New York

“1900: Art at the Crossroads”

THINK ART IN THE YEAR 1900: the young Picasso, the aging Cézanne, Gauguin in the South Seas. Add technology and urbanism: early cinema, electric lighting, motorized subways, the automobile—all brilliant illumination and accelerated movement. Then ask yourself the inevitable question: Was modern art challenging sensory habits analogously, perhaps even as technology's rival?

One hundred years ago, you might have attempted to answer that question by visiting the Exposition Universelle in Paris, where the most modern of achievements in creative engineering and fine arts went on exhibit for a cosmopolitan crowd. Technology had its Palace of Electricity, lit up to dazzle spectators unimpressed by scientists' and engineers' paper abstractions. Art, too, had its sensational display, its material proof of “progress,” organized chronologically in three stages. First came works from the Middle Ages to the era of Watteau, housed in the Petit Palais. The Centennale followed, showing French masterworks from 1789 to 1889. fruits of the modern republic's freedoms, from David to Degas (along with many less revolutionary types, to be sure). Capping it off was the Décennale, which featured the best work of the last ten years offered up by twenty-nine participating nations, from Belgium and England to Japan and Peru. The Centennale included Cézanne and his early Impressionist cohorts but awarded them no prominence, as if their techniques, fresh in the 1870s, had settled into minor, unproblematic historical fact. At the Décennale, a single work by the nineteen-year-old Picasso could be observed, probably looking more stylish than startling. Gauguin? He was an alienated presence, included in the Centennale but not the Décennale, where his style might have come into its own.

If the Paris Exposition did more justice to innovative technology (electricity) than to innovative painting (Hodler's electric blues), this doesn't mean the Décennale left viewers' aesthetic sensibilities unchallenged. As a substitute for Gauguin's symbolist mythologies and edenic fantasies, consider The Stream, a triptych a decade in the making (1890–99) by the Belgian painter Léon Fréderic: seventeen feet of innumerable infants who awaken, frolic, and sleep, their multiplicity of pink cheeks and bums overwhelming any judgment of taste, good or bad. It wasn't its Cineramic size that caused this academic version of folk art to stand out at both the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where the exhibition “1900: Art at the Crossroads” originated, and the Guggenheim, but its weirdness. (Call it intensity or obsession, as you wish; Robert Rosenblum's catalogue essay refers to élan vital, or life force, an all-purpose fin-de-siècle notion.) For me, there's little about such an overblown image to like. I feel edified, however, having seen it. The Stream isn't, or wasn't, part of the modernist avant-garde because it didn't critique the aesthetic protocols of its time, at least not in a concerted way; yet it isn't, or wasn't, kitsch because there's nothing mechanical or phony about it. Works like Fréderic's become kitsch only when subjected to false claims—if we were to say, for example, that they capture the moment of 1900 better than Cézanne, Gauguin, or Picasso.

Rosenblum, who conceived “Art at the Crossroads,” isn't making any such claims; he let stand what he calls the exhibition's “confusing diversity” without assigning relative merit to particular works. Instead, the show put modernist heroes like Cézanne and Gauguin beside popular successes like Fréderic, then stirred another element into the mixture—the “emerging avant-gardes,” including Picasso as well as Matisse, Munch, Mondrian, and Kandinsky. The result offered a synthetic view across generations and ideologies that few would have had the privilege—or perhaps the inclination—to discern. If the purpose here is revisionist, the re-viewing occurs as fresh experience, rather than a categorical evaluation or imposition. Many of the works were selected because they elude current hierarchies and categories. Nor could each work be judged on its own unique terms, which, by and large, we simply don't know: The partisan, mythmaking practices of history and criticism progressively narrow the available range of artistic significance, degrading the differences between both individual practitioners and their products.

It would be wrong (obviously) to assume that “Art at the Crossroads” promoted modernism as the ultimate art-historical phenomenon, yet in its critical ethic, its resistance to historical myth, this exhibition was thoroughly modernist. It asked of its viewers nothing less than the same naive spirit of exploration reflected in its own choices, acting as a tonic corrective without specifying any correction. Promoting egalitarianism in judgment, the show led visitors to wonder, open-eyed, at curiosities by neglected Italian divisionists (Angelo Morbelli), rebellious Finnish symbolists (Akseli Gallén-Kallela), and the remarkable Jan Toorop, whose Watchers on the Threshold of the Sea, ca. 1900, combines garish pointillism, posterlike caricature, and pure paint (I think of the dunes of Mondrian, his fellow Dutchman, several years hence). Within such eclecticism, each work has its merits, whether or not one would tolerate its aesthetics long-term.

There was a broad conceit to this curatorial display that worked more efficiently in the Guggenheim's confining bays than in the luxurious but diffuse spaces of the Royal Academy, and (ironically) better still in the juxtaposed pages of the catalogue. The principle was to link two or more works of very similar theme or imagery but different style and mode of execution. Subtly, perhaps not entirely consciously, the exhibition thus gave final say to technical matters in establishing meaningful distinctions. This, too, is modernism in action and, to my mind, historically telling. For, despite the diversity, what stood out at this crossroads was the scarcity of polished surfaces, whether painted or sculpted (Medardo Rosso's nuanced yet coarse work in wax, Impression of the Boulevard, Woman with a Veil, 1893, is a prime example). Most artists—“official,” “modernist,” and “avant-garde” were letting their creative process show. It was a way to assert human touch and capability during an age of increasingly dehumanizing technology. Cubist collage, sculptural assemblage, and other materialistic, “modernist” abstractions of a decade or so later were extensions of this impulse. As a counter to technocracy, the effectiveness of such artistic physicality may be far more contested in 2000, as we reassess (ever again) the body's relation to the machine. Yet the aesthetics of touch still moves us—our own versions not always so different from those of 1900.

Richard Shiff is the Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas, Austin.