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H. Bloemsma on Groseclose and Wierich’s Internationalizing the History of American Art.

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1Barbara Groseclose and Jochen Wierich, eds. Internationalizing the History of American Art. Views. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. 244 pp.  (Hardcover) ISBN 978-0-271-03200-9

2The history of pre-1945 painting and sculpture in the United States has been predominantly written by American scholars. The essays in this volume want to supplement this perceived parochialism of American art history scholarship by addressing an aspect of the historiography of American art that has not been thoroughly examined: the transmission and exchange of ideas about American art and its history in an international framework. International in the context of the book mainly means European. As editors Barbara Groseclose and Jochen Wierich acknowledge in their introduction, South-America, Asia and Africa have had almost no exposure to pre-1945 American art and very few studies of pre-1945 American art have emerged from these regions (3).

3 The book is divided in three sections: “American Art and Art History,” “Display and Exposition,” and “Post–1945 Investments”. What unites all the essays in these sections is the question “What did non-Americans and especially Europeans see in American Art?” That this was not necessarily something positive is brought out by the first two essays in the book, written by Rebecca Zurier and Jochen Wierich, which offer a survey of 20th-century writing on America Art. Most Europeans saw American art as aesthetically inferior to European art, and considered it to be no more than a provincial derivative of a superior European tradition. An example is the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, who thought of American art as unadventurous and typical of what he called the “colonial attitude of meek imitation” (24).

4 Although the disdain of American art has led some art historians to completely ignore it – Erwin Panofsky never published anything on the art of his adopted country – Zurier and Wierich show that others have used this same idea of a lack of an indigenous artistic tradition to create traditions. They have tried to define American art in terms of the “special American conditions” be they geographic, racial, economic, cultural, or intellectual. Already in 1938 Edgar Wind defined America as the land of change, a liminal space where new things can happen, to explain the works of Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley. And as recent as 1997, John Hughes explored a by then familiar set of unifying themes to explain the distinctive character of American art: America as the frontier nation; America as the land of the self-made man; America as the land of money.

5 This looking for what Oskar Hagen called the American Sonderweg (45) might have led to a better historical understanding of pre-1945 American art, it did not did not necessarily lead to a higher art historical evaluation. As Andrew Hemingway shows in his contribution, the authority of French modernist art meant that American art has played at best a marginal role in the authorative narratives of nineteenth- and early twenty-century Western art. This struggle to influence the international art historical discourse on pre-1945 art is also the topic of David Peters Corbett’s essay. According to him, the strong emphasis on the special American conditions has reinforced the lack of any argumentation for American art that might interest audiences with little interest in the making of American identity: “It would be unfortunate if American art remained the property of American studies programs, precise because the strong social, political, and historical emphasis of such programs leaves little hope for sophisticated evaluations of the visual material” (92). Corbett sees it as the task of art historian to deliver such careful readings – readings that work from the object, rather than from history into the work. Only then, Corbett argues, will these works arouse an interest “beyond their own specialized coteries” (83), and take a place in the canon of art history.

6Part two of the book – titled “Display and Exposition” – explores the often negative reception of pre-1945American art when exhibited abroad. It opens with an essay by Marylin McKay which shows how 20th-century Canadian exhibitions of American art did not so much provide a deeper insight or historical understanding of American art as well as throw the distinctive character of Canadian art into relief. By comparing the work of Canadian artists with that of American artists, Canadian art was presented as morally superior on the basis of closeness to nature and northern climate and geography; the Canadian “North” provided artists with a moral setting that was contrasted with the coldly scientific taste for the real of their American colleagues (97).

7 The ideology of the outsider’s view is also the topic of Veerle Thielemans’ contribution. Thielemans shows how 19th-century French critics when confronted with American art were looking from their own, national perspective. For them the rallying cry was not the “North” but the modernists notions of innovation and originality embodied in the art of Manet and Cézanne. In comparison to these masters of modernism American art could only perceived as immature, that is incapable to affront the authority of the past and thus at the most a subsidiary of the French school.

8 Derrick Cartwright and Sophie Levy, former director and curator of the Musée d’Art Américan in Giverny (MAAG) respectively, use their personal experience to reflect upon displays of American art in France. In his essay, Cartwright warns that American interventions aren’t necessarily understood as meaningful: “We should beware that offers to restitute what French culture has never even missed will surely be misinterpreted” (140). His contribution is a plea to think intelligently and sensitively about showing American art outside the United States. A possible example of such an intelligent intervention is discussed in Levy’s contribution: the 2004 exhibition “A Transatlantic Avant-Garde: American Artists in Paris 1918-1939”. Levy explains how from the beginning she and her fellow curators aimed for a bilateral perspective, which required not only the importation of non-French artefacts but also of a way of thinking about them. As Levy states: “The exhibition addressed not only the work of American artists who travelled to Paris during the interwar period but also the creative, intellectual, and artistic interchange triggered by this convergence of two communities” (141). By highlighting the national differences in historical viewpoint through the use of accounts, publications, and correspondence from both sides of the Atlantic it aimed at presenting American art in a truly international context.

9 The two essays in the last section of the book, “Post-1945 Investments”, focus on the moment when American art at last “triumphed” on a world stage. Serge Guillebaut and Christin Mamiya offer case-studies of how post-1945American art was promoted as the equation of “modern” and how it was exported to South America and Germany respectively. In 1964 the Europeans openly admitted defeat when Robert Rauschenberg became the first American to be awarded the grand prize at the Venice Biennale. In a telling reversal of Huizinga’s words of the 1920s, the French critic Pierre Cabanne wrote, “We [Europeans] are now nothing but poor backward Negroes, good only for being colonised” (188).

10Internationalizing the History of American Art is a rich and elegantly produced book. The emphasis is clearly on historiography and as such the book has a lot to offer. Although at times repetitive, the essays bring together a wealth of material that will have an interest for historians and art historians alike.  At the same time the book raises important questions about the present “global” position of pre-1945 American art. Following the latest trend in art history, many contributors call for what Andrew Hemmingway in his essay describes as “a truly internationalist history of art” (79). What the position of American art is in such an internationalist art history should be is not always clear. Most articulate is David Peters Corbett. According to him, the significance of American art should be defined through visual argument and presentation: “art that is not rich enough to do this, or that is perceived as monotonous in its concerns and restricted in its range, or that is always presented through the lens of a single or sectarian issue, will not survive” (91). As such a challenging task for future historians of American art is defined.

Hans Bloemsma, Roosevelt Academy, Middelburg, Netherlands

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« H. Bloemsma on Groseclose and Wierich’s Internationalizing the History of American Art. », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2010-1, document 2, Online since 04 March 2010, connection on 27 April 2017. URL : http://ejas.revues.org/7818

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