The Great Upheaval: Europe’s Brazen Artists

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André Derain, Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1913–14), oil on canvas with graphite underdrawing, 91.8 x 73.6 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

In September 1910, when Munich’s Moderne Galerie opened an exhibition of works by Kandinsky, Braque, Derain, Picasso and other avant-garde artists, one critic called it an “absurd exhibition,” suggesting that the artists were either “incurably insane” or “brazen bluffers.”

Over a century later, the notion of absurdity seems a little, well, absurd, as I stand before Kandinsky’s playful and much-loved Blue Mountain (1908–1909), or Derain’s relatively figurative Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1913–1914). In the early 20th century, however, they were truly groundbreaking—Blue Mountain for its bold colours and flattened forms, and Portrait of a Young Man for its broad, spontaneous paint strokes and exaggerated proportions. Both are featured in the engaging Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) exhibition, The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918. 

With 65 paintings and sculptures by such iconic figures as Kandinsky, Derain, Picasso, Cézanne, Chagall, Gauguin, Matisse, Modigliani, Mondrian and Seurat, The Great Upheaval affords visitors a wonderful opportunity to see works that are normally on view only in New York City.

Paul Gauguin Haere Mai (1891), oil on burlap, 72.4 x 91.4 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 

The title refers to the dramatic leap into modern art that took place in the lead-up to the First World War. Arranged in chronological order, the works suggest that, apart from the obvious fact that Europe was heading towards the cataclysm of war, this was also a time of great social and artistic upheaval. Populations were migrating from the country to the city. Technological innovations in transportation, communications and energy were dramatically transforming everyday life. With the expansion of railway travel, artists could more easily come together in like-minded groups, such as The Blue Rider, the Futurists and New Secession. As German artist Franz Marc wrote in 1912, “There is an artistic tension all over Europe. Everywhere new artists are greeting each other; a look, a handshake is enough for them to understand each other.”

Beginning in the first room, works from the two decades prior to 1910 suggest the direction in which painting was already heading. The roots of Cubism appear in the shifting surfaces of Cézanne’s Still Life: Plate of Peaches (1879–1880). In Haere Mai (1891), Gauguin shows his rebellious tendencies with flattened forms, exotic colours and a canvas made of rough burlap. Le Moulin de la Galette (1900), by a teenaged Picasso, hints at the emotional tone of his Blue Period to come.

Paul Cézanne, Still Life: Plate of Peaches (1879–80), oil on canvas, 59.7 x 73.3 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

It is in the next room, devoted to the year 1910, that the real upheaval becomes evident. For anyone who associates Piet Mondrian with grid paintings—such as the National Gallery’s Composition No. 12 with Blue (1936–1942)—his Summer, Dune in Zeeland will come as a revelation, an indication of what propelled the artist towards geometric patterning. An intense, highly abstracted image of a sand dune, painted with broad, flat areas of blue and yellow, it evokes glaring sunshine. With this radical work, Mondrian was seeking to escape the confines of conventional European painting, says the AGO’s Interpretive Planner, David Wistow, as he guides me through the show: “I don’t think we can overestimate the weight of tradition.”

Robert Delaunay’s series of Eiffel Tower paintings, set in fractured cityscapes, exemplify the preoccupation that these artists had with urbanization and feats of engineering and technology. As you move through each room, and each corresponding year, Kandinsky’s paintings become increasingly expressive. Improvisation 28 (1912), with its splotches of thin paint and scratchy black lines, is a visual equivalent of music.

Robert Delauney, Red Eiffel Tower (1911–12), oil on canvas, 125 x 90.3 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, 46.1036

In sculpture, too, there was clearly a sea change. Constantin Brancusi’s sublime sculpture from that year, Muse (1912), a simplified marble head sitting on an oak pedestal, marks the move towards abstraction in that medium.

The final room, devoted to the years 1914–1918, says as much with absence as with presence, for this section contains relatively few works. The First World War marked the end of a rich artistic period, as artists’ groups broke up, expatriates were expelled and sent home, and artists enlisted—some, such as Franz Marc, to die on the battlefield. Few of the works in this room actually depict war, however. Amedeo Modigliani, who was refused enlistment in the army because of poor health, enjoyed a highly productive period, and certainly his reclining nude seems oblivious to the destruction at her doorstep. Kurt Schwitters’ Mountain Graveyard, painted in 1919, looks back on the bloodshed with grave markers set in an apocalyptic landscape.

The story of Solomon Guggenheim’s famed collection, from which most of these works are drawn, is fascinating in and of itself. In 1927, nine years after the end of the war, Guggenheim—then a retired industrialist and collector of Old Masters paintings—commissioned a portrait by a young German artist, Hilla Rebay. Soon a friendship formed between the artist, Guggenheim and his wife Irene Rothschild, with Rebay introducing the couple to various artists—Chagall, Delaunay and Mondrian among them—in Paris, Berlin and Dessau, and guiding them in their acquisition of contemporary European works of art. By 1939, Guggenheim had opened his own museum in New York City.


Juan Gris, Newspaper and Fruit Dish (March 1916), oil on canvas, 46 x 37.8 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, Estate of Katherine S. Dreier, 1953

The Great Upheaval is organized by the Guggenheim Museum, where it was first presented. The accompanying catalogue, with excellent essays by Guggenheim curators Tracey Bashkoff and Megan M. Fontanella, among others, is beautifully illustrated with reproductions of many of the works. The AGO has put its own stamp on the Toronto exhibition, however, with wall text and film footage that give social, political and historical context to the artistic developments of the time. The white cube design of the exhibition space creates an appropriate atmosphere of modernity. One particularly inspired addition by Wistow is a compilation of short films on dance from the period, with one on tango—the hottest dance in Paris in 1912—and another on American-born dancer Loïe Fuller, whose visually arresting performances influenced the Art Nouveau, Symbolist, Cubist, and Futurist movements.

Just past Schwitters’ Mountain Graveyard, at the end of the exhibition, I walk across Einstein’s famous words, projected onto the floor: “The world cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Between 1910 and 1918, European thought was certainly turned on its head. The upheaval is written upon each canvas in this fine exhibition.


The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918 is presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario until 2 March 2014. For more information click here.

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