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the age of modernism: art in the 20th century

by Mary Goldman

Marcel Duchamp

Exhibition catalogue for
The Age of Modernism:
Art in the 20th Century


Pablo Picasso
Sitting Nude

Max Ernst
Ubu Imperator

Wassily Kandinsky
Small Pleasures

Giorgio de Chirico
Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire

Rene Magritte
Attempt of the Impossible
   What is Modernism? A historical age? An artistic attitude? A phenomenon of consciousness? And does the century's close signal the end of the Modern era? These are the questions asked by the "The Age of Modernism: Art of the 20th Century," an exhibition of over 400 works by 135 Modernist superstars at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, May 7-July 27, 1997. A curatorial tour-de-force by its two organizers, Christos M. Joachimides of the Zeitgeist-Gesellschaft in Berlin and Norman Rosenthal of the Hayward Gallery, London, the show is stupendous and overwhelming -- and somewhat predictable.

Many of the works could be replaced by others, and one has to marvel at the curatorial hubris that underlies such a project. Still, the show provides visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see much of the best of the last 100 years of Western art under one mammoth roof. Originally the show was to travel to London, but political complications canceled the trip at the last minute. "The exhibition should not be seen as an encyclopedia, but as an essay," Joachimides asserts, in a transparent effort to deflect such criticisms in advance. "It does not set out to offer an exclusive overview, but asks questions, reveals discontinuities, provides snapshots of moments in time, and illuminates situations like a screenplay. To focus on masterpieces, to worship the gods, is not enough: only surprising juxtapositions, combined with the prompting of intellectual history, can shock visitors into finding their own angle on the century."

In pursuit of this mission, the exhibition has been subdivided into four "paths": Reality and Distortion, Abstraction and Spirituality, Language and Material, and Dream and Myth. Each section, which is billed as a complete exhibition in its own right, singles out a central innovator who blazes a trail for his contemporaries as well as for future generations. Needless to say, they are all male.

In Reality and Distortion, Pablo Picasso is named as the first artist to create an autonomous pictorial language combining primitivism, simplicity and deconstruction. Picasso's rival, Henri Matisse, is given a close second, however. The exhibition's most memorable pairing of works places Picasso's totemic 1908 Seated Female Nude with Matisse's 1907-08 Nude Black and Gold, which reveals an Africanizing tendency not often associated with Matisse. Both of the magnificent works were lent by the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Distortion of the figure dominates this section and connects such disparate talents as Brancusi, Dubuffet and Bacon. Quite a lot of space was given to German Modernists, from Kirchner to Baselitz, the final artist on this road (an arguable choice, but the advantage always goes to the home team).

The next gallery contains a refreshing assembly of portraits spanning the century, by a range of artists from Amedeo Modigliani and Otto Dix to Frida Kahlo and David Hockney. These portraits firmly place all questions of Modernism within issues of the human condition. This strategy serves to personalize disparate artistic languages, causing each image to reverberate with individual clarity.

Path 2, Language and Material, is installed in the Martin-Gropius-Bau's grandest central space. At its beginning is a shrine-like presentation of Marcel Duchamp. The original conceptual artist, Duchamp influenced every movement succeeding him. Installed in the space surrounding his "Ready-Mades" are exquisite collages by Kurt Schwitters and paintings by Max Ernst. American Pop artists, Warhol and Rauschenberg, are on the scene, as are contemporary appropriationists like Jeff Koons and Mike Kelley. These last show the lengths to which Duchamp's heirs have gone to challenge the mythical aura of the work of art.

In Path 3, Wassily Kandinsky and Kasmir Malevich are the heroes of Abstraction and Spirituality. The exhibition posits the pair (along with Brancusi and Mondrian) as opening up art as a realm of transcendence that created a departure point for the New York School, including Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhart. Kandinsky's vibrant Composition IV and V, exhibited together for the first time since they were painted in 1913, electrify the entire gallery. The Mondrian room is a high point of the exhibition, with such pieces as Black Cross and Black Square, from the State Museum of Russia as well as the collection from Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Path 4 is Dream and Myth, and singles out as its leader Giorgio de Chirico, whose anxiety-ridden landscapes hint at something sinister lurking within the ordinary. In this view of the 20th century, Rene Magritte's investigation of the subconscious and Max Ernst's hallucinatory landscapes lead one seamlessly to the frozen photographic tableaux of Cindy Sherman and the surreal Pop objects and installations of Robert Gober.

The "Age of Modernism: Art in the 20th Century" attempts to unify the century with an overarching artistic energy. Interestingly enough, this project is analogous to Germany's quest for identity within itself and in the eyes of the rest of the world. A show of this magnitude clearly marks the ability of Berlin to be a Weltstadt (world city). It also creates a symbolic connection on a purely creative level between the formerly divided city and the West. The exhibition, along with major artistic projects like the European Art Forum Berlin and the new Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, is vigorously asserting Berlin's influence as a dynamic international force in the arts.

MARY GOLDMAN is an American critic and curator based in Berlin.