1900: Art at the Crossroads (cont'd)

by Donald Goddard

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So the exhibition is, in a sense, historically accurate. It doesn't allow the works we have been taught to accept to displace those that were more prominent then. But how oddly it sits in this building, Frank Lloyd Wright's icon of modernist architecture. I suppose that is part of the fun--how strange it looks here. No doubt the exhibition looked quite different, and perhaps more appropriate, at its first stop, in London's Royal Academy of Arts. But the linear sweep of the Guggenheim undermines the historical point, as does the division of work into rather tepid categories: Nudes and Bathers, Self-Portraits, Still Lifes and Interiors, Woman/Man, Landscapes, Social Scenes, The City, Rural Scenes, Portraits, Religion and Triptychs.

The categories, however, suit the general idea, and there is something touching about those big, vacuous works that dominate the show. The decade before 1900 was a period of powerful forces in which mechanization was overwhelming everything in its path, and sympathies were developing full tilt for working people, spiritual values, family values, and ancient myths, as well as social power and sprightly naked women. This, after all, was the decade in which grand opera peaked, and the search for truth and drama was relentless. Artists like Constantin Meunier of Belgium, Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo of Italy, and Charles Cottet of France were deeply committed to the working people they depicted. Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida of Spain, in Sad Inheritance (1899), with admirable grace and compassion, portrayed the naked boys of syphilitic parents playing at the beach in the charge of a Catholic priest.

Léon Fréderic really believed in the epic fecundity of life, and he went to great lengths to prove it. French artists who wanted to be successful were in a particularly difficult position since they were called upon to celebrate the French Revolution and its overthrow of the Ancien Régime while also celebrating the Rococo style and other products of that Régime. The tone is generally dark and confined, like a Victorian living room. Ironically, the Impressionists had already seen the light, and their legacy would continue to evolve through successive movements into the 20th century. The Symbolists, and others, thought the Impressionists' discoveries minor, or secondary, unhelpful in the search for inner truth and ideality. They mistook secondary for primary characteristics.
Leon Frederic
Léon Fréderic,The Stream, 1890-99.
Oil on Canvas, 206 X 282 cm.
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Inv. 6222

Some changes were made in the show from London to New York. Thirty-three works out of 286 were in London but are not in New York; 25 are in New York but were not in London; and 8 are only in the catalogue. I would like to think that the Cassatt, a John Sloan, a Thomas Dewing, and a James Ensor were missed in London, just as a Richard Bergh, two Gustav Klimts, a Max Liebermann, a Picasso, an Il'ya Repin, two Rodins, a Medardo Rosso, and two Valentin Serovs were missed in New York, and an Akseli Gallén-Kallela, an Henri Rousseau, and a Théo Van Rysselberghe were missed in both places, but differences between the exhibitions don't seem to make much difference. There are certain omissions that I find curious, even when they are in accord with the choices of the Exposition Universelle itself. The "1900" exhibition seems to want to extend beyond the Exposition, but it cannot really do so without such artists as Albert Pinkham Ryder (whose The Waste of Waters is Their Field Rosenblum has had reproduced for his essay), Ralph Blakelock, George Inness, Arthur B. Davies, Maurice Prendergast, Louis Eilshemius, Elihu Vedder, George Luks, and Isidre Nonell. It is also strange that Sir Edward Burne-Jones (who died in 1898) is included, while Gustave Moreau, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (both died 1898), and James Tissot (died 1899) are not.

Giuseppe da Volpedo
Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, The Fourth Estate, 1901. Oil on canvas, 283 X 550 cm. 

Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

And where are the followers of Moreau, Puvis, and Redon. Though probably true, as Rosenblum notes, "that by 1900, [Symbolism] had lost considerable steam . . . ," especially in France, still, the years leading up to 1900 were defined by Symbolism. It linked everything--poetry, painting, Wagner, Freud. It was an alternative to realism, to the naturalist aesthetic of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and to Salon art.

There are far more daring paintings by Jean Delville and William Degouve de Nunques than appear in this show, but it is also impossible to convey the perversity, decadence, spirituality, feminizing, and pastoral sensuality of the period without works by Henri Fantin-Latour, Edmond Aman-Jean, Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, Georges de Feure, Eugène Grasset, Félicien Rops, and Paul Sérusier, some of whom also tie into Art Nouveau, which was so well represented in architecture and the decorative arts at the Exposition.

A crucial single work missing from the exhibition is Maurice Denis' Hommage à Cézanne (1900), which has Redon, Bonnard, Vuillard, Roussel, Sérusier, Denis, and Vollard admiring a Cézanne still life in Vollard's gallery, but perhaps the Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne in Paris was unable or unwilling to lend it. Finally, it might have been useful to include a gallery devoted to graphic work, in which case there could have been some critical views of the Exposition, balancing the general celebration, and some important works by Käthe Kollwitz, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, and perhaps even Aubrey Beardsley (died 1898).

The omissions are important simply because the art of the period is so diverse. Seldom has there been such a multiplicity of styles and motives, from bombast to modesty, from literalness to abstraction, from social aggrandizement to social conscience, all of it eating away at the imposing structure of the Exposition Universelle. The exhibition forces you to completely rethink the period, but I would still start at the top. One of the exhibition's advertising slogans - "When modern art challenged the establishment" - is totally misleading, because modern art had already challenged the establishment in the previous 40 years and by 1900 there was a strange détente, or stand-off, between the avant-garde and the establishment. Of course, advertising is designed to mislead, to overlook the fact that cars crash and are often caught in traffic jams, or to deny the fact that body odors might be appealing, so there is no surprise here. But the slogan does say something about how the exhibition is presented and how it is to be received. In this day and age it is good to challenge the establishment, but it is clear that the establishment wins.

Donald Goddard © 2000

Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin, Still Life, 1899, Oil on canvas, 61 X 73 cm. 

Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo

1900: Art at the Crossroads

"1900: Art at the Crossroads" was on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 88th Street and 5th Avenue, New York, NY.

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