Story by Ilona Kauremszky
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
Charlie Chaplin has created his Little Tramp character and is starring in the silent movie Kid’s Auto, filmed during a real car race in Venice, California.
The French Tango with its seductive moves and entangled pretzel legs was the swooning dance rage in Paris.
And writers such as Sigmund Freud and Virginia Woolf penned esoteric, sometimes earth-shattering sentiments that blew whispers of discontent to the established order through the halls of Downton Abbey-like places.
Meanwhile, the big gadgets of the day — typewriters, phones, motion picture technologies, planes and automobiles — joined with other new-fangled inventions to push the envelope. No other era with the possible exception of ours has ever encountered such turbulent change.
The reaction within artistic communities was explosive. Avant-garde artists and painters became the norm destroying the boundaries of traditional subject and form. What artists were creating in this brave new era perfectly reflected the movements of the age and the culture at large.
The machine of progress is vividly outlined in the thought-provoking exhibition The Great Upheaval – Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection 1910-1918, on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. This magnificent collection of nearly 70 works on loan from the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York illustrates the scope and depth of all the major groundbreaking movements of the day from Cubism to Futurism to Abstraction.
To help illustrate this eroding landscape that was being introduced to materialism and corruption Guggenheim curator Tracey Bashcoff used Woolf’s reference to 1910, the year when “human character changed,” as her canvas and has stitched together three intense periods to illustrate how art reflected the times. Basically, the exhibit focuses on art produced during the two periods prior to the First World War and during the war itself.
Watch a video by author Ilona Kauremszky about the Great Upheaval at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Was there a change? Indeed, YES!
Within the eight years, Bashcoff recalls how fruitful the period was despite its brevity. Like the movements and waves shaping politics and science, the art world too experienced a transforming metamorphosis, she said during a stop in Toronto. An impetus for the revolution in art came from The Blue Rider School of Expressionists (Blaue Reiter), a bunch of socially conscious creators formed in 1911 in Munich, Germany by two friends: the Russian Wassily Kandinsky and German Franz Marc, who became a war casualty in 1916 and died at the age of 36.
This movement ascribed to higher ideals, had a love affair with lines that went beyond real representations, and generally revolted against the growing materialism stemming from all the new inventions. The works of 36 artists — all innovators — are beautifully displayed.
In the first room of the AGO show, we discover how artists played with still life and looked at people’s interactions with nature and their surrounds. Picasso known for Cubism indeed had a flirty stint with the Can-Can girls of Paris as he portrayed a night of debauchery in his Le Moulin de la Galette (1900) with women appearing more Renoir-ish. The painting could be seen as a playful imitation of the Great Master himself.
Another painting of athletes who looked more like circus performers by Henri Rousseau (1908) is called The Football Players. The rugby players are situated between a row of manicured trees at a country estate facing the viewer. It’s a playful, harmless scene. The moustachioed chaps in striped uniforms seem to be caught in a pose where they appear more interested in showing off their brilliant colours like a peacock. What is it saying? My takeaway is that the upper crust is frolicking in the heavenly countryside oblivious to the changing outside world and boy do they look clownish.
The Pre-War Era of 1910-13
By the time you reach the second room a sense of urban doom and congestion is upon us. People are living in cramped quarters portrayed in Robert Delaunay’s painting aptly titled The City (1911). Its dead grey tones and bold brush strokes make you feel claustrophobic with all the small paint dots but still there’s a haunting beauty with the use of vivid lines and texture.
Fernand Léger’s Cubist masterpiece The Smoker (1911-12) depicts a city-countryside conflict. In the foreground puffs of smoke float around two male smokers facing each other. In the background there is a countryside dotted with green trees dramatically butted against red-roofed houses with more smoke clouds scarring both the country and city — they have in fact become one.
Marc’s Yellow Cow (1911) hangs next to and in stark contrast to Delaunay’s The City. Yellow Cow is a crowd favourite and one of the true gems of the Guggenheim collection. Marc loved nature and was part of a back-to-nature movement sweeping Germany in the early 20th century. Some consider that the bright yellow cow was a wedding picture because it was produced around the time of his second marriage to Maria Franck.
The Great War of 1914-1918
The war pieces are somberly fewer but bold and sublimely powerful. Twelve of the featured artists served in the war for various legions and countries. Léger and Braque were severely wounded. Boccioni and Marc died. Meanwhile Modigliani, Picasso, Gris and Brancusi stayed in Paris to do their art.
One of the final paintings ever created by Franz Marc, the piece Broken Forms completed in 1914 prior to him enlisting in the German army shows a departure from his animal themes to full-blown abstraction with arabesque swirls. Who knows what he might have created had he lived longer?
In Knight Errant (1915) by Oskar Kokoschka we see the ghostly soldier of Kokoschka himself, tortured with injury while bloodied soldier angels circle above his prostrated body. On the opposite wall hangs Modiliagni’s The Nude (1917). The reclining sensual woman could not be in greater contrast to the dying brutal grey, blues and blacks of the Knight Errant.
Meanwhile Henri Matisse has painted The Italian Woman (1916) the portrait of a long-haired brunette, her piercing charcoal eyes evoking an utter bleakness and despair. The background of black envelopes her right shoulder and hair like an encroaching shroud about to hide her figure from the viewer.
I was struck by Albert Gleizes who painted a moving portrait of his army doctor far away from the bullets and the unending shelling. About the Great War, he wrote, “The present conflict throws into anarchy all of the intellectual paths of the prewar period, and the reasons are simple: the leaders are in the army and the generation of thirty-year-olds is sparse. … The past is finished.”
Why This Art Matters
On the eve of the commencement of The Great War Centenary, the AGO is the one Canadian venue for this significant exhibition. The exhibition reveals more about ourselves than we might care to admit.
The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection 1910-1918 is now showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario until March 2.
More about Art Gallery of Ontario & The Great Upheaval – Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection 1910-1918
Location: 317 Dundas Street West (see map below)
Websites: Art Gallery of Ontario and The Great Upheaval
Hours: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday: 10 am-5:30 pm
Wednesday 10 am-8:30 pm
Admission: Adult – $19.50, Student / Youth – $11
Purchase Tickets online
Telephone: 1-877-225-4246 or 416-979-6648
Public transportation: Take the TTC subway to St. Patrick station and walk three blocks west along Dundas Street to the museum. Or take the Dundas Street streetcar to either McCaul Street (if travelling east) or Beverly Street (if travelling west) and you will be in front of the museum. TTC tokens for subways and streetcars is $3 for one way. [Read more on how to Get Into and Around Toronto]