1.The Facts (Just a Few)
In 1939, Carmen Ruiz Sánchez, formerly known as Tina Modotti, disembarked at the port of Veracruz. As a final gesture, the actress-turned-photographer abandoned her spot behind the camera, alleging other kinds of political priorities.
Around 1943, a young Pavel Gubchevsky offered a guided tour through the empty galleries of the Hermitage Museum for the Soviet soldiers who had helped safeguard its treasures against the imminent danger of plundering by the Nazi army that was then advancing on Saint Petersburg.
On October 29, 1947, Dutch painter Han van Meegeren was tried for collaborating with the Nazis―a crime that was punishable by death in postwar Netherlands―and sentenced to a year in prison for forgery.
Sometime in 1967, the writer and famous hoaxer Clifford Irving is reported to have irrupted, impersonating an FBI agent, into La Falaise, the Ibiza residence of the eccentric millionaire and indefatigable jetsetter, the art dealer, arms trafficker, Ambassador-at-Large for Haiti, Nicaragua, and Liberia (among others), and long-time CIA agent: Fernand Legros.
In 1979, Sir Anthony Blunt, a member of the British intelligence service, a respected art historian and the surveyor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Pictures, was removed from his post and stripped of his knighthood when Margaret Thatcher revealed him to be the fourth man in the “Cambridge Five”―a group of spies that had worked for the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In the spring of 1990, amid all the political changes brought about by the fall of the Communist regime, Nedko Solakov exhibited his work Top Secret for the first time, to great controversy, as it constituted a kind of public confession detailing his collaboration with the Bulgarian Secret Police.
In 1998, Andrea Wolf (alias Sehît Ronahî), a friend of Hito Steyerl’s who starred in one of her early films combining feminism and the martial arts, was killed in action as she fought for the Kurdistan liberation movement.
Between 2005 and 2008, the artist Jill Magid interviewed several undercover agents from the Dutch Secret Service, after receiving an invitation from that country’s Security and Intelligence Service (AIVD) to create a work of art that would “give the agency a human face”.
On January 25, 2009, Milo Rau asked a certain Walter Benjamin, the self-proclaimed official spokesperson of the Museum of American Art (MoAA), “If there is a place out of History (even if it is just the history of art), what kind of stories are told there?” 1
2. The Scene
Each of the characters assembled in this exhibition has a story of his or her own to tell―in some cases narrated, analyzed or distorted multiple times depending on the era and the author on duty. A Place Out of History emerges as a kind of platform or stage set where a whole series of stories converge, most of them told from the corridors of history, and whose central figures each seem to demand their turn in the spotlight. In these stories, false identities, secret agendas, official versions and half-baked truths all played an active role―though almost always from behind the scenes―in the definition of specific political scenarios and movements. However, their narrative reconstructions and mediatic restitutions reveal a series of historical coincidences and ideological divergences which have blurred the lines that divide the inside from the outside of history, and fiction from reality.
3. The Characters
Milo Rau’s question to Walter Benjamin regarding the narratives that emerge from the margins of history marks a pause in the chronological and causal unfolding of the facts, and opens up a line of questioning regarding the role played by the protagonists of such narratives. “The main feature of art history,” states Benjamin in another recent interview where the question of his identity was addressed, “is the uniqueness of its characters: persons, objects or events. However, from the meta-position, art history becomes just a story and all these unique historical entities are now transformed into the characters in this story, like the characters in a theater play.” 2
4. The Motive
The dialogue we propose among contemporary artists, historic pieces and archival documents falls into a now-traditional line of research that questions the so-called neutrality and autonomy of artistic expressions, as well as both art history’s constructive strategies and its forms of enunciation―and, one should add, those of the curatorial practice; discourse as a reconnaissance tool that contributes to the writing of a historic moment. From this perspective, the works in the exhibition not only address artistic production as an ideological tool that has played an instrumental role in the construction of history but also, and conversely, the fact that art history has so frequently been written according to a political agenda, ultimately evolving into the construction of a system of communication and international exchange.
But to return to the original question: Is there (or is there not) an inside and an outside of art history? The answer may vary depending on where the narrator is located. The questions we should be asking then are: How do images travel? What political and discursive economies do they react to? The answers are even more compelling when we consider the need to rethink the format of exhibitions, which, as this one, are obliged to initiate a negotiation between the function of art and the artist’s role; between art as the object of desire and as a historical document; between the desire to believe and the right to be fooled.
Many of the stories surrounding Tina Modotti, photographer and agent of the Communist Party, have been based on the letters she exchanged with Edward Weston as well as on newspaper articles. Modotti first became a public figure when she was linked, in 1929, to the murder of Julio Antonio Mella, founder of the Cuban Communist Party. She would later be absolved of this crime when suspicion would fall on the then-Cuban government, and on Communist agents from Moscow.
Some of those who have written her story have done so in order to slant it to clear their own names, as did Vittorio Vidali, Modotti’s last partner, who worked for different agencies of the Soviet Communist Party. It was he who accompanied Modotti on the boat that took her to Europe after being implicated in the attempted murder of President Elect Pascual Ortiz Rubio in 1930, a crime for which she was later thrown out of Mexico. Modotti then settled briefly in Berlin and, following Vidali’s advice, moved to Moscow in 1931. There she gave up photography in order to pursue her activities as an International Red Aid agent, a Soviet organization that supported persecuted or jailed communists around the world.
Upon not achieving recognition for his own artistic work, Van Meegeren chose to forge and sell paintings by great Dutch masters of the seventeenth century in order to silently devote himself to his talent. In 1932 he painted Man and Woman at Spinet, a work similar to the compositions and themes of Johannes Vermeer, which was claimed by art historian Abraham Bredius to be one of Vermeer’s greatest works but nonetheless managed to raise suspicion among specialists. Van Meegeren reassessed his strategy and decided to create a series of paintings that would fill a void in the religious period that specialists maintained had existed in Vermeer’s work. Among others, he painted Christ with the Adultress (1930–1944), which he sold to Hermann Göring at the beginning of the Second World War.
After the end of the war, Van Meegeren was accused of looting Dutch cultural heritage in order to benefit Nazi officers when Christ with the Adultress was found in Göring’s possession. The painter thus confessed to having forged the work, along with several others. During the trial, in view of the disbelief that he could create a Vermeer, he painted a new piece which absolved him of the accusation of being a Nazi collaborator. He was, however, charged with forgery and fraud.
In 1939 Henry Moore installed Reclining Woman (1930)… in the garden of the architect Ernő Goldfinger’s newly completed home at 2 Willow Road, Hampstead. The modernist home proved unpopular with many residents, most famously with the writer Ian Fleming whose wrath led him to recast Goldfinger as the Cold War villain par excellence. In Toronto, however, Moore’s connection to international espionage was far more real: his work was first introduced to the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO) by Anthony Blunt, the Director of the Courtauld Institute, Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures, now infamous spy. In 1955 Blunt, an advisor to the Toronto museum, had proposed Moore’s Warrior with Shield (1953–1954) for acquisition.
While Moore was no doubt oblivious to the latter’s connection to international espionage, this most international of artists was not untouched by the machinations of global politics and appears to have become adept at balancing his interests with those of people with money and power. While Moore was a public sponsor of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, he was also happy to receive a commission for a sculpture (Nuclear Energy, 1964–1966) to commemorate Enrico Fermi’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in Chicago in 1942. Even before that commission had been completed, Moore had, much to the distress of Chicago University, made an edition of a smaller working model of the sculpture under the title Atom Piece (pun clearly intended―one of which he later [controversially] sold to the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (…). Further still, it was observed that Moore had amassed a considerable fortune from his association with Joseph Hirshhorn, whose own vast fortune had in turn come from the phenomenally profitable sale of uranium deposits in Canada, a sale bolstered by the frenetic activities of the Atomic Energy Commission during the 1940s and 1950s (Simon Starling, Redeploying Moore―excerpt).
Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima): A sixteenth century Japanese play of personal reinvention, double identity and disguise restaged as a cold war drama. With James Bond, Joseph Hirshhorn, Enrico Fermi, Anthony Blunt, Colonel Sanders and the multifaceted Atom Piece as Ushiwaka, the exiled son of the defeated Lord Yoshitomo, flying from incarceration with the help of Henry Moore as a hat maker, who fashions his disguise.
The Museum of American Art (MoAA) in Berlin is an educational institution dedicated to assembling, preserving and exhibiting memories of the Museum of Modern Art and its circulating exhibitions in Europe during the 1950s. Curated by Dorothy Miller, these exhibitions first introduced Gorky, Motherwell, Pollock, Gottlieb, Rothko, Kline and de Kooning into the museum context. These artists constituted the most attractive and radical segment of the works promoted by the International Program of Circulating Exhibitions, established by the MoMA, and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation with the aim of “promoting greater international understanding and mutual respect”.
Those were strange years in art and politics. On the one hand, Modern Art had to be defended from the criticism from the right (see Alfred Barr Jr., “Is Modern Art Communistic?”). On the other, it became apparent, especially to people like George Kennan (North American diplomat, political scientist, and historian, known as “the father of containment” during the Cold War), that American Modern Art could be used in the “cultural Cold War” as an expression of Western creativity and freedom. Nevertheless, these exhibitions helped establish the first postwar common European cultural identity, based on Modernism (abstract art), Internationalism and individualism, finally establishing Barr’s narrative―constructed in the mid 1930s, as defined through his famous diagram and later through the MoMA permanent exhibit―as the dominant history of Modern Art until today (MoAA, Mission Statement).
Once upon a time there was a boy.
They say he was a smart and obedient one. He got the highest grades in school, he read books at home and he drew. (...) He particularly liked the books with the adventure stories where the “good guys” won out over the “bad guys”. He also liked spy stories. The brave Soviet “Chekisti” and their Bulgarian colleagues Avakum Zakhov and Emil Boev really compelled him. They made him confident that the enemies who were spoken and written about everywhere were not going to intrude upon his socialist fatherland.
The boy was growing up… In the autumn of 1976 (when he was in his second year at the Academy of Fine Arts), he went on a trip to Paris (his loving parents, whom he loved dearly in return, paid for the trip). Everything was wonderful—the Louvre, the Rodin (museum), the Duffy retrospective, a few porn movies. In the middle of the eight-day trip, the tour leader of the group of Bulgarian tourists told him that packages had been left at the reception desk for both him and B. (a kind older man, the brother of a well-known professor). To the boy’s surprise, his package contained “enemy” propaganda materials. The boy read this and that and then handed the materials over to the tour leader with the words: “They are ‘spitting’ on Bulgaria!” The tour leader got worried and quickly summoned a man from the Embassy to whom the boy gave the package, happy to have carried out his patriotic duty…*
*Nedko Solakov, The action is on (for the time being)—excerpt. Text written in 1990. Originally published in Kultura weekly newspaper (Sofia), 22 June 1990.
Top Secret, created between December 1989 and February 1990, consists of an index box, filled with a series of cards detailing the artist’s youthful collaboration with the Bulgarian state security, which he stopped doing in 1983. In Bulgaria, twenty one years after the changeover, the official files remain closed, and there are no publicly known documents on the artist’s collaboration. The work caused great controversy when it was first exhibited in the spring of 1990, at the height of the political changes to the long-standing Communist rule. The self-disclosing gesture in this artistic project is still unique in the context of post-Communist Europe, and since its appearance, Top Secret has become an icon of its time. A forty-minute long video, which shows the artist re-reading the index box’s contents, was shot in his studio in Sofia in 2007.
In 1969―two years after his intimidatory intervention at La Falaise, Irving would publish Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Forger of our Time, a biography detailing the acclaimed forger’s complicity with the art dealer Fernand Legros. Legros sued him for defamation while he allowed his friend, the writer and diplomat Roger Peyrefitte, to enthusiastically depict him not only as a collector of art and of exquisite teenage males, but also as an unscrupulous arms merchant and money launderer suspected to be a silent accomplice in various obscure political scenarios such as the kidnapping of Moise Tshombé and the murder of Ben Barka.
Legros was finally convicted for fraud by the French government in 1979, after twelve years of preparation of a case and several extradition demands, and the intervention of forty one international lawyers―among which Henry Kissinger, who personally oversaw his release from one of his last stopovers in prison four years earlier, by protesting the mistreatment of an American citizen. Having received a two-year sentence, he walked away from the Parisian tribunals scot-free, claiming that he had already spent that time in custody.
“False. Everything that follows is false… Any resemblance to existing persons or to persons who have existed is purely coincidental, and whoever would see any comparison or rapprochement with any real person would be acting against my will.”
Fernand Legros, Fausses histories d’un faux marchand de tableaux, 1979, Preface
A first version of A Place out of History was originally presented at Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City from September 2010 to March 2011.
Curated by Magali Arriola in collaboration with Magnolia de la Garza.
- 1. Walter Benjamin: Places of Re-remembering,” consulted at http://www.althussers-haende.org/walter-benjamin-places-of-re-remembering , June 21, 2010
- 2. Walter Benjamin interviewed by Maxine Kopsa, “The Museum is History: The Museum of American Art in the Van Abbemuseum,” http://www.metropolism.com/features/the-museum-is-history/english (consulted June 22, 2010).