After the dazzle, cacophony and confusion of David Bowie Is … on the upper floors of the Art Gallery of Ontario – the Bowie concludes its two-month run Nov. 29 – the relative placidity of The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection will undoubtedly be a balm to many AGO habitués.
Here's a comfortably old-fashioned exhibition – 65 or so paintings and works on paper, hung on (yes) white walls, joined by five free-standing sculptures and the discrete placement of a handful of video and "soundscape" presentations. The works are for the most part by names (mostly male, invariably white, entirely dead) familiar to any visitor to any reasonably well-stocked big-city Kunsthaus in North America.
Of course, had this exhibition opened in 1920 when the AGO was the Art Gallery of Toronto and a mere 20 years old, its potpourri of Futurist, Cubist, Rayonist, Orphist and Blue Rider pieces would have more than lived up to its "great upheaval" billboard. Arranged chronologically, the works here date mainly from 1910 (the year in which Virginia Woolf said "human character changed") to 1918 – an eight-year spread evenly divided between the pre-First World War era, when a "new inner renaissance," a "fresh creative spirit, defiant and self-aware," informed the best contemporary European art and the four, bloody years of the First World War that largely dashed that vision.
One hundred years later, those once-convulsive aspirations and that cataclysm are nestled more or less tidily in the bosom of art history. Blessedly, Tracey Bashkoff, the Guggenheim's curator of collections and exhibitions, hasn't gussied up this show – the AGO is its only Canadian venue – with a lot of techno bells and whistles to try to recreate the fuss generated by Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso and the rest back in the day. Rather, it's the pictorial equivalent of a classic rock radio station's playlist.
The exhibition's wares, spread over four galleries, are spaciously presented. This should alleviate the bunching-up that often occurs with these "greatest hits" packages, thus allowing the visitor to appreciate a work in and of itself while enjoying relatively unobstructed sight-lines to adjacent paintings for purposes of comparison and contrast. That said, the show is very much a reflection of the idiosyncrasies and limitations of the Guggenheim's holdings. The museum was something of a late comer to the New York art scene, opening its first significant public space, called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, only in 1939; the Metropolitan Museum, by contrast, had opened its doors in 1872, the Museum of Modern Art in 1929. Moreover, founder Solomon Guggenheim originally collected Old Master paintings, pre-Impressionist French rural scenes and American landscapes before shifting direction in the late 1920s when he fell under the spell of the young German artist Hilla Rebay. It was she who encouraged his extensive purchase of paintings by Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Mondrian and Marc, many of them her friends. Indeed, the Guggenheim didn't acquire its first Matisse, a 1916 oil titled The Italian Woman (it's in the AGO show), until the early 1980s! So while The Great Upheaval has one Braque and four Picassos (including the eye-blowing Le Moulin de la Galette from 1900 and two masterpieces of Analytic Cubism, Accordionist and Bottles and Glasses), its contents tilt toward the German, Russian and Dutch end of the modernist spectrum – six Kandinskys, four Marcs, four Chagalls, four Mondrians.
There's nothing terribly wrong with this. The Mondrians, for instance, are all top-notch and effectively convey his rapid progress from bold description (1910's Summer, Dune in Zeeland) to quasi-Cubistic composition (Still Life with Ginger Pot II, 1912) to complete abstraction (1916's Composition). The exhibition's overall narrative, however, lacks that sense of completeness; it seems more sketch, more collection of bits and pieces strung on a timeline than finished, coherent painting. Indeed, viewers are likely to remember The Great Upheaval less as a richly thematic, ever-thickening survey than as a patchwork of vivid moments. Among the most vivid: the 1910 pas de deux of Alexei Jawlensky's Helene with Colored Turban and Chagall's Portrait of the Artist's Sister; the radical simplicity of Theo van Doesburg's Composition XI (1918); the erotic charge and play of ripe orange on chaste white in Modigliani's Nude (1917).
The other take-away is the exhibition's evocation of an era of art production far removed from our own.
Today we may laugh – or wince – at the hubris of a Marc, Kandinsky or a Kirchner believing a painting could be great enough to effect "a revolution in the consciousness of mankind." But in a time when art often seems mostly about self-promotion, conceptual gamesmanship and conspicuous consumption, you have to admire the spirited and spiritual high-mindedness of that ethos. Art seemed to matter more 100 years ago. Artists were unafraid to form like-minded groups, draft manifestos and engage in public debate (and occasional fisticuffs). It wasn't about or just about careers and dealers and sales. As Franz Marc observed: "Spiritual matters are never decided by numbers, only by the power of ideas."
The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto Nov. 30 and runs through Mar. 2, 2014.