Explorers: Viking and modern

An automotive executive recently showed me the fragility of our current assumption that energy equals oil. He drew a graph of oil production from AD 1 to the year 5000. In the 20th century was a sharp, narrow peak. On either side stretched deserts of utter flatness.

His graph is a sobering metaphor for many things -- representational art, for one. To be sure, the vogue for paintings which carefully imitate the objective world spans more than one century. But might not that popularity also be a rather narrow peak, preceded by eons of figurative ornamentation -- and followed (who knows?) by centuries of abstraction?

That, at least, is a question worth asking of two new exhibitions here: "The Vikings," at the British Museaum (and next fall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), and "Abstraction: Towards a New Art, (painting 1910-1920)" at the Tate Gallery. Each in its way is about exploration.

The Vikings whose 8th- to 11th-century culture is nicely conjured up in relics and replicas here, were a warring and trading lot. Sweeping across a broader part of the world than any single group had ever traveled before, they established commercial centers from Dublin to Kiev and traded from Greenland to Iran. They discovered America, plundered England, appalled and fascinated the Byzantines, and brought back to their all-absorbing Scandinavian graves such curios as pitchers bearing Arabic legends and cups showing the influence of northern Chinese craftsmen.

To judge by this exhibition, in fact, the tombs of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark are souvenir-troves of globe-trotters fond of ornamenting everything they used. Art, for them, blended with utility. Their most useful things -- swords, axes, bowls -- are often ornate and pleasantly proportioned. Nowhere is this blend of utility and beauty more evident than in the one product that symbolizes their success: the double- prowed, shallow-draft, clinker-built ships , capable of astonishing speed on the high sea and slow prowling up small rivers , stable in storms and able to land on any beach. Several replicas of the ships are on exhibit, as well as numerous illustrations by the Vikings themselves on stone.

Generally, however, the exhibition consists of large collections of small things: beads, brooches, and bridle-mounts, combs, cups, and coins. They are wrought with a skill that should shame the inventor of the term Dark Ages. But they make the exhibition a bit hard to absorb (there is little to stand back from) and tough to negotiate if the queues grow long. But the collection, accompanied by an excellent color catalog, does succeed in dispelling the reputation of these adventuruos entrepreneurs as simply a clutch of rapacious hooligans. They were, in fact, artists worth our attention.

In contrast to their 300 years, the 455 paintings at the Tate cover only a single decade. Yet in many ways it is for the arts the most exploratory decade of this century. The post-impressionists (whose work, currently on exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art, clicks nicely into place with this group) located the territory. Picasso and Braque drew the first maps. This exhibition is about the explorers themselves, who helped precipitate the experiments in the arts which made for example, Joyce possible and much of modern poetry impossible.

These pictures help us see what 20th- century art is up to -- its willful abandonment of representational outline for the decorative values of line, mass, and color, whether these qualities appear literally (as in painting) or figuratively (as in literature or music). The organizers have cast a wide net, inevitably sharing some strange fish. But they have centered, as is proper, on Paris, and have triumphed with the inclusion, near the front door, of Picasso's wonderful "Ma Jolie." Braque and Gris, however, seem sadly underrepresented, while Kandinsky and Malevich, though deservedly important, have rather a lot of space. Then, too, the organization of the paintings by country seems unhelpful. With so many artists coalescing around Paris in this period, it seems less significant to isolate Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright as Americans or Mikhail Larionov as Russian than to insist on their supranational characteristics. It also unkindly points up the relative poverty of abstraction in some countries. Britain, for instance.

Nevertheless, it is an exhibition worth applause and much study. Small corners turn up interesting things: Those who wonder where Mondrian's patterns come from can trace, in a set of cleverly hung pictures, a development from a drawing of a tree to an abstract design. All in all, I found it a satisfying exhibition. These paintings, renouncing their attachment to a material landscape, record a striving for something much higher, more universal. The Vikings lunged out into the world. These painters lunged up toward first principles.

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