Roads Less Traveled By

In 1900: Art at the Crossroads – the big millennium exhibition that opened last week at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum – the curators give pride of place to The Stream, a visionary painting by a forgotten Belgian symbolist named Léon Fréderic. In the left-hand panel of this triptych, the artist displays thousands of small naked children tumbling down waterfalls and gushing along what must be “the stream of life.” In the middle section, he depicts the unending cherubic flow coursing through a leafy forest. And then, in the last part, he presents swans gliding among piles of sleeping baby cake: The multitudes are dreaming in the moonlight. This, I believe, is stranger than anything you will find in contemporary Chelsea. It is kookily carnal, sweetly dreamy, truly over the top. A fantasia of blushing baby bottoms. A delirious dream of putti.

It’s remarkable that the curators would choose to highlight such a picture. Any art historian addressing the year 1900 must, of course, cover the many crosscurrents of the period and include examples of academic and symbolist painting. At the same time, most art historians would also distinguish, emphasize – and glorify – the artists of the modern tradition. The half-forgotten academicians and eccentric symbolists would typically serve as a backdrop or foil to the story of these great moderns; the baton would be seen passing from the aging Cézanne, Monet, and Gauguin to those young artists – such as Matisse, Mondrian, and Picasso – who led the march into the twentieth century. But not here. Conceived and organized by the noted art historian Robert Rosenblum, in conjunction with MaryAnne Stevens and curators at the Guggenheim and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, “1900” refuses to make this kind of value judgment. The great moderns are there. But Fréderic seems as important as Gauguin.

The exhibition is therefore a brilliant example of a certain inclination in contemporary thought – one with an important bearing on the study of history and the understanding of tradition. That inclination is to be playful, open, exploratory, nonjudgmental, and occasionally perverse; this show displays all the virtues that such words suggest. To begin with, more than 170 artists are represented. That is an astonishing – welcoming – number. The artists, many of whom I’d never heard of, do not come from just the usual places. They lived in Finland, Russia, Hungary, Iceland, Puerto Rico, Japan, Brazil – and on and on and on. The show is particularly rich in art from Northern Europe; the walls glint with cool blues and icy greens. The number of different museums and countries contributing work to the exhibit must set some sort of record. It is a wonderful thing to expect the same old artists – and then come upon interesting or challenging work by those you don’t know. Art becomes new again.

The curators open the exhibition with an evocation – in the High Gallery of the Guggenheim – of painting from the 1900 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) in Paris. Lush red carpeting covers the floor; the walls are also a deep red; the paintings are stacked up in a “salon” presentation. This is where The Stream is centrally placed, just underneath a picture by Paul Chabas of nymphlike cuties frolicking in the water and not far from a picture by Emile Claus of cows fording a river. (There is water, water everywhere in this show.) It is playfully perverse to transform a central room at the Guggenheim, an institution founded to celebrate modernism in general and abstract art in particular, into this old-fashioned bourgeois room. Although the pictures in the gallery represent many different styles from the period, ranging from realism to symbolism, the air of the room is perfumed with the sticky-sweet reverie and academic panache of William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

Instead of emphasizing the formal developments of the period – which would necessarily focus attention on the evolution of modernist styles – the curators have clustered works by subject. There are sections on, among other topics, “Bathers and Nudes,” “The City,” “Interiors and Still Lifes,” “Landscape,” “Rural Scenes,” and “Self-Portraits.” There’s even a large grouping of religious images. This organization by subject allows the underlying obsessions of the period to surface repeatedly, across many different countries, genres, and styles. For example, the fin de siècle mood of tamped-down erotic longing, somewhat sickly and feverish, can be found not only in the swooning style of the pre-Raphaelites but also in the cold narcissism of certain self-portraits or the bitter, beckoning light of Parisian nightlife.

The division of the Guggenheim’s space into a series of small bays enables the curators to present numerous little shows – like glinting aperçus – within the larger spread. Put John Singer Sargent, Whistler, and Boldini together, and you have a quick riff on turn-of-the-century dandyism – their brush strokes are stylishly loose, like a cravat tied just so. Juxtapose Sir John Lavery’s powerful painting of a father and a daughter with Cecilia Beaux’s portrait of a mother and her pale, washed-out son, and you have a wonderful intimation of the Oedipal passions that would fascinate the twentieth century. The most powerful effect of the organization of “1900” comes, however, from the decision of the curators not to separate modernist art from other less “advanced” or “radical” work. As a result, modernism seems to germinate – naturally and inescapably – in the damp, sweetly rotten soil of academic art.

Again and again in the Guggenheim bays, the modern difference asserts itself. Art historians like to single out the particular formal threads that distinguish modern art, but in “1900,” the particulars of form seem less important than the willingness of artists to push the eye toward a region that lies beyond surface appearances. Just after the room devoted to the academic Exposition pictures, for example, the curators juxtapose Carolus-Duran’s Danaë with Degas’s After the Bath. Each artist voyeuristically depicts a nude whose body appears twisted, outflung, convulsed. Whereas Carolus-Duran makes passion as deadeningly delightful as a pinup – his smooth Danaë would look great hanging over a bar – Degas is at once subtler, rougher, and more detached. He deepens the idea of the convulsed body with a powerful smear of reddish-orange and a bold, scrawling use of line. When the curators collect a few forest scenes, some are picturesque close-ups of trees standing side by side; but others become grids, studies of vertical line. And when painters depict the moody serenity of the ocean, some make literal seascapes, whereas Emil Nolde paints an oceanic space that is also an abstract painting. In the section of self-portraits, Picasso does more than describe an endlessly changing inner life. He embodies it formally – with a raw, confrontational, and intentionally unfinished style. He is an unmade man.

In large exhibitions, art is usually presented as a chronological story, moving step by step and year by year. This enables curators to create a narrative line. They inevitably refine and sanitize the history of art, retaining the best and excluding the marginal or less original. That is one way to develop and affirm an ongoing, valued tradition. The exhibition “1900” instead slices time horizontally; there is no sense of progression. As a result, the period appears profuse and confusing – in short, more like any living cultural moment, including this moment of 2000. It’s exciting to see the past presented in this way; it is also fun, for “1900” invites viewers to take occasional pleasure in kitschy and overblown art. And yet – wasn’t there also a good reason to forget some of this work? In opening eyes to the half-forgotten, do the curators also promote a vapid understanding of art? Do they diminish serious achievement by losing the face of genius in the crowd?

The answer depends upon how you regard tradition. Those on the right who worry about standards will be discomfited by a show of this kind; those on the left will welcome its fluid, democratic spirit. And that conflict is healthy. A living tradition should be a verb, not a noun; it is stable but not fixed; it breathes the oxygen of doubt. In “1900,” the curators are figuratively flinging open the doors to the pantheon, welcoming some outsiders and accepting contradictory values. To the assertion that they are refusing to make essential distinctions, they can answer (to paraphrase Yogi Berra), “If you come to a crossroads, take it.” In any case, the time will come when a more severe, classical outlook will correct the excesses of late-twentieth-century taste and begin constructing the next monument. Which should, in turn, arouse both respect and impatience.

Roads Less Traveled By