Saturday, January 07, 2017

Karl With

For some reason I thought back on one of my undergraduate teachers of art history at UCLA. Karl With was born in Germany in 1891. Neither Jewish nor a Communist, he left Nazi Germany out of principle, settling in Los Angeles.
As a kind of assistant, I frequently had occasion to listen to this professor's fascinating reminiscences, such as those stemming from the year he spent in Japan. At all events, towards the end of his life (he died in 1980) he was working on a book - never completed - on the basic principles of art, inspired I believe by his awareness of Bauhaus teachings. Karl With maintained that all art rested on a few primordial forms, such as the sphere, the pyramid, the cube, the rectangular solid, and a few others.
He asked other questions. Why do beer steins rest solidly on their base with a low center of gravity, while wine vessels have a stem separating them from the base? The reason is that we regard wine as a noble beverage that we seek to honor by elevating it from mere terrestrial reality; plebeian beer requires no such hoity-toity coddling. I am not much of a beer drinker, but I would not think of pouring that beverage into a wine glass.

 Karl With was a participant in one of the great intellectual developments of the time (the 1930s), the Transatlantic Migration of scholars and creative figures, mainly from Central Europe, to our shores. In its day Los Angeles was a prime goal. Some Hollywood figures, like Marlene Dietrich and Ernst Lubitsch, had come earlier. Others, such as Jean Renoir and Michelle Morgan, arrived later. There were also major writers such as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, not to omit the Englishmen Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley. And one must not forget the two most influential composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. My parents moved in more modest literary circles, so that as a kid I did not meet any of these luminaries. When I came to New York for graduate work I did (though a different bunch); the contact changed my life fundamentally.


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