Article: The Great Upheaval Hits the AGO

Not content to rest on the laurels of Picasso, Kahlo, Weiwei, and Bowie, the Art Gallery of Ontario has immediately launched another ambitious exhibition of world-renowned art. For its only stop outside of New York, the Guggenheim Museum has lent the AGO some of its most significant works from the Modernist period, as well as its senior curator, Tracey Bashkoff, to bring The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918 to Toronto audiences.

From Cézanne to Chagall, Modigliani to Mondrian, the heaviest hitters from the Guggenheim’s storied vaults are all on display. But while the AGO is no stranger to big names, The Great Upheaval ultimately falls victim to its breadth. Here are the five most notable things about the exhibit. (Click through the photo gallery above to view a sampling of the paintings on display.)

1. Its traditional staging.

After Ai Weiwei’s immersive According to What? and the kaleidoscopic wonderland of David Bowie Is, The Great Upheaval is almost shocking in its simplicity. Arranged chronologically on stark white walls, and paired with a conventionally explanatory audio guide directed by Bashkoff, The Great Upheaval is a much dryer, more contemplative effort than the AGO’s recent output. Of course, when you’ve got Kandinsky on your walls, you don’t need to do too much embellishing.

2. It provides a decent crash course in European history.

Putting the work of 36 diverse artists from across Europe in their proper context is no easy feat, and Bashkoff has elected to take an historical approach in her attempt to group them. While the gallery text on the political, technological, and culture events of the period was largely helpful, I struggled to reconcile a few of the choices, like the video projection of Charlie Chaplin mugging, and the repeated references to the career of Coco Chanel. Rather than aiding to illuminate the issues and ideas that were informing the era’s creative community, these additions felt more like pandering to our modern expectations of the decade.

3. It shows the age-old importance of artistic communities.

Modernist thought might privilege the individual, but The Great Upheaval reveals just how social these great minds were, literally mapping their movements between the artistic hotbeds of Paris, Berlin, Milan, Munich, Vienna, and Prague. These creative communities led to an unprecedented outpouring of artistic innovation, until they were violently dismantled with the onset of WWI—a crisis that Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim, argues, “Europe has yet to recover from.”

4. In ends on a serious cliffhanger.

Curiously, the period of 1914-1918 is condensed into just a single room, while the previous four years are each explored in detail. And in lieu of discussing the period’s lingering influence on 20th-century art, the exhibit ends on a comically brief summary of what every artist ended up doing during the war, Animal House-style.

5. The Modernists’ fervent anti-materialism might be a little outdated.

Abstract painters may have shunned figuration for its materialist, capitalist connections, but viewers to the AGO exhibit still exit through the gift shop. Pick up a Kandinsky colouring book for the kids.

The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918 is on at the Art Gallery of Ontario from Nov. 30, 2013, to March 2, 2014.

From the Grid

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s