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Barthel Gilles–Ruhrkampf (1930)

November 8, 2010

[Dec 15  – this has been a fairly popular post, esp. since there’s so little on the Net about this work.  So I’ve incorporated my other thoughts on this painting from the following day’s post, which nobody’s visiting, so that anyone looking for info on Ruhrkampf can see the whole of my thoughts on it.]

Of all the pictures I saw at the Chaos and Classicism exhibit, this one affected me the most, and was the one I spent the most time with.  And, I think, it’s the one picture that’s been the tipping point for me in a decision I made recently.

Ruhr Battle

I can’t think of a painting that makes more statements about the “politics of art” than this one.  In an era where the style of the day essentially precluded the hyperrealism on display, having declared it decadent and bourgeois, Gilles dared to take the ingredients of a Renaissance masterwork and apply them to a dramatic scene that was the polar opposite of everything ever depicted in the Renaissance.  The technique once lovingly devoted to a noblewoman’s dress…


…is now appropriated and reassigned to a workingman’s jacket and pants…


…and to the blankets…


..and bundles of newspapers used to form the barricade:


So, slyly, Gilles takes all the trappings of aristocratic power and hands them to the working class, by stating authoritatively that these things are as if not more deserving of that same level of attention.  The subjects are not Greek gods nor Roman heroes nor Courtiers nor Kings, but rather haggard, unhandsome men whose nobility is assigned by Gilles through their placement in a format previously reserved for “High Church” use.  Peasants and servants, if painted at all, were only to be seen toiling contentedly at their jobs, pouring water into basins with Vermeerian grace or laboring in the field or frolicking on feast days or making drunken fools of themselves in taverns.  Here the peasants are not only in revolt, but Gilles pulls out all the stops to ennoble them.  The three heads even form a classical “arch” usually seen in religious painting…


…giving them the powers previously reserved for angels.  The same attention to detail is lavished here on rifles and spent bullets as would be spent elsewhere on an angel’s wings.  The portrait comes chronologically after Otto Dix’s lost painting “Street Fight” (1927), which Gilles may have seen (only this b/w image remains):


Which seems to have employed similar classical techniques and references to disastrous battles, and applied them to “modern” struggles, but Gilles’ work, to my eye, adheres more strongly to classical references.

The POV is defensive, placed within only enough space to hold three men, and the look of urgency, terror and resolve all at once on the first fighter’s face shatter the “fourth wall” – you are not a bystander in this battle, Gilles is saying. 

The barricades are made of the materials from their homes: broken-down and dirty old box springs, chipped chairs, what looks like an old basket (the woven piece, I can’t identify it) and of course tightly bundled stacks of newspapers, since the fighters are educated (undoubtedly at the time self-educated) workingmen, well aware of what they are fighting for.  More bundled newspapers sit behind the ammunition box – a political comment: “When your bullets tear apart our first batch of words, there are more where those come from.”

The background of the scene is stark and utilitarian, a pair of modern buildings (which some thoughtless architect has built, it appears, without windows that open), as opposed to the lavish Roman/Imperial piles in the backgrounds of classical painting.

The attention to detail given to the clothes, which I mentioned yesterday, is a commentary on the care given in painting to the garments of the rich, since here it’s given a small ironic twist – Gilles subtly includes a patch on the well-worn pants of the first man. 

There’s what looks like a bullet hole in the cap of the top man – deliberately angled by the artist so it appears that it just missed his skull by a fraction.

The traditional battle scene is a panorama, encompassing the victors, the vanquished, and any other symbolic elements necessary to drive the point home.  But the battle scene in Ruhrkampf is small and claustrophobic, as is appropriate for the point of view, that of the soldier on the ground rather than that of the General, Duke or Emperor.  The only claustrophobic classic war piece I can think if is da Vinci’s “lost” painting, Battle of Anghiari, and I think I see a “reference” in the face of the bottom man in Ruhrkampf to a face in one of da Vinci’s sketches for Anghiari:


If I lived in New York, I would be visiting this painting as often as I could until the exhibit ends in January.  And while it’s frustrating not to be able to have seen the real thing more than once, it’s even more frustrating to realize that my artistic vocabulary isn’t what it needs to be to do this painting justice.  My web searches on it have found pitifully little written on a work that stands out to me on so many levels.  “What’s wrong with you people!” I want to shout at the art world.  “Can’t you see?” A search in English on the painting yields few results, a search in German not many more.

If there’s one thing I’ve rarely been, it’s at a loss for words.  But my knowledge of art is still so small, so inadequate to the task at hand, that it angers me.  I see, and I know, but I can’t say.  So I’m thinking, at long last, about going to, as Edina Monsoon would put it, “uni-bloody-versity, darling,” to study art history.

Not for the “accreditation” of a college degree, which I’ve gone without all this time – I was lucky enough in my youth to be the possessor of a Kaypro II CP/M “portable” computer (in the same way a steamer trunk is portable), then an IBM XT, and having mastered WordStar and WordPerfect and gotten at least some grasp on Lotus and dBase, at a time when college students were all working on mainframes, I had skills nobody else in the workforce had, just as PCs were taking off in the office.  College to me had meant an unacceptable two to four more years living at home when everyone I knew was off on an adventure, far from our little town (my grades being excellent in subjects I liked and crap in those I didn’t, there was no way I was going to get a scholarship to go away to the big city), and to me it meant a do-over of all the classes I’d already taken in high school, “only this time we’ll tell you the truth about literature and history, instead of the propaganda we have to force-feed people who aren’t going any further.”  Young and idealistic and gay and proto-punk and bitter in 1980, the very last thing in the world I wanted to do was sit in a classroom for four more years, and fortunately, given my skills, it soon turned out that I didn’t have to.

I remember the one time I lied about having a college degree.  I’d just moved to SF, it was 1987, and I was swiftly realizing that everyone around me had been to “school” – and only after embarrassing myself several times in conversation did I learn that “where’d you go to School” didn’t mean high school.  So I lied on my application to a temp agency and said I had a BA in English from UNR, because I was sure nobody would hire me without one.  Well, they called me and said, your employment and personal references check out, you passed all the skills tests with flying colors, and there’s just one thing – “UNR has never heard of you.”  Well, fuck me, I thought.  That’s that.  So I just up and told them why I lied, and the lady said, “Listen:  you don’t have to lie.  But I’ll tell you, if you only knew how to type and file we would not be calling you now.  But we have about a million requests for someone who can help secretaries convert from DisplayWriter to WordPerfect, so you’re hired.  Just don’t lie again.”  I never lied to an employer again – not so much out of morality as out of deep, abiding and fatalistic certainty that I would be the one who got caught.

There’s a curve in life you follow when you don’t take the Orderly March.  The Contempt curve starts high and goes down as the Experience curve rises – the assumption “elites,” for lack of a better word, made at that time was that you had to be an idiot if you didn’t go to college, since any white boy like me who was qualified could get in back then, and would be able to pay for at least a state school education with a loan or a grant if not parental assistance.  Nobody hired you for a good job without a degree, because it was a given that anyone with half a brain could and would get one. 

The Contempt curve matters socially, but it also matters economically – you just weren’t offered as much money as was offered to people with less experience and more education.  Over time, the “stain” of only being a hah skoo gradjit is erased.  And fortunately, times have changed – the entrepreneur wasn’t a heroic figure at the time I made my decision, and the Internet was but an academic tool for sharing scientific research.  Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and a clutch of other billionaires and multimillionaires who dropped out, having the knowledge they needed and no need for the accreditation or status, have even made it heroic to jump ship when the opportunity comes.

So why should I go now?  Well, because I want to learn the deep vocabulary of art, a vocabulary that draws on religion, world history, art history (as Bronzino “references” Michelangelo, etc.), and more.  It’s something that, to use a word that’s been diminished by overuse in self-help and corporate contexts, I’ve found a passion for.  I could self-educate myself, as I’ve done with everything else, but I’d still have gaping holes in my learning that could blind me to something critical in a work. 

And, let’s face it, art is an “elite” world.  Who gets to spend the amount of time with a work that I’ve been groaning about not getting?  I mean, outside the jam-packed environs of a popular show at a big museum?  Accredited journalists invited to the opening party, millionaires with the power to buy the piece or help the museum, and art scholars – museums do not provide the chance for people like me to sit alone in front of a painting for hours, unless it’s a Tuesday in December, it’s raining and snowing outside, and school is out of session. 

I can’t say that I can do what it takes to get a degree – take biology and math and all that to be officially stamped “well-rounded” in the eyes of the world.  But I’ll do what it takes to get the education I want, that I feel, at long last, I need.

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