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THE MANY FACES OF ART IN `EXILES AND EMIGRES'.

Byline: Reed Johnson Daily News Staff Writer

In his 1948 novel ``Dr. Faustus,'' Thomas Mann assumes the voice of a writer trapped in Hitler's Berlin, observing as the Allied forces close in for the final kill. Guilt-racked over Nazi crimes, the writer-narrator emits a final anguished sob for his native Germany: ``God be merciful to thy poor soul, my friend, my Fatherland!''

Mann's personal plight wasn't quite so bleak. The Nobel Prize-winning author spent most of World War II not holed up in Berlin, but hunkered down in Pacific Palisades.

In addition to writing, he devoted himself to beachcombing, praising the oleander blooms and communing with the large colony of European artists and intellectuals who'd sought refuge amid the swaying California palms.

Like Mann, some of these transplants weren't sure whether they'd landed in paradise or purgatory. Their relief over the lush new surroundings was offset not only by survivor's guilt, but by the profound alienation they felt toward American culture and politics.

The ambivalence of escape hovers darkly over ``Exiles and Emigres,'' the hugely ambitious multimedia exhibition opening today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Intellectually scrappy and cleverly fragmented, this provocative show suggests that many European artists who fled the Third Reich forged Faustian pacts of one type or another.

And though only a few visual artists settled in Southern California, the exhibition evokes the many musicians, filmmakers and writers (including Mann) who did.

A bit of controversy

LACMA curator Stephanie Barron, who organized the show with Sabine Eckmann, has said that ``Exiles and Emigres'' isn't meant to be ``encyclopedic.'' Indeed, the 130 works represent just 23 artists (three of them Jewish, incidentally). There are a few notable omissions. Why, for instance, include the Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky, who spent the Nazi years in occupied France, but not the Spanish-born Pablo Picasso, who did likewise?

In the end it hardly matters, because the wealth of material assembled here - paintings, sculpture, photographs, letters, publications, walk-in models and a disturbing 15-minute film about Franklin Roosevelt's immigration policies - raises enough controversial themes to stock two or three exhibitions.

Though the story it tells is fractured and paradoxical, not linear, ``Exiles and Emigres'' does function as a kind of sequel to LACMA's 1991 exhibition, ``Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,'' which Barron also curated.

When the Nazis in 1937 began rounding up and destroying the work of artists deemed too modern, too socialistic or too ``un-Aryan,'' red flags went up in cafes and lofts across Europe. Many artists who hadn't already fled Germany caught the next train for Paris or Prague, both hothouses of Nazi resistance until they, too, were overrun by jackboots. Expressionist painter Max Beckmann and his wife left for Amsterdam the very day after the Nazi-sponsored ``Degenerate Art'' show opened in Munich.

By no means, however, were all these artists fleeing for their lives. Some, like the Austrian Oskar Kokoschka, simply were looking for a healthier art market. Others, like the French surrealist Andre Masson, left Europe belatedly and reluctantly, and lived as virtual recluses in their adopted homes.

The politics of art

What's fascinating is the range of responses to displacement, both politically and artistically.

Berlin-born John Heartfield, who settled first in Prague, then London, cranked out dozens of scathingly satiric anti-Nazi designs for pamphlets and book jackets. One of his montages depicted Hitler as a sword-wielding ape. Another showed Nazi Party leader Hermann Goering as a blood-splattered butcher.

Kokoschka, who also settled in London, produced a number of humorous, garishly colored paintings slamming not only the Nazi annexation of Austria but the appeasement policies of Western Europe and the moral lethargy of the Roman Catholic Church. Kokoschka also became president of the visual artists' wing of the newly launched Free German League of Culture.

Beckmann, though he generally avoided overt political commentary, produced a wealth of truly stunning allegorical paintings during his years in Amsterdam and New York. The personification of the artist as an urbane, detached observer, Beckmann reacted strongly to America. His late works, such as ``The Town (City Night)'' (1950), offer nightmarish visions of prostitutes and monkeylike creatures reveling in the urban low life.

Different strokes

Some artists traveled lighter, having jettisoned their political ideals (if they ever had any) at the German border. Kandinsky spent his final 11 years painting dreamlike abstractions in a Paris suburb under Vichy rule.

Yet, to its enormous credit, ``Exiles and Emigres'' doesn't divide itself into blandly reassuring categories of ``good'' (i.e. anti-Nazi) artists and ``bad'' (i.e. apolitical) ones. Instead, its curators continually question the idea of the artist as an autonomous creator, a paramount myth of the postwar abstract expressionist movement.

They also deflate the self-serving belief that it was New York's manifest destiny to usurp Paris as the postwar art capital. On the contrary, New York's ascension resulted from the active lobbying of Manhattan artists, critics and dealers, many of whom were eager to raise their own profiles.

As a group, the exiles were as likely to be seduced by America's vast expanses and fascinating urban rhythms as they were to be repelled by its juvenile pop culture and shop-till-you-drop materialism. German artists, having given up hope of ever returning to Hamburg or Berlin, adapted best to the strange New World. French artists, by contrast, tended to cling to their old identities. When they found they couldn't re-create a cafe society in Greenwich Village, many returned to the continent.

Designed by L.A. architect Frank O. Gehry, the exhibition uses simple materials to striking effect. Its two most arresting features are the 20-foot-long walk-in model of Peggy Guggenheim's ``Art of This Century Gallery'' and the chain metal curtain that encloses a section of the final gallery. Very subtly, the curtain emphasizes that this privileged group of male artists, for all its privations, was lucky to be on the right side of the line separating the drowned from the saved.

Alone in America

If ``Exiles and Emigres'' scrupulously avoids treating any artist as a hero, it can't resist casting one, George Grosz, as its chief tragic figure.

The scourge of the liberal, prewar Weimar Republic, Grosz immigrated to New York in 1933, determined to shed his Teutonic skin. He couldn't. The longer he stayed in America, the more despairing and irrational his images grew.

In one 1937 self-portrait, ``Remembering,'' Grosz painted himself huddling in a bombed-out building, his brow etched with anxiety, his blank eyes fixed on a world that no longer existed.

``Demoralized and forgotten,'' in his own words, Grosz finally returned to West Berlin, where he died in 1959. A man without a country, an artist without a spiritual passport, he had passed into the state of nihilistic uncertainty where our aging century wanders still.

THE FACTS

What: ``Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists From Hitler.''

Where: Through May 11 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Admission: $6 adults; $4 seniors and students 18 and older with ID; $1 children 5-17; children under 5 admitted free; free to all the second Wednesday of every month. For information, call (213) 857-6000.

Related events

Over the next few weeks, a host of events will take place in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's new exhibition, ``Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists From Hitler.''

Here are a few highlights of events at LACMA:

Friday, 7:30 p.m.:

Images From the New Century

A screening of four silent movies depicting immigrants' encounters with America, and vice versa, with live musical accompaniment by Robert Israel. Included: ``A Child of the Ghetto'' (1910), directed by D.W. Griffith; ``The Immigrant'' (1917), directed by Charles Chaplin; ``My Wife's Relations'' (1922), directed by Buster Keaton; ``The Italian'' (1915), directed by Reginald Barker. Call (213) 857-6010.

March 5, 8 p.m.:

The Angeles String Quartet performs music by emigre film composers Erich Korngold and Miklos Rosza. Call (213) 857-6010.

March 7, 6:30 p.m.; March 8, 7 p.m.:

Cabaret: Hochste Eisenbahn

A performance of traditional German political cabaret from the era of the Weimar Republic, later banned by the Nazis. Call (213) 857-6101.

March 14, 7:30 p.m.:

When Cultures Collide

Screenings of ``The Wedding Banquet'' (1993), directed by Ang Lee; and ``Mississippi Masala'' (1992), directed by Mira Nair.

CAPTION(S):

8 Photos, Box

Photo: (1--Color) ``Cain or Hitler in Hell'' (1945) by George Grosz. The German artist didn't take too well to America and eventually returned to West Berlin.

(2--Color) ``Anschluss (Alice in Wonderland)'' (1942) by Oskar Kokoschka, an Austrian who settled in London.

(3--Color) ``Leaf Study IV'' (circa 1940), a collage on leaves and paper by German artist Josef Albers.

(4--Color) ``Napoleon in the Wilderness'' (1941), an oil painting by German artist Max Ernst.

(5--Color) ``The German Soldier (Le Reitre)'' (1941) by French surrealist Andre Masson.

(6--Color) ``Tempered Elan'' (1944) by Russian Wassily Kandinsky, who spent the war in occupied France.

(7) Ludwig Mies van der Rohe paid tribute to Chicago with ``860-880 North Lake Shore Drive From the West'' (1951).

(8) ``Exiles and Emigres'' includes this photo taken by George Platt Lynes on the occasion of the 1942 ``Artists in Exile'' exhibition in New York. Clockwise from left are Matta, Andre Breton, Piet Mondrian, Andre Masson, Amedee Ozenfant, Jacques Lipchitz, Pavel Tchelitchev, Kurt Seligmann, Eugene Berman, Ferdinand Leger, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and Ossip Zadkine.

Box: Related events (See Text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 24, 1997
Words:1603
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