The French Pavilion at the Biennale

In the French pavilion at the Biennale, Jenkins sees “a massive work, seven of eight feet high, chiefly constructed from tin or zinc, horsehair, patent leather and cardboard.” Ada Leintwardine is discussing the work with Louis Glober: “Mr. Glober sees African overtones, influenced by Ernst. To me the work is much more redolent of Samurai armour designed by Schwitters.” [TK 134-135/132]

The Elephant Celebes Max Ernst, 1921 oil on canvas, 50 x 43 in The Tate Gallery, London photo from Wikipedia via Olga's gallery, possibly in US public domain but under copyright in country of origin

The Elephant Celebes
Max Ernst, 1921
oil on canvas, 50 x 43 in
The Tate Gallery, London
photo from Wikipedia via Olga’s gallery, possibly in US public domain but under copyright in country of origin

The King Playing with the Queen Max Ernst, 1945 bronze 38 x 33 x 20 in photo of original plaster cast by Robert Bayer Fondation Beyeler, Basel ,Switzerland © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The King Playing with the Queen
Max Ernst, 1945
bronze 38 x 33 x 20 in
photo of original plaster cast by Robert Bayer
Fondation Beyeler, Basel ,Switzerland
© 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Max Ernst (1891-1976) was a German born artist who had a long career in Germany, France, and the United States.  In 1954 he won the Grand Prize for painting at the Biennale. Early on, he was entranced with Dada and Surrealism. The Elephant Celebes (1921) from this period shows Ernst’s whimsy; it’s African connection is that the torso of the elephant is based on a photo,  which Ernst saw in an anthopology journal, of a corn bin used by Konkombwa tribe of the southern Sudan.  He turned to sculpture in 1934; we show The King Playing with the Queen (1945).  The double entendre of that title and the connection of The Elephant Celebes to a bawdy German children’s song show that Ernst’s sense of humor was both visual and verbal.

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), like Ernst, was born in Germany, worked in multiple media, and was an early Dadist.  Exiled from Germany, he spent time in Norway but by 1941 was part of the London art scene, so his work would likely be known to Jenkins, Leintwardine, and their ilk. Schwitters’ sculpture tends toward abstract organic forms, but his collages included multiple diverse media, like the work that Jenkins sees. Schwitters work, priced at a few guineas, did not sell well in London during the Second War, but Ja — Was? Bild sold for nearly 14 million pounds sterling at auction in 2014.

Ja-was Bild? Kurt Schwitters, 1920 oil, paper, corrugated card, cardboard, fabric, wood and nails on board, 43 x 32 in. framed sold at Christie, London, 2014

Ja — Was? Bild
Kurt Schwitters, 1920
oil, paper, corrugated card, cardboard, fabric, wood and nails on board, 43 x 32 in. framed
sold at Christies, London, 2014

 

Suit of Samurai Armor The Tokyo National Museum photo in public domain courtesy of PHG via Wikimedia Commons

Suit of Samurai Armor
The Tokyo National Museum
photo in public domain courtesy of PHG via Wikimedia Commons

Torso Antoine Pevsner, 1924-6 bronze and plastic, 30 x 12 x 15 in Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2016 Antoine Pevsner / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Sculptural works in the French pavilion at the 1958 Biennale included 14 pieces by Antoine Pevsner (1884-1962). He was born in Russia, first visited France in 1911, and became a French citizen in 1930. Like Ernst, Schwitters, and many other members of the School of Paris, he was adept at many visual arts, including painting, graphics, and sculpture.  In 1920 he and his brother Naum Gabo (who later was a contemporary of Schwitters in London) wrote the Realistic Manifesto, advocating Constructivism or an art based on space and time, quite unlike the helter skelter of Dada and Surrealism.

Many of the pieces that Pevsner showed at the 1958 Biennale were quite abstract. Although his earlier Torso, which we show above left, might remind some of samurai armor, Pevsner’s work is  clearly not what Jenkins describes in this passage. Powell’s intent is not to report factually on the contents of the pavilion but to present an imaginary straw man or, perhaps, straight man, to set up Ada Leintwardine’s tongue-in-cheek commentary on the craziness of some avant-garde art. In this setting the playful incoherence of Dada and the Surrealists is particularly apt.

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