This exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao showcases some of the most important figures and works of the short period between 1900 and 1945. While lightly stocked, it manages to convey the richness and complexity of the time.
In the three gallery spaces we are whirled through movements whose pace of change echoes the speed at which Modernism was tearing through Europe. The works, chronologically ordered, lead the viewer from the object, to the flattened planes of cubist works, to the total abstraction of non-formal study and back to the form, though this time beyond anything recognisable as human figures. It is a grand view of the avant-garde that pre-empts current post-human theory and feels as fresh today as it must have done at the time, and for the avant-gardes of the 1970s, whose return to materials owes much to these painters’ return to line and colour.
Though these works truly were pushing the boundaries of painting and sculpture, this is not a totally unproblematic exhibition. The choice to historicise this selection and showcase these specific artists as the ‘École de Paris’ imposes a narrative on a time that was characterised by unpredictability, immense change and huge interdisciplinary collaboration. While looking through the works of artists supposedly defining the era the viewer has to ask, where are the writers, the musicians, the women?
The ‘didactika’ exhibition in the corridor that leads toward the main gallery gives a selection of footage from the period. Although the films include some uncredited works by Sonia Delauney and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, within the main collection it is hard not to notice that only the paintings of their husbands are shown. The explanation for their absence, and indeed the absence of many prominent figures from the period, is in the collection itself. Each work was personally purchased by Solomon R. Guggenheim or his assistant Hilla Rebay. Consequentially the show is far more a snapshot of their time travelling around Europe, buying work directly from artists in their studios than it is about the role of Paris in the period. In fact, the majority of the artists shown use their own biographical landscapes in their work. Brancusi’s sculptures contain memories of Romanian folklore, Chagall’s poor Russian hamlets, Kupka’s Czech futurism and the later surrealist works of Yves Tanguy, Miró and Kandinsky completely break from the Haussmannised streets and introduce landscapes of the mind that defy national borders or real-world architectural icons.
Of course Paris is present as a character; in Picasso’s dancehall painting ‘Le Moulin de la Galette’, the repeated Eiffel Towers of Delauney’s studies, and in the wet and cobbled night-time streets of Chagall’s ‘The Soldier Drinks’. In the choices and the curating, however, we are more encouraged to follow the journeys of these artists within form and colour than within their obsession with the city. There is a sense of Paris as a platform – a place where artists were continually meeting that allowed so many to embrace a move away from figures to non-objective study. One of the loveliest pairings is in the first gallery where the cubist explorations in Picasso’s ‘Bottles and Glasses’, sits next to Braque’s ‘Piano and Mandola’. Braque was one of the few artists Picasso allowed himself to work alongside and their dual ventures into the narrative planes of the painting, a muted palette and the sensory subject, evoke a time for these artists where the fabric of the city and each other’s youth and ideas were fuel for creativity.
Maybe it is something about the narrow moment of time these artists occupied that lends the works their vibrancy and sense of impending doom. The human form and landscapes are flattened and disjointed. They contain sharp, inorganic shapes, violent and destructive juxtaposing colours – the sense you get as you file through the gallery is the breaking down of the very image of humanity.
Curator Lauren Hinkson asks us to see the works that appeared in the period as responses to the modern transformations of everyday city life. This sense of the absolute present is summarised in Gertrude Stein’s creative and critical biography on Picasso. Writing about the experience of seeing the earth from an aeroplane as the lines and shapes present in the works of her peers, she notes; ‘I saw and once more I knew that a creator is contemporary, he understands what is contemporary when the contemporaries do not yet know it’.