BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 07 JUN 00
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Issue 53

1900: Art at the Crossroads

Royal Academy of Art, London, UK

BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 07 JUN 00

From today's perspective, art around 1900 appeared to take a long deep breath. Post-Impressionism and Symbolism had become the scattered quests of individuals, while the great Modernist movements just around the corner were intimated in the warm-up exercises of those who would become its giants. The Guggenheim/Royal Academy collaboration '1900: Art at the Crossroads' focused problematically on this moment.

The show's method was to enact a revised version of the 'Décannale' exhibition at Paris's 'Exposition Universelle' of 1900. It was a necessarily smaller selection because the original contained a staggering 6543 works. One hundred years on, artists who were omitted back then, but who now belong to the accepted canon, were included; a decision which makes for a potentially engaging double-edged act of revisionism. Artists we now revere reveal the critical short-sightedness of the day, while the demoted, official art of that period was given an opportunity to re-assert itself in the company of the usual blockbuster favourites - Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, et al.

In light of the Millennium Dome, the Tate Modern, the London Eye and other recently opened cultural landmarks, it's fascinating to consider the structures put up to mark the dawn of the last century: leaving aside Bankside, perhaps, one has to conclude that the Belle Epoque did it a whole lot better. What would New Labour give for the 50 million visitors to the 'Exposition Universelle' in 1900? The Metropolitan (the world's first underground train line), the Grand Palais, the Petit Palais, the Gare d'Orsay and Pont Alexandre III, all are permanent reminders of the beginning of the new century in Paris. Also to mark the occasion rose a bizarre, ephemeral city of around 200 plaster and steel pavilions in a bewildering and exotic range of world styles: Russian onion domes, an Egyptian Souk, a Jacobean town hall, an Indian temple, a Washington DC-style monument, a Chinese palace, and a miniature Medieval Paris were just some of the simulations, strangely reminiscent of Las Vegas today. (If you think this comparison is far-fetched, think also of the Palais de l'Electricité's façade of 5700 coloured bulbs, and the Caesar's Palace-style outdoor moving pavement). Although '1900' at the Royal Academy would have been dwarfed by the original 'Décannale', you have to consider that art was just one small part of the whole mass of modern goods on show at the original expo.

It's a pity then, that '1900' made no attempt to re-construct this context in the gallery. What it really needed was some kind of room-sized architectural model at its centre to show art's relationship to the overall 'Exposition Universelle' - but for that, you need to turn to Maryanne Stevens' admirable outline and the beautiful smoky black and white spreads in the catalogue. But perhaps a reason the curators played all this down was that '1900' overlaid one chronology with another. The 'Décannale', as the name suggests, was a survey of ten years. '1900' reconstituted this in part, but then superimposed extra works made three years either side of 1900 as a means to flesh out the 'crossroads' theme of its title. But you can't fudge a chronological paradox as bad as that to benefit your blockbuster: 1897-1903 isn't 1889-1900, just as it isn't 1899-1910.

This exhibition was obviously timed to provoke comparison between culture then and now, and the parallels were apparent: the concerns of our own fin de siècle find uncanny echoes in the last one in areas as varied as sexuality, drugs, new technologies and medical innovation. The exhibition's main problem, however, was that in juxtaposing two canons it failed to include many works that could have looked really now. For example, the contained many indifferent offerings from Munch, whose paintings were omitted from the 'Décannale', but only one work each from Khnopff and Delville, two Belgians who would make Brussels hot if they were around today. And how to explain the omission of Odilon Redon and Aubrey Beardsley, who were so indicative of the period, or the unfortunate failure to include the exquisite James Ensor and Alphonse Mucha pieces illustrated in the catalogue? Instead, for the most part, the show was caught between a turgid, academic realism or naturalism, and a familiar line-up of Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and proto-Modernists.

Of course there were moments of real privilege - some sublime Gustav Klimts, Pablo Picasso's Moulin de la Galette (1900), Auguste Rodin's The Earth and Moon (1899), Monet's Morning on the Seine (1897), Paul Gauguin's and Cézanne's bathers, Giacomo Balla's The World's Fair at Night, Luna Park (1900). Some fabulously fucked-up post-Victorian erotic nonsense such as Paul Joseph Jamin's men's magazine-style scenes of a bloody, randy Viking with his voluptuous, naked captives, Brennan and his Loot (1893), and Leon Frédéric's orgiastic stream of drowsy and dead babies, The Stream (1890-99) were also worth the visit. For the most part, what was thin on the ground was the Internationalist, post-Symbolist, proto-Surrealist strain that would have bridged the great divide in this bifurcated narrative, and which might have had more relevance to art today.