“American Artists Congress, 1939,” George L.K. Morris, PR, Spring 1939.

AAC1939 As you may recall from earlier posts, the artists’  group that reflected the aesthetic/political taste of the Popular Front was the American Artists’ Congress, sponsored by the Communist Party, USA, and aimed to contribute to the campaign against fascism. We have looked at many critiques of the Popular Front from the positions of writers for Partisan Review, which began with the Moscow Trials of 1936-38, and the development of the Trotskyist movement within and then exiled from, the Stalinist betrayal of the Russian Revolution. One of the features of Partisan Review’s stance was it’s advocacy of new forms of art, and in particular the modernist movements in painting and sculpture.  Morris’s short reviews of two sponsored events, the 3rd annual AAC of 1939, held in a sixth-floor gallery at 444 Madison Avenue, and the show held by American Abstract Painters Association that same year in March, at the Riverside Museum. Morris’s approach to each of these events is, for the most part, consistent with the splits between Stalinists and Trotskyists on the style of abstraction.

“The Artists’ Congress offers perhaps the broadest opportunity for appraising various influences that are now shaping the more popular courses of American art. And there are indications of greater promise in this 1939 Exhibition than one is accustomed to discover from large-scale displays at the present time. The native selections at the Metropolitan and Whitney Museums have long created a suspicion that American bourgeois art was fated to become permanently stuck in a lifeless morass of expanding vulgarity, and most local exhibitions have merely added to this unpalatable picture. At the Artists Congress, however, there is an absence of impressionist trickery, and a refreshing directness which might conceivably vitalize a genuine tradition. There is often a surprising technical freedom as well, and a pleasure in the manipulation of direct impasto. No quality is more readily communicated than that of drudgery, and it is perhaps significant that in this show the leading exponents of drudgery are usually those artists whom we encounter most often in the public galleries.

“The favourable impression would have been more successfully sustained if the galleries had been less generously provided with chairs. One must pause at length before a picture, and unfortunately there was little here that could stand a very intimate acquaintance. Many works disclosed the striking transcription of a momentary image, but that real distinction between which our century seems so rarely capable of of realising,was singularly absent. There was little to suggest the stirring of an esthetic impulse; the political earnestness had obviously thrown its weight in the opposite direction. {AJ: I find it strange that though Picasso’s Guernica arrived as an addition to the show, Morris doesn’t give it a mention}

3154201312860029“Works of every genre were in evidence, but the Congress exhibitions derive their special character from a preponderance of paintings that might be loosely classified as  “social satires.” Here, at any rate, they tended to eclipse all other types of work; at the same time they were to demonstrate the unavoidable effect of violent subject matter upon artists who have never been grounded on an authentic tradition of their own.The very language of painting, by which  literary ideas can be made plastically credible, has been laid aside; therefore, the more intense the illustrative emotion, the more it has appeared to stick through the structural fabric, until often the connection between title and expressive means would become quite arbitrary. A painting here entitled Refugees {AJ: William Gropper} could have passed many years ago for a peculiarly romantic Madonna and Child. And one particular work, Flight from Fascism, went so far as to take its pose and composition quite blatantly from Delacroix’s Flight of Medea. –{AJ: this comparison doesn’t make any sense — can anyone help?! and I can’t find the image of the “Flight from Fascism, either. }. 

But Morris isn’t actually interested in Popular Front political art; what he is interested in is the work of the American Abstract Artists group, of which he had been a founding member.

““An Exhibition of almost equal proportions, although in complete opposition to that of the Congress, was held in March by the American Abstract Artists, and the resultant impressions are interesting to compare. The slogan of the Congress is For Peace, For Democracy, For Cultural Progress, and obvious comments upon these phrases echo resoundingly from every wall. The Abstract Artists share these convictions, but they also believe that the esthetic impulse cannot become a tool for concrete political or philosophical dissemination,– at this stage of our cultural metamorphosis at least. In their galleries the emphasis  contracts upon rudimentary encounters with pattern and design; there is a consistent searching after such shapes and linear combinations as can hold those conceptions of individuality which they feel to be evolving anew. The present decade may have publicized at last the cracks in the old social order. The Congress illustrates the crevices. The abstract artists, on the other hand, attempt to re-order their plastic instincts; they attack the established conceptions of art itself.

“The emergence of a sudden and intense restriction has often in the past accompanied the painful process of cultural reorientation. It can hardly have been by accident that another age of chaos, which saw the disintegration of the Roman Empire, should have left the Ravenna mosaics as its purest heritage. Possibly it requires an impasse comparable to that in which the world finds itself today to give courage to that complete restriction which has made possible the work of many abstract artists. The pitfalls are many which await the processes of consciously attempted simplification. Particularly in an age of science and mechanism the artist can be lured into reproducing no more than the purely static technique of the manufactured object. . Such painters as Shaw, Gallatin, and Greene have concentrated upon every direction that their flattened forms can follow, every linear juncture, every weight of tone and colour, without relinquishing personal stylistic over meaning. Their works are reticent, for their expressive ends have purposely been carried no farther than their simplified fabric will allow. Yet through such limited means they have destroyed the old conception of the ‘picture’; each has substituted a thing, — an object that is at rest completely, — and thus can a way some day be cleared for a new reality.


Charles G. Shaw

Gallatin  A.E. Gallatin.  images-11

Balcombe Green Balcombe Green Unknown-15

I will be in New York for the next two Saturdays, but will be back after that.








“The Poet as Poet,” Delmore Schwartz, Partisan Review, vol.6, No. 3,Spring 1939.

imageWe haven’t seen much  Delmore Schwartz in  Partisan Review for a while, but his companion piece to Auden’s “trial” of W.B. Yeats, “The Poet as Poet”, also takes on the issue of  how Yeats’ poetry changed over his long career. This was good news for poets in general, Schwartz wryly suggests: “The process of a bad poet of the ‘Nineties becoming a great poet in middle age. Henceforth no poet can be regarded as utterly hopeless: the possibility of a Yeatsian miracle will always present itself.” 

Schwartz describes Yeats’s youthful experiments in poetry as part the fin-de-siecle “mellifluous speech”– inherited from Shelley,  the Pre-Raphelites, and Swinburne.Yeats would go on to follow, the Indian thread of Mme. Blavatsky’s theosophical ‘researches’  along with the “cultic twaddle” of the Celtic Twilight.

From beginning to end, Yeats was evidently prepared to try anything. Socialism or hashish, once or twice. The idiom in which he wrote, however, was the period style, based upon a misunderstanding of Baudelaire and Mallarme by an emphasis on their superficial qualities.”

Schwartz next takes two stanzas from Yeats’s various imagining of his image of beauty and love, Maud Gonne; one from “The Wind Among the Reeds”; the other from “Among School Children.”

Dim Powers of drowsy thought, let her no longer be

Like the pale cup of the sea.

When the winds  have gathered and sun and moon burned dim

Above its cloudy rim;

But let a gentle silence wrought with music flow

Whither her footsteps go.


With respect to the earlier stanza, Schwartz explains,  the poetic voice creates a ‘general’ and vague atmospheric “of dim images musically sounded,” while in the stanza from “Among School Children,” that generality is replaced by “the precise  word and the precise observation are used to get a specific emotion on the page.

Her present image floats into the mind —

Did Quattrocento finger fashion it

Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind

And took a mess of shadows for its meat?

And I, though never of Ledean kind

Had pretty plumage once –enough of that,

Better to smile on all that smile, and show

There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

“It is this ability to represent emotion with the greatest vividness, directness, and dramatic justification which constitutes Yeats’s peculiar gift, rather than the understanding and insight   or the brilliance of observation or the freshness of attitudes and values which are the more usual marks of the great poet.”

Schwartz now turns to explain the ‘factors’ if not the reasons, that altered Yeats’s poetic:

During the years in which the change began to show itself, Yeats was faced with failures of various sorts. His early fame had begun to wane, his long courtship of one woman [Maud Gonne] had ended in emptiness. The Abbey Theatre, on which his hopes for a poetic theatre rested, had received little but abuse and misunderstanding, the whole Irish literary renaissance had faded, and many of his most gifted friends, Wilde, Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and Synge, had died in misery and degradation. This would be enough to make most men forget about the land of dreams and the Irish fairyland of the early poems.” 

But Yeats didn’t simply forget what he had written. “He seized upon the opposition between the land of dreams and the actuality about him, and engaged in a continual see-saw between the two. The structure, so to speak, of thought and of feeling became what Yeats came to call antithetical.”

The fundamental opposition was between what Yeats called subjectivity and objectivity; or less ambiguously, introversion and extroversion.”  And from there everything in Yeats’s poetic was about the shifting from the one to the other. First was that between ART and Life; “which was sordid , sodden, and soiled,” or, as Lionel Johnson said, constituted by “a London Fog, the blurred tawny lamplight, the red omnibus, the glaring gin shop, the slatternly shivering women.”

Schwartz describes Yeats’s youth as one in which he “literally inhaled the doctrine of Art for Art’s Sake, and learned from his father that only that sort was genuine.” Yet Yeats’s work was always divided by his steady allegiance to ART and his various ones to politics. In

AN Irish Airman Forsees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Schwartz writes:  “The lonely impulse of delight, the rejection of law, duty, public men, and cheering crowds, betrays the voice as that of the poet of the ‘Nineties’ who has lived into the next generation. Yeats has transformed his hypothetical airman into a romantic poet, or we may say, if we consider this poem in relation to his work as a whole, that when confronted with the World War, the poet succeeds in sustaining the romantic attitude with which he began; but not however, without being perfectly aware of the difficult circumstances in which he is sustaining it.”

Schwartz goes on to look at the states of permanence that attract Yeats in his later poems. From this time onwards, the poet of ART sees that only those things can be rejected for the permanence of ART, or of timelessness, or of beautiful  stasis will be what lasts, while the ruins of human lives — the engagements with war and ambition and politics — must fall away in human time, leaving only the work of the Poet, out of time, the romantic poet,  to commemorate and tell what is past or passing or to come.

After reading the pieces by Auden and Schwartz on Yeats…I  see that  Auden and Schwartz are direct inheritors of Yeats; Auden perfecting the poetic language of the world of apparatuses and structures and objectivity; Schwartz elaborating the romanticism of the Poetic vocation.