The history of art is a polite fiction. Upon the messy process of creation, with its painful grop-
ings and its sudden, intuitive leaps, it imposes an unnatural orderliness, a stately procession of isms. The catalogue of 1912: Break Up of Tradition, a panoramic survey of Western art currently on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, is a telling example. Director Carol Phillips writes of that eventful
year as marking “the transition from analytical Cubism to synthetic Cubism.” At the time, of course, such a neat distinction did not exist. One of the two founders of the short-lived movement in fragmented abstraction known as Cubism, Georges Braque, put it another way:
“The things Picasso and I said to one another will never be said again, and even if they were no one would understand them any more. It was like being roped together on a mountain.”
The immediate occasion for the Winnipeg show is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the gallery. But it also happens that 1912 was one of those miraculous years in the history of art, part of a short, intense period of activity that caused a seismic shift in Western sensibility. Braque and Picasso were at the centre, artists of diverse temperaments who between them invented a new way of looking at the world. The paintings they made between 1907 and 1914, with their sombre hues, complex, faceted forms and shallow, ambiguous spaces, overthrew a 500-year-old pictorial tradition. The Ren-
aissance idea that a painting was an imitation of nature had been destroyed. And if their works had traces of reality, they were, as Picasso once said, as hard to pin down as a perfume.
By rights, Braque and Picasso should have dominated 1912. But such are the difficulties of borrowing masterworks that they are represented by relatively minor works. The only major Cubist canvas in this ambitious exhibition is the magisterial Man in Café by Juan Gris, a Spaniard who kept the spirit of Cubism alive longer than his mentors.
But as it turns out, 1912, organized by Paris-based guest curator Louise d’Argencourt, has a wider point of view. It convincingly demonstrates that pluralism in art is not a modern monopoly. Consisting of 112 works by 83 artists, the show runs the gamut from a solemn academic work by Gabriel-Charles Girodon to the polished perfection of a Brancusi bronze. In between it offers its fair share of pleasures, surprises
As the organizers are quick to point out, 1912 has some glaring gaps, including most notably the work of Marcel Duchamp, the joker in the pack of 20thcentury art. There is scant representation of Italy’s Futurist movement—although it could be argued that the Futurists, who glorified war and the machine, and who went on to align themselves with Mussolini, produced more manifestos than masterpieces.
But there are compensating surprises. Curator d’Argencourt has as-
sembled an interesting, if motley, crew of Russians. Some, like Nadeja Udaltsova, seem to have instantly absorbed the mannerisms of the Cubists, producing, as it were, a Lada to Picasso’s Fiat. Others, including Vassili Kandinsky, author of the enormously influential 1912 book Of the Spiritual in Art, assert their full stature as original and enduring artists. There are two major canvases by him in the final room of
the show, Landscape with Rain and Improvisation, Sketch 160a. And the room itself is devoted to those artists attempting to create an art of pure abstraction, a universal language of form and color. As the Czechoslovakian painter Frantisek Kupka said in an interview in 1913: “I believe that I can find something between sight and sound, and that I can create a form in colors much as Bach did in music.” As seen in Winnipeg, Kupka’s pioneering efforts are a curious mixture of geometrical rigor and the soft, decadent colors of Vienna.
Although created only 75 years ago, most of the works in 1912 seem to have come from some endlessly distant epoch—in part because of the patina of art history, in part because so many have an optimism that would now be unthinkable. But there are some interesting exceptions. Fruit Dish with Oranges by Pierre Bonnard—an artist of uxorious and domestic temperament who refrained from experimentation—features colors so fresh that it seems the paint is still wet.
But it is the German Expressionists who speak most
directly to the modern condition. In the work of such painters as Emile Nolde and Max Pechstein, there is an edge of anxiety that seems to presage the violence that would engulf Europe. Unfortunately, the catalogue that accompanies 1912 merely skates over the complex relationship of art and society before the First World War. It is easier to impose a tidy art-historical grid than to examine the roots of a creative transformation.
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