"Cosmos : From Romanticism to the Avant-garde, 1801-2001," June 17-Oct. 17, 1999, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
Wildly ambitious and romantic, "Cosmos: From Romanticism to the Avant-garde" traces 200 years of earth and space exploration via 375 objects spread out over two floors of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art's new wing, the Jean-Noël Demarais Pavilion. The show includes contemporary art -- by artists ranging from Brancusi and Cornell to Mona Hatoum and Katy Schimert -- as well as 19th-century paintings and photographs, science fiction imagery, star charts and maps, globes and scientific instruments, spacesuits and even Elsa Schiaparelli's 1939 "Cosmique Dinner Jacket."
By exhibiting together objects that span centuries as well as disciplines and genres, "Cosmos" trips along the intersections of art and documentary, science and poetry, exploration and fantasy with surprising cohesiveness.
In Homeric times, the word "cosmos" indicated a state of order and harmony. It gradually came to denote the movement of the heavenly bodies. In the 19th century, the renowned explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) gave the title Cosmos to his last great, unfinished work, "a sketch of the physical description of the universe," which provides the source for the exhibition's inspiration and title.
Humboldt symbolizes a time when we thought we could ascertain truth through exploration and observation, and this exhibition charts that quest from the German Romantics to NASA's missions to the moon and the mapping of Mars.
The show is full of surprises. There is a replica of Galileo's telescope sheathed in gold-embossed red morocco; nearby is the first daguerreotype of the sun, a vague, grey eminence. There is a watermelon-sized meteorite on a marble pedestal which stands before Mark Tansey's Action Painting II, in which a group of Sunday painters work away at their easels as a rocket lifts off. There is an 18th-century terrestrial globe, and a 14th-century astronomical clock.
In the first room, designated "Nature and the Cosmos," the historical narrative takes off unexpectedly with a contemporary work. It is a small painting by the Canadian Joyce Wieland, Crepuscule for Two (1985). A couple is seated on a cliff overlooking water, twilit clouds and fading rainbow. The style, pointillist with a saturated palette and an eerie vagueness, is romantic to the hilt. These two, their backs toward us, comprise a trope of deep contemplation that is meant to echo our own, forming a tiny human counterpoint to the vastness of Nature, a theme appearing elsewhere in this gallery -- in Caspar David Friedrich's Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon and Carl Gustav Carus' Wanderer on the Mountaintop.
As we proceed to "The Promised Land" and "The Voyage to the Poles and the Shrinking Planet," we are treated to an array of Hudson River School paintings and stereographs of the West by Edweard Muybridge and Carleton Watkins.
William Bradford's photographs of the Arctic hang not far from Lauren Harris' trippy paintings of icebergs. Watercolors of ice formations by George Back and John Ross recall the surface of the planet Solaris in Stanislaw Lem's sci-fi classic about memory and loss.
The commanding vistas of the Old West and the unreal topography of the Polar North blur together to create an almost otherworldly impression of the earth -- perfect preparation for the thrilling heart of the show, where the romance of exploration, futurist fantasy and scientific documentary fuse in "Beyond the Earth: The Moon."
Wonderful and somber are the early photographs of the moon. Images from the Atlas Photographique de la Lune (1894-1908) by Maurice Loewy and Pierre Puiseux are crisp and clear, revealing an unequivocal barrenness. They are perhaps the last 19th-century renderings of the moon as landscape, harking back to the photographs of Carleton Watkins and Timothy O'Sullivan.
By comparison, the composite photographs taken by NASA's Lunar Orbiter and Lunar Surveyor from 1966 to 1968 are almost Abstract Expressionist in appearance, leaving us to wonder at our own capacity to project meaning onto mechanical and nonhuman processes.
Six extraordinary drawings from Georges Méliès' 1902 film A Trip to the Moon depict an adventure-packed land filled with grottoes, giant mushrooms and beaked creatures in spikey suits. An early moonsuit, made by Litton Industries in the 1960s, stands nearby in a glass case like a suit of armor from some medieval legend.
We come, at last, to the panoramic landscape photographs taken by astronaut Eugene Cernan in 1972, on Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon. Cernan's colleague Harrison Schmitt is shown standing alone in the vast plain of the Taurus-Littrow Valley, dwarfed by a lone boulder. The sky is black in the absence of atmosphere, the man and the valley pale and bright. For a moment we are back at Yosemite, or at the foot of Frederick Church's volcano in Bolivia, tiny and alone in an unexplored world.
The exhibition continues through three more thematic sections, including galleries of Constructivist, modernist and contemporary works. A foreboding sense of mortality lingers throughout the entire exhibition. Cosmos has paralleled its subject, romanticism, and we are its unwitting players.
While we may delight in the desperado charm of Ilya Kabakov's ironic installation, The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment (1981-88) -- a shabby apartment interior holding a jury-rigged human-sized slingshot -- we secretly harbor a similar wish to free ourselves, perhaps not quite so literally, from mundane existence. In the dark of the last room we sit and watch the stars -- slide projections of the photographs of galaxies made by astronomical photographer David Malin. What we had suspected is confirmed: the universe, for all our efforts, remains incommensurable in scale and grandeur.
"Cosmos" was organized by Pierre Théberge of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and Jean Clair of the Musée Picasso, Paris, with a curatorial committee that included Mayo Graham (National Gallery of Canada), Constance Naubert-Riser (Université de Montréal), Didier Ottinger (Centre George Pompidou, Paris), Rosalind Pepall (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) and Christopher Phillips (Art in America, New York). After its appearance in Montreal, the show travels to the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, Nov. 23, 1999-Feb. 20, 2000.