Birth of modern art: when the rules changed

'1900: Art at the Crossroads' shows the twilight of an orderly world view and the dawn of an age of upset and turmoil.

Walking into the High Gallery at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City is like entering a time machine.

First, there's the plush, red carpet on the floor. Then there's the round, velvet banquette straight out of a Victorian hotel lobby. And the paintings! Hung salon style, floor to ceiling, there's nary a sign of in-your-face, contemporary art like Damien Hirst's sliced cows in formaldehyde. Instead, meticulous oil paintings of bovines crossing a stream, not to mention images of angels and royalty, radiate an aura of Arcadia.

The exhibition, "1900: Art at the Crossroads" on view through Sept. 10, transports the viewer to a time when the old guard and avant-garde collided. It offers a look at the work of the establishment and the whippersnappers of the day, about 250 works by more than 170 artists from 26 countries, all painted around the last decade of the 19th century. (Many of the works were exhibited at the World's Fair in Paris in 1900.) You can see what was "in" - and soon to be "out" - and seeds of the revolutions that launched the 20th century with a bang.

Two canvases done in 1900 summarize the era's rapture and rupture. In a last burst of past glory, Bouguereau's "Regina Angelorum" is a dazzling display of faith and flawless technique. An oval of idealized angels surrounds Madonna and child. Imitating an altarpiece by the High Renaissance master Raphael, the composition is balanced, symmetrical, and static.

"Golgotha," by the upstart Munch, could not be more different. In the foreground of the crucifixion scene are demonic, leering faces. Hands surge upward toward the frail Jesus. A streak of red in the sky completes the maelstrom of agitated shapes and colors. The two pictures track the transition from divinity to doubt.

So it goes throughout the exhibition. The ancien rgime, including pre-Raphaelite painters like Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Frederic Leighton, with their conventional pieties, jostles bumptious Young Turks, like the just-emerging Picasso, Matisse, Piet Mondrian, and Kandinsky, bristling with swipes at authority.

The exhibition serves valuable purposes. First, it validates choices made by art historians, as we see which reputations have waxed or waned. The unquestionable originality shown by the roster of greats, including Monet and Gauguin, proves we got it right, especially when contrasted with painters at the top of the heap in 1900 who look silly and insipid today. A giant triptych by Leon Frederic of toddlers frolicking amid swans and wildflowers is one such "silly" example.

The show also offers a chance to ponder: "What makes modern art modern?" Since the art straddles the cusp of old and new ways of seeing, we can assess the traits of each camp.

Most obviously, 19th-century academic artists played by the rules of the Academy. They were interested in depicting the visible world in terms of optical reality, burnished with sentimental touch-ups.

When modernist movements like expressionism, fauvism, cubism, and abstract art hit, concerns with the invisible became foremost. Instead of rendering "improved" reality in paint or marble, artists chose to suggest, rather than explicitly describe. They broke rules of naturalistic color, perspective, and realistic shapes to show a more complicated truth than the external version.

Modern artists questioned everything. The concept of woman - a ministering angel in paintings by Mary Cassatt - was reinterpreted by Gustav Klimt and Munch as a devouring temptress. Images were simplified, distorted, and embellished to shake up reigning assumptions.

Still lifes became a virtual learning lab for innovation. Czanne's apples and oranges are a mosaic of color planes and swirling drapery, vibrating with color and

disequilibrium. Matisse's arabesque patterns are the true subject of his canvases.

In the modern world, everything is up for grabs, set in motion, dissected, experimented with, and reevaluated. What was flat becomes a thick impasto, and static becomes dynamic. What was linear turns into slabs of paint, as in the sketchy daubs of pigment in a proto-abstract Kandinsky painting of 1901, "Study for a Sluice."

In short, modern art burrows beneath surface appearances into the artist's own vision. A fascinating gallery of self-portraits is a highlight of the exhibition and offers near X-rays of the artists.

Mondrian, who later espoused an intense spiritualism through pure geometry, looks like a serious saint. Picasso, an artist for whom vision was the supreme sense, is bug-eyed, while the decorative Dufy, painter of sunny chi-chi scenes, is a dandy with cocked hat. The common element of the self-portraits is a depiction of interior landscape - an introspective picture of the soul - at a time Freudian analysis made the younger set acutely aware of subterranean yearnings.

In an essay titled "Twilight or Dawn," by curator Robert Rosenblum, the exhibition asks about art in 1900 (and the nature of modernity in general). Clearly it was twilight for the concepts of permanence, unquestioning faith, and a stable worldview. It was the end, too, for pretty pictures of nymphs in idyllic settings.

An age of upset, overthrow, and struggle was dawning. Artists accepted nothing from the past. They were bent on finding a new truth. What they lost in certainty, they made up for in the energy of their quest for replacements.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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