Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts

Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transfo BY Joseph Horowitz. Harper. Hardcover, 480 pages. $27.

The cover of Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transfo

In 1941, while residing in Santa Monica, Thomas Mann mused, “What today is the meaning of foreign, the meaning of homeland? . . . When the homeland becomes foreign, the foreign becomes the homeland.” He lived in California for fourteen years before returning to Europe in 1952, his version of the American dream crushed, writes Joseph Horowitz, by the cold war, McCarthyism, and the Golden State’s “artificial paradise.” Mann’s poignant question—and declarative response—is central to Artists in Exile, Horowitz’s erudite if sometimes exhausting survey of European refugee artists in America during the first half of the twentieth century.

The book opens with the story of George Balanchine. (On why he emigrated to the West: “It was impossible to live in Russia, it was terrible—there was nothing to eat. People here can’t understand what that means. We were hungry all the time.”) His disdain of glamour, his egalitarian spirit, and his “high-low eclecticism” infused his art with a distinctly American sensibility. Horowitz organizes his study by genre, beginning with an analysis of the partnership between Balanchine and Stravinsky, with chapters following on American classical music and its German “colonization,” the influence of non-German musicians such as Varèse and Toscanini, Hollywood (Dietrich, Garbo, Murnau, Lang), and Broadway (focused on musical theater). Each section reveals a meticulously researched, collagelike collection of case studies of the most eminent artistic figures of the twentieth century who “stayed foreign and became American.” Horowitz’s main concern is unraveling the complex layers of “cultural exchange” between Europe and the United States, the “synergies of Old World and New, outsider and insider, memory and discovery,” which, he argues, ultimately compose “an exercise in American self-understanding,” most clearly epitomized by the work of an earlier voluntary visitor, Dvoˇrák.

In the sciences and in mathematics, adaptation to America was comparatively easy. Writers had the hardest lot, as “masters of the wrong languages.” Horowitz sardonically remarks that Brecht’s most memorable English script was his deposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee. And of the “Parnassus of German literature” that came to California during World War II—Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Brecht, Feuchtwanger, Remarque, Werfel—only Thomas Mann’s career flourished. Though Murnau, Lang, Schoenberg, and Bartók found their growth stunted in the New World, the “shallower” artists—those who, for instance, played to mainstream, commercial American culture, or whose work wasn’t fully “adult”—were natural transplants. German exiles such as Thomas Mann and Rudolf Serkin possessed a much stronger sense of national identity than did the more culturally diverse Russians, who, the author argues, were more open to cultural change and less prone to didacticism. A receptiveness to African-American culture served as the greatest unifying factor among European artists from disparate nations. Jewish refugee artists in particular, Horowitz notes, “bonded with blacks from a shared experience of marginality.”

Horowitz, a former New York Times music critic, has written extensively and with rare acuity on the crosscurrents of European and American influence on classical music (most recently, Classical Music in America [2005]). Yet one wishes he had spent as much time exploring the fascinating themes and motifs underlying his study—such as the ambiguous, contradictory nature of American cultural identity epitomized by many of his examples—as he did dissecting the variations within his many case studies. Horowitz also offers judgment without example: In one instance, he argues that American culture’s current quest for “synergies in other parts of the globe” has created “a plague of slapdash hybrids that debase cultural exchange as a kind of aesthetic opportunism.” What exactly are these hybrids? Horowitz’s prose is meticulously crafted, yet for all its elegance, it is unequal to the vitality of its subject matter. His narrative’s fragmented polyphonic style, which forces the reader to make quick and constant shifts between periods and personalities, is often more dissonantly distracting than it is effectively engaging.

A brief portrait of Horowitz’s good friend the Georgian pianist Alexander Toradze concludes this wide-ranging and important, if uneven, study and is the book’s most heartfelt and vivid account. Toradze, now based in South Bend, Indiana, is eloquently impassioned on the emotional complexities of exile: “For my generation, even the musical aspect of freedom was symbolized by American jazz. . . . That gave us a sense of freedom. Then life goes by and you actually get to this country and you carry this notion with you, even if you grow disappointed. . . . It’s a condition of hope associated with a faraway place. It’s actually a dream stronger than any reality.”