The American scientist Stephen Jay Gould developed his concept of punctuated equilibrium in terms of genetic diversity: things move along gently enough and then all hell breaks loose – a multitude of new forms are generated. In ‘1913: The Shape of Time’, at The Henry Moore Institute, curator Jon Wood took a subtle and harmonious approach to a year that saw some of the most shocking and profound changes to have simultaneously manifested in Western culture: the advent of abstraction and the Conceptual in visual art, and dissonance in music.
The show presented a well-managed dichotomy, which developed two narratives. There was hushed reverence for the truly different ideas that were being formulated by artists at the time, but also an acknowledgment of the continuity that is a fact of any cultural milieu. Two works by Jacob Epstein were included: an anonymous photograph of an unfinished Rock Drill and Flenite Relief (all works 1913). While Rock Drill is a proto-cyborg, a jarring hybrid of the mason’s tool elaborated with figural accoutrements, the other work is a low-relief in hard serpentine stone comprising a few very plain geometric forms. Vaguely sexual, it’s an object that wouldn’t be out of place at Göbleki Tepe (or, in other words, could date from 7,000 BC). Another relief, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Wrestlers, embraces the simplicity of ‘primitive’ art through a composition that seems little more than a series of intersecting and knotted lines.
Pablo Picasso’s Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass and Newspaper, a revolutionary work in its repurposing of ephemeral materials, the reputation is more shocking than the bite – it’s a quietly considered and subtle collage. The inclusion of Ardengo Soffici’s Deconstruction of the Planes of Lamp underlined the sometimes forgotten reality that Cubism was much broader than just Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Picasso. Léon Bakst’s sketches for costumes for Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring also insist on art as a group effort – that the great artistic achievements were not the work of a lone genius reviled by an ignorant public, but in fact did have their adherents and admirers.
What was to become the 20th century’s love/hate relationship with technology also played out among the 22 artists in ‘The Shape of Time’, but the often frenetic rhetoric of the manifestos and absolutist statements of the Futurists and Dadaists represented in the show were belied by the understated aesthetic of the deep green of a bronze cast or the muted tones of a wooden assemblage. Umberto Boccioni’s iconic whirling and insistent Development of a Bottle in Space was calmly rebuffed by a replica of Duchamp’s didactic, almost pedantic, 3 Standard Stoppages, a workaday box containing three wooden forms, their profiles stenciled in paint on glass plates. In a supporting role, Sturtevant’s Duchamp Bicycle Wheel (1969–73) was also on view in a separate gallery. Duchamp’s original piece hearkens to what must have been the almost incomprehensible conclusions drawn by Albert Einstein and Max Planck about the curvature of the universe, as well as the most controversial event of 1913: the Armory Show in New York.
One of the most important contributions to the exhibition was a selection of pieces produced by the Omega Workshops, established by Roger Fry in 1913 in Fitzroy Square, London. While taking into account William Morris’s desire to integrate the hand of the artist into industrialization, Fry’s lamp stands and the ‘Daily Mail’s Ideal Home Exhibition Rug’, attributed to Frederick Etchells, are home furnishings for the age of Wassily Kandinsky, a backlash against the Arts and Crafts movement’s rejection of modernity and embrace of a saccharine pseudo-medievalism. The output of the Omega Workshops instead paves the way for the sleek efficiency of the Bauhaus and the worldliness of the International Style. In fact, the seeds of most of the major artistic innovations of the 20th century seem to have been sown by 1913.