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Painting Under the Shadow: California Modernism and the Second World War
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Disarming Parables: Hans Burkhardt's War Paintings

Hans Burkhardt stands apart among modernists in California, not only for his opposition to World War II at its very outset, but also for his willingness to confront political reality directly in his art. Burkhardt's more than forty antiwar paintings, begun several years before America entered the conflict, were virtually the only modernist protests in California. Paintings such as One Way Road (1945), with its imagery of limitless, incalculable destruction, or Iwo Jima (1945), with its bloody mutilation, contrasted dramatically with the popular media's sanitized portrayal of the war in the 1940s, when even novelists were admonished not to write of combat as an unpleasant affair.[14] Burkhardt's works were intended to jolt viewers out of their apathy, and indeed, they sometimes provoked heated reactions. Even his War, Agony in Death (1939-40; Fig. 15), which condemned the German bombing of the Basque town of Guernica, inflamed Los Angeles viewers in 1944. One woman attacked it with a cane and had to be forcibly removed from a gallery on Sunset Boulevard.

Burkhardt spent the late 1920s and 1930s receiving private tutorials from Arshile Gorky in New York, where, along with Gorky's other informal pupil, Willem de Kooning, he developed a relatively sophisticated understanding of French abstraction from Cézanne to Miró. Burkhardt's thematic concerns, however, soon diverged from those of de Kooning and Gorky, both of whom kept their distance from the political arena. As early as 1937, after Burkhardt had moved to Los Angeles, his work began to reflect the growing turmoil in Europe. In 1938 he initiated a series of canvases on the theme of the Spanish Civil War, culminating in War, Agony in Death , the first of his mural-sized antiwar paintings. Burkhardt claimed to have been unaware of Picasso's Guernica , and indeed, the final product synthesizes expressionist and surrealist styles in a very un-Picasso-like manner, with slashing brushwork and a palette of lurid reds reminiscent of Chaim Soutine's. Unlike Picasso, Burkhardt does not attempt to evoke the actual bombardment but presents a generalized image of devastation. Although the painting is dominated by a back-thrust head with mouth open wide that recalls Picasso's shrieking figures as well as such earlier antecedents as Hieronymus Bosch's gaping jaws of hell, Burkhardt's head is less easily identified. Half-human, half-armored tank, its twisted, dripping mouth emits a cry that powerfully expresses the collective anguish of Guernica. The destruction of life is indicated by the profusion of crosses—so numerous that the), topple over one another in competition for space, an allusion perhaps to the mass graves that were then a largely unpublicized fact of war.

Burkhardt's knowledge of collective graves could not have come from firsthand combat experience. Beyond the draft age, he had spent the early part of World War II in a Southern California defense plant building airplane parts and the remainder finishing furniture for a film studio in Hollywood. His closest personal contact with war waobserving, as a child in Switzerland, the eerie red glow produced by bombs bursting. over the border mountains during World War I. This image is often conjured in his paintings,[15] but the crimson sky as a backdrop for battle has a long tradition in poetry


Figure 15
Hans Burkhardt, War, Agony in Death , 1939-40.
 Oil on canvas, 78 × 114 in. California State University at Northridge. 
Photograph courtesy Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Los Angeles.

and painting, from Eugene Delacroix to Edmund Blunden.[16] For the most part, then, Burkhardt's vision of war drew primarily on his imagination, as well as cumulative associations from literature, the popular media, and the work of other artists. His work is best understood, not as an expression of the "reality" of war, but as a response to antecedent, technique, actual events, and, above all, his own intense feelings about the destruction and violence of war.[17]

Burkhardt's antipathy cannot be traced to any involvement with organized religion or politics; his preoccupation with death and suffering had much more personal roots. He spent his early childhood in Basel's industrial quarter, where his family's home stood in the shadow of a chemical factory and across the street from a rat-infested junkyard.[18] When Burkhardt was three, his father abandoned the family for America; a few years later, when his mother died of tuberculosis, he and his sister went to live in an orphanage. Years later, after moving to New York to join his father and stepmother, he lost both within a year, one to illness and the other to an automobile accident.

The theme of abandonment can be found in one of Burkhardt's first war paintings, The Parting (1939; Fig. 16). Although highly abstract, the image can be read as a man leaving his family to go to war. On the left, several children cry out, while on the right, their parents embrace for a final parting kiss.[19] This painting provides a template for


Figure 16
Hans Burkhardt, The Parting , 1939. Oil on canvas, 22 × 28 in
Photograph courtesy Jack Rutberg Fine Arts, Los Angeles

many of Burkhardt's later works, notably War, Agony in Death , where the "children" reappear as a personal shorthand for suffering. But there the "father-mother" configuration has metamorphosed into a monstrous weapon of war. The image projects Burkhardt's conflicted feelings of anger and loss toward his parents while doubling as a metaphor for the demonic forces of technology. On both levels of parable, victim and oppressor are conflated.

Burkhardt has been described as Goya's spiritual heir, and it is true that few artists since Goya have been as consumed by the brutality of war. But unlike Goya's Disasters of War (1810), Burkhardt's paintings dwell on the innocent victims rather than those responsible for war's atrocities.[20] Among his most horrific renderings of suffering are the concentration camp paintings, of which he made at least four during the course of the war. The first, painted in 1941, suggests two skeletal figures locked in an embrace. The threat of death is near, symbolized by two crosses at their heads. By 1942, the figures have collapsed into an undifferentiated heap, with only the most tentative characteristics of humanity to define them. Burkhardt unleashes some of his most savage


brushwork in this painting and its companion of the same year, with ragged, slashing strokes that express the full force of his fury. These paintings, however, are most remarkable, not for their emotional intensity, but for their prophetic imaging. Although it was common knowledge in America at the time that the Nazis had confined European Jews to concentration camps, the details of Hitler's gas chambers and crematoria were made public only in 1943. Even in 1944 most Americans remained oblivious to the genocide. According to the historian John Morton Blum, a poll taken in December 1944 revealed that much of the general public "knew Hitler had killed some Jews but could not believe that even the Nazis had methodically murdered millions."[21]

Skeletal forms appear in Burkhardt's paintings with increasing frequency toward the end of the war, culminating in one of his most harrowing paintings, VE Day (1945; Plate 5). The subject of victory in Europe might suggest something celebratory, but Burkhardt confronts the appalling cost of the armistice by presenting a panorama of horror that recalls the hellscapes of Bosch. The dead and wounded are shown in such profusion that they appear to rise ad infinitum beyond the canvas. In some cases, their bodies appear torn and mutilated. One disembodied member actually appears to pierce another, causing a cascade of blood. This painting, however, constitutes one of the rare instances in which Burkhardt specifies the gruesome details of war. Although he often implies an abundance of blood through a liberal use of red, Burkhardt largely excludes the horror of battle from his paintings. Nowhere do we find the rotting maggot-infested cadavers of Otto Dix, who painted the German battlefields of World War I. Compared with Dix's nauseating body-littered trenches, Burkhardt's VE Day provides a pleasure to the eye.

It is a paradox of Burkhardt's work—and indeed, of many modernist attempts to treat the theme of war—that a concern with technique often resulted in the artful rendering of a profoundly ugly subject. Many of Burkhardt's paintings present an unsettling conjunction of sensuality and death. Burkhardt certainly did not intend to aestheticize violence or to use his war paintings as vehicles for virtuosity, but that is precisely what he did. His paintings of atomic explosions, with their radiant colors and masterful handling of line, are especially dazzling.

Burkhardt embraced not only the aesthetic devotion of modernism but also its aversion to narrative, which precluded the concrete treatment of war found in the work of Dix or Goya. Although his paintings are for the most part tied to specific events, they show some of the same striving for universality that one finds in abstract expressionism. In most of Burkhardt's paintings, people appear, not as individuals, but as archetypes of humanity. Burkhardt shared abstract expressionism's ambition to express a content generic to all cultures, to speak what Elmer Bischoff called a pictorial Esperanto.[22]

Burkhardt's desire for unity, the flip side of his obsession with war, could at times verge on utopianism, as in One World (1945), a painting that exceeds even the idealism of Wendell Willkie's best-selling book of the same title published two years earlier. Going well beyond Willkie's call for global democracy, Burkhardt imagines a world in


which all the races have blended to form a single unified culture, symbolized by an abstraction of interlocking planes of color. A strain of optimism runs through much of Burkhardt's work. Many of his darkest war paintings of the 1940s contain a glimmer of hope, often suggested by the conventional landscape allegory of storm clouds beginning to break. Occasionally, Burkhardt's paintings serve as an arena for enacting his fantasies of political justice. As early as 1939 he painted Hitler hanging from a noose over the ruins of Germany. In later decades he would bury Lyndon Johnson for his complicity in the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon for his corruption of the government. But if Burkhardt occasionally found imaginative release through his art, the seriousness of political injustice was never far from his mind. His brand of escapism was not intended for amusement or diversion. Burkhardt's sober response to World War II was worlds apart from Clay Spohn's whimsical flights of fantasy.

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