It was sad to see that Jack Levine, possibly the last of the great social realism painters of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, died, but also satisfying to note that he had managed to live to be 95. The obit writers stressed that he was against abstract art but I think they all seem to miss the way some of those arbitrary distinctions have been fading over time. Levine's works were wonderful in the way they expressed the sometimes savage critique of American society he offered but in no way did his depictions fall into the kind of realism practiced by such as Andrew Wyeth (whose work I have always enjoyed for entirely different reasons but who shared the spark of personality that Levine possessed, despite their distance from one another on the political spectrum).
Levine exaggerated features in the same way as did the most cynical of the great caricaturists--George Grosz and Otto Dix of the Berlin in the 1920s, with a similar world outlook. None of his pictures was realistic in the sense of just sticking to the exact representation--I recall a wonderful rendition he did of the original Budapest String Quartet that would turn up on concert programs and album covers for ages. I framed a copy of it--actually, a program cover--because it seemed to capture the exhilarating style of that stellar group of musicians. It may have been the closest he ever came to being non-political.
The obits recalled the controversy about his paintings being exhibited by U.S. authorities on traveling shows, in one instance in Moscow, I believe. They probably figured he'd be too popular in the old USSR. It was interesting that Eisenhower expressed the view that he didn't especially like Levine's stuff, but he did not in any way signal to anyone to remove them from the show. Today, our media-frightened regime might yank something like a Levine painting before anyone could raise their voice in protest.
The social conscience of the Vienna Secessionists was less obviously portrayed. The show of their work, which spotlighted the greatest of the group, Gustav Klimt, was a high point of my recent long weekend in Budapest courtesy of Eileen, who was conducting a training program in Hungary. Klimt could also be critical of things as they were but in a far more subtle manner. He also prefigured the Wiener Werkstatte, in that he clearly found use of design concepts helpful in his art.
It makes me wonder why we still seem fascinated by Klimt. He did things differently, for one thing. The use of the gold-leaf and the very graphic nudes, to be sure, aroused interest and attention but there's a marvelous artistic sense beneath all that display. His women are no languishing romantic types, even when portrayed in the nude, but are always formidable individuals. His scenes extend the natural beauty of scenes such as gardens and poplar forests. It must be that sometimes undefinable extra element that makes him still so compelling to us a century later.