Perhaps more than any decade this century, the 1920s were years of social flux and artistic frenzy. The desolation of the First World War gave way to the machine age—and an acceleration in all aspects of life. It was the era of sprouting skyscrapers and Charles Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight. In the smoke-filled cabarets of Berlin, the crowded cafés of Paris and the steamy nightclubs of New York City, there was a frantic burst of creative energy. A number of artists provided glimpses of the technological future: German film-maker Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and French painter Fernand Léger’s industrial paintings visualized the “robot,” a word coined in 1921. The roar of the 1920s was the roar of progress—the sound of the Modern Age erupting.
Now, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is celebrating that manic decade with its biggest exhibition ever, The 1920s: Age of the Metropolis.
Four years in the planning, $5 million in the making, The 1920sconjures up the spirit of the decade as it overwhelmed creators in Berlin, Paris and New York, the cities in the vanguard of modernism. Said museum director Pierre Théberge: “We wanted to capture the style and mood of the period—almost the air that people breathed.” The show occupies the museum’s entire exhibition space.
More than 700 artifacts from 207 lenders across Europe, the Soviet Union and North America have made their way to Montreal, including paintings, sculptures, posters, works on paper, architectural drawings and models, urban plans, furniture, decorative arts and photographs.
The exhibit, which opened on June 20 and closes on Nov. 10, even includes a vintage airplane and automobile, relics from an era when travel was becoming more common. A 1928 British de Havilland 60X Moth, the most widely used light aircraft of its day, sits on a pedestal in front of one of the museum’s balustrades. And a luxurious Bugatti Royale, which is on display at the entrance to the art deco section of the exhibit, stands as the symbol of opulent design for its era. First designed in France in 1927 by Italian-born Ettore Bugatti, the sleek white convertible, sporting a green leather hood, is
one of only six such vehicles ever built.
The idea for the show emerged five years ago, when a museum board member convinced Théberge that the 1920s deserved to be looked at from a new perspective. “I thought it was a good idea,” said Théberge. “We have a
kind of mythical idea of the 1920s—the short dress, the Charleston, Gloria Swanson. Actually, it’s a much richer period.”
Théberge approached Jean Clair, then director of the Pompidou Centre, a Parisian modemart museum, and asked him to recommend someone to put together a show about the 1920s. Clair had already organized several exhibitions touching on the era, including a retrospective on French artist Marcel Du-
champ. In the end, Clair offered his own services, and then proceeded to co-ordinate a sixmember international curatorial team. Said Clair, now director of Paris’s Picasso Museum: “You couldn’t show everything, so the idea was to focus on one particular theme. What emerged very quickly was the idea of dealing with the big city, the metropolis. The obsession of all these artists working in Germany, France and America is mainly building the ideal city, building Utopia.”
The 1920s is organized as a kind of triptych, moving from Berlin in 1919, when Germany was recovering from the devastation of the First World War and reconstructing itself as the Weimar Republic, on to Paris in 1925, during what the French call les années folles (the crazy years), and ending in New York in 1929, when the dreams and euphoria of the era came tumbling down with the stockmarket crash. Said Théberge: “You can go through the history of the decade by walking through the exhibition as if you’re walking through the cities themselves.”
The first rooms of the exhibit are sombre. Works by German artists Otto Dix, Karl Hubbuch and Max Beckmann depict the destitute and the depraved—beggars, prostitutes and lunatics. The shadow cast by the war is evident in artists’ renderings of maimed soldiers and grotesque corpses. Hubbuch’s 1922 lithograph Ecstasy, with its depiction of desperate people assaulting one another, portrays the violent urban scene that sprang up after the war. Said Clair: “In Berlin, people were starving. The people who did not suffer from starvation had only one idea—to escape. After those dark years came inflation and the rise of nazism.”
Starvation and unemployment led to strikes and political uprisings. The exhibit includes photographs by Berliner Willy Romer that capture the explosive situation in the factories and the disorganized state of the army. In one dramatic picture from January, 1919, armed workers and rebel soldiers are barricaded behind rolls of I newsprint.
i But the postwar devastation also i sparked an extremely fertile period J for the artists, writers and film-mak5 ers living in Berlin. In the north end of Í the city, artists involved in the icono5 clastic Dada movement, led by painter George Grosz, denounced traditional social values and esthetics. They created subversive paintings and collages that portrayed what they saw as the sordid reality of daily life. Grosz himself was heavily fined for his satirical drawings insulting the German army.
Meanwhile, the challenge to rebuild was taken up by the Bauhaus, the most famous school of architecture and design in modem times. Founded by Berlin architect Walter Gropius in 1919 and originally located in Wei-
mar (it later moved to Dessau, and finally to Berlin), the institution was dedicated to the notion that the city could be made into an ideal place for modem man. Gropius hired other artists with similar utopian leanings to teach at the school. They included painters Paul Klee from Switzerland, Russian expatriate Vassily Kandinsky and American Lyonel Feininger, all of whom are represented in The 1920s by paintings, drawings and designs. The Bauhaus creators pioneered modern architecture, using the latest engineering techniques to build with glass, steel and concrete. They also introduced the idea of mass-produced functional objects.
While Berlin was struggling to build a better world,
Paris at mid-decade was indulging in a wild escapist fantasy. Paris was the West’s centre of luxury and decadence. The city’s tree-lined avenues were crowded with cars, carriages and people.
Cafés and restaurants spilled out onto the sidewalks. The elegant citizens of Paris, like the people depicted in The 1920s in paintings by Polishborn Tamara de Lempicka and Dutch artist Kees Van Dongen, rushed from one hot spot to the next. The hedonistic aspects of Parisian life, according to the Picasso Museum’s Clair, dovetailed with
the rise of surrealism, a style -
of visual art and literature based on the free association of images and words. Said Clair: “When you come to Paris, you enter a dream. It’s so far removed from the daily reality of the postwar period. And that includes the very French way of dealing with it—surrealism.”
Surrealism was by no means the only artistic school in Paris at the time: the international mix in the city gave rise to a wide variety of creative styles. Said Théberge:
“You couldn’t say there was only surrealism or dadaism or purism or whatever-ism.
They were all there. The fact that they kept moving and changing may be the defining factor of the period—and possibly ours.” As The 1920s illustrates with photographs and books, artists of all kinds, from all over the world, converged on the city during the decade. The Americans in-
eluded writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, photographer Man Ray and dancers Isadora Duncan and Josephine Baker. From Hungary came photographer André Kertész, from Germany the painter Max Ernst. Such figures mixed with Parisians including surreal-
ist poet André Breton and visual artists Léger and Robert Delaunay.
The design highlight of the decade in Paris was the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Known in English as the 1925 Paris Exhibition, and the event from which art deco took its name, it was a showcase for furniture, metalwork, glass, ceramics and textiles. Art deco works were usually made from expensive, luxurious materials decorated with angular geometric patterns or stylized flower shapes. The 1920s reproduces a small portion of that significant exhibition.
While Paris was the world of dreams, New York had become the place where dreams could come true. The American city began to draw both immigrants and artists. New York was the New World, where the concepts of architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius for glass and steel buildings, and even the futuristic set designs of film-maker Fritz Lang, came into being. Among the show’s paintings, photographs and drawings celebrating the new symbols of New York is Georgia O’Keeffe’s dramatic oil Radiator Building— Night, New York (1927). Clair describes New York in the 1920s as “very dynamic, lively, positive and powerful. This is the time when the
Chrysler building is finished
and the Empire State is being built. It’s when Manhattan gets the purity of its skyline.”
But in the shadows of the new urban environment were the lonely people portrayed by American artist Edward Hopper. The 1920s includes the painting Eleven A.M. (1926), which depicts a woman staring out a window at the concrete walls that surround her. The metropolis had not become Utopia. Said Théberge: “One can look back on the 1920s and say the phenomena we live now were already there then. The city became the new paradise and the new hell.” By the time the crash occurred in October, 1929, the brave new machine age had become tarnished. But as The 1920s makes clear, the creative audacity of the era has animated the entire century.
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