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When the Neo-Romantics say life is a tragedy, yours is to question why

Art criticism is not so different from philosophy. As Arthur Danto has observed, proponents of a new school of thought are hard pressed to resist discrediting at some level their predecessors. So it goes with Michael Duncan, curator of High Drama: Eugene Berman and the Legacy of the Melancholic Sublime, on view at the McNay through August 14. Duncan undertakes the admirable task of creating a pedigree for the contemporary resurgence of figurative painting, but not without a swipe or two at modernism and its self-ordained adjudicator, Clement Greenberg. Building on the collection of McNay patron Robert Tobin, who assembled the largest collection of the work of Jewish-Russian painter and theater designer Eugene Berman, Duncan added the work of fellow Neo-Romantics, Surrealists, and contemporary artists who show a Neo-Romantic influence to argue that while modernist museums and critics ignored the brimstone-and-treacle recipe of the genre, Neo-Romanticism flowed underground and persisted as an important vein in the 20th century.

"Crepuscule" ("twilight"), a 1937 double-entendre work by Eugene Berman.

Neo-Romanticism, which emerged in Paris in the 1930s and was picked up a decade later in Britain, was characterized by heavy-handed theatricality, fascination with the latent decadence of late Classical Greek and Roman architecture and archetypes, and melancholy - in this case a pervasive sort of depression linked to the inability of humankind to transcend its baser nature. Duncan writes in the accompanying catalog that "Neo-Romanticism can no longer be dismissed simply as conservative reaction to the advance of cubism and pure abstraction." Yet, like the Romantics who rebelled against Neoclassicism a century earlier, Berman's work relies on discrediting another ideal - in this case the embrace of scientific and industrial progress implicit in cubism and abstraction - by countering its aesthetics. To say so doesn't belittle Berman's or his contemporaries' work; it places it in the larger historical and cultural context, in which the Neo-Romantics' worldview became the minority as critics, collectors, and the public embraced the new post-World War II order through the self-actualized, powerful work of abstract-expressionist don Jackson Pollock and, later, minimalists including Donald Judd and Richard Serra.

"September Eve," a 1993 painting by Wisconsin-born John Wilde.

Duncan suggests that a homophobic streak underlay Greenberg's and others' rejection of Neo-Romanticism (some of its leading practitioners were openly gay, and Berman was married but is conflictingly said to have never had Biblical knowledge of women). But the harsh critical condemnation passed on Berman by the '40s may have been as much a purely aesthetic reaction to the fatalism and psychological surrender represented by Neo-Romanticism's Gothic ruins and wrecked goddesses in an age in which raw power had triumphed over fascism - a fascism that had constructed its identity on its own warped interpretations of a Classical past.

High Drama:
Eugene Berman and the Legacy of the Melancholic Sublime

10am-4pm Tue-Fri,
10am-9pm Thu,
10am-5pm Sat,
noon-5pm Sun
Through Aug 14
$5 suggested donation

McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels
Another generation would pass before the Atomic age came up for inquisition in the counterculture of the '60s and '70s, but then intellectually driven deconstruction was the tool of critique. As Duncan's sparingly curated show suggests with the smart addition of works by Lari Pittman and Frank Moore, the '80s advent of AIDS, which hit the art and theater worlds particularly hard, may be one key to the resurgence of figurative work and portraiture. Like the Black Death and World Wars I and II before it, AIDS confronted "advanced" human society with a seemingly insurmountable devastation that invites us to wallow in our frailty and embrace the dark beauty of mortality. Julio Galán's dramatic self-portrait, rich with Catholic allusion, suggests that one vein of contemporary Neo-Romanticism responded by becoming more overtly self-involved.

A very different canvas asserts itself as Berman's purely American heir. In "September Eve," Midwesterner John Wilde deftly critiques the new Promised Land with a corpse-like reclining nude over whose marbled breast can be glimpsed purple mountains majesty while a cornucopia's worth of unnaturally perfect produce litters the foreground. This painting more than any other in the show argues for Neo-Romanticism's continuing relevance and encourages us to look at our society as a whole and ask not whether Clement Greenberg was a chauvinist and homophobe, but why this style is appealing again now.

By Elaine Wolff

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