Imagine a desolate landscape, half-lunar, half-marine. The ground is scattered with greyish, amorphous forms like slugs, aliens, or lumpy cacti; the sky is a contaminated orange broken up by dark clouds that look like spilled coffee splotches.
Tanguy's weird, kitschy landscape is a spectral dream-space striving to obtain a 'heightened' reality. But it's the unreal, otherworldly quality that lingers, something out of balance and sinister, a feeling of anxiety or off-stage violence. This duality is at the core of 'Les Années 30 en Europe' ('The Thirties in Europe'), an in-depth exploration of the art that emerged during a decade that began in the fallout of the stock-market crash and ended with the German invasion of Poland.
While ushering in a time of post-war optimism, of innovations in TV and talkies, and of intellectuals such as Benjamin, Breton, Bataille and Mann, the 30s were grim and fraught with turmoil: the governments of Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia were meanwhile banging out Nationalist maxims that reeked of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The show's subtitle, 'Threatening Times', is inspired by a 1929 Magritte painting, and a sense of turmoil and anxiety hovers over this exhibition like the ominous clouds in his curious picture.
Filling almost the entire museum, 'Les Années 30...' is a true 90s blockbuster, crammed with some 1,000 objects, including continuously running Pathé newsreels, photographs, documents and even furniture (the show could easily be broken down into a dozen smaller exhibitions). The exhibition moves chronologically through the tumult of art world -isms, but while this exhaustiveness is exhausting, it also establishes the show's success: 'Les Années 30...' embraces its subject's complexity rather than trying to resolve it, demonstrating just how convoluted and ambiguous things were politically, socially, and artistically.
The show opens with an image by Malevich which, while painted in cheery yellows and blues, acts as a metaphor for the artist's identity crisis. His anonymous white mannequin dressed in a tunic epitomises the dilemma, and ultimate self-effacement, of an artist whose identity as a revolutionary entirely disappeared when Socialist Realism became the official dogma. From there, 'Les Années 30...' reflects a violent period of transition that includes Uncertain Times (1929), Klee's painting stained with red, the gruesome, cartoon-like faces of Grosz's The Agitator (1929), and Max Beckmann's aggressive Rugby Players (1929), in which the protagonists, smashed up against the goal post, almost seem ready to break through the picture plane. The Utopian idealism of the pure abstractions of Mondrian, founded on theosophical concepts, sit next to works by Heinrich Hoerle and Peter Alma that transform the human figure into a machine.
The most peculiar moment in the show comes on entering a roomful of portraits - a haunting gallery filled with staring faces that, subversively, not only reveal the artists' Existentialism but rend palpable their sense of persecution. These include a sombre self-portrait by de Chirico, standing at his easel; Dix's melancholy Pregnant Woman (1930); Herbert Ploberger's gruesome, comic-strip-like Self-Portrait or the Optician (1928-30), in which the central figure, rubbing his eye with a claw-like hand, is being watched both by a huge eye on the wall behind him and by an extracted bloody eyeball rolling around on the desk; Pyke Koch's sullen Self-Portrait with Black Bandeau (1937), in which the artist looks like a gaunt skinhead.
Among the slew of Surrealist paintings countering social realism with 'resistance through the power of imagination', the centrepiece is Dali's Enigma of William Tell (1934), a monumental painting that contemporaries scorned as 'counter-revolutionary'. It depicts a communist worker, naked from the waist down, who holds a small melting clock and kneels on the ground before some steps. Adorned with cap, Lenin-goatee and moustache, the figure has one arm replaced by a spike and an enormous penis-like form supported by a slingshot sprouting from his arse. The visor of his cap, extended in the opposite direction, flaps like an ungainly grey tongue.
Throughout, the show embraces this complexity and ambiguity, combining works touching on the official ideology, like Koch's, with others that rebelled against it - one of the most biting is Heartfield's wonderfully titled photomontage Adolf the Superman, Who Eats Gold and Spouts Junk (1934). The anti-art campaign led by that 'superman' - a frustrated, failed artist who, ironically, declared that art should 'eliminate the sick and open the way for everything healthy' - is represented with images by Klee, Nolde, Kandinsky and Kokoschka seen in the 1937 'Degenerate Art' show, whose curator wanted the artists on hand so the public could spit on them. Some of the most disturbing images are in the displays of state-sanctioned propaganda art - vapid works depicting robust Russian workers, muscled athletes, or squeaky-clean, square-jawed Aryans.
The show closes with a room of fittingly incongruous images: Max Ernst's edgy depiction of a malevolent demon leaping in glee - an angel of death, half-vulture, half-man - all colour, motion and volatile, swirling shapes; a tiny Giacometti; and a poignant 1938 series of portraits by August Sander - dignified snapshots of a dozen well-dressed men and women, each identified only as 'Persecuted Jew', whose faces seem already robbed of breath. This series has a devastating stillness - the frames are the same size and the neatly-posed compositions identical, suggesting the extent to which these people had become interchangeable.
The chaotic aspect of 'Les Années 30...' reflects a country in flux, attempting, to a certain degree, to make sense of its current situation from the turbulent past. As the new millennium approaches, several major French cities have elected the extreme right-wing to represent them, while French artists are struggling not to disappear from the international scene. In one recently published interview in a magazine of the extreme right, an important French curator claimed that there is nothing of interest in the visual arts in France today. In the same publication, an illustration of a knight on a horse accompanies a review - this image is nearly identical to one used in a publication by the Third Reich except that the swastika has been removed. Threatening times.