Mixed Messages is a display of work from the Van Abbemuseum collection, which is also accompanied by archive information. The latter makes it possible to reassess the significance of the art work as an outcome of certain social, political and economic factors. Mixed Messages can be considered a reconstruction, in which distance is taken from the autonomy of art, quite separate from the existing order.
‘On moral standards’
Prompted by the economic and political tensions of the nineteen thirties, the Dutch government was extremely anxious about art works of a ‘morally offensive, nature’. For instance, in 1938, at the behest of local Mayor Verdijk, five nudes by Kees van Dongen were removed from the painter’s solo exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum. Two years earlier, in 1936, museum director W.J.A. Visser had refused to exhibit a nude by Leo Gestel: ‘Where, here, one of the conditions is to accommodate the public and the essential nature of the nation that paintings of nudes that could in anyway give offence in the eyes of the people have to be banned, has for these very reasons occurred’. The museum however was not exactly consistent, as nudes by Jan Sluijters and Constant Permeke were permitted. Visser’s memo, On Moral Standards When Exhibiting Art Objects at the Stedelijk Van Abbe Museum (1937) was intended as a directive, but the memo appeared to have had little effect. The now so innocent looking nude by Sluijters can be seen in the context of a debate on the role of government and museums as moral censors, which actually remained so until the late nineteen forties.
Avant-garde versus tradition
Carel Willink was not among director Edy de Wilde’s favourite artists, despite the fact he was given a solo exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in 1949 and De Wilde also bought his work in1950. In his controversial essay Painting in a Critical Phase (1950), Willink described his modernist oeuvre as an early mistake and his belief in abstract art as a viewpoint that had been won. According to De Wilde, Willink had returned to the ‘businesslike depiction of things’ and was ‘ultra reactionary’ in his views regarding the inescapable logic of avant-gardist developments.
Stadsgezicht (Cityscape) can be seen as representing the post-war struggle between the avant-garde and traditional, which was to erupt violently in the nineteen fifties as a result of the Cold War. Avant-garde abstraction embodied the freedom and defeat of Fascism that advocated a controlled form of art. The champions of figuration, on the other hand, with the critic J.M. Prange as standard bearer, held the view that modern art, largely practised by left-wing sympathisers, played into the hands of Communism, which would only benefit from cultural confusion in the West.
Magic about the ‘Salonfähige uitbater van het erge’
Major artists create myths around themselves or have the ability to motivate others to do it for them. The way Francis Bacon’s work has been received is coloured by this. The view that at certain moments the person and the work sometime coincide gained increasing emphasis in Bacon’s career, culminating with the feature film Love is the Devil (1998) by John Maybury. There is hardly any other artist whose world is so much a part of his work, and spicy details about his life are happily quoted by biographers and reviewers. Bacon himself refused to go into the interpretation of his paintings and after 1962 even forbid any interpretive comment in catalogues. His argument was that there was not anything to explain.
Fragment of a Crucifixion and the response to Bacon’s work give cause to think about interpretation, biography and autonomy. Do the paintings exemplify a state of mind, or can they be related to views about identity and the male body? Do they represent a post-war view on the world, in which the automation of human interaction can be heard, or do the themes deprive us of an insight into a painter ‘easy on himself’?
‘Disappearing for ever from human memory’
In his work Braco Dimitrijević plays with the conventions of fame and the mechanisms that underlie the prominence given to historical events. In so doing, he deliberately brings history, art and the role of the artist into conflict with each other. Dimitrijević: ‘There are portraits by great artists of men and women whom we do not need to know, and portraits of great men and women by artists we do not care to know.’
Dimitrijević takes anonymity and the historic process as starting point. He believes many are famous for the wrong reasons and that the non-famous accept that passively and unthinkingly. This attitude has a directive effect on the mechanisms to which the mass media avails itself, as well as on the fabric of official art history: the so-called canon. He proposes replacing the ‘fossils of dead power’ with reality, in which he allows the vulnerability of individual life to dominate. So with his anonymous passer-by Dimitrijević makes a stinging commentary on those who let the norms and values of art dominate over other forms of exchange, even if that is at the expense of reality.
The American dream
Whereas Abstract Expressionism was deliberately used by the American government during the Cold War as a means of exporting freedom of expression, Pop Art as a means of export was too ambiguous for this. The work of such artists as Robert Indiana may have been typically American in the sense that it refers to the American dream – a collective idealised image of a nation in which, through a pioneering spirit, individuals have their lives in their own hands – but it refers implicitly also to the other side of the myth.
Playwright Edward Albee wrote The American Dream in 1961 in which he viciously dismantles the dream. Inspired by this, Indiana painted the five-part American dream series in an all-American visual idiom. The symbols he used for this, including traffic signs and lettering from pinball machines and drive-in restaurants, point to unbridled consumerism, pleasure and mobility: in fact a wealthier and happier life within everyone’s reach. The work The Red Diamond, American Dream #3 can be seen as a materialistic interpretation of democratic ideals, with economic growth as the driving force and means of exercising power.
From the North
In the late nineteen seventies director Rudi Fuchs stressed the power of the European tradition at the Van Abbemuseum. In Fuchs’s view the geography of Europe, which had already led in the nineteen century to thinking in different ‘mentality spaces’ became increasingly important. In this context, the notion of ‘Nordischer Raum’ and ‘Mittelmeerischer Raum’ were re-introduced: the Mediterranean space represented an awareness in which order, construction and form were of prime concern, while the northern space stood for content and the irrational spirit. The importance of the North-European expressionist tradition was particularly forcefully expressed in the exhibition From the North (1984), where artists such as Edvard Munch, Asger Jorn and Per Kirkeby were partly detached from the mainstream of the leading, modernist developments.
Per Kirkeby’s work represents Fuchs’s idea of movement in a physical and spiritual sense, with the objective of breaking through the mainstream of internationalism.
‘The world is a shithole, aint it’
Paul McCarthy’s performances express views about sexuality, guilt and repression, in which he exposes the hypocrisy of bourgeois norms and values. In this, American icons like the Wild West, Disney and the American Dream play a pivotal role, mixed with the absurdities and clichés of sitcoms and Hollywood films. The strength of McCarthy’s performances lies in the grotesque and theatrical exaggeration of life itself, where disturbed behaviour patterns and human limitations find an outlet in infantile obsessions, misuse of power and excessive psychological and sexual abuse.
Family Tyranny and Cultural Soup were shown in the context of child abuse statistics in the United States, where conservative groups frequently use the concept of family values in their religious-based political strategies.