As part of our 2014: Year in Review features, we look back to a year-ending column that ARTnews editor Alfred M. Frankfurter penned 75 years ago, in 1939, as war swept Europe. Among Frankfurter’s highlights are two MoMA acquisitions: Picasso’s landmark Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s Kneeling Woman (1911), which he notes that MoMA acquired after a German museum was forced to deaccession it as “degenerate art.” The full piece follows below.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
“The Year in Art: A Review of 1939”
By Alfred M. Frankfurter
To survey 1939 exclusively in terms of art seems almost immoral on first thought as the aspect all artistic life takes on beside the overpoweringly imperative struggle for civilization which has occupied the forefront of every cultivated mind in the last four months. Yet exactly such an occasion as these habitual year-end appraisals prompts the reflective deliberation that this fear belongs to a false psychology of the moment, that in fact art is an indispensable integral of civilization which is now at stake. Just a year ago, in these same columns, we wrote, with the shadow of actual Armageddon prophetically cast before: “The spectacle of a world about to destroy itself, of a civilization at the mercy of destructive forces from within, forms a prospect at once so terrifying and so aggressive that is no wonder that a deeply interested audience for artistic problems is hard to find.” The conclusions which followed seem, in light of today and of all the violence of history of the past year, still so trenchantly applicable that we beg leave to reprint them here, with apologies for repetition:
“…it narrows down to the old chestnut about fiddling while Rome burned. Subtracting from the parable the unattractive personality of Nero, the fact remains that, after all, it is far better to fiddle if one can do nothing about the fire. And today the conflagration threatens so wide an area, burns so rapidly and dangerously that once begun it must ultimately extinguish its extinguishers. Under these circumstances the sound of a Bach chaconne or the view of a Piero della Francesca can but make cremation a little more agreeable.
“Both, however, have a more vital function as well. They constitute the incentive worth fighting for, the symbol of the higher life which is embodied in no maudlin concept of democracy or socialism, in no theatrical fanfare of fascism or communism, but in the reasoned philosophy—of the superiority of the excellent in the human—without which art perishes.
“Fiddle, then, we must—if vainly, for its own sake; if purposefully, to encourage our own survival.”
Others must have felt as we, for it is a special joy to report at this crucial year-end that there has been a good deal of what might be called, at worst, fiddling at the pyre or, at best, a richer cultural life to sustain the best in man and to nourish it for the future. The American art record for 1939 is surely the fullest in its history, led inevitably by the popularization of art accomplished at the two World’s Fairs of last summer, in New York and San Francisco, whose art exhibitions attracted more than a million and a half visitors. At the same time we have witnessed the almost unbelievable phenomena ofa single art book, its retail price ten dollars, selling nearly a hundred thousand copies in this country.
Flies, to be sure, have been in the ointment: there were many flaws in the splendor of both great Fair exhibitions, for the most part a lack of educational agenda to accompany such a presentation of art to an unfamiliar public. And the art best-seller, when all is said and done, is no more than a large collection of, in the average, mediocre color-reproductions with an unspeakably badly written, often incorrect and journalistically amateurish text. But the missionary qualities remain, and the sum total is that at the close of 1939, there are probably a million Americans who have heard of Botticelli and Petrus Cristus and, for that matter, of Braque, who hadn’t in 1938. The task for 1940 and the ensuing years is to consolidate that acquaintanceship, to build upon it a sound relationship of men to art.
Apart from means of creating that relationship—the deepest problem, to our mind, of these troubled times, and one to which we mean to devote much space in these pages during the coming year—we come to our annual awarding of palms. For the third successive time, fully aware of the disagreement we are likely to provoke and even inviting expressions of it, we nominate for:
The Most Significant Exhibition of the Year: With the New York and San Francisco World’s Fair exhibitions naturally hors concours, “Flemish Painting” arranged jointly by Mr. Marceau and Mr. Taylor at the Worcester Art Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as the most comprehensive showing of a national art from its origins to its decadence yet seen in this country, and especially notable for its valuable and effective educational program.
The Most Important Old Painting Acquired by a Public Collection: Again with an obvious hors concours, that of Mr. Samuel H. Kress’ munificent gift of 375 Italian paintings, including some of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance, deserving of an entire annual review to itself—the choice in a year otherwise generally undistinguished for public acquisitions of old masters, falls upon the small but superb example of El Greco’s most mature art, The Vision of St. Dominic [also known as The Apparition of the Virgin to St. Hyacinth], at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York. Honorable mention ought justly go to two runners-up; the fine example of the Florentine trecento, the Bernardo Daddi St. John the Evangelist, at the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery in Kansas City; and the beautiful Dutch seventeenth century realism, the Pieter de Hooch-Hendrik van den Burch On the Terrace at the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
The Most Important Modern European Painting Acquired by a Public Collection: The great Picasso document and monument of modern style, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The Most Important American Painting Acquired by a Public Collection: Alexander Brook’s Georgia Jungle, first-prize-winner at the 1939 International of Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh which, as announced elsewhere in this issue, has just purchased this most important work by a characteristic native painter, embodying many of the typical expressions of contemporary American art.
The Most Important Old Sculpture Acquired by a Public Collection: A celebrated monument of Renaissance art, Desiderio da Settignano’s wonderfully subtle relief in pietra serena of St. Cecilia, at the Toledo Museum of Art.
The Most Important Modern Sculpture Acquired by a Public Collection: Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s great Kneeling Woman at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was first seen here in the Armory Show of 1913 and has been a landmark in sculpture since, the present example coming this year from a German museum which had to sell it as “degenerate art.”
These lists have their fault, of course, but they are no more or less than what the activity of American public collections has contributed to their making. One can but hope in that respect for a better 1940 as well as, for a repetition of the virtues of 1939—and close, much in the spirit of last year, with the words of Petrarch: Io vò gridando: Pace! Pace! Pace!