Max Slevogt! I’m devoting an entire post to him! And why wouldn’t I when the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister gave him a whole room? If you go onto their website and have a perv at the virtual tour for Galerie Neue Meister, you see something quite different. Ungrouped paintings, Degas next to Slevogt all over the place. Now, you leave one room having correctly fallen in love with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Eisenbahnüberführung Löbtauer Straße in Dresden and you’re thrown across into North Africa.
All but one of these paintings comes from his trip to Egypt in 1914, and together in one room, what a treat. The odd one out is Bildnis der Tänzerin Anna Pawlowa from 1909, but who cares? It’s Pavlova! I love paintings of dancers! And anyway, she’s dead jaunty in a costume that looks like it’s from Petipa’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter or one of Ballet Russes’ pieces, like Cléopâtre from the same year. And you have to look at her facial expression. Also the brushwork. Closeup, her torso and hips merge into the background without any clear boundary. For an impressionist painter, there’s a lot that resembles expressionism.
All around are these dozen or more works with bright sky and land. It’s not the full set of 21 works, and I’m also not sure I successfully photographed them all, but it’s a rare display. I’m torn a little between liking these too much and the awareness this kind of orientalism came at the peak of European imperial colonialism, after centuries of slavery, and when the colonies of Africa, the Middle East, … all the colonies, Australia, Canada, all of them were sites of genocide. And there’s no way I can look at these works and know how a European audience in 1914 regarded them, whether they saw these people as their equals in some way, or whether it fed and confirmed their belief in their own superiority, culturally, racially.
Not long before this, from 1891 until his death in 1903, Gauguin was in Tahiti. It’s useful to compare the two, their similarities and differences. Both of them seem to have a sympathy for their subjects, but whereas Gauguin’s works are unequivocally those of a person who knew these women (much like I think of Rubens and the person of his Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor), Slevogt’s are more like holiday snapshots, or memories. He never gets close to them, either physically or in the intangible way I see in Rubens and Gauguin. I think you can see this clearly in Bildnis der Tänzerin Anna Pawlowa, it’s staged, she’s pulling moves, giving him what he wants, though he doesn’t really comprehend what a dancer is; it’s his idea of a dancer rather than the person themself. So in Egypt we see ideas of people who when he is absent live lives that have little to do with the tourist who passed them by.
Contradicting all that, to see two muslim women standing side by side, or the interior of a mosque or madrasa during class, or a group of men sitting outside a café, these images are more than what they might be reduced to. They’re representations, and like photographs, like ethnology or anthropology or musicology or … artists also document history and culture and it’s possible for people now to see themselves here, to see their own history.
They’re also mad impressive altogether in one room. Photographs on a blog simply can’t explain that. You walk into a room, leaving Germany, leaving expressionism, and you’re in North Africa. And to put them in a single room without other works to diminish this, that’s very good museuming.