If there’s some bad news for art lovers who haven’t been to London recently, it’s that there’s less than a month left to see the Arshile Gorky retrospective at Tate Modern. The good news is that there are seven weeks left to see its partner exhbition, Van Doesberg & the International Avant-Garde.
The Gorky exhibition is the smaller of the two but provides a fascinating overview of an artist’s development. The first room features paintings that show the influence of Gorky’s masters. A still life of fruit looks so much like a facsimile Cezanne that you have to check the painting for a signature to be sure it’s Gorky. Yet the brushstrokes of a still life with skull already hint at the abstract direction his later work would take, and the skull itself hints at the concerns that would resurface throughout his career.
His style soon became more abstract, floating somewhere between the surrealism of Miro and the expressionism of Kandinsky. The paint here is lacquered thickly onto the canvas, fruit of countless reworkings and applications of paint. This is exciting art. Even when he was commissioned by the New Deal government to produce murals for Newark airport, his designs (reproduced here) were radical and ahead of their time, a world away from the corporate schlock that might have been expected.
There is a definite change in tone in the exhibition’s chronology in a room devoted to two paintings Gorky executed of himself and his mother. His mother had died from starvation before Gorky and his sister fled Armenia for the USA, but Gorky discovered a photograph of the two of them. Gorky stands and his mother sits in both paintings. The palette is different, with one washed out pinks and greys, and the other blues and reds. But in both paintings the mother stares out with haunting eyes, painfully eloquent of the suffering she’s witnessed.
Following this room, we see Gorky’s later career, which forms a bridge to the 1950s heyday of Abstract Expressionism. His palette grows broader and warmer, and the forms of his paintings move from rigid geometry to softer, more organic shapes. But this maturity in style coincided with personal tragedy that involved cancer diagnosis and debilitating treatment, a fire in his studio, and finally a car crash that prevented him from painting. It proved too much. Gorky’s final works were left unfinished. You leave the exhibition only able to imagine what other rooms he could have filled had he not committed suicide.
Where the Gorky exhibition may leave one wanting more, the Van Doesberg & the International Avant-Garde exhibition presents the viewer with an enormous feast that most gallery goers will struggle to consume over one sitting. Ostensibly, it fills only eleven rooms, but when three of those rooms are split into A and B sections, it’s closer to fourteen, and it feels like it. It’s the first time I’ve ever been to an exhibition and wished there was, perhaps, a little less. But then, what there is is so good, it’s hard to blame the curators for pulling together so much.
Theo Van Doesberg was a Dutch contemporary of Mondrian, and editor of the art journal De stijl, which gave its name to the movement familiar from abstract canvases made of blocks of colour and clean, geometrical lines. Yet just as recent artistic hagiography has come to question whether or not De stijl was actually a movement, this exhibition, focussed on Van Doesberg, but catholically embracing various other artists, does much to suggest that the artists involved in De stijl were capable of more than simple abstract canvases. As well as the familiar canvases, there are also examples of furniture, architecture, stained glass, music, film, posters, advertisements, typography, photography and, intriguingly, Dadaist works (Van Doesberg used the pseudonym IK Bonset for these).
This is effectively an exhibition where room after room feels like it could be amplified to an exhibition itself (for example, the typography section is reminiscent of the recent British Library exhibition Breaking the rules). One moment you wonder whether or not furniture could ever realistically have worked on the angular lines proposed here, and the next you’re wondering what modern cinema would look like if directors had followed the model of George Antheil’s Le Ballet Mécanique.
There are, as in any exhibition, numerous standout pieces. I was particularly enthralled by the canvases, the photo montage pieces, and the stained glass, the latter of which made me wish for some magical postcard technology that could transport them to my wall complete with light. But the other works here never feel like padding. Even something as small as a visiting card is worthy of attention because of the work and thought that has gone into it.
With its inclusion of the Bauhaus, where van Doesberg taught, and Dada, the exhibition moves away from a narrow Dutch focus and becomes much more about the European avant-garde. The artists here may never have suffered the manic delusions of the Futurists, but there is an overwhelming sense that they approached the interwar years with an enthusiastic belief that art could still change and improve society. Their hopes were defeated by the reappearance of war. Van Doesberg had died by the end of World War II, so never saw the shift of art’s centre of power to the US and its complex marriage with the demands of capital. Yet one nevertheless leaves the exhibition feeling excited, infected by the belief that art might still have a transformative power, capable of changing the world for the better. And this alone is more than worth the stamina the exhibition requires.