Trending lately is a (welcomed) wave of inclusivity that has engulfed the world. Be it an individual demand or a more public endeavor—such as by a political or cultural association—there seem to be new spaces being created for acknowledging and accepting previously ignored factions. Based on a similar premise is the herculean venture titled Group Dynamics – Collectives of the Modernist Period at Lenbachhaus in Munich.
This exhibition attempts to re-examine art history and it’s development through time, specifically the period of Modernism from 1910 to 1980’s. Unlike most western showcases, this exhibition is inclusive—it presents a snapshot of European art history and at the same time it widens the lens, through which art is understood, by simultaneously displaying works from various other parts of the world that were made around the same time; hence providing a global context on the development of Modern Art. The show encompasses the works of fourteen diverse artist collectives from around the globe.
This tremendous display is best explained in two parts: one part consists entirely of the Blue Rider oeuvre, including work that was part of the two exhibitions organized by the group in the early twentieth century, as well as work made by members that has always been part of the museum’s collection. However, all of it has been curated afresh for this exhibition by curators Annegret Hoberg, Matthias Mühling, and Anna Straetmans.
The Blue Rider is a German artist collective that was set up in 1912 and made significant progress within the genre of expressionism. It was primarily led by artists Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc alongside other local artists. The group’s manifesto explicitly states their desire to look at art in an equitable manner because art “knows neither borders nor nations but only humanity.” Despite their noble intentions, their understanding of international art was limited and perceived through a western colonial lens that lacked an understanding of the culture or background of works obtained from abroad. This fact is iterated in the exhibition’s literature: “The editors’ inadequate captions for the images show that their knowledge of non-European works was extremely scant, and that they ignored the objects’ provenance, history, and functions with naivety and insouciance in their pursuit of a definitely Eurocentric vision of new correlations in the realm of “originality.””
However, the second part of the exhibition brings to life the Blue Riders’ intention of creating an all-inclusive art milieu. This has been achieved through thorough research and is well informed. Group Dynamics includes works produced through the 20th century by various exemplary artist collectives belonging to different geographical locales. Bearing in mind the timeframe, the common thread running through the works of all the groups was their interest in modernity, their emergence at a time of conflict, struggle for independence, anti-colonialism and the desire for identity. Not unlike the rest, tackling all these issues were the Progressive Artist Group in Bombay (now Mumbai) and the Lahore Art Circle in the then newly formed Pakistan. Both these collectives were fighting demons of their past as they tried to establish an independent visual profile for their respective countries.
Bombay Progressive Artist Group (PAG) and the Lahore Art Circle’s (LAC) work has been curated collectively in a shared space by Dr Eva Huttenlauch, with expert advice from Dr. Samina Iqbal and Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy. The paintings in this part of the exhibition are displayed in pairs to show similarities between works of artists separated by partition. In an insightful take on partition, each pair of artworks installed side by side is separated by a slim blue barrier. The curation of this space argues that the PAG and LAC are two sides of the same coin, both connected and distinct simultaneously. Even though they were each looking to establish a unique artistic language that would represent the newly-formed nation, their shared sociopolitical history makes them very similar. For instance, both groups had rejected previously esteemed artistic practices such as that of Chughtai (in Pakistan) and Tagore (in India) where religious glory and historic accomplishments were celebrated. Furthermore, the interaction of particular members of each group with European modern art led to the artists returning to their respective countries wanting to dissociate from the past and initiating a universal visual language that would aid them in participating in a global dialogue while manifesting a new identity.
Two works that exemplify the similarity between the two groups is that of brothers S.H. Raza (who stayed on in India) and Ali Imam (who moved to Pakistan at the time of partition). Though the brothers stayed in touch, they never discussed their art practices. Hence, the resonance between Raza’s painting Haut de Cagnes (1951) and Imam’s Untitled – Townscape Day (1956) is uncanny.
Besides the architecture, the representation of the sun in the formers painting, an integral element of Hindu mythology, and the moon which has relevance in Islam, in the latter’s visual is astounding. The sun and the moon, in both artists’ works are painted in hues of black, perhaps referencing their shared melancholy. The brothers fell out over migration and their work reflects their equally perturbed mindsets through the use of emblems such as the sun and moon, elements that are succinctly dissected by Jumabhoy in the statement, “Thus, their shadowy spheres remain dark doubles; their motifs echoing each other, yet symbolically opposed.” Likewise, all the works in this room are paired based on research into the experiences of the artists.
A significant exhibition and ambitious project, Group Dynamics – Collectives of the Modernist Period does more than just display works of art produced at the same time in different parts of the world. The research and planning of the show debates historiography—it ponders the retelling and accountability of formalizing content as history, while acknowledging that certain names and artistic practices will invariably get left out. Simultaneously, it provides room to individually or collectively link practices and trajectories. This show is a necessary disruption in the way art history is perceived and relayed in a fast-paced, global society where it is now essential that all groups be seen and acknowledged. This is best summed up in the exhibition text, “By addressing, among other things, anti-colonial struggles, questions of identity, and expressions of solidarity through artistic perspectives, the texts (….) demand their respective audiences to engage with their content. In the process, it becomes apparent that some of the conflicts described continue into the present.’
Group Dynamics—Collectives of the Modernist Period is up from October 19, 2021 until April 24, 2022. It is part of the program Global Museum. Collections of the 20th Century from a Global Perspective 2018–2022, an initiative of the German Federal Cultural Foundation.
Title Image: Installation Shot,Group Dynamics – Collectives of the Modernist Period, 2021.Municipal gallery in the Lenbachhaus and Kunstbau Munich. Photo: Simone Gänsheimer.
- Eva Huttenlauch, Introduction, Catalogue, Group Dynamics – Collectives of the Modernist Period, 2021-2022
- Zehra Jumabhoy, catalogue essay, Group Dynamics – Collectives of the Modernist Period, 2021-2022
- Samina Iqbal, catalogue essay, Group Dynamics – Collectives of the Modernist Period, 2021-2022
- Press release, Group Dynamics – Collectives of the Modernist Period, 2021-2022
- Introductory / informational texts, Lenbachhhaus exhibition space, Group Dynamics – Collectives of the Modernist Period, 2021-2022
- Exhibition Imprint, Group Dynamics – Collectives of the Modernist Period, 2021-2022
- Zehra Jumabhoy. Interview Samar F. Zia. Friday December 2021