Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 17, 2020
Jenny Anger Four Metaphors of Modernism: From Der Sturm to the Société Anonyme Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 320 pp.; 87 color ills.; 12 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (9781517903213)

Following up on her 2004 book on Paul Klee and the decorative in modern art (Cambridge University Press), Jenny Anger’s latest volume recounts the history of Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm (1910–32), a Berlin-based cultural venture bringing together art, performance, theater, periodical publishing, teaching, and bookselling, thus continuing her exploration of an expansive notion of modernism that works against essentializing conceptions of the different arts. Simultaneously, the volume looks across the Atlantic to tell the story of the Société Anonyme (1920–50), an undertaking by Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray that was modeled on Der Sturm. One of the book’s contributions to the historical record is thus the detailed retracing of the institutional relationship between two pivotal projects, which brought the European avant-garde to American audiences.

These entangled histories prompt the author to describe a larger network of artists, institutions, and events that were part of European modernism between 1900 and 1950. The modernism that emerges from this richly sourced account is characterized by multiple media and art forms engaged with each other in various and interconnected ways. This networked and relational modernism, as presented by Anger, is powerfully inhabited by what Michael Fried has called, derogatorily and using gendered language, a “corrupt sensibility” (as cited by Christa Noel Robbins, “The Sensibility of Michael Fried,” Criticism 60, no. 4 [Fall 2018], 429–54). In the words of Anger: “The successful Gesamtkunstwerk [total work of art] may require a relinquishment of traditionally masculine autonomy. One cannot objectify women but must submit at least temporarily to the greater flow, a submission historically constructed as feminine” (199).

Indeed, Four Metaphors of Modernism underlines Anger’s position as a leading scholar of gender and modernism, since one of the book’s most pertinent aspects is the place accorded to the roles women occupied in these developments. The book’s revisitation to episodes or figures of modernism reveals aspects that previous accounts have too easily discarded, not least because scholars did not look closely enough at the archival record or, indeed, at the works of art themselves. The detailed discoveries of the book speak to the ongoing need in scholarship for a decidedly feminist revisionism.

Anger uses metaphor as a lens through which to look at modern art, picking up on the language of Walden and his circle. In 1917 Walden declared that “art is no comparison; art is metaphor” (12). Anger’s study takes Walden’s call that we must “learn to see again” seriously, by reverse engineering the four metaphors (in German: Gleichnis) that she concentrates on, and which give the four “acts” (chapters) their titles: piano, glass, water, and home. The resulting text operates additively and by juxtaposition, at times jumping from one episode to the other.

The introduction, “Overture,” and act 1, “Piano,” introduce Walden and his first wife, Else Lasker-Schüler. She cohosted and co-organized the activities of Der Sturm, a role taken over in 1912 by Walden’s second wife, Nell (née Roslund). The gallery hosted performance evenings, which Walden, a gifted pianist, usually opened with a short recital. Walden’s intimate relationship to the piano becomes the springboard for Anger’s explorations of Wassily Kandinsky’s musically inspired paintings and Kurt Schwitters’s “Merz” collages. The case of the latter shows how the reverse engineering operates by leaps of faith on the part of the reader, which can be more or less plausible: “Collage was not new as of 1919, but Walden’s tradition of combining found objects, be they poems for which he would compose Lieder or exhibitions of paintings, to produce a whole larger than the sum of its parts, seems intimately connected to the generation of Merz” (66). The chapter concludes with Dreier and Duchamp’s relationship, by way of photographs taken of Duchamp’s Small Glass (1918) positioned on Dreier’s piano, as well as an analysis of the piano featured in an installation shot of Duchamp’s 1942 exhibition First Papers of Surrealism, featuring not only Sixteen Miles of String crisscrossing the room but also a reversely placed and shut piano that Anger takes as an invitation to the viewer to imagine being the performer.

Act 2, “Water,” moves on from the intimate, “intersubjective aesthetics” associated with the piano to a metaphor that “facilitated more fantastic merging” (77). Anger finds a conceptual equivalent in a neologism coined by Alfred Döblin, Beziehlichkeit. Based on this notion of relationality, the chapter investigates water and music, from Richard Wagner to Lasker-Schüler’s lyricism, moving on to a discussion of water in futurist painting, then to the “analogues of experience” (111) in Gabriele Münter’s paintings, especially as they relate to Kandinsky, and lastly across the ocean to the position of modern plumbing in Duchamp and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s God (1917), a sculptural collage of pieces of plumbing that subverts the male surface and penetration anxieties that emerge as a thread in the chapter.

Act 3, “Glass,” complicates the notion of transparency and the idea that glass might offer complete transcendence. Instead, Anger traces glass as something that is “noticeable in some way,” aiming to “capture the magic of glass” (123). Following Paul Ricoeur, who posited that a successful metaphor “requires the recipient’s leap from ‘cognitive incongruence’ to ‘metaphorical congruence’” (124), Anger looks at elements that might produce such “cognitive incongruence”: color, translucence, or opacity. Arguing for an early twentieth-century “ideal of non-transparency,” Anger first investigates Bruno Taut’s 1914 Glashaus and declares that it should be considered a perfect example of a Gesamtkunstwerk, as it fulfills an aesthetic, metaphysical, and political purpose: it “materialized a radical utopian vision to improve humankind” (141). Anger then considers the paintings of Sonia and Robert Delaunay, prominently displayed in Walden’s First German Autumn Salon in the fall of 1913, to conclude that their “opacity leads us forward and backward in time to a simultaneously multilayered and clear vision of a world and a life of collaborative production” (152). The last two sections of the chapter first consider works by August Macke, Jacoba van Heemskerck, and László Moholy-Nagy, and turn then to Schwitters’s Merzbau and Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915–23).

“Home,” the book’s last act, focuses on the “‘feminine’ possibilities” of modernity. Against the critical view of “a feminist nostalgia for prelapsarian bliss, with which home is associated,” Anger develops a positive notion of nostalgia, in which “the embrace of the domestic ‘oceanic feeling’ made it conducive to the production of the ‘feminine’ and to the enhancement of women’s opportunities in the arts” (193). In Walden’s writings, Anger finds “an aesthetic of pleasurable, domestic merging” (197), while in Adolf Loos’s Villa Müller in Prague (1928–30), she makes out “an infinite shifting between positions (subject and object, etc.), rather than a merging of them” (203). At this point, Anger returns to the Waldens’ apartment, which also displayed their art collection: “Modernity was not, as some Futurists may have believed, all airplanes and fast cars: it was also an arrangement of objects and textures on the sofa” (208). The chapter ends with a consideration of the domesticity of exhibition spaces of modern art in New York: first the apartment-like space that the Société Anonyme occupied between 1920 and 1924; then the Société’s International Exhibition of Modern Art in Brooklyn in 1926, including four domestic “rooms”; and lastly Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century (1942–47), a gallery designed by Frederick Kiesler, which appears in Anger’s account not as the regressive, Freudian space that critics such as T. J. Demos have described but rather as a more complex system of rooms opening onto each other with partial views, inviting the viewer to actively shape their experience of them. The book’s conclusion revisits Jackson Pollock in the process of painting, which serves as Gleichnis for the book as a whole, whose catalog of relationalities underpinning modern art argues for a perspective that is shaped by a profound sense of the imbrication of art and life, of subject and environment.

While the book’s quasi-anthropological approach seems expansive enough to be applicable to modern art outside the study’s purview, one of the book’s limitations is its bourgeois and heterosexual outlook. It could have been interesting to consider the role of metaphor beyond these confines, given its apparent mobilization to negotiate gender and sexual identities. Similarly, I would have liked to see Der Sturm more systematically explored through its eponymous periodical and the aesthetic and metaphorical possibilities it offered. Thirdly, Anger’s dating of the Merzbau (as 1919–37) goes against the commonly accepted dating (1923–37), but also, and crucially, against the dating (1930–37) established by Schwitters scholars cited by Anger, such as Megan R. Luke in Kurt Schwitters: Space, Image, Exile (University of Chicago Press, 2014) or Gwendolen Webster’s 2007 dissertation on the Merzbau. Anger’s dating of the Merzbau is so expansive that it becomes meaningless in regard to the work of charting historically and conceptually precise instantiations of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Similar to the leaps of faith asked of the viewer in regard to metaphor, the fuzziness evinced raises questions about the book’s methodology.

These caveats notwithstanding, Anger’s Four Metaphors of Modernism is a bold account of two of modernism’s important endeavors. Bringing to bear new archival materials and an acute sense of the lacunae in the historical record, this study offers a rich account of the entanglements of modern art. It works against the “exclusion of the anecdotal” and for an inclusive multiplicity (Robbins, 431). By highlighting the intimacies at the heart of modernist art and by homing in on traces of domesticity and the everyday in artworks and their presentation, Anger reminds us that art, for all its transcendental aspirations, also always negotiates the stuff of life itself.

[Editorial Note: The author of the book under review, Jenny Anger, began her term as Field Editor for Theory and Historiography after the commissioning of this review. She was not involved in its editorial process.]

Max Koss