LAGUNA BEACH — "I'm always interested in words that become cliches," Romanian-born art curator Josine Ianco-Starrels remarked at the outset of her Thursday morning talk at the Laguna Art Museum.
"There are epidemics in the use of words, just as there are epidemics in illnesses and art styles. When I first came to this country, everyone suffered from hypoglycemia. Then they suffered from Barr-Epstein (syndrome). Now there is multiculturalism. "
Widely recognized as the nurturing "earth mother" of the Southern California art world 30 years after she left New York for Los Angeles, Ianco-Starrels is perhaps best known for her tenure as gallery director of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park from 1975 to 1987. After two years as senior curator at the Long Beach Museum of Art, she began devoting time to independent projects, including a stint last year with the Los Angeles Festival.
It's not that Ianco-Starrels is casting aspersions on the buzzword that refers to fruitful interchanges between people from different cultures. Quite the contrary. But she wants to remind people that \o7 multiculturalism \f7 wasn't born yesterday. In fact, it has quite a long and distinguished past.
Territorial expansion and conquest in Africa, Asia and the New World reached their peak after the Industrial Revolution, she explained. New markets were sought for raw materials from the colonies. As a result, 19th-Century Europeans came into contact with artifacts from remote parts of the world. To take a familiar example, a shipload of porcelain made for the export market might be packed in Japanese woodblock prints.
World fairs, another 19th-Century mania, also brought people into contact with objects from around the globe.
"They were not terribly different from the Los Angeles Art Fair," Ianco-Starrels added in one of her irrepressible asides. "You go to see art hung in such profusion that you can't see art anymore. It becomes merchandise."
Meanwhile, "the creative spirit in the (19th-Century European) artistic community was strangled by the bureaucracy of the academy," she said. "Sapped of vitality, art was renewed by blood transfusions as a result of encounters with the enormous strength of the art of other cultures."
The development of modern art owes "a great debt to the fusion" of Western and other cultures. "Artists were inspired by visions foreign to them. They inhaled, consumed, digested (these visions)--and out came a different vision: an amalgam of Western tradition and the enormous range of possibilities from these other cultures."
This idea is not new, of course, but Ianco-Starrels' audience gasped audibly to see some of her side-by-side comparisons of the way well-known 19th- and 20th-Century Western artists made direct use of motifs in Japanese prints and objects from African, American Indian and Oceanic cultures.
Sometimes the attempt to mingle European and non-European culture was "superficial," she said, as in Claude Monet's portrait of his wife wearing a kimono and twisting her body in imitation of a Japanese print. But his compatriot, Paul Gauguin, made art "much more filled with the spirit" of Tahiti, where he lived in the 1890s and died in 1903. Ianco-Starrels said his painting "Yellow Christ" (a Crucifixion with a yellow-skinned Jesus) reflects "deep thought" about "the passport of God"--in other words, whether God is necessarily a white European.
A slew of slide comparisons followed. A passage of Egyptian cuneiform writing looked remarkably similar to the rows of geometric markings in a painting by the Russian abstract pioneer Wassily Kandinsky. A long-faced Fong mask of a male head with pronounced eyebrows, from Gabon in West-Central Africa, bore a strong similarity to 20th-Century Italian painter Carlo Carra's sketch of a poet named Russolo.
In some cases, the sources of artists' borrowings can be traced with some degree of assurance--if the non-Western works are in the collection of a natural history, ethnographic or art museum, the artist probably would have visited or if the artist had a personal collection of non-Western work (Picasso, for example, owned African sculpture).
The distinctive pattern of concentric lines on a Luba mask from the central African country of Zaire--in the collection of the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland--reappeared in a work that American artist Alexander Calder called "Moonlight in a Gust of Wind." German Expressionist Emil Nolde borrowed the toothy, string-bean figure of a Korean statue of a foreign missionary, in the collection of a museum in Munich, for a painting called "The Missionary."
After showing several slides of Nolde's work, Ianco-Starrels remarked dryly, "you can see Nolde went to the museum a lot. He must have been a member."