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ART REVIEW

They proselytized for the avant-garde

The Hammer's exciting show looks back at some forward thinkers.

April 25, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

IN the current exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum there is a marvelous 1924 painting by Heinrich Campendonk that shows a woodcarver at work in his studio. Wide-eyed, his face flushed crimson, he's deeply absorbed in the mysterious act of creation.

As the long blade of the woodcarver's tool suggestively probes the void formed between the left thumb and fingers of the doll-like female figure on his worktable, creation assumes a delirious, psychosexual intensity. Faceted planes of sophisticated Cubist painting fracture the space of the studio, merging with the studied primitivism of Russian or Eastern European folk art. This loosely Cubo-Futurist style is executed in an Expressionist palette that infuses the scene with bright, enameled colors.

"The Woodcarver" is the best Campendonk I've ever seen. Of course, I only recall seeing six paintings by the relatively obscure Bavarian artist, who participated with Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky in the famous Blue Rider group in Munich and who, after Hitler came to power in 1933, fled Germany for the Netherlands. (He died there at 68 in 1957.) In fact, all six of them are in the Hammer's exhibition, "The Societe Anonyme: Modernism for America."

The show was organized by the Yale University Art Gallery, where the celebrated Societe Anonyme collection has been housed since 1941, and is now inaugurating a three-year national tour. "The Woodcarver" hangs alongside exceptional works by Campendonk's illustrious friend, Kandinsky, as well as a couple of hundred more works by 103 other European and American artists. The galleries are chockablock full.

If you've never heard of Campendonk, you will have plenty of company. But his relative obscurity is central to the show's theme, which is built around an idea of an international community of artists. The show pointedly plays against our celebrity-driven culture.

Among the other artists are household names -- Brancusi, Dove, Duchamp, Van Gogh, Klee, El Lissitzky, Man Ray, Mondrian, Schwitters and many more. Yet also among them are dozens whose names are likely to be as unfamiliar to most visitors as Campendonk's.

The Belgian painter Marthe Donas brought undulating, organic rhythm to the more crystalline conventions of Cubist still-life. Bela Kadar trained as a locksmith, but a visit to Paris from Budapest sent him on a successful path as a limpid painter of dreamy, folk-inspired narratives -- until his inclusion in Hitler's notorious 1937 exhibition, "Degenerate Art," rolled back the avant-garde and wrecked his life.

Finnur Jonsson was a fisherman in his native Iceland, but a visit to Dresden and an encounter with the Austrian Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka led to exhibitions of decorative Cubist paintings with rich surfaces in lapis blue and shimmering gold. John Covert became a committed Realist painter after studying in Munich, but when he returned to the United States he encountered work by the international avant-garde through his cousins, legendary collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg. Soon he was making provocative, Cubist-inspired abstractions whose mechanistic structure was enhanced by the addition of sisal rope and wooden dowels painted metallic colors.

Now, it's true that none of these more unfamiliar artists, from Campendonk to Covert, ever painted anything remotely as exhilarating as Joan Miro's 1924 "Somersault." That dusty, earth-toned canvas, just over 3 feet tall, tips a horizontal landscape on its side, sending a horse and buggy and a mustachioed man with a pipe and newspaper tumbling through space. Noises of delight -- hoo! ah!! -- spelled out in thin letters float past them on the canvas. With magical, unprecedented pictures like this, Miro virtually invented the abstract world of ungrounded, fluid space that would later dominate Modern art.

But it's also true that, as individual pictures, both Campendonk's "The Woodcarver" and Covert's 1919 "Brass Band" are more resolved and satisfying than the awkward, even rather ugly late portrait of a young woman posed next to a gummy floral arbor by no less a Modernist genius than Van Gogh. One message this show sends is that, while history may indeed be sprinkled with artists of outsized talent and momentous significance, they always blossom within richly populated fields of artistic activity. "The Societe Anonyme" is a celebration of the fact, and a chronicle of artists' efforts to spread the word from Europe to the United States after World War I.

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