MADRID.- The art critic and historian Carl Einstein was one of the most important and multifaceted personalities of the 20th-century artistic avant-garde. His books, articles and essays were fundamental pieces for the critical study of the avant-garde movements; in them he introduced the West to African art and ratified Cubism as a movement in its own right. His intellectual oeuvre, rediscovered in recent decades, is now paid tribute at the MNCARS. This is the first international exhibition to offer a visual description of the work of Einstein, a key figure in visual arts as well as literature, theatre, film and political action.
The Invention of the 20th Century shows significant works by the most important artists of the avant-garde movements, whom Einstein knew and on whose careers he reflected and wrote. The one hundred and twenty pieces on display are signed by names like Braque, Dalí, Grosz, Léger, Miró, Picasso, Rousseau, Paul Klee and Otto Dix, to name a few. The exhibition is organised into sections on African and Oceanic sculpture, Dadaism and Verism, Cubism, Surrealism and art during the Spanish Civil War, a conflict in which Einstein participated as a combatant in 1936. The artworks are accompanied by documentary material about his art writings, including most notably Art of the 20th Century (1926), the work that made him one of the top historians of the avant-garde, and the magazine Documents (1929-30) about the Surrealist movement. Visitors will find themselves faced with a retrospective of art in the last century as it appeared in Einsteins texts.
The Collective Syntax of Freedom
Carl Einsteins lifes work remained fragmentary. The bold literary ventures the author had embarked on in the first decade of his century with his epoch-making work on the novel Bebuquin oder die Dilettanten des Wunders (published 1912), and hoped to continue right up to the Thirties, never came to fruition apart for a very few stories and primarily endless, constantly restarted drafts. The writing of art-criticism and art-history texts, originally intended as a bread-and-butter job, gradually turned into his real vocation. Politicised by his bitter experiences of the trenches and hospitals, after the end of World War I the writer became involved in the Brussels Soldiers Council and the Spartakus League in Berlin, but his disappointed hopes as well as the economic and intellectual situation in the Weimar Republic drove him to emigrate to Paris in 1928; an emigration which was to turn into exile after 1933. The major projects of the Thirties, his Fabrikation der Fiktionen, a suicidal settling of accounts with the intellectuals of his century, as well as a number of aesthetic, sociological-ethnological and art-history studies could no longer be published in his lifetime, and remained as manuscripts, fragments or mere ideas.
What should he do? In May 1938 Einstein gave this reply to the question from the Catalan art critic Sebastià Gasch as to the role of the writer in a country that was being torn apart in the Civil War: He should say goodbye to the severely compromised role of the intellectual and give up the privilege of an honourable and badly paid cowardice and go to the trenches. In view of a political reaction which threatened the break-up of democracy not only in Spain, or had already annihilated it, Einstein saw personal resistance as the only way out left even for artists and writers, if they did not want to lead the life of a pimp of a false reality [fig. 45]. Consequently in the summer of 1936 he had made up his mind to join in the Spanish Civil War and fight for freedom. Einstein travelled to Barcelona, quickly made contact with some members of the DAS (German Anarcho-Syndicalists) and joined the Grupo Internacional of the anarchist Durruti Column. Within the militia which at that time was deployed on the Aragon front, the writer very soon rose to be a técnico de guerra. However, as early as the end of November 1936, he had to read out the obituary of Buenaventura Durruti, the leader of the column, couched in emotional and stirring words, on the radio transmitter of the CNT-FAI (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo - Federación Anarquista Ibérica), after Durruti had fallen victim to an assassination attempt in Madrid.
Einstein drew the personal portrait of the comrade who had uncompromisingly placed his life at the service of the proletarian revolution in the contours of a collective, his column, which as a child of the revolution lived purely and simply for existentialist action, describing its anarchist discipline as a vision of a new, ideal society, a community founded on mutual trust and voluntary collaboration. The author rejected any leadership, but also the star cult of left-wingers, and stressed that Durruti had never placed his own person above political action: He had banished the prehistoric word I from his vocabulary. In the Durruti column only the collective syntax is known. And so he here saw both a social and an aesthetic ideal fulfilled, the ideal that he himself had called for again and again ever since his Dadaist polemics of the post-war period: The comrades will teach the literati how to renew grammar in the collective sense.
An aesthetic utopia becomes social reality
Einstein proved himself in the battles on the Republican fronts. With his fellow combatants who were reorganized into the Durruti Division in January 1937, he was stationed for some time at Pina de Ebro, and resisted plans to reform the anarchist militias on the model of hierarchical army structures. No doubt not least because of his memorandum on Die Front von Aragon (The Aragon front), a razor-sharp analysis of the international significance of the Spanish Civil War, in April of that year he was offered military command of the division. However, evidently Einstein preferred to deploy his writers skills more effectively in the propagandistic service of a fight which he evoked as being steadfastly united with the social revolution.
Fierce fighting and heavy losses decimated the Grupo Internacional, and after the bloody days in May 1937 it was broken up by the Communists. In spite of increasing doubts about the policy of the CNT-FAI, Einstein fought on in the ranks of the anarchists, finally enrolling in the Peoples Army and receiving the requested assignment to write a treatise on Spanish Anarcho-Syndicalism, an obligation to his fellow combatants he never fulfilled, however. Even if he temporarily withdrew to Barcelona in the summer of 1938 to convalesce from one of his wounds, Einstein still went on believing with total confidence in the victory of the Republic over its enemies in its own country, as well as over their German and Italian allies. In his interview with the journal La Vanguardia in May 1938 he clear-sightedly outlined the significance of the Spanish fight in terms of global political strategy, and at the same time emphasized with almost desperate hope the role of the intellectuals, exhorting them to embark on an ideas offensive, as art and freedom were extremely closely tied to one another: The question of art is no more and no less the question of human freedom.
But doubts over the potential of art and literature were visibly also intermingled with his intellectual protest. From Barcelona he soon sought renewed contact with his Paris friends, and from there he wrote to the Paris gallery owner Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in the summer of 1938 wondering how it would ever be possible after fighting through two wars still to want to work in the literary field. He greeted the experiments of the avant-gardes with ever greater scepticism, wanted to write no further texts on painting, and saw his work as a writer now much more in the tradition of great satirists like Miguel de Cervantes or Daniel Defoe. The preoccupation with aesthetic problems, the claim to artistic subjectivism, as is again evident in his interview with Sebastià Gasch in May 1938, in Einsteins view represented no more than a flight from social reality (Machine guns have a laugh at poems and paintings); and even the seemingly progressive work of art responded to the challenges of the period in an extremely dilettante way if it attempted to upgrade the value of its bourgeois aesthetics merely by using revolutionary iconography.
At the beginning of the Thirties Einstein had still pinned his aesthetic hopes on changing the world and human beings, a change such as had been substantially effected by Cubism and the Surrealism of the dissidents centred on André Masson and Joan Miró. Asked in 1938 for his assessment of the major Catalan painter of the time, he yet again used his answer for a side swipe at Salvador Dalí and the orthodox Surrealists, and with phrases such as pedantic painting and falsely revolutionary Academicism indicated his conviction of the inadequate formal resources of their art. But at the end of his writing career, and after Einstein had drawn the political consequences from his appeal for an aesthetic rebellion against reality, and had risked life and limb in the fight for the Spanish Republic, even his verdict on the art of Miró which he had previously admired finally takes on an unmistakably resigned tone. While in the interview with the Catalan critic Einstein certainly expresses his very high opinion of the painter, acknowledging that he has the greatest talent of his generation, in the situation of the Civil War he can nonetheless not avoid recognizing the limits of Mirós surrealistic vision: The thing is that his dream is too limited, especially in view of the violence of the present facts. In seriously coming to terms with these facts, painters like Miró often lose the game.
After the defeat of the Republic which did indeed lose the game in spring 1939, Einstein fled to France, where he was interned several times and ultimately found himself, like many other former fighters in the Civil War, in a desperate situation caught between the advancing German troops and the border with Spain, which he could not cross [fig. 47]. Shortly before his final escape into death, the writer who had become a political activist yet again applied to serve as a soldier in the French Foreign Legion, but he was rejected because of his age. On 5 July 1940 Carl Einstein took his own life at the foot of the Pyrenees. And yet: the fight in common with his comrades, according to Einstein in a letter written to Pablo Picasso on 6 January 1939, was probably the most important memory of his life; the loyalty, dignity and dedication of the Spanish people, its gift for quick comprehension had impressed him most deeply (the soldiers and workers understand things, political things and many other things, better than the intellectual monkeys outside).
Carl Einstein immersed himself in the events of the Civil War with his whole being, as he had previously done only in the works of Cubist and Surrealist art. The few written texts which he was able to pen alongside his military action and the historical-political studies that he planned and only a small part of which he was able to execute show that the writer was working on a real hermeneutics of war during the time he spent in Spain, in order to respond in this way and using his own means to the challenges of those bitter yet full years. As an art historian he regarded the Civil War as a work of art, albeit a frightful one, as a painting full of horror and with himself as a bit player , and to understand it he had to summon up his entire uncompromising critical professionalism. If he had previously regarded the works of Cubism and dissident Surrealism as metamorphoses of a still imperfect reality, as visionary hallucinations and an aesthetic protest against death, he now discovered in the anarchist comradeship precisely that collective syntax of freedom which in the long preceding years he had encountered only in the utopia of a very few works of art.