Magazine article The Spectator

Confronting a Chaotic Jumble

Magazine article The Spectator

Confronting a Chaotic Jumble

Article excerpt

Generally speaking when one goes to an exhibition one sees art winnowed and docketed. The selection of works, still more the selection of significant artists, is the result of endless ant-like activity by dealers, museum people, critics and historians over the years. Superimposed on that there is the final assessment of the exhibition curator. To an extent, 1900: An at the Crossroads, the major new show at the Royal Academy (until 3 April), aims to reverse that process.

It is, of course, the product of plenty of research and visual editing by the organisers, including the American art historian Robert Rosenblum, plus MaryAnne Stevens and Norman Rosenthal for the RA. But their objective, up to a point, has been to reverse all that winnowing and sifting, and to confront the spectator with something more like the raw, chaotic jumble of the current art scene - of any art scene at the moment when it is happening.

Think of 1900, in terms of art, and what - who - comes to mind? It was a point of junction between old and new, between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and Modernism (due to be born a few years into the new century). Gauguin, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne were still alive, but reaching the end. Picasso and Matisse were just setting out on epic careers. Monet was changing gear before embarking on his ultimate manner. Art Nouveau was all the rage.

Art at the Crossroads includes all of those great names who have been so magnified over the last hundred years that they completely fill the view (though at the time they might have escaped notice). But they are put back amongst a crowd of their forgotten and half-forgotten contemporaries, from all over the place: Finland, Portugal, England and Russia.

The aim was to reproduce the m6l6e of diverse approaches and techniques which a visitor to the contemporary art displays at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900 would have seen. The curators have not put together a complete facsimile - the original was too massive, too muddled and too monstrous, by all accounts, to inflict on paying customers at Burlington House. This is a carefully selected version of reality.

The result is a fascinating exhibition, but an indigestible one. Normally, in a show, one is drawn by some common theme: the work of a single artist, the development of a movement. Here, the viewer is constantly faced with violent contrasts of technique, with juxtapositions of the very good and the possibly awful. The effect, though the hanging is enormously better, is a little like the Summer Exhibition, where a similar artistic free-forall prevails.

In the second room, devoted to paintings of bathers, hangs Degas's 'After the Bath', to take one example, which is just the kind of thing we are used to thinking of as great art, circa 1900. Next to it is a nude by the Salon painter Charles Carolus-Duran which is just the kind of thing well broughtup modernists were taught to regard as rubbishy kitsch. In some ways, though not in the way the paint is put on, they look rather similar, the same sort of setting, same sort of pose.

In the same room Cezanne, Gauguin, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec - the good guys, as we now believe - rub shoulders with the obscure, dubious and, in the case of Paul Chabas's 'Joyous Frolics', the downright winsomely, cloyingly dreadful. This is indeed an interesting exercise repeated in such themed sections as 'The City' and 'Rural Pursuits' (in which a peasant girl by Pissarro meets sisters and cousins from around the world). …

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