Partisan Review: A Commentary

I have been a London-based New Yorker for the last 25 years, where I was an academic within the University of London. I read and wrote about 18th century and Romantic Age literature. I have now turned my eye toward my native city and am starting a sustained reading of the entire run of PARTISAN REVIEW — a journal that was begun in the 1930s in New York City and that offered a radical and socialist anti-Stalinist version of modern thought and literature and theory and politics.

Though later many contributors to PR moved much further to the right and became not only anti-Stalinist but anti-left well, in the 1930s and during WWII, Partisan Review shaped a critique of politics, art, and literature and inspired a generation of young women and men to understand and engage in debates that remain important in our own cultural and political time. I will be reading and writing about each issue in chronological order

I welcome everyone who is interested in this material to join the discussion and offer comments and corrections as necessary.

Partisan Review is available to read on-line through the
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center

Annie J


In December, 1937 Partisan Review ceased to be the cultural and
political serial publication of the John Reed Club, an organisation
run by the Communist Party, USA. Under its new editors, it became an
edgy retort both to the Stalinism of the CPUSA and to forms of Liberalism associated with the Popular Front during the Depression. It allied itself, as a “Literary Monthly” with Modernism, and against the Socialist Realism and Prolitcult programme of the USSR. At the same time as they were critics of capitalism, some PR writers, such as
Clement Greenberg and Dwight Macdonald, took aim at the rise of ‘middle brow’and ‘mass’cultural forms.

The first issue, Vol.4, No.1 1937 was edited by Philip Rahv, William
Philips, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald,George L.K. Morris, and
F.W. Dupee. Macdonald’s first wife, Nancy, was the business manager.

The Editorial Statement Begins:
“ANY magazine, we believe, that aspires to to a place in the vanguard of literature today, will be revolutionary in tendency; but we are also convinced that any such magazine will be unequivocally independent. PARTISAN REVIEW IS aware of its responsibility to the revolutionary movement in general, but we disdain obligation to any of its organized political expressions.”

Rahv and Philips were the chief editors, working not only on the day to day demands of creating a journal, but on the main themes of Partisan Review‘s political and literary positions.  Other names connected with the journal in its early years  have been burnished over the decades, including Mary McCarthy (novelist, political journalist, and ),  Dwight Macdonald (who left to start his own journal, Politics), and Delmore Schwartz (who has steadily become reified as the poet maudit of New York in the 20th century).

These clever, articulate, and intellectually aggressive thinkers were happy to
adjust the already familiar habits of revolutionary rhetoric to shape
their publication.  Fred DuPee had been a member of the CPUSA, but was drawn to the arguments and interests of his friends at PR.

 Rahv, McCarthy, and MacDonald were all happy to argue with wit, on high volume, and at times with
cruelty. What they were able to do together was put together a table of
contents for their first issue that included a stunning array of
brilliant thinkers, poets, and fiction writers. The ‘Editorial Statement’ endorsed Marxism without Stalinism:

“Marxism in culture, we think, is first of all an instrument of analysis and evaluation; and if, on the last instance, it prevails over other disciplines, it does so through the medium of democratic controversy. Such is the medium that Partisan Review will want to provide in its pages.”

The latest post is right below this information page.

“This Quarter,” Dwight Macdonald on the past and current political situations: Partisan Review, Vol. 4, No.3, Spring, 1939

The third issue of Partisan Review for 1939 opens with Dwight Macdonald’s editorial survey of the role of intellectuals at the start of America’s entry into World War I, in 1917 and the current positions of the intellectual community on the  brink of World War II, in  the spring and summer of 1939. Its a depressing read, the mistakes of 1917 are being repeated in 1939, and the values of intellectual life, except for a very few circles of writers and political activists, have been shredded and compromised.

1: War and the Intellectuals: ACT TWO

Macdonald begins by recalling an article written by Randolph Bourne in 1917, a year before his death, and at the time of the Russian Revolution. Bourne, along with Waldo Frank, and James Opphenheim, founded an important American literary journal called The Seven Arts, which, under Opphenheim’s editorial lead, took an anti-war position to American entry into WW I. Waldo Frank was a political activist and though he had supported the Communist Party in its early days, broke with it in 1937 when he met with Leon Trotsky, who was at that time living in exile in Mexico.Bourne Randolph Bourne

Portrait_of_Waldo_Frank Waldo Frank.


Macdonald begins by showing how Bourne castigates American intellectuals for their support for, and pride over the US’s entry into WWI: “Twenty-two years ago, 1917, The Seven Arts printed Randolph Bourne’s article, “The War and the Intellectuals.” Bourne wrote: “A war made deliberately by intellectuals!… A war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the triumph of democracy and internationalise the world!… Whence is our miraculous intuition of our moral spotlessness? …Whence our confidence that history will not unravel huge economic and imperialist forces upon which our rationalisations float like bubbles? …Numbers of intelligent people who have never been stirred by the horrors of capitalistic peace at home were shaken out of their slumbers by the horrors of the war in Belgium… Never having felt responsibility for labor wars and oppressed masses and excluded races at home, they had a large fund of idle emotional capital to invest in the oppressed nationalities and ravaged villages of Europe.”

Macdonald uses the Bourne quotation to match the present moment: “If ‘Belgium’ be changed to ‘Czechoslovakia’, these sentences apply as closely to American intellectuals in the spring of 1939 as they ever did in the spring of 1917.”   The American intellectuals are supporting the New Deal, the Communist Party (and its Popular Front organisations) offer space for ‘leftish’ intellectuals to promote a war.

“And Van Wyck Brooks [also an editor of The Seven Arts] proposes in a letter to Time that our reply to Hitler’s book burnings should be a series of public bonfires of things Made In Germany.”

2.The Road to Hell:

Macdonald returns to the present:

“Let us grant the good intentions of Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the laws of motion of monopoly capitalism work themselves out, with brutal disregard for intentions, much the same under a Roosevelt as under a Coolidge. How can an Administration act in important matters contrary to those class interests of the dominant bourgeoisie  which have shaped the American state, the American law and constitution?  Their enormous mass throws its inertia against following new paths, impelling the republic along the historical path destined for it. The good intentions of Roosevelt simply make him the more dangerous, since he is the unwitting prisoner, along with his intellectual following, of capitalist necessity.,

“The contradiction between the concept of a war for democracy and what is actually taking place under that slogan has already begun to appear. The closer the second great crusade for democracy draws near,  the feebler grows the forces of democracy inside the country; the more battleships, the lower the relief standards; the bolder the President’s utterances against Hitler, the more conciliatory his attitude towards our own business rulers. The intellectuals will open their eyes some day, but not until it is too late. ….  The liberal weeklies, which once devoted their main energies to exposing and protesting social injustice at home have become more interested in demonstrating how much inferior fascist capitalism is to democratic capitalism. Left intellectuals are rallying to the defense of the British Empire, on the grounds that India is better off under British than it would be under German rule. But why shouldn’t the Indians rule India? The intellectuals take such positions, it is true, with all sorts of mental reservations. Once the fascist menace is destroyed, then they will take up the old fight again.  In politics, however, the mask holds the face. You become what you do and say; you don’t become what your reservations are.

Next week: More of  Macdonald’s “This Quarter”



Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No. 3, Spring, 1939. Cover design: Theodore Roszak


1939 Spring cover

The front cover of Partisan Review, designed by Theodore Roszak ( 1907 –1981) was an invitation to the themes and style of the journal as a whole. Roszak, who I mentioned before {in this blog’s first post}, was a friend of my parents, and they collected quite a number of his paintings as well as a small sculpture that scared me, with its twisted shapes of not quite human ruins of reptilian contours, and sea creature bodies with varied lumps and declivities that made it very difficult to avoid finding in these masses and shards the very lineaments of ungratified desire.

What I mean is that I tried, but couldn’t avoid the way Ted Roszak’s drawings and sculptures of demon appearances made me feel frightened of what might come to be in my life.  48.6.vw1

As a little girl, I wasn’t as frightened of Theodore Roszak himself as I was of his sculpture,
While his work was openly disturbing and hostile, he was very kind to me as a small child, and later when I was going through some of the horrors of teenage self-doubt and embarrassment, he told me, that while I might be a mess at 15, I was certain to be ‘quite something’ when I reached my thirties — that kept me going for a couple of decades.

Roszak was born in Poland in 1907 and was brought to the USA by his parents a few years later. He was excited by and worked within the strategies of constructivism in his early works throughout the 1930s, including this “Self Portrait with Tower Construction’


Roszak worked in the sculptural arts of Modernism for two decades, beginning with his post-WWII metal constructions of severe and futuristic versions of buildings and birds, the kind of tortured shapes I found scary as a child.


Roszak’s textured surface for the MIT Bell Tower and Spire, whose architect was  Eero Saarinen, was one photo we had on the wall which intrigued me as a child, and which I just found again while looking for Roszak’s works online:

Bell   IMG_0296  img_0294.jpg

That MIT Bell Tower was done in 1955-1956; and again in 1960, architect Eero Saarinen commissioned Roszak to create an Eagle for the US Embassy building in London. Saarinen and Roszak were close friends and collaborated on many architecture-sculpture projects together. The Economist magazine defended the modernist style of the building in 2009, when the US Embassy announced it would move from Grosvenor Square  to a ‘more secure’ site,  south of the Thames: “Though [Roszak’s Eagle] sculpture was much derided at the time for its warlike or imperial connotations—Roszak depicts the bird poised on the edge of the building ready for flight, as if to hunt—it is an angular, jagged take on the national emblem.”


In 2018, Roszak’s Eagle  with its terrifying wing span and lowered beak seems a fitting emblem for America’s hallucinatory dream of world domination and control. The violence in many of Roszak’s pieces are distilled in the sculpture.

In the later 1960s and 1970s, Roszak’s softer and vaguer drawings and paintings remain both alluring and rebarbative. Ted gave my father a large drawing of a flaccid penis draped across a reclining woman’s belly, the erotic and mythic elements are very much part of his last shift in representation, moving out from the reality of the “Unknown Political Prisoner” of 1952 to a fantasised mythic nowhere.

The Unknown Political Prisoner (Defiant and Triumphant) 1952 by Theodore Roszak 1907-1981
“The Unknown Political Prisoner” 1952



So now you know something about the man who designed the style for Partisan Review.

Next week: Dwight Macdonald on “This Quarter.”



Volume 6, No.2 Letter from Leon Trotsky to André Breton.

Trotsky by Diego Rivera

Trotsky as a youth Prophetic — Leon Trotsky

I had thought to give readers the entirety of Leon Trotsky’s letter of support to the FIARI, but reading it I find that the greater part of it is to focus on the betrayal of André Malraux, which I have written about in this blog earlier in the year; I am instead using some passages from it to clarify Trotsky’s position on the relationship between politics and art, particularly in this last statement of Partisan Review, Vol. 6, No.2, Winter 1939.

Trotsky, Rivera, Breton
Rivera, Trotsky, Breton

Opening with a comradely greeting to Rivera and Breton (remember that Trotsky wrote a good part of the manifesto of the FIARI, though he didn’t sign it — Rivera did): “With all my heart I congratulate Diego Rivera and yourself on the creation of the FIARI — a federation of truly revolutionary and truly independent artists.”   even as the government of France tries to ‘ape’ the heroes of fascism.

“The duller and more ignorant the dictator, the more he feels called upon to prescribe the development of science, philosophy, and art. The sheep-like servility of the intelligentsia is, in turn a not unimportant sign of the rottenness of contemporary society.” 

“The unhappy Soviet press evidently on orders from above, complains bitterly in these latter days of the ‘impoverishment’ of scientific and artistic production in the USSR, and reproaches Soviet artists and writers with lack of sincerity, courage and vitality.”

One can’t believe one’s eyes: the boa constrictor delivers to the rabbit a homily on independence and personal  dignity. Hideous and ignoble picture, but how worthy of our time!

The end of the letter is the affirmation of values that preceded this period and will continue to describe the  work of the artist: 

The struggle for revolutionary ideas in art must begin once again with the struggle for artistic truth, not in terms of any single school, but in terms of the immutable faith of the artist in his own inner self. WITHOUT THIS, THERE IS NO ART. “YOU SHALL NOT LIE! THAT IS THE  FORMULA OF ALL SALVATION.”

Trotsky doesn’t melt politics into the work of art; it was the failures of the Soviet Union, with both its programmatic positions about art, and its bad investment in Popular Frontism, that has led to a state of deterioration of the Communist movement, and its art.

So Trotsky turns back to this new organisation — the FIARI —  he opens the last part of the letter by suggesting that, “Properly understood, the FIARI is not an aesthetic or political school and cannot become one.  But FIARI can oxidise the atmosphere in which artists breathe and create.”  It will be the works of art that will change EVERYTHING.

In our epoch of convulsive reaction, of cultural decline and return to savagery, truly independent creation cannot but be revolutionary by its very nature, for it cannot but seek an outlet from intolerable social suffocation.  But art as a whole, and each artist in particular, seeks this outlet in ways proper to himself — not relying upon orders from outside, but rejecting such orders and heaping scorn upon all who submit to them. To encourage such attitudes among the best circles of artists — this is the task of the FIARI, I firmly believe that its name will enter history.”

For many who have been reading and writing about politics and art over the past 25 years, Trotsky’s position may seem old-fashioned, pious, and tangled in the web of over- determinations, constructions, ideological mistakes and traps….the suffocating fabric of Deconstructive and Foucauldian arguments for how it has all come to be as it is. (Baudrillard, I’d say makes the better case,  for the spectacularisation that substitutes for reality).  But Trotsky’s sense that there is an urge toward freedom, above all, that makes art revolutionary and that revolutionises art, is one that can still be recognised as inspiration, as the call to create, as the voice of a Muse, as the search for Truth, and as newly born over and over from our desire for freedom:


Ruaschenberg Inspired — Robert Rauschenberg


Next Week: Dwight Macdonald– “Our Quarter” Vol.6.NO.3

Paris Letter: Sean Niall, Vol. 6, No. 2, Partisan Review, Winter, 1939.

Part II: The ways forward.

Now Niall turns to the case of IFARI — You may remember from the discussion posted about the IFARI earlier this year — which I reprint here to state the  basics of this organisation founded by Andre Breton and Diego Rivera and also attributed to Leon Trotsky:

“Andre Breton, a founder and leader of the Surrealist movement, and Diego Rivera, the painter of the  Mexican Revolution, are two artists who have long been active on the Left.  Some time ago they rejected the Third International (the Comintern, 1919-1943), politically as well as culturally. They now propose a new federation of artists and writers, Left-wing in tendency and free of all organizational dependence. [In this issue] we print their manifesto calling for the formation of the International Federation of Independent  Revolutionary Art. An increasing number of writers, artists, and intellectuals are coming to realize that socialism offers the only permanent escape from barbarism that is gaining ground so fast in capitalist society. We believe that these intellectual forces, hitherto scattered and isolated, should now draw together into some sort of organization for free discussion and for defense against their common enemies. We are, therefore, in complete sympathy with the general aim of the IFIRA, and we are ready to take part in the formation of an American section of the Federation. This, we think, should incorporate the international aims of the IFIRA in a program otherwise strictly adapted to American conditions. We invite all those interested in forming such a group in the United States to communicate with the editors of Partisan Review.” — editors, Partisan Review,

The Manifesto signed by Breton and Rivera was an attempt to create a leftist, anti-Stalinist, association of Artists that would be Marxist, but stand outside the artistic aims of socialist realism and and prolit cult. It was 1938, and it was clear that Stalin’s trials had betrayed the Revolution of 1917.  Scholars have argued that it was when Breton went to visit Trotsky, then living in exile in Mexico, that the two men drew up this ‘Manifesto,’ which was then signed by Rivera instead of Trotsky.

Naill introduces the first issue of Cle, IFIRA’s  journal as  a recalibration of the Leftist support of surrealism as a revolutionary weapon:

“The purely politically minded might cavil somewhat at a violence of language, a personality of invective, that smacks a trifle of literary ultra-leftism; but those who have been nauseated by the dead-level Stalinization of French liberals, the careerist degeneration of such once brilliant writers as Aragon, and the general sickliness of the whole politico-artistic situation in France, will understand and sympathize with the desire of Cle’s directors to have its opening blast utterly unequivocal and violently purifactive.”

Niall is very hard on Paul Nizan, novelist and member of the Communist Party in France, who he describes as one of the ‘literary stooges’ of the party, whose recently published novel, La Conspiration, “gives the ‘ Communist’ quotation of the season: “Revolution is all. very well, but its just pure romanticism.”

In fact, Nizan was in conflict with the Popular Front position, and Nizan was a friend ad early exponent of Sartre’s Existentialism, exploring modern alienation, conflicts that faced petits-bourgeois radicals caught between contending class forces.  When the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the non-aggression pact in 1939, Nizan left the Communist Party, though he didn’t become a revolutionary or a member of IFIRA.

The last parts of Niall’s “Letter from Paris” are harsh and in places vaguely anti-semitic — the German Jewish refugee musicians are satirised for turning the concert halls into Temples, where they sigh and breathe heavily into their hands and handkerchiefs. He also criticises Cocteau for being morbid and perverse in his new work. Niall details his complaints of decadence, but participates in them as well. He ends by proposing a bottle of bad Champagne with his ‘pals’ as the best antidote to what’s going wrong in Paris.

And so the War begins.


Next Week: Letter from Leon Trotsky to Andre Breton.


Paris Letter: Sian Niall,PR Vol. 6,No. 2, Winter 1939

This is a two-parter again. Part I: The Spectre of Fascism.

The next substantive essay in the Winter, 1939 Volume of Partisan Review  is a second letter from Paris by Sean Niall (Sherry Mangan): it was written in the late autumn of 1938 and it, along with the letter from Leon Trotsky that ends the volume, conveys the tension of those months  opening on to the start of the War.   You might recall from his “Paris Letter” written in the late summer of  the same year that he was 34 at the time. He was a long-time Trotskyist activist in North and South America, closely tied to the Fourth International, as well as working for those sources of regular pay checks for men such as Dwight Macdonald and other PR writers — at Time, Fortune, and Life magazines.

Sherry Magnan

He opens with a look at the art world in Paris in late 1938 –against the background of the Munich agreement with the signature of French Prime Minister, Édouard Daladier — on the  Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938. The French galleries are hesitant to put on new shows:  ” Paris’s autumn season has proved to be a rickety child, timid, cranky, and ready at the least alarm to give up the ghost entirely. The galleries will still plan no more than one show in advance; publishers’ lists are, to put it politely, not exactly world-shaking; and as for really striking novelties on the concert-programmes, they can practically be counted on the fingers of one thumb.”

He goes on to foreground the political and cultural crisis at hand: It is the “spectre,”  not of Communism,but of Fascism, that is haunting  France: “To a pedestrian meditating on, say, the new establishment in France of concentration- camps for “undesirable foreigners,” the sight of the Greco-vegetarian figure of  Raymond Duncan, suddenly sandal-flapping from his preposterous “Akademia” in the rue de Seine, seems literally a sheer hallucination.”

images-5 Raymond Duncan

In his political/artistic critique, Niall addresses the journal Beaux-Art, a directory of what was going on in the arts. But now, late in 1938, it has taken on a programme for a ‘truly’ national art, meaning a return to academic painting, and an art “purified of cubism, surrealism, abstractionism, and everything else of interest that has occurred since impressionism.”  This is much like the approach of the pre-Nazi German art world. He goes on to link this reactionary move within art with racism: “the latest report from Pere Lachaise Cemetery is that, sure enough, some racial puritan has repeated the castration of the figure on the Epstein tomb of Oscar Wilde.”   Niall explains this general atmosphere  is that the cultural world “is haunted by the jittery feeling that someone or something called war or fascism is constantly looking over its shoulder when it works,” but he finds as well that people haven’t drawn the right conclusions from what this all means: it is is the result of the ongoing betrayals of the Communist Party’s participation in the political and social life of Europe, including stealing Trotsky’s archive of papers, the assassinations of  Ignace Reiss and Rudolf Klement, and the death of Leon Sedov — all Trotskyists.

The decay of the internal life of the Soviet Union has also had a pernicious effect on the left of centre writers and activists within France. Romain Rolland  left the CP with the Moscow Trials,  but now appears to cling to aspects of popular frontism that offer liberal rather than revolutionary prospects.

Niall is a straightforward confident explicator of the complexity of the Left and because of that he is able to flavour his expositions with humour and irony. So, for example, he describes the various literary-political movements and groupings as the “flesh-pots (or rather ink-) pots of literary Stalinism in a country where literary movements live usually an amoeba-like life of perpetual self-divisions and fusions, unamoeba-like enough, however in the violence of diatribe that usually attends them.”

Here Niall turns to the elements of this period that suggest moves forward within the cultural struggle: he is pleased that Andre Breton has criticised the British group of Surrealists for wanting to withdraw from the art battles into “the cozy ambience of surrealist success and Popular Front  High-life”.  Niall applauds Breton for seeing the necessity, at time, to educate its troops when they wander off.  And not to spare exclusion if required.

Next week: Part II:  The Ways Forward, in which Niall discusses the work of the FIARI

Art Versus Method. Part 2. Juan Gris. George K.L.Morris


Unknown-7 Juan Gris (1887-1927)

This is our way into George L.K. Morris’s second half of his ‘Art Chronicle review of MoMA’s Bauhaus exhibition.  Here he turns,  by way of comparison, to the Jacques Seligmann ​Galleries,  to assess the work of Juan Gris (1887-1927). Gris was a Spanish artist who lived in Paris most of his career. He and Picasso and Braque created or invented the school of Cubism, and Picasso was said to have at times been very competitive with Gris. The lithograph in front of us hangs in the kitchen galley of our studio in the Barbican. My mother bought the lithograph, No.38 of a series of 50 of Jean Le Musician, in Paris, 1938 just before she returned to New York after a Carnegie Fellowship in Paris. I don’t know why, but I began to love him — Jean, that is — from the age of about 8, and over the decades, whenever I visited New York to see my parents, I made sure to spend time studying his face. London’s Tate Modern has No. 48 of the same series in its collection: the note that accompanies it explains its content and context:

“Jean the Musician depicts a young man named Jean-Claude Brune. Gris refers to him in a letter of 19 March 1921, describing him as ‘a young man from a family which is very important locally – he’s the son of a conseiller général of this department … he’s a good musician and a very intelligent boy who I think would like to own something by myself.”

“The concentration on likeness ….can be seen as part of a widespread return to realism in France and Italy in the early 1920s. The prevalence of a classicising style at this time reflected the desire of many artists, including Amédée Ozenfant (1886-1966), Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), Gino Severini (1883-1966) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), for a ‘return to order” in the arts. This change in style has been understood in terms of a widespread desire for stability and tradition after the disruption and chaos of the First World War.”


Morris has moved from the modern, technological, and antiseptic Bauhaus to the classicism of Juan Gris. He upbraids the viewing public for ignoring the show of Juan Gris’s work by contrast to the popularity of the Bauhaus exhibition: and reads his work in comparison with the Cubists.  “Gris has never been easy to write about. He did not assault the public with anything comparable to Picasso’s sensational impasto, nor does he lure the spectator with the engaging succulence  of Braque. His work was always very reticent.”

Morris takes Gris as his example of the triumph of ‘art’ over ‘method’ and  carries into his analysis his programme for aesthetic excellence, and is grounded in his own participation in the world of the “Park Avenue Cubists”: Gris is praised for that ‘reticence,’ for ‘charm and. monumentality’ associated with the Spanish aristocracy, which he names as ‘an aristocratic suavity’ still unsurpassed. Morris shifts Juan Gris technique and execution of form back to his being: “Only years of culture and an inborn feeling for style can dictate what [that form] should be”.

Morris’s argument, in both parts of his commentary, manages to avoid giving any considered criteria by which to make either aesthetic or methodological judgments. He falls back on his own ‘inborn feeling for style.’ The enigma remains. Bauhaus and Juan Gris both win.


Next Week: Sean Niall,  PARIS LETTER





Art Chronicle: Art Versus Method George L.K. Morris. Partisan Review, Vol.6, No.2

Part 1: Morris on Bauhaus

George L.K. Morris, you may recall, was the chief financial backer of  Partisan Review,and served as art critic for the journal.  Morris was known as one of the “Park Avenue Cubists,” a group of abstract artists, born into  old American families with money and educational privileges. His wife, Susy Frelinghuysen, was an opera singer as well as another member of the “Old East Coast” elite.   Morris and Suzy created a life for themselves as advocates of abstract art. george_l-_k-_morris_and_suzy_frelinghuysen Another member of the PAC was the painter Charles G. Shaw, who trained for a time to become an architect, and  made the skyline of New York City an emblem of American new-york-oddly-enough Shaw was also a rich New Yorker, an heir to the Woolworth fortune, and a graduate of Yale.

And backing them all was the patron of European and American Modernist art — collector, painter, philanthropist —  A.E. Gallatin, who created in  1927 The Gallery of Living Art, a few years later renamed The Museum of Living Art’  at NYU.   a-e-gallatin

In 1939, when the Moscow Trials were being discussed still in uncomprehending tones, and Trotskyism was a growing argument with the Stalinist Popular Front, Morris used his “Art Chronicle” to review an exhibition at MoMA on the Bauhaus Movement, as a counterpoint to a show at the Jacques Seligmann Gallery, on 57th street, near MoMA, of paintings by Juan Gris.  The political argument about the popular front was about the meaning of revolutionary activity: was an alliance, even temporary, with the ruling classes of Europe to defeat Fascism a road to the defeat of revolutionary socialism altogether, or the only way to secure Fascism’s end?

Bauhaus_University_Weimar_03440px-WalterGropius-1919 Walter Gropius 1883-1969.

Morris’s article doesn’t explicitly take up these issues, but his commentary on how MoMA understood its task in putting on the Bauhaus exhibition, compared with the Juan Gris show at Jacques Seligmann Gallery offers elements of a wider critique.

The Bauhaus project of refining and stripping away ornamentation in favour of a modern simplicity of form with straightforward and explicit functionality,  was the work of  many, but Walter Gropius, an architect and advocate of modern design along with Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and others conceived of a site where architecture and design could be studied and reformed for the modern age.  The exhibition at MoMA was to honour the work of the Bauhaus, which had been shut down by the Nazis in 1932. The buildings were closed, but the impact of Bauhaus remains with us.  One of the more important slogans for the project was “Art and Technology” — a more forward-looking idea than the contemporary version inBelgium of — “Art and Craft”.

Alfred Barr, Director of MoMA at the time, wanted to make Bauhaus’s history and its achievements available to an American audience: He writes in the Preface:

“It is twenty years since Gropius arrived in Weimar to found the Bauhaus; ten years since he left the transplanted and greatly enlarged institution at Dessau to return to private practice; five years since the Bauhaus was forced to close its doors after a brief rear-guard stand in Berlin.

Are this book, then, and the exhibition which supplements it, merely a belated wreath laid upon the tomb of brave events, important in their day but now of primarily historical interest? Emphatically, no! The Bauhaus is not dead; it lives and grows through the men who made it, both teachers and students, through their designs, their books, their methods, their principles, their philosophies of art and education.”

Morris however, sees the show as an example of what MoMA always gets wrong:

“The current survey of the Bauhaus and its teaching methods is ideally suited to the policies of the Museum of Modern Art, for whom historical sequence has from the start been more interesting than the showing of good paintings. At any rate, the Museum found it difficult to spoil the odds and ends that found their way out of Germany into the present exhibition, as they were nearly all uniformly bad to begin with.”

Morris here draws the divide between aesthetics and method that gives the ‘Art Chronicle’ its sub-title, “Art versus Method.” In autumn 1939 issue of PR, Clement Greenberg will theorise this issue of aesthetics in his canonical essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch” but you can tell in Morris’s piece that he has either incorporated a popular frontist view into his review, or has decided that a work being avant-garde is not as compelling as its being ‘fine’ aesthetically.  His criticism of the MoMA staff impugns their aesthetic capacity, and being the child of rich collectors and Rockefellers, the Museum is accused of crass philistinism:

The insensitive touch is apparent in the work of pupil and master alike, in the painting, the sculpture, the pottery, the furniture, and in the peep-shows that the Museum evidently intended as a lure for the uninitiated.”

Morris also asserts us that it is really the German “temperament, so at home within the limits of tonal and musical structure, flattens out before plastic problems into a heavy slickness and bad taste,”as much as it is trouble with MoMA curators that renders the exhibition ‘a drag.’

Yet he also wants to insist on the importance of Bauhaus, and he devises a view of its work that is committed to the ‘life-affirming’ qualities of Bauhaus processes and products:

“Turning from the exhibition to the catalog we are confronted with something vastly more absorbing. Here are gathered all the enlightened devices for instruction and presentation that must have made life at the Bauhaus a joy for students and teachers alike.  Everyone was taught to be completely free with his hands, and this is certainly the essence of plastic creation.”

It is, of course, very difficult to judge Morris’s judgements about the Bauhaus exhibition because he doesn’t evince any criteria by which to assess the art in the show. It is when he then goes on to discuss the Juan Gris show, that we see what he has in mind for aesthetic success.


Bauhaus Masters on the roof of the Bauhaus building: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer, photo: unknown 1926, reproduction 1998. Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, with the courtesy of Société Kandinsky, Paris.

Next Week: Part 2. Morris on Juan Gris

In Memoriam: Philip Roth — 1933-2018


One of the great New York Intellectuals and its greatest Novelist.  Why not read something by him today…

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

Gertrude Stein: The Autobiography of Rose, PR, Vol 6, No. 2

This week we have Gertrude Stein’s short piece, “The Autobiography of Rose”, and whoever it was who chose to put it right after Trilling’s  consideration of Hemingway, made a smart decision, for as Adam Gopnik succinctly wrote in a New Yorker article from  (24 June, 2013),

It isn’t the least of Stein’s virtues, or importance, that Hemingway was in many ways the popularizer of a style that she had invented. One could even say, to borrow Picasso’s famous disparaging remark about his imitators, that Stein did it first and Hemingway did it pretty. But, prettified or not, Hemingway’s style was the most influential in American prose for more than fifty years, and this makes Stein’s style less an outcropping than a bedrock of modern American writing.”  

But as for me, alas, I don’t like Gertrude Stein, and I didn’t like her even more when I read the book about her relationship of accommodation with the Vichy government, as retold by Janet Malcolm in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice…it is a good read, if you want to read about them instead of reading Stein herself.

SO here is the text from Partisan Review: `You should be able to vary the size of the page on your computer..




SO…you can see how many of the marks of Modernism and post-modernism were invented here.  Gopnik notices:  “All marked styles—and any style that isn’t marked isn’t a style; what we call a “mannered” style is simply a marked style on a bad morning—hold their authors hostage just a bit. Stein’s style makes subtle thoughts sound flat and straightforward, and it also lets straightforward, flat thoughts sound subtle. Above all, its lack of the ordinary half-tints and protective shadings of adjectives and semicolons—the Jamesian fog of implication—lends itself to generalizations, sometimes profound, often idiosyncratic, always startling. It is the most deliberately naïve style in which any good writer has ever worked, and it is also the most “faux-naïf,” the most willed instance of simplicity rising from someone in no way simple.  

What differentiates this kind of writing from someone like Hemingway, I would say, is that, whatever you think of Trilling’s critique of him, Stein’s repetitions and possible permutations through the power of absent punctuation sounds like the disease of  intentional echolalia: to drain sentences of meaning altogether. In this way, its intention is the opposite of the estrangement/ Verfremdungseffekt. Instead of asking the audience to refuse to identify with the action of a play in order to make viewers process it intellectually, Stein’s style of writing evacuates its sentences of their referentiality in a world of concepts and idea and reduces it to the almost meaningless echolalia of children.

Unknown-5  Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso

Next week: William Gruen begins to answer the question, “What is logical empiricism”?

Lionel Trilling on Hemingway the Man and Hemingway the Artist.


Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) was one of the contributors to Partisan Review who maintained his reputation as a brilliant critic and teacher throughout his life.  But he was also often suspected of being too stylish, elegant, and at ease in the world to be a true radical. And he wasn’t a radical in the sense of a poet maudit and writer like Delmore Schwartz or a maverick polemicist like Dwight McDonald.  He was cautious and somewhat aloof from the more tendentious positions and persons of the PR group. William Barrett, in his memoir of the Partisan Review clan, praises Lionel Trilling for his elegance of manners, of writing, and of demeanour.  But he also suggests that Trilling may have been the first of the PR writers to move towards a developing conservative strand in American intellectual life.

And he was a life-time Columbia academic.  Many of his colleagues and friends were Columbia graduates, and some had shorter term academic jobs at a number of prestigious universities, but Trilling was the model of a Modernist New York Intellectual Professor.  He was always an anti-Stalinist, and continued as Liberal Leftist during the Cold War, and afterwards, when his very influential book, The Liberal Imagination was taken as a medicine to help the dilemma of middle-class liberal indecision about the Cold War itself.

Hemingway the Artist

Hemingway the artistIn his essay on Hemingway, Trilling makes a political argument into an aesthetic one by differentiating between Hemingway ‘the artist’ and Hemingway ‘the man’, suggesting that the early Hemingway’s work was of high literary value, while his later works, contradictory in their focus on the “man” as the bearer of socialist politics, now have gravitated towards a ‘liberalism’ of ‘good behaviour.’

Hemingway the  Man.

Hemingway the man.

Trilling begins with two recent works by Hemingway: The Fifth Column and  The First Forty-Nine Stories:  “Hemingway the ‘artist’ is conscious; Hemingway the ‘man’ is self-conscious; the ‘artist’ has a kind of innocence; the ‘man’ a kind of naivety; the ‘artist’ is disinterested; the ‘man’ has a dull personal axe to grind; the ‘artist’ has a perfect medium, and tells the truth even if it is only his truth. But the ‘man’ fumbles at communication and falsifies.” He goes on, “Insofar as we can ever blame a critical tradition for a writer’s failures, we must, I believe, blame American criticism for the illegitimate emergence of Hemingway the  ‘man’ and the resulting inferiority of his two recent major works.”

Hemingway was greeted with two competing interpretations: on one side, he was thought of as a brilliant new style maker in fiction, on the other, that he was a writer of   “cruelty, religion, anti-intellectualism,” and these reactions in turn had a strong impact on Hemingway’s ideas about what kind of writer he wanted to be:“For upon Hemingway were turned all the fine social feelings of the now passing decade, all the noble sentiments, all the desperate optimism, all the extreme rationalism, all the contempt of irony and indirection– all the attitudes which, in the full tide of the liberal-radical movement, became dominant in our thought about literature.” 

So half the audience adored and imitated him, and the other half reviled him as a border-Nazi. But a third other idea was that he attacked ‘good human values.’ He tried to put in the ‘correct social feelings.’ in the ‘required social way.’   So he brought in Hemingway ‘the Man.’ Trilling cites Edmund Wilson’s argument  that Hemingway’s “ideas about life or rather, his sense of what happens and the way it happens, is in his stories sunk deep below the surface and is not conveyed by arguments or preaching but by directly transmitted emotion it is turned into something hard as crystal and as disturbing as a great lyric. When he expounds his sense of life, however, in his character of Ernest Hemingway, the Old Master of Key West, he has a way of sounding silly.”

At this point, Trilling slides into his political point about Hemingway’s deterioration: “If , however, Hemingway ‘in his own character,’ were apparent to the practitioners of this  critical tradition, they did not want Hemingway’s virtues – the something ‘hard’ and ‘disturbing.’ Indeed they were in a critical tradition that did not want artists at all–it wanted ‘men,’ recruits, and its apologists were delighted to enlist Hemingway in his own character, with all his confusions and naivety, simply because Hemingway had now declared himself on the right side.”

In that way critics on the left could forgive the ‘silliness’ or immaturity of the Hemingway ‘man’ writings, because that was the mark of their political commitment: of showing that Hemingway was “on the right side.”

“For what should have always been obvious is that Hemingway is a writer who, when he writes as an ‘artist,’ is passionately and aggressively concerned with truth and even with social truth.”

Trilling moves to the politics of America in and after  WWI: Trilling approves of Hemingway’s claim that the strength of  American prose originated in Huckleberry Finn’s trip down the Mississippi; Trilling adds to the horror of death and destruction:

“TO the sensitive men who went to war, it was not, perhaps death and destruction that made the disorganising shock. It was perhaps rather that death and destruction went on at the instance and to the accompaniment of the fine grave words, of which Woodrow Wilson’s were the finest and gravest: Here was the issue of liberal theory; here in the bloated or piecemeal corpse was the outcome of the words of humanitarianism and of ideals… Words were trundled smoothly o’er the tongue — Coleridge had said it long ago:

“Like mere abstractions, empty sounds to which/ We join no feeling and attach no form/ As if the soldier died without a wound. . ./Passed off to heaven, translated and not killed”.
SO it is, Trillling argues, against that language of complacent Liberalism that Hemingway’s search for the truth must be placed.

Trilling then adds a third category to ‘artist,’and ‘man’; contemporary politics. While arguing that the ‘artist’ seeks truth, he implies that Stalinist Popular Frontism and American Liberalism obfuscate the actuality of revolutionary possibility woven into the best works of the ‘artist.’  So, while elevating the ‘artist,’ Trilling also elevates the work of the artist by finding in it the contemporary questions and in places, possible answers to political as well as artistic problems.

Trilling never did become one of the Partisan Review writers who slid into conservatism over the years. He remained an anti-Stalinist Socialist throughout his life.

To read the whole of the essay, cut and paste the link below.

NEXT WEEK; Gertrude Stein