Images of the human body reveal a great deal about the cultures that produce them. Whether fashion ads, state portraits, news photos, or works of visual art, they will always mirror, to some degree, the social and political conditions under which they were made. If an image is provocative—that is, if it strays into forbidden territory, or makes explicit something that we don’t wish to acknowledge or confront—it will spark debate and may even stimulate change. On the other hand, affirmative and celebratory pictures can bring people together and bolster our sense of community. This is how figurative images can be said to be “political”—though they are pictures of individual bodies, they stand for a larger truth about us all. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a cigar is more than just a cigar.
This theme provides the structure for the exhibition Body Politics: Figurative Prints and Drawings from Schiele to de Kooning, which focuses on the first half of the 20th century. During that time, the Western world was wracked by revolution, economic depression, labor struggles, and wars. Conventions governing gender roles collapsed as women gained the vote and entered the work force. Urban centers expanded at breakneck speed, racial strife percolated, colonizing nations retreated. By the time World War II had ended, massive change was underway in almost every realm of social, political, and private life. Artists of the period used the figure to deplore violence, war, poverty, and racism, or to express an upbeat optimism about the possibilities of the new century. Polemical, heartrending, or heartfelt, these historical works seem newly relevant, particularly at a moment when contemporary artists have returned to the figure as a means to comment on the world we inhabit today. As I visited collections looking for works for the show, a few themes suggested themselves and began to guide my choices. Austrian painter Egon Schiele became a cornerstone of the exhibition, in part because his work can be seen as an emblem for our cultural anxiety about sex. Schiele himself was convicted of “public immorality” in 1912 and briefly imprisoned; his habit of hiring neighborhood children as models had aroused fear in the rural village where he lived, but the edgy, moist eroticism of his drawings and watercolors was also at issue. His images are still challenging, as are other works in this section of the exhibition, including a graphic chronicle by self-taught recluse Henry Darger about the adventures of an army of young girls. These works reveal as much about the societies in which they were made as they do about the artists’ private appetites, and they remind us that the struggle between public and private spheres for control over sexual behaviors and expression is still very much alive.
The exhibition includes several works by Willem de Kooning, in whose hands the female figure becomes an archetype—a squat, large-breasted, snarling Earth mother with arms akimbo or legs spread wide. His Women belong to a larger category of exoticized Others that encompasses German Expressionist fantasies about “the primitive” as well as Joseph Beuys’ attenuated, ethereal girls. Somehow, it isn’t surprising that we have to turn to a female artist for an unromanticized view of the feminine. Isabel Bishop, an exact contemporary of de Kooning and associated with the American Scene group of painters, depicted the shop girls and secretaries she observed around New York’s Union Square, where she maintained a studio for many years. Bishop’s work celebrates the vitality of the city and the everyday adventures of working women during the 1940s and 1950s—subway rides, soda fountains, and double dates. The special energy of New York City is also the subject of works in the exhibition by Reginald Marsh and German satirist George Grosz, who had a lifelong fascination with the United States.
Politicians and zealots have long understood the power of pictures to influence and incite, but many artists have also used images this way, especially in times of war or other misery. In a letter written in 1945, Pablo Picasso passionately asserted his feelings about art’s engagement with life: “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he’s a painter, or ears if he’s a musician… ? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate, or pleasing events in the world… . No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”
For every generation, the identity of “the enemy” will change, but artists will undoubtedly continue to respond with anger and compassion to world events. For this exhibition, I chose Picasso’s etching Weeping Woman (1937), one of the dozens of objects he made in response to the firebombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. His extraordinary achievement in this print is the combination of revolutionary modernist form with intense emotion. Other works in the show are more traditional but no less powerful. James B. Turnbull, a WPA muralist and Regionalist who had ties to the artistic political left, documented the plight of sharecroppers during the Dust Bowl years of the Depression. Breastfeeding (1939) is an updated pietà in which a starving woman tries to nurse an emaciated infant in a desolate room furnished with only an iron bedstead. Infused with melodrama and pathos, Turnbull’s painting is also a cry of protest and a call to action. It is hard to ignore. As Picasso demanded accusingly, “By virtue of what cold nonchalance can you detach yourself?”
—Joan Rothfuss, guest exhibition curator and former Walker permanent collection curator
Willem de Kooning
José Clemente Orozco
James B. Turnbull