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The Great Upheaval

Yesterday* I went to see The Great Upheaval at the AGO. Before even entering the exhibit, I reflected: what a great name. Images of mountains overturning, the earth being wrenched apart, deep chasms and I snickered at how appropriate the name of the exhibit was.

In a sense, however, rather than a great upheaval, the show begins to slowly chronicle from 1910-1918 the changes of what people had viewed as appropriate in art. The idea that the canvas was a window through which one could capture landscapes and recognizable moments marked the beginning of the end of traditional painting. However, great art does not exist in a vacuum and just as Flanders stood as the outpost for import of mercantile goods and was reflected in the lush paintings by Franz Hals, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon-Chardin, Pieter Claesz, Anthony van Dyck and others in the 17th Century, so the paintings of the early 20th Century would capture the tumult and unrest that was seething across Europe, feeling the rumble of revolt as it rolled towards war.

The breakdown of conventional ideas and mores was exploding all over Europe almost simultaneously from the Surrealist painters such as Man Ray to musicians such as Stravinsky to scientific discoveries regarding atoms and psychoanalysis to actual peasant revolts in Russia. Zurich during the war was magnet for refugees, exiles, anarchists, artist and radicals of all kinds ( Stoppard in Travesties, 1975, 69); it is not surprising that parallel art works emerged. Picasso and Stravinsky knew one another,and Freud and Einstein having a casual acquaintance.

Howard Gardner speaks to a Zeitgeist, a spirit of the time that infuses and energizes the culture of communities. Yet the question arises, whether the brilliant minds that appeared in small European communities at approximately the same time actually changed history, or did they reflect and deepen the significance of the events all ready occurring around them. Or perhaps much like the medieval or Renaissance artist, was the artist merely providing a window on the world?

In my doctoral thesis, I wrote about artists from the time of Goya to Kathe Kollwitz who used their art to comment and attack the leaders of their times. Van Gogh too depicted the life of the poor and Georges Seurat worried about the machine’s domination over people and the achievement of democratic rights for all workers. And anyone who has ever stood before Picasso’s “Guernica” will forever have the image of the mother, head flung backwards, holding her dead baby, etched in their consciousness. You can feel her screams that pierce the air.

I paused for a moment at the entrance of the art exhibit at the AGO, deciding whether to purchase the audio guide or not. For ages I have been shunning those annoying pieces of technology because they mess with my hearing aids and, more importantly, encourage listening as opposed to looking. However, as it has been years since I’ve sat in art history class, I decided on the guide and wound up hearing more and visually focusing less- except when I allowed myself to really examine the wonderful paintings.

The show opens with a Cezanne “Still life” (1879) and the guide points out the split in the picture-almost cutting the design in two. On one side, Cezanne’s gorgeous ( there are no lines in nature) fruits sit nicely on the tablecloth; on the other, the tablecloth might take flight as there is no stabilizing support for the fruit. If the listener wonders why, the audio guide speaks to the metaphorical nature of the surface being destabilized. Cezanne’s piece is prophetic, subtly but boldly ushering in a future which foresees the ends of tranquility and balance as war is not far, and life will be shattered- not quite into the precise cubes Picasso will herald but into blocks and bits of reality that will stand in for the solid ground rules that once directed artists.

It is an apt introductory piece as a painted metaphor for Cezanne heralds the 50’s Abstract Expressionism: the treatment of paint as paint; canvas as two dimensional ( Notice in this show, Gauguin’s paint applied to the very recognizable surface of burlap in “Haere Mai “(1891); colour for its own sake; the merging of fore and background as the structures of recognizable painting are folded into dust and a new sensibility rises from the ashes.

As a commentary piece to Cezanne’s table of shifting still life, Picasso’s “Moulin de Galette (1900) reminds us of Ensor, Nolde, Toulouse Lautrec and even Picasso’s well known “Le Gogule” and “Absinthe Drinkers” who blankly stare out of the frame, but ignore us, the voyeurs. There is a ghoulish feeling to this dance and bar scene of scary inhabitants who leer out. It is the scorn of the bohemians who go their own way, find their own inebriation and search their own souls, disdaining the public who like us, peer in, a mere audience to their actions. The seeds of rebellion have begun to sprout.

I wonder if the curator of this show held the same notions as I in this arrangement.

A quiet Seurat, “Peasant Woman on Grass” painted in his pointillist style provides insight into how background and foreground will merge as the green shadow of the background is intrinsically linked to the meditating woman in the fore. Although a traditional separation of forms can still be discerned, both parts of the painting are united by the mood, shape and technique.

Similarly Kandinsky’s “Winterscape with Church”( 1910) celebrates the flatness of the canvas. Shapes lose their prescribed forms, the boldness of the primaries, strong blues and reds, the tipping of the perspective meshes the front and back again in an almost kaleidoscopic whirr. While we still can recognize remnants of the familiar buildings and clouds, now they are interlocked, avoiding the perspectival view that people had come to expect in portraying buildings and landscapes: as if seeing through a window. Beneath our feet, the earth begins to shake and we feel uncertain about the solid ground that had once supported traditional and expected interpretations.

We see this convergence of back and foreground in painting over and over again: in Delaunay’s “Red Eiffel” tower, a recognizable symbol of modernity, a manmade construction of steel that the Futurists will laud. Umberto Boccioni, will announce in his party’s manifestos that traditional subject matter must go and be replaced by the essence of pure motion and movement, building processes and materials of a fast approaching future. Leger as well in his “Smokers” presents colors dulled in puffs of smoke, cubist forms that are obscured, but ascend upwards and out of the picture space. Modernity eclipses the past.

Ironically exhibited is a small painting by Marcel Duchamp, usually celebrated for his penchant for motion in “Woman Descending the Stairs.” Here, we view a tranquil moment ,“ Apropos of Little Sister (1911)”, where a slouching woman reminiscent of Lautrec’s red-headed model with a drooped head in long black stockings bends forward. The strong linearity of the pose, the occluding/obfuscation of back and foregrounds, a feeling of a sketch for a moment of repose and quiet reminds us of the complexity of the artist’s search.

Similarly, Chagall halts the headlong onslaught into the future with his disarming colours both in his “ Soldier Drinks” and “Paris through Windows.” His luminescent primary colours, his surreal upside down people, animals with human heads, steeples and samovars from Russia ensure we recognize his signature motifs. They literally stop us in our tracks and envelop us in his interior world where the viewer feels safe, dreamily ensconced in broad areas of exuberant jewel tones. In Chagall’s upheaval, he showcases an inner egotistical expression that focuses on the artist’s right to paint what he wants, how he wants, where he wants, perhaps obliterating the outside world for the security within.

However not unaware of the trends and realities that surround, for his studio in Paris witnessed the visits and influences of Matisse, Picasso and others and he himself had experienced pogroms in Russia, and anti-Semitism in Europe, Chagall flamboyantly creates his own dramatic spaces, outside of the real world, elevating his private landscapes to a realms of magical dominance.

In a way, the Modigliani “Nude” (1917) is like that as well. The strong diagonal of the nude pushes the figure into our space, even cutting off her legs. In spite of the force of the composition, the model sleeps blissfully, uncaring of the stir she causes through the boldness of her pose that recalls the odalisques and harems of Delacroix that also caused a commotion in their day. Paradox always, the tumult of the interior world of the painting obscures the exterior insecurity of the world posed or all ready engaged in battles. Yet the boldness of the attack on space and colour in these works mirror those larger wars: posed in their destructive forces on how reality was once constructed.

This exposure of an inner world as opposed to the presentation of the external world likewise was championed by the group Dir Bleue Reider, inaugurated by Kandinsky and Franz Marc in Russia who sought to represent the spiritual in their paintings. The luscious “Yellow Cow” that celebrated Marc’s wedding is a joy in the joy it exudes. Marc has written that he envisaged the horse and the rider as the artist moving forward into a new world. And his compatriot Kandinsky a believer in the apocalypse and devotee of Anton Strindberg appropriated musical terminology to express those contentions. Both artists were transfixed by Swedenborg’s mysticism.

As well, Kokoschka’s “Errant Knight” expresses his emotional distress at his lover Alma Mahler’s actions as this landscape washed in waves of blue projects his personal despair on to the viewer: certainly a new mode of expression for the artist.

The Great Upheaval is a thoughtful, well curated show. Many of these paintings are not the ones you have studied in art books. They provide a fresh look at the upheaval that changed the history of art forever. It provokes reflections on the role of the artist in society and reinforces to the public the necessity of art as talking points and a reminder that art must live openly, provide commentary and solace from the horrors of repression and oppression : beyond private galleries and museums into real living places- schools, malls, city centres, office buildings wherever people gather.

* Please remember I write these, stock pile them, revise and edit them at a later date. So “ yesterday” was not Thursday, September 25, 2014.

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