this issue contains
>> Interview: William Kentridge
>> The Legend of Two Islands: Pierre Huyghe
>> Game with Reality: Art and Theater
>> On Stage: Art, Space and Orchestration

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Game with Reality:
Art, the world, and the floorboards that mean the world

At the onset of modernism, art freed itself from 19th-century traditional illusionist theater. The stage was now free for artists’ subjective perceptions, who went on to stage themselves and the world in newer and ever more revolutionary forms. An excursus by Andreas Schlaegel.

Pablo Picasso, Stage Curtain for the Ballet "Parade", 1917
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005

In the end, it was the horse. Up until that point, the audience was still able to bear Jean Cocteau’s drama Parade with the famous Diaghilev Ballet Eric Satie’s music accentuated by the pounding sound of typewriters and clinking bottles, sirens and revolver shots. But Pablo Picasso’s slapdash horse costume, in which two actors were hidden, proved to be too much for the Parisian public. The 1917 performance unleashed a veritable scandal: barkers who looked like Cubist paintings on stilts luring the public as though to a circus attraction, followed by actors playing small girls, imitating Charlie Chaplin and dancing ragtime.

Pablo Picasso/ Character from
Parade by Jean Cocteau and Eric Satie,
Decor and Costumes by Pablo Picasso, Paris, Mai/ May 1917, (c)VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005

Although Picasso, the horse’s creator, was responsible for the immediate offense, he was spared in contrast to his collaborators. Cocteau and Satie were charged with "cultural anarchy" for the performance, and Satie was actually locked up for eight days. What was it that incensed the public and the state to such an extent as to throw a composer into prison for his music? The cause for the indignation is easy to explain. In those days, people were used to theater performances in keeping with 19th-century art that produced illusionist scenarios and portrayed events, feelings, and historical details as realistically and as close to nature as possible. This bourgeois expectation was carried out ad absurdum.

Max Beckmann, Der Ausrufer (Self Portait Circus), 1921 Deutsche Bank Collection (c)VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005 Max Beckmann, Circus, from "Tag und Traum", 1946 Deutsche Bank Collection (c)VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005

Parade, however, was not merely a radical departure of the avant-garde from the traditional art forms of the 19th century. The strategy of freeing art from illusionist theater and penetrating into the authenticity of the true and genuine – this repetitive playing out of modernism’s various possibilities led to what has since become the self- evident fact of the artist’s original, subjective perception: "Circus Beckmann" can be read in clumsy letters on Max Beckmann’s self-portrait The Market Crier (Self-Portrait at the Circus) from 1921. Beckmann himself appears as a sad clown in the arena of the Weimar Republic, a bohemian grown tired, listlessly calling out the coming attractions of his own Varieté. "Art serves knowledge, not entertainment, transfiguration, or play. Searching for oneself is the eternal and inevitable path that we must take," as he said in a lecture held in 1938 in the New Burlington Galleries while in exile in London. When Beckmann stylized himself as a caricature of a clown, it was an artistic strategy of self-determination to join in forming the historical reality that he as an artist – whether in Weimar or as an émigré throughout the Nazi era – was at the mercy of. Through his pose and his masquerade, the artist provides the key for deciphering his drama, his theater of the self in which limitations are invalid.

Jonathan Meese, General Tanz - Drei Streifen für ein Halleluja, 2005
Photo: Andrea Stappert, Courtesy Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin

Thus, today’s artist can stylize himself after the bad guy bent on world rule from the first James Bond film, as Jonathan Meese recently did in his exhibition at the Berlin gallery Contemporary Fine Arts. Or, like John Bock, explain his economic and aesthetic theories in excessive and idiosyncratic lectures aided by improvised sculptural props and elaborately costumed actors, as he recently did at Hamburger Bahnhof on the occasion of the exhibition for the Nationalgalerie Prize for Young Art 2005.

Jürgen Klauke, Eine Ewigkeit, ein Lächeln, 1973
Deutsche Bank Collection, (c)VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005

Or the artist can stylize himself as a sex god, and like Jürgen Klauke’s androgynous hermaphrodite – half Gustav Gründgens’ diabolical Mephistopheles and half glam-rock bird of paradise – subvert socially normed roles and gender identities. Adorned in jewelry and made up with a white face, garish red mouth, and artificial fur collar, the artist stages himself for his image series An Eternity, A Smile (1973) as a hysterically grimacing model, thereby blurring the boundaries between subject and object. In the apparently neutral space of a professional photo studio, the classical role of the male subject as artist/photographer and the female object as model and projection for male fantasies are called into question. Jürgen Klauke’s carnivalesque and sometimes aggressive, gaudy extroversion contrasts with comparable artistic positions such as that of Pierre Molinier, whose small black and white photographs immortalized his lonely, existential, but also explicitly autoerotic games occurring primarily in the privacy of his own four walls. In their efforts to transgress their own boundaries, both artists painfully hit up against the fundamental questions of human existence: life and death, beauty and eternity.

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