary photographic and photographic works of international art stars Ragnar Kjartansson and Olafur Eliasson.

As in a good national museum, you can trace the arrival and transformation of international stylistic trends by looking at the dates of the works on display, often suggesting that the gap between the center and the periphery was much shorter than expected. And then there are works that make any sense of the usual chronology explode, such as the almost entirely abstract painting of 1894 of August Strindberg, "Wonderland". The playwright and author depicts what he called "a dark wood" with a clearing in the center. . But the painting could be hanging next to a Rothko or Pollock without too much dissonance.

Women are heavily represented among the artists on display, which may be related to the relatively enlightened social policies of several Nordic countries at the beginning of the last century. Finland was the first European country to give women the right to vote (in 1906, well before the adoption of the 19th Amendment by the United States in 1920), followed closely by Sweden and Norway. Helene Schjerfbeck, a Finnish artist born in 1862, is one of the best-known female artists (her work was seen in an exhibition of the Phillips Collection in 1992) and her painting of a seamstress in the palette Dark and dimmed Whistler, is among the highlights of the show. Tori Wranes, a Norwegian artist born in 1978, brings a disturbing fantasy with a video entitled "Ancient Baby", the artist appearing masked and hovering in space.

As in most national museums, the theme of national identity is a recurring theme. And there is no better time to think about this than the present, with the word "nationalism" in the news. When the president embraces the word, he does it in a clever way: it will seem to some of his apologists no more threatening than the word "patriotic" while he encourages others among his supporters to embrace the broader meaning, that of an ethnically monochromatic people. , "America first" nationalism based on xenophobia and intolerance.

Most national art museums have to deal with various nationalisms, ranging from cinematographic representations of historical events (often invented, co-opted or highly biased) to images of beloved landscapes and habits. social cherished. Unscrupulous propaganda is inevitably suspended under the roof and often in the same gallery, with the work of artists who sincerely sought to define a sense of identity through the love of people and places. And sometimes, these categories are unclear: seemingly trivial genre scenes can be full of fanaticism, while story paintings tell stories that run counter to orthodoxy.

"Nordic Impressions" gives us a truncated sense of this range of nationalists, without the bathos of patriotic history painting nor the hodgepodge of scenes of nostalgia and sunset. The work of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, a Finnish painter who turned to Kalevala (a paved national epic poem which was one of the centers of interest of Finnish nationalism of the nineteenth century while the country was still under Russian control), is muscular, outdated and exciting. , like Wagner's operas transformed into storybook illustrations. At the other end of the spectrum, Anders Zorn's "The Girl from Alvdalen" shows a young woman dressed in a traditional Swedish costume wandering barefoot in a shallow, placid stream that is just sweet enough to charm without hurting herself. the teeth.

Subsequent works, as well as those of contemporary Nordic artists, move away from this direct engagement with national identity and address more complicated and difficult ideas. These artists now belong as much to the international artistic community as to the country they come from. Videographers, in particular, are struggling with issues of trauma, isolation, femininity and colonialism. An artist, the Danish Per Kirkeby, is quoted in a catalog essay that expresses his impatience: "Writing something about what is" Nordic "in art is a daunting task. I would prefer not to disturb.

It is easy to understand his reluctance to tackle the subject. Starting to suggest affinities between artists based on a national or regional identity almost inevitably leads to clichés, exclusive categories or ideas so vast that they do not make sense. Given what has happened with the nationalist movements of the last century and the toxic resurgence of militant nationalism today, it is easy to understand why artists refuse to expand on the subject. But as they moved on, the field is wide open for more unskillful forces to resume the debate. I think that the world would be greatly improved if more of them were back in the fray, trying to determine if it is still possible to find non-toxic answers to the question of whether there is a national character and, if so, how do we express it? without repeating the mistakes of the past.

"Nordic Impressions" is visible in the Phillips Collection until January 13th. For more information, visit


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