Exhibition paints fascinating portrait of modernism

by Alex Rich | 11/25/02 6:00am

The 10-year period between 1910 and 1920 may at first seem like an extraordinarily short time span in which to study innovations in art. In terms of the wave of modernism that swept through the art world in the early years of the 20th century, though, this single decade had an enormous impact on transforming the ways in which artists and their viewers would forever look at art.

The Hood Museum's current exhibition, "The Decade of Modernism: Selected Paintings, Sculptures and Works on Paper, 1910"1920," aims to illustrate the resounding impact the works produced during these years have had on the course of art history. The modest scale of the exhibition itself, organized by T. Barton Thurber, curator of European art, is particularly appropriate, as it underlines the powerful and far-reaching effects of the art produced in just a single decade.

The exhibition to gleans much of its strength from its focus on only twelve works of art. The limited breadth of the show does anything but detract from the art's significance. Instead, the intimate nature of "The Decade of Modernism" invites museum visitors to delve more deeply into works by many of the 20thcentury's key artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Joseph Stella, Claude Monet and Henri Matisse, many of whom embody what we think of as modernism today.

The turn of the century marked the beginning of a period of enormous innovation and experimentation in art. Artists played around with new materials, combining media and breaking down the boundaries between realism and abstraction. Many of these artists captured the world around them in startling new ways, often seeing embedded in the everyday a previously unexplored realm for expression and artistic freedom.

"The Decade of Modernism" presents a purposefully selective survey of movements from the nascent years of modern art. The exhibition pinpoints these artists at pivotal moments in their careers; some artists are in the midst of developing their signature styles, while others are moving away from their earlier compositions and focusing on newer and ever-more-modern subject matter. Examining an early cubist painting by Picasso or a later flower study by a usually city-oriented Joseph Stella, then, one is tempted to place these works within the larger context of the artists' oeuvres.

In 1912's "Guitar on Table," for instance, Picasso is still experimenting with cubism, not only in terms of his subject matter but also in his materials. By adding sand and charcoal to his oil on canvas, Picasso challenges traditional aesthetic techniques, blurring the lines between painting, drawing and -- given the work's very tactile surface -- even sculpture.

As an artistic movement, cubism was born in 1909 in the works of Picasso and Georges Braque. Their mission was to look at the naturalistic world in new and unique ways, shattering conventional depictions of figures and objects in space. In terms of its literal surface depictions, cubism is often identified by its re-envisioning the three-dimensional "real" world on a two-dimensional plane, representing its subjects from multiple perspectives at once, effectively flattening them as if pieces of broken glass were melding imperfectly back together on the canvas.

Many people think of jumbled faces and misplaced body parts as characteristic of cubist art -- and rightly so, as such images are particularly emblematic of Picasso. Nonetheless, as "Guitar on Table" suggests, there is much more to cubism than mere and seemingly whimsical distortion of the human body. In 1912, Picasso was working through a later stage of Cubism now often referred to as synthetic cubism, in which he appended a greater range of color and new collage-like elements to analytical cubism's earlier emphasis on geometric forms and earthen tones.

In its resistance to total abstraction, "Guitar on Table" offers a fascinating glimpse into the innovative reinterpretations of reality so prevalent in Western art during the second decade of the 20th century. The title of the work itself grounds the painting in an all-too-mundane reality. There is, after all, nothing too exciting about a guitar on a table. But it is in titling his work as if it were a stagnant and traditional still-life that Picasso latches onto the viewer's expectations and turns them on their head. He transforms the naturalistic world, enlivening it in ways that had never been seen before.

The exhibition also demonstrates cubism's wide applicability to various media through its inclusion of cubist sculptures by Jacques Lipchitz and Henri Laurens. Like Picasso with his guitar, both Lipchitz and Laurens base their small terra cotta sculptures on a real-world subject -- in this case, the female body -- and reinterpret the form as a construction of intersecting planes and masses. Picasso's painted cubism is amended here in three-dimensional form, highlighting the very sculptural nature already inherent in Picas-so's two-dimensional subjects.

While less interested in abstraction than the cubists, artists like Modigliani focused on adding new, psychological undercurrents to their work. In his 1919 "Lunia Czechowska with Small Hat," for instance, Modigliani displays his characteristic elongation of the human form with this female figure and her African-mask-like face. Unlike the cubists, however, Modigliani distorts his figure such that her physical body betrays her innermost feelings.

Stella, too, adds an emotional depth to his 1920 "Lotus Dying." While best known for his futurist works capturing the liveliness of the modern city, Stella shifts his focus toward the natural world, while still retaining the elements that had made his earlier works so notably modern. Instead of producing a snapshot-like rendering of the lotus, Stella defies the inertia anticipated in a botanical still-life, infusing it instead with the same dynamic potential for movement that had distinguished his earlier work.

In terms of his early work, Monet stands apart from the other modernist artists in the exhibition. By 1918, he had already achieved artistic success, having left an indelible mark on the art world with his impressionism for more than half a century. Monet was not a modernist and was actually wary of the art world's burgeoning interest in abstraction; nonetheless, his later works, particularly in their looser brushstrokes and more limited coloration, seem like modern variations on his own earlier style.

Certainly, today's museum-goers are so accustomed to impressionist works of art that to think of them as groundbreaking and once-alarmingly- abstract visions of reality seems peculiar and even hard to comprehend. Still, within the context of the preceding history of art, so often characterized by naturalistic painting, late impressionist works such as Monet's 1918 "The Water Lily Pond" continued to prove striking in their refusal to simply mirror what realist painters believed was pure visual reality.

Much of the difficulty today in accepting a work like "The Water Lily Pond" as an abstraction of reality lies in the very rationale behind its painted style. Ironically, Monet and his impressionist contemporaries were interested in capturing impressions of the world as it was actually seen with the human eye. In such paintings, then, the impressionists' intent is to offer a more honest positing of reality, taking into account the true loss of detail that comes with viewing a scene from a distance, not to mention a regard for atmospheric and temporal distortions.

From Monet's vantage point in his garden in Giverny, France, then, he cannot decipher each petal of each water lily that floats upon the surface of his pond. Although he most certainly knows what a water lily looks like up close, he will not add details that he cannot perceive visually. Rather, he depicts the scene in the same way his eyes see it, inscribing details on his canvas only to the extent that they are truly observed and focusing less on the flowers themselves than on the alluring flickering effects of light on the water.

In the end, a viewer may be left asking: what is so modern about these works of art? After all, they do seem relatively tame by today's standards.

Surely, the works featured in "The Decade of Modernism" have since lost much of their initial shock value. Contemporary viewers of art have become extraordinarily familiar with Picasso's jumbled faces or Monet's garden scenes, now regarding these works as those of modern masters rather than rebellious, cutting-edge artists.

However, the exhibition invites viewers to recall how pervasively these early modern works have affected the art that followed. To truly understand the innovations and challenges introduced by these artists, one feels obliged to step out of a 21st-century mindset -- even if only for a moment -- and try to imagine how this art might have been received when it was first displayed. Perhaps, in this way, viewers can discover for themselves just how revolutionary this modern art must have seemed during the years known as the Decade of Modernism.

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