PRINT November 1974


L’Année 1913 and Modern Art Exhibitions 1900–1916

L’Année 1913: les formes esthétiques de l’oeuvre d’art à la veille de la première guerre mondiale, L. Brion-Guerry, editor. Paris, Editions Klincksieck, 1971, 1973, vols. I and II: studies and chronologies, vol. Ill: manifestoes and documents, 1903 pages, 121 illustrations, indices and chronological tables.

Modern Art Exhibitions 1900–1916; Selected Catalogue Documentation, Donald E. Gordon. Munich, Prestel-Verlag, 1974, 2 vols., 1268 pages, 1905 illustrations.

These two monumental works are the most important publications yet to appear in early twentieth-century art history; they are surely destined to become the indispensable tools, points of departure, and reference sources for all serious students of the beginnings of modern art. Of the two, Gordon’s extraordinary compilation of almost 900 exhibitions in 15 countries (including rare documentation from Russia, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia) and covering the work of more than 400 artists is at once the more immediately useful and fundamental. It is organized according to an excellent scheme of cross-references, the categories being the exhibitions themselves in chronological order, the exhibition record of each artists, illustrations of the specific works exhibited, and a listing of the exhibitions by cities. In all cases the exhibition entry is printed in full and in the original language, with translations into English from Russian, Czech, and other languages less widely known in the West.

What makes this work of fundamental importance is that there is often no historical record other than inclusion in an exhibition for much late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art. In a bourgeois society, records of commissioning and payment for works of art are almost nonexistent, because the vast majority of artists work isolatedly within a supposedly free market situation. In such a situation the exhibition takes on a central and crucial role. Thus for early twentieth-century art history, the generally elusive, ephemeral, and hence incredibly rare exhibition catalogue takes the place of papal and aristocratic correspondence in state archives. Other soures––newspapers and periodicals; the infrequent correspondence of critics, collectors, and even more rarely the artist himself––are all of secondary importance in comparison to exhibition records. Even the records of art dealers are less reliable, and if extant they are usually carefully guarded as commercial secrets. It is for these reasons that Gordon’s contribution is of fundamental value. For the first time one can easily review the works exhibited by, let us say, the pioneer Lithuanian abstractionist Nikolai Ciurlionis between 1908 and 1912, or trace the extent of Picasso’s influence through the 43 exhibitions in which he participated outside of France between 1910 and 1916, from Moscow to San Francisco.

As a preface to Modern Art Exhibitions Gordon has contributed three short yet important essays, on primitivism, abstraction, and the avant-garde, using these focal themes as points into the complexity of historical and cultural issues in early twentieth-century art. But whereas sheer documentation is the principal function of his compendium, the analytical-historical essay is the basis of the collaborative enterprise directed and edited by Mme. Brion-Guerry. L’Année 1913 is an exceptional, even awesome achievement: an attempt, for the most part successful, to examine the situation of all the arts, as well as science, philosophy, and esthetics, during the years immediately preceding World War I. The artistic media treated are painting, sculpture, architecture, urbanism, the decorative arts, music, poetry, the novel, drama, dance, and cinema. These various areas are discussed in 22 seperate essays by as many authors; and each essay is followed by a formidable chronological table––for the essay on painting the chronology is 35 pages long and covers events between 1910 and 1914 nation by nation, from Uruguay to Finland. In volume II there is a 51-page master chronology for the year 1913 only, organized both by nation and by artistic medium; the remainder of this second volume is devoted to analyses of over 50 artistic and cultural periodicals of the 1910–1914 period, in all languages. Finally, in volume III are a selection of the essential manifestoes, statements, letters and essays of the period, many previously unpublished or difficult of access, ranging from Worringer and Rudolf Steiner to Boccioni, Kandinsky, Webern, Ezra Pound, Meyerhold, Havelock Ellis, and Charlie Chaplin.

The sheer quantity of detail gathered together in this study is overwhelming; the index of names cited runs to almost 5000 entries, and the combined footnotes and reference in the various chapters would constitute an unequaled bibliography of modern cultural history. The special virtue of L’Année 1913 is, in fact, its remarkable cosmopolitanism, the assemblage of materials and references that even the greatest of libraries could hardly equal. There is also a certain degree of mea culpa here in contrast to the usual French xenophobic approach to culture: a markedly generous emphasis is given to German, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, and Russian contributions to modern art and thought. The recent expansion of critical and historical methods in France is also much in evidence, for in addition to the normal explicative discourse are structuralist and sociometric approaches, applied to problems as diverse as sculpture and the musical public of pre-World War I Vienna. The essays themselves are all of greater than average competence, and even the most pedestrian among them contain important information hard to find elsewhere. A few are exemplary, including Mikel Dufrenne’s on esthetics, Michael Zeraffa’s on the novel, and Jean Laude’s on sculpture; Laude’s approach to the history of sculpture during the years 1905–14 is particularly outstanding and will probably become one of the classics of modern art history.

One inevitably comes to two fundamental questions in dealing with important works such as the two under discussion: Why 1913, or, if not 1913 specifically, why the decade preceding World War I? and secondly, Is there any unifying generalization that may legitimately be made? Obviously, 1913 was an annus mirabilis in Western culture. Highly important work by Husserl, Freud, Bertrand Russell, Schoenberg, Picasso, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Malevich, Boccioni, Apollinaire, Stravinsky, Proust––the list is endless––all appeared in that one year, in the last moment of coherence, of transnational interchange, and of real world hegemony for European culture. It was a golden age in many ways, the ultimate fruition for the many facets of a long and tremendously complex set of traditions. We more or less clearly recognize today that the roots of much of our contemporary culture lie in the realizations of the short period preceding 1914; there may even be a large degree of nostalgia for the seemingly uncompromised achievements of an earlier age, imbued with a creative confidence that has not survived the intervening 60 years.

Is there, however, even in the relatively restricted domain of the visual arts, a pattern or a set of values and events that, from the vantage point of elapsed time, can now be recognized as central and fundamental for the subsequent decades of the century? We are accustomed to thinking about certain styles and achievements––collage Cubism, abstraction, the Readymade––as basic determinants and antecedents; but in so doing we often act like genealogists blind to all but sheer sequence and coincidence. But if one considers the years circa 1913–14 not only in the light of what happened afterward but also of what came before, a few generalizations are possible.

By the end of the seventeenth century a set of conventions in all aspects of human life and thought had been established and was generally accepted, from Newtonian physics and Cartesian logic to hierarchical social structures, musical forms and harmonies, and the Renaissance-derived modes of figure style and pictorial illusionism in the visual arts. The validity of these conventions, whether supported by Catholic dogma or Protestant self-determination, whether directly theological or in secular and scientific disguise, endured without successful challenge until the end of the eighteenth century. The entire nineteenth century, from the American and French Revolutions until World War I, witnessed the cumulative rejection of all those conventions which had governed and, in fact, defined European civilization, and their replacement with anticonventions; these anticonventions have remained with us as the foundations of modern culture.

The convention that proved to be the most tenacious was the belief in an ultimate intelligibility; and therefore meaningfulness, of the world and of life itself; it is perhaps the one value indispensable to the continuation of civilization itself. In even the most radical events of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from the paintings of Cézanne and Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés to Cubism and Schoenberg’s serial compositions, the unspoken belief in an order, apprehensible in whole or in part, by reason or by experience, remained as a final refuge. It was the foundation of Jamesian omniscient consciousness as much as of Einsteinian relativity. Much of the strength of this belief was destroyed during and immediately after World War I, and with its destruction was lost not only a sense of cultural coherence but also the belief in the possibility of such coherence, as well as even the possibility of meaningful symbolic discourse. 1913 is to the rest of the twentieth century much as 1513 must have seemed to the later sixteenth century in Italy––indispensable yet irretrievable: a watershed, on our side of which the faith in action and the attainability of even secular absolutes has in large part given way to a universe of pure relativity and to an acceptance of the aleatory and the irrational as the basic ingredients of existence.

The visual arts in 1913–14 during the last moments of the secular absolute present the curious dilemma of superficial unity and synchronous events concealing a profound divergence of cultural orientations. The transformations occurring in widely separated cultural centers may be divided into two very distinct groups. The first, based on Catholic, Mediterranean, plastic, rational, and classicistic traditions, was in Paris; its focus was Cubism. The second, as Robert Rosenblum has so brilliantly demonstrated in his forthcoming study of the Northern Romantic tradition, was based on predominantly Judea-Protestant, mystical, empathetic, and intuitive values, in centers far removed from the imprint of Graeco-Roman civilization: England, America, Scandinavia, Germany and related areas of Northern Protestant Europe, and the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe. The focus of this second tradition by 1913–14 was transcendental abstraction. Shortly before 1914 the two traditions had become closely intertwined, interactive, and seemingly united; by the end of World War I they had definitively separated, to be temporarily and eclectically recombined once again only in the later stages of Surrealism.

Parisian Cubism can be seen as the last phase of the post-Renaissance classical tradition, already stripped of its religious and humanistic content by the later nineteenth century, yet still custodian of the rational, cumulative, objectifying values of that tradition. Picasso, Braque, and their followers succeeded in inventing a coherent formal style that was the inversion of classicism but was still representational. It was a classical anticlassicism that provided a new formal vocabulary for artists throughout the world. This disinvention of the classical tradition also involved, at least temporarily, the separate rethinking of each medium; sculpture in particular was pushed to the antiplastic extreme of assembled low relief before a new, post-Cubism was invented.

The supremacy of nonillusionist painting in Cubism, and its temporary ascendancy over, and absorption of, sculpture, could only give added impetus to artists of the Northern Romantic tradition who, almost by definition, were painters exclusively. Many of them, Mondrian and Malevich being the most prominent examples, assimilated Cubist style and used its formal stimulus before rejecting its nonromantic aims.

While Cubist style played a transient if catalytic role in the development of a few transcendental abstractionists, it also provided an indispensable substructure for Italian Futurism, serving as the predominant stylistic support for its programmatic modernism of machine and motion iconography. Elsewhere, however, art immediately before 1914, from Arthur Dove in America to Edvard Munch in Norway, was inspired by the Romantic tradition, which reached its supreme antithesis to Cubism in Kandinsky’s cosmic abstractions. Kandinsky’s fusion of nature, empathy, and musical emotion stands at an ultimate remove from the genius of the Mediterranean world. Reason and mysticism achieve a remarkable unity in the three quintessentially Northern pursuits of abstract art, pure mathematics, and music.

The recent history of twentieth-century art has continued the dichotomy of the pre-World I years to only a limited degree, for modern art, like much of the modern world, is the creation of Northern societies. The last artist in the Cubist-classicist tradition was probably David Smith, working in that most classical of all media, sculpture; but even Smith, as Rosalind Krauss has so well demonstrated, continued the antiplastic and pictorial mode of constructed relief that originated with Picasso’s 1912–13 constructions.

Because it is essentially Romantic in psychology almost all modern painting since Cubism rejects the classical ideals of cumulative innovation and objectified knowledge. One can repeat a certain state of mind and consciousness, and refine and restate the character of the medium; but in so doing one only plays historicist variations on that which exists and has, in fact, existed for a long time. The will to make art continues, but the search for mystic truths has subsided into professionalism.

––Edward F. Fry