UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Artists in exile : the great flight of culture Semerjian, Victor


The subject of this thesis is the circumstances surrounding the emigration of European modern artists to America in the late 1930's and early 1940's, and their initial reception in the city of New York. The primary vehicle of this investigation will be the Artists in Exile show, their first collective exhibition which took place at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in March of 1942. The reason why it is felt that such an investigation is warranted is that while there is a great deal of literature concerned with the Nazis vehement denunciation of modern art and their persecution of its practitioners, little has been written on how these artists actually came to arrive in America. It is I believe, too often assumed that while their voyage may have been a difficult one, they were embraced by a nation that has perpetually proclaimed itself as a defender of democratic freedom and a haven for the oppressed. Contrary to this assumption, it will be asserted that their initial presence was largely met with resistance in America due to a historical period of economic, social, political and cultural isolationism. In Chapter One, an attempt will be made to more clearly define the historical circumstances which gave rise to American isolationism and a resultant anti-alienism, sentiments which had a direct bearing upon the cool reception of the Europeans and their work. Given the existance of such attitudes, it becomes necessary as well to identify the various groups who championed the artist refugees, their motives in doing so, and the specific strategies employed to circumvent native resistance in order to bring these individuals to North American shores. It will be asserted that this support came from a small group of liberals situated within northeastern educational institutions who were alarmed by the fascist threat to freedom of scholary and artistic expression. In addition, they were motivated by what they believed to be an unprecedented opportunity to bring to America and place at its disposal, superior levels of European scholarly and artistic achievement. Chapter Two will undertake an investigation into the reception of the Europeans in New York based upon an analysis of the problematic usage of catagories employed to place them in roles reflective of their circumstances. These terms include refugee, emigré, immigrant, exile, and alien. In addition, it will hopefully be revealed how these new roles had a deleterious effect upon the self perception of the emigres, seriously affecting their critical output as exiles. Chapter Three will be devoted to the Artists in Exile show itself. Specific focus will be on the strategies employed in its manifesto and why for the most part, they were unsuccessful in winning over a viewing public largely resistant to European modern art. In addition, specific works exhibited in the show will be analysed to see how they registered the varied concerns of the artist emigrés at this time in history. Finally, the conclusion will deal with two additional shows of European modern art in that same year; the First Papers of Surrealism, and Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century. It will be maintained that the strategies employed in this latter show were to a high degree, largely responsible for the eventual winning over of needed patrons necessary for the acceptance and continuation of European modern art in America.

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