Category: Modernism

The Good Soldier Schweik

"The Good Soldier Schweik." Illustration of the soldier Joseph Schweik by Czech artist Josef Lada.1923.

"The Good Soldier Schweik." Illustration of the soldier Joseph Schweik by Czech artist Josef Lada. 1923.

A rare presentation of Robert Kurka’s opera, The Good Soldier Schweik, was offered to audiences in Southern California by the Long Beach Opera at the Center Theater in Long Beach on Jan. 23, 2010, and at Barnum Hall in Santa Monica on Jan. 30, 2010. Based on the 1923 antiwar novel by Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek, the opera is scarcely known in the United States and has been infrequently performed since it first premiered in 1958.

I attended the performance in Santa Monica, California and offer this article as a review, but I also wish to familiarize readers with the history of the Schweik tale since it was first published eighty-seven-years ago.

The confluence of talents, historic events, and political lessons embodied in Schweik is nothing less than astounding. While Hašek’s story took place during the First World War – “the War to end all Wars” – the work has continued to resonate throughout the decades. It is especially pertinent now that President Obama is fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

I commend Andreas Mitisek, the artistic and general director of the Long Beach Opera company, for staging a boldly anti-militarist production during a time of war. In the Long Beach Opera’s program guide for Schweik, Mitisek states: “The story of Schweik has lost none of its original bite and sarcasm. Seeing it today, you get the sense that we’ve learned some things about war – but not a lot.” It is regrettable that after all the effort the company put into mounting Kurka’s Schweik, only two performances were given. The work deserves a longer run, and hopefully the Long Beach Opera’s efforts will give rise to renewed interest in Kurka’s magnum opus.

Sergeant Vanek (left: played by Mark Bringelson) and Joseph Schweik (played by Mathew DiBattista), on patrol at the front during the opera’s closing scene. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Mark Bringelson (left: playing Sergeant Vanek) and Mathew DiBattista (playing Joseph Schweik), perform in the Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" on Jan. 30, 2010. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Of Czech descent, Robert Kurka (1921-1957) was born just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Mostly self-taught when it came to music composition, he nevertheless had a burgeoning career in the field due to his extraordinary talent.

After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1951 and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1952, he made up his mind that same year to compose an opera based on Hašek’s antiwar novel. Why exactly he chose to do so is unknown, but whatever the reason for his decision he picked an inopportune moment in history for his endeavor. The United States began fighting the Korean War on June 25, 1950, a bloody conflict that would end in stalemate on July 17, 1953. It should go without saying that the powers that be in the U.S. were in no mood for pacifist messages in art, not only that, but American society was in the throes of the frenzied anticommunism of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Set in that context, Kurka’s resolve to write an antiwar opera can be considered an act of defiance.

As work proceeded on his opera Kurka was stricken with leukemia. He continued to labor at his composition, fashioning a brilliant modernist fusion of folk, jazz, and classical idioms. His score was created for a small orchestra without strings, focusing exclusively on percussion, brass, and wind instruments in order to produce a sound evocative of marching rhythms and martial music. The opera shared much with the theatrical works of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht – especially with their magnificent proletarian opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Kurka developed a musical language that described the absurdity of war as expressed in Hašek’s original antiwar novel, and he was just able to finish the opera when he died of his illness on December 12, 1957, ten days before his 36th birthday. Only months after Kurka’s tragic death, The Good Soldier Schweik premiered at the New York City Opera in April 1958.

In Act II – Scene 1 of the opera, a member of the ruling class, the Baroness Von Botzenheim (played by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell) visits a military field hospital to "comfort" soldiers on their way to be slaughtered at the frontline. Bringing gifts of sausages, candies, and toothbrushes, she sings: "Brave soldiers, going off to war, day and night, night and day. While you fight, we will pray. God knows what you’re fighting for." Photo by Mark Vallen ©

In Act II – Scene 1 of the opera, a member of the ruling class, the Baroness Von Botzenheim, visits a military field hospital to "comfort" soldiers on their way to be slaughtered at the front. Bringing gifts of sausages and candies, she sings: "Brave soldiers, going off to war, day and night, night and day. While you fight, we will pray. God knows what you’re fighting for." Mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell played the Baroness in the Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" on Jan. 30, 2010. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Following the overture of The Good Soldier Schweik, the opera’s prologue commences with the appearance of “A Gentleman of the Kingdom of Bohemia,” a dandy in a bowler hat who proclaims that “Great times call for great men.” He continues his narrative by telling the audience that “modest, unrecognized heroes without Napoleon’s glory” exist, men and women who are “Greater than Alexander the Great.” He speaks of “a common man, the kind it’s easy to like,” introducing “a very plain fellow called Schweik.” With the opera’s egalitarian tone set, the black comedy farce unfolds.

Kurka had picked Abel Meeropol (1903-1986) to write the libretto for his opera, and Meeropol produced a witty and sometimes devastating libretto. He was Jewish and a teacher in New York City, but he was also a skilled writer of poems and songs. Troubled that anti-semitism would prevent his advancement in the field of writing, he published his works under the pseudonym of “Lewis Allan.” Meeropol had a second reason for using a nom de plume; he was a member of the American Communist Party. In 1937 he wrote the words and music to a hauntingly poetic song he titled Strange Fruit, a work that protested the lynching of African-Americans in the Southern United States. By 1939 the Blues singer Billie Holiday recorded the song, and her record reached No. 16 on the American music charts. Strange Fruit is still considered to be a signature work for Holiday.

In 1941 Meeropol was made to appear before the anti-communist Rapp-Coudert Committee (1940-1942), a precursor to the anti-communist campaigns waged in the 1950s by Joe McCarthy and HUAC. Headed by Senators Herbert Rapp and Frederic Coudert, the committee conducted “investigations” into the presence of communists in the public schools of New York. As a result of the witch hunt, dozens of teachers were dismissed and had their reputations ruined. Meeropol was questioned as to whether or not the American Communist Party ordered him to write Strange Fruit, but he escaped further badgering from the committee when he answered that the party had nothing to do with the writing of the song.

In 1950 the U.S. government charged Julius and Ethel Rosenberg with attempting to pass nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. The couple were tried and convicted of the charges and sentenced to death. During this period, anti-communism in the U.S. reached a fever pitch, and it must be noted that Kurka was working on his opera in the middle of all of this. On June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed by electric chair, leaving their little boys Michael and Robert orphaned. Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne would adopt the boys. In a March 2009 interview with Robert Meeropol, Guardian journalist Joanna Moorhead wrote: “It seems hard for us to understand, but the paranoia of the McCarthy era was such that many people – even family members – were terrified of being connected with the Rosenberg children, and many people who might have cared for them were too afraid to do so. After he and his wife had adopted the boys, says Meeropol, Abel didn’t get any work as a writer throughout most of the 1950s. ‘I can’t say he was blacklisted, but it definitely looks as though he was at least greylisted.'” There is little doubt that U.S. authorities kept an eye on Abel Meeropol, and that Kurka fell under suspicion for working with him.

Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek as a member of the Soviet Red Army in 1920. Hašek was attached to the political department of the 5th army, where he worked on the Red Army newspaper.

Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek as a member of the Soviet Red Army in 1920. Hašek was attached to the political department of the 5th army, where he worked on the Red Army newspaper.

To fully appreciate Kurka’s opera it is necessary to have some understanding of author Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923) and his satiric novel, The Good Soldier Schweik (also spelled Schwejk or Švejk), one of the greatest antiwar books of all time. In the story Hašek detailed the life and times of his fictional character, the rotund and mild-mannered Joseph Schweik, who is inducted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to fight against the Allied Powers in World War I (1914-1918). An enthusiastic patriot, Schweik is also a lumbering idiot who, in his zealotry to carry out the orders of his superiors, succeeds only in creating havoc. But one is never certain if Schweik’s ineptness reveals his true nature or if it is clever posturing as a means of self-preservation. Whatever the case, his foul-ups keep him from reaching the war’s blood-spattered frontline, until the story’s ending, when he finally arrives at the front but disappears without a trace while on patrol.

A colorful character, as a young man Hašek was an anarchist militant before he became completely engrossed in his writing. At the outbreak of WWI the wild bohemian, writer, and radical anarchist found himself inducted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and sent to the frontline trenches to fight against the Allied Powers; it is not hard to see that The Good Soldier story was to some degree autobiographical. While he had already invented his Schweik character and had previously written stories about him, it was during the travails of war that Hašek began to “flesh out” the character; transforming him into a good-natured buffoon that became a menace to the forces of militarism.

In 1915 Hašek was captured by the Russians and placed in a prisoner of war camp before his captors decided to employ him as a propagandist. When the Russian monarchy and its army collapsed with the 1917 Soviet revolution, Hašek joined the Bolsheviks, becoming a political commissar in the Red Army. Hašek’s allegiance to communism proved as tenuous as his loyalty to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after some years of living in the Soviet Union he returned to Prague in 1920, throwing himself in earnest into the completion of his Schweik novel.

Heavy drinking and ill-health overtook Hašek, who struggled to finish his masterwork. He became so sick that he stopped writing altogether, dictating to assistants the final chapters of Schweik from his sickbed. He died of tuberculosis on January 3, 1923, at the age of 40; it was said that he had completed some 1,500 literary works during his lifetime – but alas Schweik would not be one of them. Hašek had planned on Schweik running six volumes in length, but he had only created three volumes when he died (a forth was published posthumously). His old friend Josef Lada created marvelous illustrations for all the volumes, and it is his artworks that defined the bumbling good soldier. Years after his death Hašek came to be accepted as one of the most important of all Czech writers, and The Good Soldier Schweik – having been translated into 60 languages – is still the most well known work of fiction by a Czech author.

Stage design for Piscator’s 1928 production of "The Good Soldier Schweik," showing backdrop projected images by George Grosz.

Stage design for Piscator’s 1928 stage play production of "The Good Soldier Schweik," showing backdrop projected images by George Grosz.

I first learned of Hašek’s masterpiece years ago through my studies of the German Expressionist movement of the late 1920s. Because of its disdain for militarism the Schweik novel was appreciated by broad sectors of the German public, who had been impoverished and exhausted by WWI. The intelligentsia embraced the story for its pacifism and defiance of conservative social order. In 1928 Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), the German Marxist director and producer of political theater during the years of the Weimar Republic, developed a landmark stage play adaptation of The Good Soldier Schweik that he presented at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz in Berlin.

Drawing by George Grosz for "Hintergrund: 17 Zeichnungen zur Aufführung des Schwejk in der Piscator-Bühne" (Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schwejk in the Piscator stage). Published in 1928 by the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house, this portfolio contains reproductions of 17 drawings created by Grosz as stage background images for the stage play, "The Good Soldier Schwejk." This particular image was the portfolio’s title page.

Drawing by George Grosz for "Hintergrund: 17 Zeichnungen zur Aufführung des Schwejk in der Piscator-Bühne" (Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schweik in the Piscator stage). Published in 1928 by the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house, this portfolio contains reproductions of 17 drawings created by Grosz as stage background images for the stage play, "The Good Soldier Schweik." This particular image was the portfolio’s title page.

Piscator commissioned prominent playwright Hans Reimann (1889-1969) to write the play’s script, and Bertolt Brecht assisted in writing the adaptation. Edmund Meisel (1894-1930) who just three years earlier had scored the music for Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, was commissioned to compose the music. The character of Schweik was played by the famed actor Max Pallenberg. Artist George Grosz created the stage backgrounds for the play, making hundreds of pen and ink drawings for the production. His drawings were made into an animated film that was back-projected onto the stage to coincide with the play’s action – a groundbreaking theatrical technique common to Piscator’s productions. The Long Beach Opera utilized Piscator’s idea of projected images, but its choice of images was much less effective.

"Schwejk: The Actor Max Pallenberg." George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Grosz created this portrait of the Opera’s leading man playing the part of Schweik the soldier This drawing was plate no. 1 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio, and carried the title of; "Beg to report, Sir, I am an idiot."

"Schweik: The Actor Max Pallenberg." George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Grosz created this portrait of the play’s leading man as Schweik. This drawing was plate no. 1 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio, and was titled, "Beg to report, Sir, I am an idiot."

Piscator’s theories concerning what he called “epic theater” transformed the stage presenting Schweik into a motorized “arena for battling ideas,” in fact mechanized treadmills moved actors about on stage – in one scene allowing actors dressed as soldiers to march off to war without actually moving.

The intent behind Piscator’s theatrical work was to prevent audiences from losing themselves in the illusion of theater, instead making them focus on socio-political ideas. The young Bertolt Brecht would be inspired by Piscator’s ideas, making them his own.

The Schweik production included projected still photographs on the stage and auditorium walls – news headlines and text, as well as projections of motion picture films (Grosz’s animation, footage of war, and the like).

The projections were combined with other theatrical devices: audio recordings and electronic sounds, actors emerging from the audience, and giant military maps as stage scenery. Grosz wrote the following regarding his role in the Piscator production:

“It is a fact that here Erwin has created a great new area for the graphic artists to work in, a veritable graphic arena, more tempting for graphic artists of today than all that stuffy aesthetic business or the hawking around of drawings in bibliophile editions for educated nobs. Here’s a chance for our often quoted latter-day Daumiers to paint their gloomy prophecies on the walls. What a medium, though, for the artist who wants to speak to the masses, purely and simply.

Naturally a new area requires new techniques, a new clear and concise language of graphic style – certainly a great opportunity for teaching discipline to the muddleheaded and confused! And there’s nothing to be achieved with your careless impressionist brush, either. The line must be cinematographic – clear, simple, but not too thin, because of over-exposure; furthermore it must be hard, something like the drawings and woodcuts in Gothic block books, or the massive stone carvings on the pyramids.”

"Kein schoner Tod." (Not a Nice Way of Dying). George Grosz. Black chalk. 1927. Plate no. 12 in the Hintergrund portfolio, this drawing also appeared in another portfolio of prints by Grosz titled, Die Gezeichneten (The Designated). In that portfolio the print had the title of "Mir ist der Krieg wie eine Badekur bekommen" (The War Did Me a Lot of Good, Like a Spa).

"Kein schoner Tod." (Not a Nice Way of Dying). George Grosz. Black chalk. 1927. Plate no. 12 in the Hintergrund portfolio, this drawing also appeared in another portfolio of prints by Grosz titled, Die Gezeichneten (The Designated). In that portfolio the print had the title of "Mir ist der Krieg wie eine Badekur bekommen" (The War Did Me a Lot of Good, Like a Spa).

Grosz’s projected drawings helped to move the drama along by emphasizing aspects of the Schweik tale, but the artworks also transcended the story, becoming universal in their condemnation of war and its causes. The audience could see that Grosz was criticizing the renewed warlike direction of Germany’s ruling class, and if his projected images were not unsettling enough, Grosz would up the ante by publishing a number of the drawings in book form.

He collaborated with Wieland Herzfelde (founder of the Malik-Verlag Berlin publishing house and also the brother of well-known artist John Heartfield), in issuing a portfolio of reproductions titled, Background: 17 designs for the performance of the Schweik in the Piscator stage. The publication of the book caused a major uproar; what had been ephemeral projections could now be held in the hands of increasingly powerful critics.

Three drawings from the portfolio, Shut up and soldier on!, Bow to the Authorities, and The pouring out of the Holy Spirit, led to a right-wing campaign against Grosz and Herzfelde that resulted in the authorities charging the two with blasphemy and placing them on trial in 1928; it turned out to be one of the longest running and closely watched blasphemy trials in history.

The essence of Grosz’s drawing, The pouring out of the Holy Spirit, would be preserved by Meeropol in his libretto for Kurka’s opera in Act II, Scene Two, “Okay, let’s pray!”. In attempting to explain his Shut up and soldier on! drawing to a judge, Grosz said the following:

“This drawing was created as a cover on the book about Schweik. In one of the chapters there’s the following scene – I’ll give you the gist, because I can’t remember it exactly. Well, there are these two soldiers lying on a bed in a cell, I think, and they’re telling each other stories about their war experiences. They grumble about the war. One says to the other something like: Well, shut up and soldier on. As I read this account the drawing took shape in my imagination. I imagined that Christ might come now… They would grab him, hand him a gas mask, put him into army boots, in short, they wouldn’t understand him at all.” [Taken from notes of the blasphemy trial, published in Das Tagebuch, 1928].

"Maul halten und weiter dienen." (Shut up and soldier on!). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde (brother of John Heartfield) were accused and tried on blasphemy charges for this drawing, which originally served as a backdrop image in the Opera, "The Good Soldier," but was later published in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Maul halten und weiter dienen." (Shut up and soldier on!) George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde (brother of John Heartfield) were accused and tried on blasphemy charges for this drawing, which originally served as a backdrop image in the play, "The Good Soldier Schweik," but was later published in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

After numerous trials and retrials, Grosz and Hezfelde were acquitted in 1931, but the Schweik drawings and their printing plates were confiscated by the court and destroyed. The social forces of the burgeoning Nazi movement had scored a major victory. When Hitler came to power two years later, The Good Soldier Schweik became one of the many thousands of books destroyed during the massive public book-burnings organized by the Nazi party on May 10, 1933. Hašek’s book was burned because it was considered “pacifist literature,” but books by “Marxists,” “liberals,” “Jews,” and anyone considered to be “un-German” were thrown onto the bonfires as well. Books by Piscator, Brecht, Grosz, and Herzfelde were also added to what the Nazis called the “funeral pyre of the intellect.”

"Die Obrigkeit." (The Authorities). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. This print had the subtitle of: "Seid untertan der Obrigkeit (Bow to the Authorities). Plate no. 2 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing.

"Die Obrigkeit." (The Authorities). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. This print had the subtitle of: "Seid untertan der Obrigkeit" (Bow to the Authorities). Plate no. 2 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing.

To escape Nazi persecution Grosz would flee to the U.S. in 1932. Herzfelde went underground soon after, finally escaping to Prague in 1933. Working on a film in the Soviet Union in 1933, Piscator found himself in exile when Hitler came to power. He became disillusioned with the Soviet Union under the leadership of Stalin and by 1936 he move to France, finally emigrating to the U.S. in 1939.

Piscator was invited to found a Dramatic Workshop at New York’s The New School, where his students included Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Tony Curtis, Shelley Winters, and many others. Ironically, the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthyism drove Piscator from America. His associate and fellow exile in the U.S., Bertolt Brecht, was hauled up before HUAC on October 30, 1947, and harshly interrogated regarding his political sympathies. The next day Brecht left the U.S. for Europe. Piscator did not wait to receive his subpoena, he returned to West Germany in 1951 to avoid the witch-hunts.

"Ausschuttung des heiligen Geistes." (The pouring out of the Holy Spirit). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing. Plate no. 9 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Ausschuttung des heiligen Geistes." (The pouring out of the Holy Spirit). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1928. Grosz and Wieland Herzfelde were tried for blasphemy because of this drawing. Plate no. 9 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

Piscator’s technical ideas regarding the staging of the Schweik play clearly have had an influence on theatre and opera over the decades. His concepts like projected backdrops, stage hands incorporated into the action as they shuffled props on and off stage, and actors performing in the aisles amongst the audience, were incorporated into the Long Beach Opera production. However, Piscator meant to provoke his audience into taking sides against war and those who profit from it, while the Long Beach Opera placed its emphasis on entertainment.

Given the profundity of Kurka’s material it would be impossible not to impart some level of political insight, and such moments were plentiful in the Long Beach Opera production. In Act I – Scene Four, Schweik finds himself in a cell at police headquarters after having been arrested for allegedly speaking against the Emperor. Many others are also in the jail for the very same offense, and all are worried about being brutalized and tortured at the hands of the police. Schweik, assuring his fellow jailbirds that things are not so bad, sings:

“I once read in a book where it said, you had to dance on red-hot iron and drink molten lead. You were shot or hanged, burned or slaughtered, and as a special event, drawn and quartered. They split you open or chopped your head, you might be innocent but you were also dead. There’s no quartering here or things of that kind, it’s improved for our benefit I’m glad to find. We’ve got a mattress, a table, a seat, they bring us soup and water and bread to eat, the slop pot is right there under your nose, a lot of progress is what it shows.”

"Der Lebensbaum." (Tree of Life). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Executed prisoners hang from a tree made out of the "§" symbol used to denote German legal articles. Plate no. 4 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

"Der Lebensbaum." (Tree of Life). George Grosz. Brush and ink. 1927. Executed men hang from a tree made of the "§" symbol used to denote German legal articles. No. 4 in the "Hintergrund" portfolio.

As with a number of scenes in the opera, the action in Scene Four transcends the period setting of 1914, in fact it is hard not to think of the present when hearing about the “progress” made in the handling of prisoners held by certain governments. Surely waterboarding is an improvement over being drawn and quartered – yes, a lot of progress is what it shows!

The ending scenes of the Long Beach Opera production could hardly have concluded on a more profound note. In Act II – Scene Seven, the character of Schweik at last finds himself at the front. On the stage backdrop a gigantic image is projected, a terrible scene of utter desolation; shattered and blackened skeletal trees and bomb craters cast in blue light. From behind the stage backdrop the orchestra begins the somber music for the song, “Wait for the ragged soldiers.” Groups of wounded troops walk onto the stage – collapsing, exhausted, dying, as they sing their foreboding song:

“Wait for the ragged soldiers, watch for the ragged men with their sunken faces, holding their blood-red wounds with their hands. No sound of drums when they come, no trumpets blow when they come, no flags at the gate. Wait for the ragged soldiers. Wait…wait and watch for the ragged, watch for the tired men marching slowly homeward. Men… homeward. (….) Coat sleeves armless, legless, sightless. Angry, angry, angry men, angry men. No sound of drums when they come, No!”

Act II – Scene 7. Joseph Schweik and Sergeant Vanek at the bomb blasted battle front. A group of wounded soldiers trudge by, collapsing one by one into muddy trenches as they sing: "Wait for the ragged soldiers, watch for the ragged men, with their sunken faces, holding their blood-red wounds with their hands. No sound of drums when they come, no trumpets blow when they come, no flags at the gate."  Photo by Mark Vallen ©

Act II – Scene 7. Joseph Schweik and Sergeant Vanek at the bomb blasted battle front. A group of wounded soldiers trudge by, collapsing one by one into muddy trenches as they sing: "Wait for the ragged soldiers." Photo of the Jan. 30, 2010, Long Beach Opera production of "The Good Soldier Schweik" taken by Mark Vallen ©

Patrolling the battlefield, Schweik and Sergeant Vanek enter the scene carrying their guns; here the production has been updated to good effect.

Rather than carrying WWI era bolt action rifles, the two soldiers are armed with modern automatic assault rifles, reminders that the sentiments of this opera are not rooted in the past, but relevant and applicable to the world as it is today.

Lost in the landscape of mangled barbed-wire and stinking corpses, Schweik and Vanek argue over which direction to take. Vanek insists that his military map indicates a right turn, Schweik shrugs and says, “Maps are sometimes wrong.” The two cannot agree on how to advance, so they part, going separate ways.

Schweik watches the Sergeant disappear into the blackened wasteland of destruction, waves goodbye, and lays down his gun. As the character of Schweik begins to walk off stage, he sings: “I’ll take a quiet road where forget-me-nots grow, along a clear stream where soft breezes blow. I’ll take it easy for the rest of the day and pick some meadow flowers on the way. I’ll take a quiet road and I’ll lie in the sun, for birds and butterflies, I won’t need my gun.” His song over, Schweik vanishes.

In the opera’s epilogue the gentleman of Bohemia returns, stepping out of the darkness and into a spotlight to find Schweik’s abandoned gun. The gentleman sings the opera’s final words: “Schweik, Schweik, where did he go? He just disappeared and that’s all we know. Some say they saw him at a much later day, sipping a drink at a little café. And others will swear he was seen on the street, and lost in the crowd before they could meet. Schweik, Schweik, the Good Soldier Schweik, the kind of fellow that fellow men like. In one place or other he’s sure to be found. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s somewhere around.”

[ More information on Robert Kurka’s opera, The Good Soldier Schweik: Song lyrics and a synopsis of the opera’s storyline, can be found on the Cedille Records website in .pdf format. An excellent recording of the opera performed by the Chicago Opera Theater and released by Cedille Records can be purchased from Amazon, where you can also hear song excerpts. An English language edition of Jaroslav Hašek’s Schweik novel, with illustrations by Josef Lada can also be purchased on Amazon.]

Why Beauty Matters

Detail of Sandro Botticelli’s 1482-1486 tempera on canvas painting, Birth of Venus (La Nascita di Venere), as used in the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

Detail of Sandro Botticelli’s 1482-1486 tempera on canvas painting, "Birth of Venus" (La Nascita di Venere), as used in the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In November of 2009 the BBC network in the UK ran The Modern Beauty Season, a series of films produced for television on the concept of beauty in modern art. The series offered six films that ran the gambit of opinion on contemporary art, but it is the film by the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton, Why Beauty Matters, that I wish to address here.

As a working artist I found myself in general agreement with some points made in Scruton’s film; that appreciating and creating things of beauty is a necessary part of the human experience, that beauty is “a value as important as truth and goodness,” that it has been central to civilization, and that “it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings.” We agree that there is a spiritual aspect to beauty – though we would likely disagree over a definition of “spiritual.” So yes, beauty does indeed matter, and I am of the opinion that it should be central in all the various disciplines of the arts; but perhaps my definition of such an elusive and ephemeral thing as beauty is more expansive than Mr. Scruton’s, whose vision seems to be restricted to what is known as European “classicism.” I am at variance with a number of his assumptions and inferences; the particulars of my differences are in part laid out in this article.

Postmodern art makes for an easy target, as it is has altogether forsaken skill, craft, and beauty – the very things most people think of when considering the arts. Postmodern artists from the late 1960s to the early 1970s attempted to remove art from the marketplace by creating “conceptual” works, i.e., performance, video, installation, etc., instead of merchandise for market consumption. We have seen how well that worked out. The art movement that previously strove for the “dematerialization of the art object,” as pro-conceptualist art critic and activist Lucy Lippard put it in 1973, has today placed itself in unwavering service to the elite art establishment it once sought to circumvent. Capitalism co-opted and absorbed conceptual art, which has become more of a commodity fetish than any of its other art world predecessors; it is synonymous with astronomical prices, billionaire art collectors, and shamelessly venal celebrity art stars – all good enough reasons to disparage it in my view. But that is my critique, not Roger Scruton’s.

"Zuerst die Füsse" (Feet First) Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997). Painted wood sculpture created in 1990. Shown in "Why Beauty Matters."

"Zuerst die Füsse" (Feet First) Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997). Painted wood sculpture created in 1990. Shown in "Why Beauty Matters."

In Why Beauty Matters the soft-spoken and erudite Scruton makes a populist argument against much of contemporary art that will no doubt strike a chord with significant numbers of people. But seeing as how the general public is largely indifferent to the goings-on of the art world, Scruton’s presentation provides surprisingly little insight into the field of art, instead he sets up a straw man, fueling the fires of misunderstanding by focusing on the more egregious examples of postmodern excess (for instance, Turner Prize winner Martin Creed’s Sick Film Work 610), then suggesting that liberal elites, moral dissipation, and the loss of religion are the reasons behind such works being produced. What I find interesting is that Scruton does not explicitly state such opinion in his film, he alludes to it – but he reveals his stance with more clarity and honesty in his writings. For example, in a 2006 essay titled Quo vadis? (Latin for, “Where are you going?”) he uncategorically declared his position:

“We cannot rescue our civilization merely by overthrowing the Marxist, post-Marxist, deconstructionist and postmodern ideologies that inhabit the universities. Even if we returned to the classical curriculum, and taught European culture as it was taught to me, that would not bring back the public consensus on which our civilization depends. (….) The most important thing on which European people can be encouraged to agree is that our inheritance is Judaeo-Christian, and that the Bible, and the two religions built on it, are an indispensable part of our culture.”

There are moments in Why Beauty Matters where Scruton sounds like a critic of the capitalist culture industry, as in the following comment;

“Our consumer society puts usefulness first, and beauty is no better than a side-effect. Since art is useless it doesn’t matter what you read, what you look at, what you listen to. We are besieged by messages on every side, titillated – tempted by appetite – never addressed, and that is one reason why beauty is disappearing from our world. ‘Getting and spending’ wrote Wordsworth ‘we lay waste our powers.’ In our culture today the advert is more important than the work of art, and artworks often try to capture our attention as adverts do, by being brash or outrageous. (….) Like adverts, today’s works of art aim to create a brand – even if they have no product to sell, except themselves.”

On the surface level Scruton’s remarks may have a ring of truth to them, but ultimately his critique boils down to right-wing populism, never attributing the crisis in modern art to the pernicious role of money – as did Robert Hughes in his fabulous The Mona Lisa Curse – but to liberalism and the waning influence of religion in the West. Why Beauty Matters is very nearly ahistorical in its presentation.

Detail of the marble sculpture, Ecstasy of St. Teresa, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). An outstanding architect and perhaps the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, Bernini originated the Baroque style of sculpture - of which his Ecstasy of St. Teresa (created 1647-52) is a primary example. Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Detail of the marble sculpture, "Ecstasy of St. Teresa," by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). An outstanding architect and perhaps the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, Bernini originated the Baroque style of sculpture - of which his "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" (created 1647-52) is a primary example. Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

While Scruton points out how certain philosophers of old influenced the world of European art, and he briefly makes mention of the substantial impact science had upon the arts, he never once mentions the central issue of patronage – a deciding factor in art history. In the film Scruton takes an almost mystical approach in describing how spirituality and religion have historically been linked to concepts of beauty, while completely ignoring the role of the Church as the primary financial backer and authority in the arts. Likewise, he ignores the role of monarchists and other ruling elites, who also tightly controlled art by way of patronage. Artists did not begin to free themselves of this rigid control until the early 19th century.

In one of his recently published articles, Beauty and Desecration, Scruton wrote that “Modern artists like Otto Dix too often wallow in the base and the loveless.” That observation reveals much about Scruton, and how the two of us have divergent concepts of what is beautiful. Dix lived through one of the most tumultuous periods of German history. He fought in the trenches of World War I where he saw humanity ripped to shreds in the world’s first mechanized war. At war’s end he became politicized, and through his art expressed disdain for militarism and Germany’s ruling class. He witnessed the fall of the German monarchy, the rise of the Weimar Republic, and the Nazi seizure of power. In their brutal repression of the arts, the Nazis removed Dix from the Prussian Academy and his professorship at the Dresden Art Academy – his dismissal letter declaring that his art “threatened to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves.”

"Lady with Mink and Veil" - Otto Dix. Oil on Linen. 1920. Dix painted this portrait of an old war widow forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive.

"Lady with Mink and Veil" - Otto Dix. Oil on Linen. 1920. Dix painted this portrait of an old war widow forced to turn to prostitution in order to survive.

Dix was forbidden to exhibit by the Nazis, they removed his artworks from museums and had them destroyed. They included his paintings in their infamous 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit, meant to condemn modern art as the work of Bolsheviks, “Jews,” and the insane. Dix was forcibly conscripted into the fascist home guard in 1945 at the age of 53, captured and later released by the French army at the close of the war. Given that chronicle, it is shocking that Scruton would accuse Dix of wallowing in the “loveless.” What type of art would Scruton have preferred to see Dix paint during that despairing period – inoffensive still lifes? Considering the barbarity that was all around him, it is remarkable that Dix painted anything at all, but even the most distorted of his expressionist grotesqueries contained more truth, and yes, beauty – than all the realistic classical nudes and respectable portraits commissioned by the German bourgeoisie of the period. Dix’s creations were beautiful, simply by virtue of the truths they told.

In Why Beauty Matters Scruton disavows modern architecture, and at one point in the film he takes the viewer on a tour through the community near London where he grew up, “a charming Victorian town with terraced streets and Gothic churches, crowned by elegant public buildings and smart hotels.” Scruton’s community was forever altered starting in the 1960s, when homes were demolished to make way for a substantial number of large office buildings and a bus station that brought people to and from London. Scruton claims the brand new modernist style buildings – “all designed without consideration for beauty” – were proof that “if you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless.”

Roger Scruton in his now blighted hometown of Redding, near London. He tells us that: "Beauty is assailed from two directions, by the cult of ugliness in the arts, and by the cult of utility in everyday life. These two cults come together in the world of modern architecture." Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Roger Scruton in his now blighted hometown of Redding, near London. He tells us that: "Beauty is assailed from two directions, by the cult of ugliness in the arts, and by the cult of utility in everyday life. These two cults come together in the world of modern architecture." Screen capture from "Why Beauty Matters."

Today the office buildings and the bus station are boarded up and abandoned; everything has been vandalized and covered with graffiti. The once thriving community is now dilapidated and in a state of neglect, “but we shouldn’t blame the vandals” Scruton insists, “this place was built by vandals, and those that added the graffiti merely finished the job.”

Standing in front of a large deserted office, Scruton says; “This building is boarded up because nobody has a use for it, nobody has a use for it because nobody wants to be in it, nobody wants to be in it because the thing is so damn ugly.” That assertion is pure demagoguery – of course people have a use for the building! There are countless “ugly” buildings currently serving as vital centers of community life, whether in housing, commerce or government. While some may find uninviting architecture to be depressing, that is not what leads to the collapse of urban centers; cities and towns shut down for economic reasons. The property owners that financed and directed the construction of the buildings Scruton deems offensive have now found it more profitable to close and padlock their properties, or have them razed to the ground; such are the workings of capitalism.

In his analysis of architecture and urban decay Scruton makes no mention of government policy or economics, as if towns and cities collapse into ruin simply because people have an aversion to unsightly architecture. He says nothing of the pressures brought about by layoffs and astronomical unemployment, cuts in government services, privatization, inflation, recession, and an increasingly globalized capitalist economy. He does not talk about the role of banks, real estate firms, and other financial interests that fail to invest in communities considered “unprofitable.” Regarding the decades long collapse of his home town near London, Scruton does not bring up Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, whose economic policies resulted in unrelenting assaults upon the British and Irish working class, the destruction of British industry, and crushing unemployment that by 1982 had put well over 3 million people out of work.

In 1961 Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement in 90 small cans and sold the "edition" as art. Cans are in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern, London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Screen capture from the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In 1961 Piero Manzoni canned his own excrement in 90 small cans and sold the "edition" as art. Cans are in the permanent collections of the Tate Modern, London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Screen capture from the opening of "Why Beauty Matters."

In Why Beauty Matters Scruton seems reluctant to say just who is responsible for all of this unappealing architecture, but as I have previously noted, he is more than willing to lay blame in his published articles. In The modern cult of ugliness, a December 2009 article for the Daily Mail, Scruton lets us know who the culprits are; “official uglification of our world is the work of the ivory-towered elites of the liberal classes – people who have little sympathy for how the rest of us live and who, with their mania for modernizing, are happy to rip up beliefs that have stood the test of time for millennia.”

Roger Scruton’s credentials are impeccable; a Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Oxford University’s Blackfriars Hall, a Research Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia, a Fellow of the British Academy, and the author of more than 30 books on cultural and political affairs. As should be apparent from reading this article, this learned man is also an ardent conservative. Scruton is quite well-known in Britain for his outspokenness, but less renowned in the U.S., apart from being appreciated in certain right-wing circles. He is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (home to such U.S. neoconservative luminaries as Michael Novak and Irving Kristol – the now deceased “godfather of neoconservatism”).

Mr. Scruton has been a columnist for a number of conservative publications. In Totalitarian Sentimentality, his Dec. 2009 article for the neoconservative journal The American Spectator, Scruton makes clear his view that conservatism best guards all things noble and just, while liberalism is but a hair’s breadth from tyranny and despotism. Scruton’s fervent political conservatism is inseparable from his views on art and culture.

In June of 2006, Scruton was invited to speak in Antwerp, Belgium before the Vlaams Belang (“Flemish Interest”), an extreme right-wing party of Flemish ultra-nationalists who seek the independence of Flanders. Variously described as xenophobic, racist, and fascist by their numerous opponents, the platform of Vlaams Belang calls for; Deportation of all economic immigrants who fail to assimilate, Repeal of anti-racism and anti-discrimination legislation, and full and unconditional amnesty for people convicted of collaboration with Nazi Germany. By having addressed the Vlaams Belang on the subject of his opposition to multiculturalism, Scruton makes it exceedingly difficult for his views on art and culture to be taken seriously – at least by this artist.

Roger Scruton’s Why Beauty Matters is available for viewing on YouTube in 6 parts that are each approximately 10 minutes long. I have summarized each part below. I encourage everyone to view Mr. Scruton’s film in its totality.

UPDATE 2/28/2014: The YouTube video originally linked to in this article was removed. However, the “Documentary Addict” website now offers the complete Why Beauty Matters video.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 1)
Scruton states in the opening of the film; “In the 20th century, beauty stopped being important. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, and to break moral taboos. It was not beauty but ‘originality,’ however achieved, and at whatever moral cost, that won the prizes. Not only has art made a cult of ugliness, architecture to has become soulless and sterile. (…) One word is writ large on all these ugly things, and that word is ‘Me,’ my profits, my desires, my pleasures, and art has nothing to say in response to this except, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ I think we are losing beauty, and there is a danger that with it, we are losing the meaning of life.” At the end of this clip, Scruton engages postmodern artist Michael Craig-Martin in a discussion about the nature of modern art.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 2)
Scruton’s conversation with Michael Craig-Martin continues in this section, with a short but quite remarkable conversation about conceptual artist Piero Manzoni – who canned his own excrement and sold it as art. Scruton continues with a general denunciation of modern art as an auxiliary to advertising and hyper-consumerism, before beginning a critique of modern architecture. He targets the “father” of modernist architecture, Louis Sullivan, for his credo of “form follows function.” Scruton avers that “Sullivan’s doctrine has been used to justify the greatest crime against beauty that the world has yet seen – and that is the crime of modern architecture.”

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 3)
In part 3 Scruton continues to assail modern architecture, which he asserts, is so dreadful that “it is there simply to be demolished.” He extols “traditional architecture, with its decorative details,” and tells us that in architecture “ornaments liberate us from the tyranny of the useful, and satisfy our need for harmony.” In the remainder of this clip, Scruton presents the basic precepts behind his philosophy on art.

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 4)
In this clip Scruton describes how the clash between religion and enlightenment ideas impacted the world of art. He mentions the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), an English philosopher and writer who linked beauty with moral virtue – saying the two are “one and the same.” Shaftesbury’s ideas, Scruton tells us; “encouraged the cult of beauty, which raised the appreciation of art and nature to the place once occupied by the worship of God. Beauty was to fill the God shaped hole made by science. Artists were no longer illustrators of the sacred stories, who worked as servants of the church, they were discovering the stories for themselves by interpreting the secrets of nature.” Scruton also touches upon the aesthetical ideas of German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the Classical Greek philosopher, Plato (429-347 BC).

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 5)
In this clip Scruton explores the connection art has had to the West’s Christian religious traditions, and what he calls the defilement of those traditions by modern art. Scruton insists that art can redeem even the most tragic, sordid, and depraved reality. Here he contrasts Eugene Delacroix’s 1827 painting of the artist’s unmade bed (Un Lit défait), to Tracey Emin’s 1998 My Bed (an actual untidy bed with sheets stained by body secretions, the surrounding floor scattered with condoms, cigarette butts, and soiled underwear. Scruton comments on the juxtaposition; “There is all the difference in the world between a real work of art – which makes ugliness beautiful – and a fake work of art, which shares the ugliness that it shows.”

Scruton: Why Beauty Matters (Part 6)
Scruton concludes by saying that art has become “a slave to the consumer culture, feeding our pleasures and addictions and wallowing in self-disgust. That, it seems to me, is the lesson of the ugliest forms of modern art and architecture. They do not show reality, but take revenge on it, spoiling what might have been a home, and leaving us to wander unconsoled and alienated in a spiritual desert. Of course it is true that there is much in the world today that distracts and troubles us. Our lives are full of leftovers, we battle through lies and distraction, and nothing resolves. The right response however, is not to endorse this alienation – it is to look back to the path from the desert; one that will point us to a place where the real and the ideal may still exist in harmony.”

Edward Biberman Revisited

Edward Biberman was born in Philadelphia in 1904, but left his mark as a California Modernist painter. Now almost forgotten save for aficionados of the California Modernist school, Biberman was the subject of a fascinating 2009 retrospective: Edward Biberman Revisited, held at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park.

While the small Biberman exhibit catalog that accompanied the show rightly described Biberman as an important post war California Modernist artist, and notes his having created paintings of great social import, little was said about the artist’s embrace of social realism or the political controversies that swirled around him. This shortcoming was exacerbated by the layout of the show itself, which presented no coherent timeline for the paintings, but rather presents works from the early 30s and 40s alongside those created in the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately this made it difficult to see how the artist progressed, and especially how he was buffeted by and reacted to, historic events.

Captions for paintings were also short on pertinent details, leaving all but the most stalwart students of history clueless about the subjects depicted in Biberman’s remarkable paintings. Despite these deficiencies, Edward Biberman Revisited was a must see exhibit and I commend the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery for presenting it to the public. In this article I will focus on just two of the noteworthy paintings from the show, Biberman’s contemporary Pieta, and the portrait of African American actor, singer, and political radical, Paul Robeson. I will also endeavor to present some of the background information on Mr. Biberman that was unfortunately left out of the exhibit.

In the early 1920s, the 19-year-old Biberman rented a studio in Paris, where he became familiar with exponents of Modernism and their works. Despite the experiments with cubism and abstraction that he witnessed all around him, Biberman would later say that he “quickly decided abstractionism was not for me.” He would not only embrace realism in painting, he would stubbornly continue to adhere to it even as abstract art became ascendant and completely dominant in the art world. From Paris he moved to Berlin, but felt uneasy with the rightward drift he witnessed in German society. He described his Berlin neighborhood as a “Nazi nest” and pulled up stakes for America, where he acquired a studio on 57th Street in New York. He did well, painting portraits of individuals like Martha Graham and Joan Crawford, but then came the stock market crash in 1929 and Edward’s father, a businessman ruined by the crash – committed suicide.

At this point Edward Biberman became committed to using his art in addressing the world’s injustices. He started to paint workers, the unemployed, and the disenfranchised. He respected the Mexican Muralist Movement to the highest degree, having met Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco while in New York. In 1935 Biberman decided to move to California, and so drove across country, stopping in New Mexico where he painted alongside Georgia O’Keefe before continuing to Los Angeles.

In 1939 Biberman painted his Pieta, a masterpiece that has as much relevance today as when the artist first painted it. There is no doubt that the work was inspired by his exposure to Mexico’s radical social realists, but one can also assume that what he discovered in Los Angeles, a segregated city where Chicanos and Mexican immigrants formed a permanent underclass, also contributed to the creation of the painting.

Pieta, painting by Edward Biberman

[ Pieta – Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1939. 44 x 35 in. Image courtesy of Gallery Z. ]

Though Pieta depicts what appears to be a Mexican Indian woman mourning over the body of a slain worker, the painting has a universal and timeless quality to it.

The murdered worker lies face down on the ground in an ungainly position, his placard flung to one side as his blood coagulates around his head. The backdrop is an endless space where land, sea, and sky meet, lending a sense of the surreal to the scene. An up close examination of the painting reveals a masterly application of paint, with Biberman having built up layers of transparent colors to great effect. His gloppy brush strokes of golden ochre paint perfectly replicate a parched and unforgiving earth. Pieta is as good a work of social realism as I have ever seen produced by anyone, anywhere, and it should be known by all.

While in his new home city of L.A. Biberman met actress and artist Sonja Dahl at a meeting of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, an anti-fascist organization that helped German émigrés settle in the U.S. (the league helped famed author Thomas Mann settle in L.A.) Biberman and Dahl fell in love and married as WWII was approaching, moving into a modest home located just below the famous Hollywood sign.

Edward’s brother, Herbert J. Biberman, arrived in Hollywood to pursue work as a director, screenwriter and producer of films. Herbert also became active in the Anti-Nazi League, and Sonja Dahl-Biberman later recalled that at the time, anyone who was anti-Nazi was suspected of being a communist. When the war ultimately broke out, Edward served as a corporal in the state guard, and Sonja joined the Women’s Ambulance and Defense Guard. The war lasted four-and-a-half years, and with the defeat of fascism the Biberman’s and their friends felt they had won a great collective victorybut then came the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the anti-communist hysteria that came to be known as McCarthyism. In her December 2003 article for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, A Place in the Sun, Catching Up with Edward Biberman’s Los Angeles, Emily Young wrote:

“Though his portraits of Lena Horne and Dashiell Hammett are in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the left-leaning Biberman initially devoted more of his energy to depicting Depression-era bread lines, the struggles of organized labor and the Communist witch hunt in Hollywood that undercut his career. (….) Biberman remained popular until social realism, a style he used for his politically charged paintings, fell out of favor. When his brother was branded a member of the Hollywood Ten, he suffered further from guilt by association. Still, Biberman continued to paint, teach and write, developing a pre-Hockney Los Angeles aesthetic that would influence the art world’s next generation.”

While Ms. Young’s recollection of Biberman’s early work is technically accurate, she fails to convey to the reader the noxious atmosphere of political repression Biberman was laboring under, or exactly why social realism “fell out of favor.” Lena Horne, the great African American singer and actress, and Dashiell Hammett, author of detective stories like The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, were both named as communists at HUAC hearings and found themselves blacklisted. In 1947 Ms. Horne was marked as a “communist sympathizer” for her civil rights activism and friendship with Paul Robeson, and was thus unable to perform on television, radio or in the movies until the late 1950s.

Political repression came home for Edward Biberman in a profoundly personal way when he was identified as a communist by a “friendly witness” to HUAC because he had helped to organize an Artist’s Union within the WPA project. His beloved wife Sonja was also identified as a communist by a “friendly witness” to HUAC. Then his brother Herbert was accused in 1947 of participating in “communist activities” by HUAC, along with nine other Hollywood professionals who became known as the Hollywood Ten.

At the HUAC hearings Herbert took the 5th amendment, refusing to name “fellow communists” or to confirm or deny the allegations made against him. In 1950 he would be sentenced to six months in prison and barred from working in Hollywood. Even though he had little money Edward worked tirelessly to get his brother out on parole and help pay his legal fees, actions which made him suspect in the eyes of the government. Dashiell Hammett would later be found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to name communist associates and was sent to prison for six months in 1951.

One of Biberman’s paintings in the Municipal Art Gallery exhibit is titled, Conspiracy. It depicts a group of white men in suits, huddled before a bank of microphones. Painted as a simple agitated line drawing in burnt umber filled in with a limited palette of mute earth colors, the image suggests a plot of some sort. The gallery provides absolutely no information as to what the painting gives a picture of, but it is not had to see that the oil on masonite painting is a direct reference to the HUAC witch trials and the persecution of Mr. Biberman, his wife, brother, and their professional associates.

In his celebrated biography Paul Robeson, author Martin Bauml Duberman described the political atmosphere in the U.S. at the time of Robeson having his portrait painted by Biberman in Los Angeles. Duberman specifically writes about a live performance Robeson gave at a 1949 NAACP Youth Council Rally in Los Angeles. It should be noted that just prior to his L.A. appearance, Robeson had given an August, ’49 performance in Peekskill, New York, where a huge violent mob motivated by racial hatred and anticommunism had almost succeeded in killing the black singer:

“The (Los Angeles) City Council dubbed Robeson’s coming concert an ‘invasion’ and unanimously passed a resolution urging a boycott. One councilman, Lloyd C. Davies, went out of his way to ‘applaud and commend those in Peekskill who had the courage to get out there and do what they did to show up Robeson for what he is. I’d be inclined to be down there throwing rocks myself.’ An FBI agent reported to J. Edgar Hoover that ‘the Communist Party logically might endeavor to foment an incident at the concert in order to arouse the crowd.’

Hollywood gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Jimmy Fidler fanned the flames with rumors of violence, and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals published ads red-baiting Robeson. Charlotta Bass, publisher of the California Eagle, the black newspaper that sponsored Robeson’s Los Angles appearance, was swamped with threatening phone calls and denied insurance coverage.

Robeson’s supporters fought back. The Los Angeles NAACP Youth Council passed a resolution calling on all young people, black and white, to attend the concert. The prestigious national black fraternity (Robeson’s own), Alpha Phi Alpha, announced that it would host a luncheon in his honor the day following the concert. His supporters deluged the City Council with angry protests over its call for a boycott, and they turned out in force for the event itself. A tiny group of race-baiters did go to hear a local realtor call for the expulsion of all blacks and Jews from Los Angeles – but fifteen thousand went to hear Robeson, and the rally came off without incident.

A special force of black police officers (among them future Mayor Thomas Bradley) was assigned to protect Robeson. He thanked them from the podium and asked that the L.A. police protect ‘every colored boy, every Mexican-American boy, every white boy on the streets of Los Angeles.’ He thanked the Jewish people of Peekskill for having turned out in numbers to protect him in that town. And he thanked the crowd in front of him for having turned out to defend its own liberties. He would continue, he said, ‘to speak up militantly for the rights of my people’; he told the rally that when asked the question ‘Paul, what’s happened to you?’ he replied, ‘Nothing’s happened to me. I’m just looking for freedom.’ Then he sang ‘We Shall Not Be Moved,’ and the last verse, ‘Black and white together, we shall not be moved’ brought the crowd to its feet.”

In an interview with Biberman conducted in 1977 for the UCLA Special Collections, Biberman described Robeson sitting for his portrait; “We were never alone. He would always make several appointments here for the time that he was posing. Earl Robinson (who accompanied Robeson on piano during performances) would be sitting at this piano banging away a new tune that he wanted Paul to hear, and somebody would be reading a script, and somebody else would be interviewing him.”

Painting of Paul Robeson by Edward Biberman

[ Paul Robeson – Edward Biberman. Oil on canvas. 1947. 50 x 34 in.  Image courtesy of Gallery Z. ]

Biberman’s portrait of Paul Robeson was a focal point of the exhibit at the Municipal Art Gallery, and it was an imposing work indeed, conveying all of the pride, determination, and dogged tenacity of the internationally famous singer. But aside from being an impressive painting of a formidable character, it is also confirmation of Biberman’s own valor, for it took no small amount of courage to stand up to HUAC and create a sympathetic portrait of Robeson during such trying times.

For those unable to attend the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery exhibition, a gallery of artworks by Edward Biberman can be seen here. Also, a fascinating interview was conducted with Biberman on April 15, 1964, for the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution. The interviewer asked Biberman for his evaluation of the WPA Federal Arts Project, and the artist’s timely answer has great resonance in the present:

“Well, of course I have a very partisan attitude to this whole matter. I am unequivocally in favor of it. I think it was one of the brightest spots in the history of American art, and I hope that we will see a revival of a government program. I fervently hope it will not be necessitated by another depression, which of course is what started the WPA project. That was a relief measure primarily, not a cultural measure.

But irrespective of what brought it into being, and irrespective of the arguments against any government art program, and I think I’m familiar with all of the “anti” arguments, I find that this was an enormously productive period in American art. I think it actually brought into being and furthered the careers of many painters. The names of these artists are legion.”

Edward Biberman Revisited ran at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park in April of 2009. The Gallery is located at 4800 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027. On March 6, 2009 the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery Associates (LAMAGA) screened Jeff Kaufman’s 2006 documentary, Brush with Life: the Art of Being Edward Biberman. The film was followed by a talk with Jeff Kaufman, the film’s director, and Suzanne W. Zada, curator of Edward Biberman Revisited.

Spencer Jon Helfen: California Modernist Painting

Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts is tucked away on the second floor of a charming old building in Beverly Hills, and though most of those living in the city of Los Angeles have never heard of the gallery – it is one of L.A.’s treasures. The founder and director of the enterprise, Spencer Jon Helfen, has a passion for Modernist art of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s – and his gallery specializes in the California School of Modernism that flourished in the state prior to World War II. Helfen’s gallery is an oasis of sorts, a setting where one can contemplate the thought-provoking and beautifully crafted figurative realist paintings that were once so highly regarded by the art world. The Helfen is one of the few galleries in the U.S. to consistently mount large-scale exhibits of California modernist paintings on a regular basis.

I attended the public reception for the Helfen’s current exhibition, Gallery Selections of Important California Modernist Paintings & Sculpture, which presents the Helfen’s latest acquisitions of works from the likes of Mabel Alvarez, Victor Arnautoff, Claude Buck, Francis De Erdely, John Mottram, Koichi Nomiyama, Helen Clark Oldfield, Otis Oldfield, Edouard Vysekal, Bernard Zakheim, and many others. Students and aficionados of figurative realist painting would do well to carefully examine the lives and works of each and every artist in the show, in addition to working at cultivating a deeper understanding of the early California Modernist school. I have an especially strong interest in that movement, not because I am a native born Californian, but for the reason that the school was disposed towards social engagement in art.

In this article I will focus upon two of the forgotten giants of the California Modernist movement included in the Helfen exhibit – Victor Arnautoff and Francis De Erdely. Exemplars of figurative realism, craft, and humanist concerns in art, Arnautoff and De Erdely are ripe for rediscovery, especially by those who seek an alternative to the vortex of today’s postmodern art follies.

Oil painting by Victor Arnautoff

[ Woman in Yellow Fur – Victor Arnautoff. Oil on board. 1934. Click here for a larger view of this painting. ]

Arnautoff’s oil paintings at the Spencer Jon Helfen Gallery, are lavish in detail, stunningly rich in color, and filled with texture – they are jewel-like works of social realism created by a technical virtuoso who possessed complete mastery over his materials. Arnautoff had a great talent for capturing, not just the likeness of a person, but something of their essence, and for me two of his portraits in the show form a focal point of the exhibit. His Woman in Yellow Fur is a stunning close-up portrayal of a young woman who, one must assume, is well-to-do, since she is draped in fur and the date of the portrait, 1934, places her right in the middle of the Great Depression. Her fancy attire notwithstanding, there is a sympathetic air about the woman. Arnautoff’s brushstrokes are particularly forceful in this painting, which is unusual for him. He also incised the paint surface using the sharp end of his brush, brilliantly replicating the appearance of fur. His juxtaposition of the warm yellow ochres and burnt siennas of the figure against the backdrop of a cold and pale ultramarine blue, makes for one attention-grabbing portrait.

Similarly, Arnautoff’s The Green Dress, is also a stunning likeness, but in this work there is absolutely no ambiguity as to the class background of the sitter. The haughty imposing blond with a large strand of pearls around her neck is clearly bourgeois, and her confident, piercing gaze informs you that she is familiar with the wielding of power. A slightly raised eyebrow lets you know that you are being carefully evaluated, even across the barriers of space and time. Again, the light ochre background and warm flesh tones of the sitter juxtaposed against the brilliant cadmium green dress makes for a dramatic use of color. It is a marvelous painting, one that I could gaze upon endlessly. How could such a gifted artist be so easily forgotten and sidelined by the passage of time? Truth be told, Arnautoff was written out of history – for aesthetic and political reasons.

Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979) was born in Tsarist Russia and fought as a Cavalry Officer in the Tsarist Imperial Army, which I suppose would categorize him as a “White Russian”, or counter-revolutionary. Fearing persecution he fled the Soviet Union after the triumph of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, first going into exile in China where he would meet his future wife, and eventually making his way to Mexico, where he would undergo a remarkable transformation both artistically and politically. In the late 1920’s Arnautoff studied with and became an assistant to Diego Rivera in Mexico City, no doubt absorbing the master’s ideas regarding a resurgent muralist movement. Not since the Italian Renaissance had there been such a vital school of fresco mural painting as was to be found in Mexico during the 1930s. Rivera had studied the technique while traveling throughout Italy in 1920. Basically fresco involves painting on wet lime plaster with pigments mixed in water; once the moisture dries the color is fixed. Well-versed in the theory and practice of muralism, Arnautoff would make his real mark on the world when he came to settle in San Francisco, California, in the early 1930s.

Victor Arnautoff would help Diego Rivera paint two murals when the Mexican muralist first visited San Francisco from 1930-31; Allegory of California at the Pacific Stock Exchange, and Making of a Fresco located at the Art Institute of San Francisco. American artists in the San Francisco Bay area and beyond where electrified by Rivera’s murals and by the Mexican Muralist Movement in general, in which they perceived the possibilities of an equivalent muralist school for the United States. They would get their chance to initiate such a movement with the Coit Tower murals, which coincidentally were painted 75 years ago this month.

In 1933 Coit Tower was constructed atop Telegraph Hill as a city beautification project, immediately becoming a landmark attracting tourists. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first government program to employ artists as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), set out to create a series of monumental fresco paintings on the tower’s interior walls in 1934. The PWAP appointed Victor Arnautoff technical director for the mural project, and twenty-six artists were selected to design various artworks on the theme of “Aspects of California Life.” Ten assistants also facilitated the work, doing everything from mixing pigments to grouting fresh plaster.

The production of the Coit Tower murals converged with two dramatic events that turned the project into a lightning rod for controversy. Diego Rivera’s mural at New York City’s Rockefeller Center, Man at the Crossroads, was destroyed by order of John D. Rockefeller on February 10, 1934, because one small part of the mural included a portrait of communist leader Vladimir Lenin. Many of the artists working on the Coit Tower murals had met Rivera, and were naturally against the destruction of his mural.

Victor Arnautoff and his fellow muralists also supported San Francisco’s longshoremen, seaman, waterfront workers, teamsters, and municipal workers – who went on strike against low wages, long hours and terrible working conditions on May 9, 1934. On July 5, 1934, in an effort to defeat the strike, employers used strike breakers with police escorts to move goods from piers to warehouses – riots ensued, with the police shooting dead two strikers on what came to be called Bloody Thursday. Up to 40,000 people held a funeral march for the slain workers, an event Arnautoff memorialized in a drawing unrelated to the Coit murals. In the aftermath of the lethal police repression, the entire city of San Francisco was shut down in a great General Strike which lasted three days – it was the biggest labor action in U.S. history.

Arnautoff and a number of the other artists working on the Coit Tower murals felt it necessary to comment on these events – and so included certain images in their murals. For instance, in his mural titled Library, artist Bernard Zakheim depicted a group of men gathered in the periodicals room of a library, reading newspapers whose headlines referred to the destruction of Rivera’s mural as well as to the San Francisco maritime strike. Zakheim included a portrait of fellow Coit Tower muralist, John Langley Howard, reaching for a shelved copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Zakheim also included a self-portrait in his mural, showing himself reading a copy of the Torah in Hebrew, with other sacred books in Hebrew close at hand. No doubt the rampant anti-Semitism of the period contributed as much to attacks on the mural project as did anti-communism.

The press became indignant over the small amount of left-wing imagery found in the murals, the San Francisco Chronicle branding them “red propaganda”. As right-wing outrage over the murals intensified, the PWAP almost give in to conservative pressure, slating Zakheim’s mural, and a number of others, for whitewashing. The opening of Coit Tower for public viewing of the murals was delayed for months, and fortunately the controversy subsided. When the Tower was finally opened to the public only one mural had actually been censored, Steelworker, a portrait of a tough looking laborer by Clifford Wight. The artist had incorporated the slogan “Workers of the World Unite” into the portrait’s background – PWAP had the slogan obliterated.

Detail of fresco mural by Victor Arnautoff

[ City Life – Victor Arnautoff. Detail of fresco mural. 1934. In this detail from the artist’s expansive Coit Tower mural, Arnautoff pictured himself standing next to a newstand, where two radical publications were conspicuously painted; The New Masses – an American Marxist journal that featured writings from the likes of Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Ernest Hemingway, and The Daily Worker – the newspaper published by the American Communist Party (CPUSA). ]

Victor Arnautoff’s contribution to the Coit Tower mural series is titled, City Life (Click here for a YouTube video of the mural), a vibrant depiction of street life in San Francisco during the 1930s. As with most of the other works in the tower, City Life was a fresco mural painted on wet lime plaster – and it displays all of the qualities of a fine mural painting done in that technique. As much as I venerate Arnautoff’s fresco murals – and he painted a number of them, it is his oil paintings that I am truly passionate about, and those on view at the Helfen gallery are superlative examples of the modernist master’s power.

That the very first WPA project put artists to work creating monumental murals at Coit Tower speaks volumes about where America is today as a nation. Almost no one, not even professionals in the arts community, can imagine a colossal public art project being mounted at the present time – yet in my opinion such a project is more than feasible.

Painting by Francis De Erdely

[ Unjust Punishment – Francis De Erdely. Mixed media on illustration board. 1950. Click here for a larger view. ]

I have to admit knowing next to nothing about Francis De Erdely prior to attending the opening at Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts, but what an introduction I received! I am eternally grateful to Mr. Helfen, not only for bringing the commanding works of De Erdely to my attention – but also for placing his works before the general public.

A centerpiece of the show, De Erdely’s Unjust Punishment is a modernist tour de force, a masterwork that alludes to all the world’s suffering – while still being an allegorical statement against McCarthyism, the anti-communist witch-hunts that swept the U.S. during the 1950s. The mixed media painting on illustration board depicts two crucified men, and the work has all the appearance of a stained glass window. While the painting is clearly figurative in nature, it freely incorporates aspects of cubism and abstraction, an approach De Erdely increasingly adopted in the later half of his life. That fact notwithstanding, De Erdely still ended up persona non grata in an art world that was to become wholly given to pure non-objective abstraction. I am left wondering if the broken men on their crosses in part serve as a metaphor for the realist artist abandoned for the sake of the “next big thing” in a fickle art world.

Francis De Erdely (1904-1959) was born in Hungary in 1904, and grew up during the ravages of the first World War. In the aftermath of that conflagration his country moved ever rightward, until a homegrown fascist movement developed that would eventually ally Hungary to Nazi Germany. As a young artist De Erdely was on a collision course with the Hungarian right for having depicted the atrocities of World War I in his paintings and sketches. He was also evidently supportive of the Spanish Republic and its struggle against fascism, creating sketches that revealed his sympathies but further provoked Hungary’s right-wing. Under pressure from Nazi Germany, Hungary joined the Axis powers in 1940, and De Erdely was apparently banished from his homeland during that period. Ultimately he would make his way to the United States, living for a short time in New York before finally making the city of Los Angeles his home in 1944. De Erdely became the dean of the Pasadena Art Institute School from 1944 to 1946, and he taught at the University of Southern California from 1945 until he passed away in 1959.

Oil painting by Francis De Erdely

[ Oil painting by Francis De Erdely. Title unknown – circa late 1930s. While not in the Helfen exhibit, this painting of unemployed workers at a soup kitchen is a good example of the artist’s early social realism. ]

De Erdely’s early paintings were similar to Victor Arnautoff’s in that they were straightforward works of social observation. De Erdely was particularly fascinated with the underclass he discovered in Los Angeles, choosing them as his most consistently painted subject. He came to imbue his works with abstract sensibilities, but never abandoned his predilection for a humanist social realism. Daily Bread, his 1945 painting of a worker at rest, has an almost biblical quality about it, exemplifying the artist’s deep compassion for working people.

The works of Victor Arnautoff and Francis De Erdely make the Helfen show unusually rewarding, but then the entire exhibit is noteworthy. Arnautoff and De Erdely provide us with examples of a humanistic art at once accessible, anti-elitist, and given towards speaking clearly and directly to an audience. In all honesty, what I found so refreshing about the exhibit is that it gives insight into what figurative art was like before being contaminated by postmodernism. The paintings in the Helfen exhibit are devoid of irony, shock value, and vulgarity; they unabashedly pursue beauty and universality, and best of all – you do not need reams of mounted wall text to understand them. I am not at all saying that today’s artists should simply use the California Modernist school as a template to be replicated, but I do believe that a full understanding of and appreciation for California Modernism can serve as an important springboard for artists envisioning how art might advance into the 21st century.

Gallery Selections of Important California Modernist Paintings & Sculpture. Now running at Spencer Jon Helfen Fine Arts until March 28, 2009.