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October 24, 2017
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Albert Gleizes, Head in a Landscape (Tête dans un paysage), 1912–13. Source: Art Gallery of Ontario

When we consider the tumultuous time of World War I (WWI), our thoughts naturally gravitate towards the grief and conflict that plagued the lives of those involved. But what has yet to be universally noted is that the war also brought one of the most fruitful art movements of our time.

Art Gallery of Ontario's (AGO) new exhibition, The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918, highlights the vast changes and surges in creativity that took place over just eight years.

Robert Delaunay 'Red Eiffel Tower'  (1911-12)

Robert Delaunay 'Red Eiffel Tower'
(1911-12). Source: Art Gallery of Ontario.

The exhibition, which is on display from 30 November 2013 until 2 March 2014, is displayed in chronological order and features over 60 works by 36 notable artists including Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Amedeo Modigliani, and Marc Chagall. With such a generous array of artists comes a fleet of emotion and opinions, something that you can certainly feel as you manoeuvre through the exhibit.

What becomes apparent when viewing the exhibit is just how vast the artistic movement was in such a relatively short period of time. Spanning across Italy, France, Russia, Germany, and Holland, the movement birthed ten art groups including Milan's Futurists, Paris's Puteaux Group, and Moscow's Jack of Diamonds.

David Wistow, the Interpretative Planner for the exhibit, elaborates on the movement to The Genteel: "There clearly was strength in numbers. The Italian Futurists for example worked as a group to further their cause - of changing the world order. As a group they could afford to publish a manifesto (1909) on the front page of Paris's Le Figaro, and send their works on the road. The same was true of the Blue Rider Group in Munich - it was easier to fund exhibitions when there were multiple players. Each city produced its own group. Ten are represented in the exhibition. And then of course they were in contact with groups in other cities, always sharing new ideas."

Pride, anxiety and grief linger on the walls, but many artists were also inspired by the chaos of the war. "An artist like Frenchman Robert Delaunay was clearly exhilarated by the times. He turned repeatedly to the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of modern city life. Kandinsky, like Franz Marc, increasing expresses a sense of foreboding. Their works [Delaunay, Kandinsky and Marc] by 1914, are powerful depictions of the coming apocalypse. [Umberto] Boccioni is thrilled by the energy of the 20th century metropolis."

As you walk through the exhibition rooms, entering and exiting through fragments of time, you witness the thirst for emotional transcendence and for movement.

Clearly the artists were affected by the changing times and the war itself, but Wistow also notes that artistic growth did not come easy: "Half of the artists in the exhibition went to war. Some were wounded, some killed. The other half continued to paint - Picasso and Modigliani for example. The Modigliani nude in the exhibition shows no evidence of the war happening around the artist. He had the most fruitful four years of his career."

Related: The Art of War

"For other artists, like [Oskar] Kokoschka", Wistow continues, "there is a definite darkening of colours, a sense of chaos and instability often portrayed through a distortion of space. Many artists supported the war. They believed the 'slate should be swept clean'. That is, that the corrupt materialism of Europe could only be cleansed and purified, and the world find salvation, through war. As a result many turned to abstraction to escape the material world."

Wistow takes note of some of the more powerful images in the exhibit: "Kandinsky's 'Improvisation 28', with its chaos and instability, shows how in 1912, Kandinsky is anticipating the upheavals that war will bring. Yet for him there is hope. At the upper right he has included a sun, suggesting hope and resolution. Marc's 'The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol' is equally prophetic. These artists really do have strong premonitions of conflict."

As he continues, "The land is unstable and chaotic, the colour brooding, the central motif a cemetery. The Chagall ['Paris through the Window'] has a charm all its own. In the double self-portrait he looks back to his beloved homeland Russia and his fiancée while looking forward to some exciting years in Paris. It has a wonderful playful, dream-like, child-like feeling about it [that is] not always explainable."

Franz Marc 'The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol' (1913)

Franz Marc 'The Unfortunate Land of Tyrol' (1913).
Source: Art Gallery of Ontario.

The exhibit further underlines the fertility of the 'Great Upheaval' by providing historical context and outlining milestones from the literary world as well. Wistow tells The Genteel that no generation published as many manifestos as this one, "the Italian Futurists especially. They wanted to speak not just to other artists, but [to] the world." In fact, as Wistow elucidates, "One of the most important documents of the twentieth century was published by Kandinsky in 1912[.] Concerning the Spiritual in Art [...] encapsulated this generation's rejection of the material world and their search for the spiritual. It talks about the search for timeless and universal values that lie beneath the surface of life's chaos and disorder." And in order to explore these values, artists began to "exaggerate, distort, intensify," their artworks, in a bid to "exploit the emotional power of colour."

As you walk through the exhibition rooms, entering and exiting through fragments of time, you witness the thirst for emotional transcendence and for movement - each artist reinterpreting the definition of art. As Kandinsky states in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), "Colour is a power which directly influences the soul."

At a time when death plagued the minds of many nations, artists across Europe were forming one of the most game-changing art discoveries and movements to date, one that still prominently lingers in the current art-scape. Wistow concludes: "Perhaps the major discovery of this generation was abstraction. Although most artists in the show flirted with it, only a handful actually adopted complete abstraction."

"They discovered that colour, line, space and form had the power to almost magically communicate feeling, without relying on traditional subjects. Some would argue this was the most important art discovery in the 20th century. Certainly today, abstraction continues to be a force in art making, and is experiencing something of a revival."

Related: The Art of Destruction: Part One

Related: The Art of Destruction: Part Two


The art exhibition "The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918" is on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario from 30 November 2013 - 2 March 2014.

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