THE PICTURE: Excesses

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BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 17, 2010

THE PICTURE: Excesses

In the past few days I’ve been reading the letters that Henry James wrote to the young sculptor Hendrik Andersen in the early years of the twentieth century. What fascinates me are the things that James has to say about the act of creation. He is begging his young friend to sacrifice the general to the specific, to express the boldest emotions through the subtlest formal calculations. Andersen was twenty-seven when James met him in Rome in 1899, and at least since Leon Edel published his biography of James more than a generation ago, this handsome, fair-haired, Norwegian-American youth has been a source of fascination for anybody who wants to understand the nature and extent of James’s homoerotic experience. But reading the letters now, the infatuation strikes me as less interesting than the clear-eyed attention that James gives to Andersen’s work. James, who was, even as he wrote to Andersen, developing the magnificent excess of his own late style, keeps pushing his young friend to attend to the details, to reject the general effect, “to individualize & detail the faces, the types, ever so much more—to study, ardently, the question of doing it.” Here we have one of the great exponents of the madness of art arguing for the sanity of art. “You see,” he writes to Andersen, “I live myself in the very intensity of reality and can only conceive of any art-work as producing itself piece by piece and touch by touch, in close relation to some immediate form of life that may be open to it.”

What has turned my attention back to Andersen right now is a visit I made, when I was in Rome a few weeks ago, to the Museo Hendrik Christian Andersen, the very existence of which I had been unaware until a friend who lives in the city told me I must go. I had known that Andersen’s sculpture was grandiosely neoclassical, but nothing can really prepare you for the homoerotic high camp of his prancing gods and athletes. And if this orgy of testosterone is not enough to convince you that the Museo Andersen is a kitsch classic, just wait until you take a look at Andersen’s lunatic designs for a World City dedicated to art, science, philosophy, and religion. The studies for this vast, Beaux Arts Babel are heaped and strewn with hundreds if not thousands of Andersen’s icy humanoids. Although some of the figures purport to be female, their musculature keeps giving them away. James—the man some have accused of being oblivious to sex—is unequivocal about this. “I sometimes find your sexes not quite intensely enough differentiated,” he writes to this young man he found extremely hot, commenting that the ladies resemble “a shade too much the gentlemen.” Some of Andersen’s sculpted lovers are, James first says, “noble & admirable.” But he doesn’t “find the hands, on the backs, living enough & participant enough in the kiss. They would be, in life, very participant—to their finger-tips & would show it in many ways.”

When Andersen, in the years before World War I, was on the verge of putting together a folio volume outlining the World City, he sought a statement from James. James turned him down. He could not see “any use on all the made earth … for a ready-made city, made-while-one-waits, as they say, & which is the more preposterous & the more delirious, the more elaborate & the more ‘complete’ & the more magnificent you have made it. Cities are living organisms, that grow from within & by experience & piece by piece; they are not bought all hanging together, in any inspired studio.” Looking at Andersen’s chilly, simplified heroes, you cannot help but think of Fascist sculpture. And there are certainly proto-totalitarian fantasies mixed up with the megalomania of the World City. James felt this. His critique of the World City amounts to a plea for the city as a product of liberal experience. Andersen had some contact with Mussolini, who in 1926 promised him land for his urbanist fantasy. And in a 1935 radio broadcast, Andersen praised Mussolini and related his ideals to those that Andersen had developed in his plans for the World City. Andersen may be a ridiculous clown, nothing but a bit player in the tangled story of how art-for-art’s-sake precipitated the anti-democratic leanings of certain artists and writers, including, of course, Ezra Pound. But the Museo Andersen is a part of that story. And people are taking notice. Yinka Shonibare—the ultra-hot British artist responsible for the headless mannequins, outfitted in African-patterned eighteenth-century outfits, that are popping up in museums around the globe—did an intervention at the Museo Andersen a few years ago, and the museum still contains a ridiculous Shonibare sculpture, of a headless James and Andersen reenacting the Birth of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The Museo Andersen has a power—the power of an over-the-top personality indulging his every whim. Walking through rooms full of figures so over-sexed as to feel sexless—they were bankrolled by Andersen’s wealthy American sister-in-law, who came to live with him after his brother’s early death—you can see that what held James in Andersen was more than his Scandinavian good looks. In the unabashedness of the young artist’s aims James recognized something of his younger self. He loved the excess of Hendrik Andersen. The man was excessively attractive and excessively ambitious. But James could not avoid the conclusion that Andersen’s was a simpleminded excess—an excess without depth or nuance. Looking at one of Andersen’s studies of two lovers, James insists that there has to be “more flesh and pulp in it, more life of surface & of blood-flow under surface, than you have hitherto, in your powerful simplifications, gone in for.” This was written in 1906. A decade later, when the world was at war, Andersen was sitting in Rome, fantasizing about a World City, while Henry James was in London, visiting wounded soldiers and Belgian refugees—“the exiled, the broken, and the bewildered.” Hendrik Andersen could not see, despite James’s best efforts, that art-for-art’s-sake is grounded in reality. He would be neither the first artist nor the last artist who has failed to grasp that essential point.

Jed Perl is the art critic of The New Republic.

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posted in: books and arts, rome, hendrik andersen, hendrik christian andersen, henry james, leon edel

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