Before even getting to a description of this exhibition I am advising you to see it. At the risk of exposing my tastes as those of an old white man, “The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918” curated by the Guggenheim’s Tracey Bashkoff and on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario until the 2nd of March, is among the best major museum shows I’ve seen in the past few years. Granted, I’m into the canon, and furthermore, the exhibition’s organizers began with a goldmine of material—the Guggenheim New York’s holdings of European art from the years leading up to World War I, which are especially remarkable considering the museum’s founders began collecting it in earnest only in the 1930s—but I still think such a glowing review is merited.
Bashkoff’s comment at the press preview that the show “practically curated itself” is too modest. This could have been a meaningless flaunting of a meaty area of the institution’s collection; it could have been a “greatest hits” show more about the Guggenheim than the history of twentieth-century Western art. Instead, it is a thoughtful and focused look at how the remarkable turbulence of the eight-year period with which the show is concerned manifested itself in the visual arts.
Henri Rousseau, The Football Players (Les joueurs de football), 1908, Oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 31 5/8 inches (100.3 x 80.3 cm); Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
“The Great Upheaval” is not a spectacular exhibition. This is much to its credit; given the complexity of the political and cultural moment with which it is concerned, and the panoply of artistic movements then current, its aspect is one of inspired restraint. The number of artworks is restricted to some sixty-five. There are no ephemera-filled vitrines, no interactive displays, and no architectural add-ons. There aren’t even any wall colours to distract from the art on the walls. (And, yes, on the floor, but this show is far and away about painting. That said, one of the few included sculptures, Constantin Brancusi’s portrait head La Muse (1912), was so heartfelt it nearly killed me.)
The art is by artists whose names are invariably expected: Vassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, and Franz Marc, to list a few. But the works shown are frequently not the most characteristic of their makers’ styles: here we see Picasso at his youngest, and most traditional (the stylistically demure Le Moulin de la Galette (1910), with its sea of blurred, fine faces, an image of fin-de-siècle urbanism at its most alluring); Mondrian at his least severe (the gorgeously coloured graphic landscape of 1911, Summer, Dune in Zeeland); Matisse working from a palette restricted, by Matisse standards, practically to brown (1916’s The Italian Woman, a strange, tender portrait that was not easy to turn from). This reflects more on the vagaries of the Guggenheim’s collection than some curatorial project to unearth these artists’ brilliant b-sides, but the work appears wondrous nonetheless. And on goes the praise, of Juan Gris’ small, almost hesitantly experimental Houses in Paris (1911), Robert Delaunay’s shimmering Simultaneous Windows (1912)… And I didn’t think I even liked Delaunay.
Kazimir Malevich, Morning in the Village after Snowstorm (Utro posle v'iugi v derevne), 1912, Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 31 1/2 inches (80 × 80 cm); Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
The objects in the show are arranged chronologically, one year per room until 1914, when time suddenly collapses into the four-year span of the conflict. A list on one wall details how various artists in the exhibition spent the war years. Reading it, it was difficult not to aggrandize those who fought, and to wonder about those who taught, exhibited, and experimented instead—I was either experiencing knee-jerk nationalism or had internalized too many wartime romances. Kurt Schwitters’ Mountain Graveyard (1919), then, was well placed: impenetrable and somber, and the last thing before the exit. I emerged into the museum hallway struck but serene.
[Image on top: Albert Gleizes, Head in a Landscape (Tête dans un paysage), 1912–13, oil on canvas; © Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, The Hilla Rebay Collection.]