Reading Rämistrasse #12: Aoife Rosenmeyer on Schall und Rauch at Kunsthaus Zürich

‘Schall und Rauch’ (Smoke and Mirrors) is a survey exhibition of the 1920s in Western culture. The curators argue that a thirst for innovation was in the air, old habits were broken and new forms forged. Their subtitle is ‘The Roaring Twenties’, yet the exhibition speaks discreetly. Instead of drama or fervour, we encounter a tasteful, often delightful, account of a decade in art, fashion, staging, furniture design, architecture, film and dance. Works and products from the 1920s are counterpointed with those of a clutch of contemporary artists. The story starts from the wreckage of World War I: Georg Grosz and Karl Hubbuch captured the mangled bodies that returned from the frontline, but the selection of their works pulls its punches. Tamer paintings convey unease rather than deep-seated scarring or resentment. Thankfully there’s also Kader Attia’s fearless subjective taxonomy in his slide show Open Your Eyes, 2010, which splices historic images of cratered faces with careful repairs of broken objects.

Perhaps because the ‘20s was the decade of Tamara de Lempicka and Coco Chanel, an age that invites syrupy costume drama from Agatha Christie to Downton Abbey, the shock of the new, be it in media, fashion or ways of living, is well dampened in retrospect. The novelty of showing well-bred (human) calves in public is hard to comprehend. It certainly was an exclusionary decade, of us and them, for Josephine Baker was revealing a lot more than leg to her audiences, but the liberating momentum of her new-fangled moves could only get her so far, even in Europe. Alongside sumptuous fabrics manufactured in Switzerland is a photograph of the annual dinner of the Silk Association of America at the Hotel Astor New York, 1928. A sea of white men, hundreds of them, fills the room; a few East Asian faces bob up towards the back, but nary a woman.

Works by Thomas Ruff and Hiroshi Sugimoto demonstrate their appreciation of the smooth lines of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius – before these were necessarily fashionable, to be fair – but do little to illuminate the architectural innovation. The inclusion of Veronika Spierenburg’s 2019/20 work Parallaxis, in contrast, fosters a fruitful parallel between a contemporary work and Rudolf von Laban and Suzanne Perrottet’s ideas about the individual moving in an urban space. From several bird’s eye viewpoints Spierenburg films dancers operating within a cityscape, the latter its own narrative of mechanical motion and commuting that carries on in spite of the performers. At the exhibition’s conclusion, dance segues into sexual liberation, with an area devoted to racy literature and Man Ray’s rather funny Mr. & Mrs. Woodman (1927–1947): a portfolio of images showing articulated artists’ models going at it every which way. Sexual emancipation is still hidden in a corner and very straight.

‘Schall und Rauch’ groups several different movements and schools, and recent Bauhaus and Dada exhibitions – not least ‘Dadaglobe Reconstructed’ at the Kunsthaus in 2016 – have covered similar ground with more trenchant arguments. The last few months were undoubtedly a challenging time to stage an exhibition with loans from far afield, but beyond the occasional lacuna this feels like an exhibition unsure of its own relevance, as mainstream awareness of entrenched social iniquities finally (one hopes) accelerates. And in this light, I understand the desire to make Rashid Johnson’s The Hikers, 2019, the closing work. I wish I believed that Johnson gained more from the historic framing than it gains from him.

Schall und Rauch. Die wilden Zwanziger / Smoke and Mirrors. The Roaring Twenties, Kunsthaus Zürich
3 July – 11. October 2020

Images: Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Charlotte Perriand, Grand Confort armchair, small model, exhibit from the Salon d’Automne 1929, formerly in the Pierre Jeanneret Collection, Arthur Rüegg Collection. Le Corbusier: © F.L.C/2020 ProLitteris, Zurich; Pierre Jeanneret and Charlotte Perriand: © 2020 ProLitteris, Zurich; Exhibition view‚ Smoke and Mirrors. The Roaring Twenties, Kunsthaus Zürich, July 2020, photo © Franca Candrian, Kunsthaus Zürich; Thomas Ruff, r.phg.s.03_l, 2014, Mai 36 Galerie, Zurich © 2020 ProLitteris, Zurich; Ernest Neuschul, Takka-Takka dances, 1926, private collection © The Estate of Ernest Neuschul

Reading Rämistrasse: 

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If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent. Feedback or questions? Email rosenmeyer@kunsthallezurich.ch

21.08.2020