A Depressing Junk Show Takes Over Guggenheim

In May 1940, only a few weeks before the Nazi army sealed its swift conquest of France by occupying Paris, the art capital of the world, a curious incident occurred. Matisse happened to run into Picasso on the street. This is the way the late Alfred H. Barr Jr. described this chance encounter in his 1951 book, Matisse, his art and his public : “The two painters greeted each other as old friends and chatted for a few minutes about the threatening French debacle. Picasso placed the blame with cryptic accuracy, ‘C’est l’École des Beaux Arts! ‘-a remark which deeply impressed Matisse. With an artist’s metaphor Picasso had well summed up the conservative, inflexible, unimaginative grand strategy of the Maginot line on which France was now foundering. Later in the war, Matisse was himself to castigate the Beaux-Arts spirit in a radio broadcast right under the nose of Pétain.”

In the view of Matisse, Picasso and virtually every other major artist of the School of Paris avant-garde, the École des Beaux-Arts was, of course, something more than an academy for the training of artists. It represented a deeply entrenched attitude toward life. In their view, its principal mission was to resist the encroachments of modernity in the name of a fossilized idea of the past. The Beaux-Arts spirit thus symbolized everything-in life as well as in art-that was most stupid, reactionary, unenlightened and moribund in the culture and the society of the modern age.

I thought of Picasso’s remark to Matisse the other day as I was slogging my way through the mountainous debris that has been gathered from the far-flung corners of Europe and North America in the exhibition 1900: Art at the Crossroads , which has now come to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. For this mammoth and deeply depressing exhibition, which numbers some 240 works by more than 170 artists, might itself have been entitled C’est l’École des Beaux-Arts ! It’s not that every one of the artists represented in this debacle was a product of the Beaux-Arts mind-set. Far from it. Early works by Picasso, Matisse and sundry other modernists-even Mondrian and Kandinsky-are also represented, but in this show they serve as minor foils to the glories, as it were, of the “major” academic artists whose abject loyalty to the dumbest, most sentimental and benighted standards of the Beaux-Arts mentality is never in doubt.

The result is yet another of those “new narratives” that are everywhere transforming our museums of modern art into the museological equivalent of a postmodern soap opera. In the 1900 version of this soap opera, the villains of yesteryear-theacademicians who fought so hard to suppress their modernist adversaries-are the good guys, and the bad-boy modernists who opposed them are forgiven, for they turn out not to have been so different, after all, from their fatuous elders. In other words, Art at the Crossroads is the story of one big happy family whose members are now seen to have suffered from some momentary misunderstanding of their loving “affinities” for each other.

Thus, in this 1900 exhibition, we are earnestly invited to observethe”unexpected affinities” that are alleged to unite the philistine painters and sculptors of the Academy and their modernist opponents in some grand common purpose. As is usually the case with these “new narratives,” the “unexpected affinities” are all based on subject matter and thematic motifs-”Nudes and Bathers,” “The City,” “Woman/Man,” “Rural Scenes,” rather than on the formal and aesthetic character of the paintings and sculptures that are falsely linked by incongruous juxtaposition.

In a succession of portraits at the top ramp of the Guggenheim, for example, there is juxtaposed Cézanne’s familiar painting of a Man With Crossed Arms (circa 1899) with Prince Paolo Troubetzkoy’s bronze portrait, Count Leo Tolstoy (1899), which has nothing in common with the Cézanne but its date. And in this example, as in so many other facile comparisons in this exhibition, it is the better-known modernist artist who turns out to be vastly superior to the lesser-known academic artist. Indeed, if you have the stamina to persevere in the perusal of the vast quantities of academic junk in this exhibition, you are likely to find that contrary to the purpose of the show, 1900 vindicates the modernist avant-garde in the war it waged against the Beaux-Arts establishment.

Unfortunately, there is such a huge quantity of academic junk in the show that it tends to overwhelm and demoralize the visitor as only large dosages of inferior art can do. If you start your journey through this maze at the top of the Guggenheim, in Tower Gallery 7, you will find some really big pictures, some of them triptychs, devoted to religious themes. There is indeed a room of triptychs by painters from France, Portugal, Belgium and Germany that you will never have heard of and will never want to hear of again. They are hanging on gloomy brown walls-there is a brown carpet, too-to provide period atmosphere.

There is another period room at a lower level that is intended to replicate the atmosphere of the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. In this cheerless space, the walls are lined with red velvet, there is a red carpet on the floor and the oversize pictures that hang there are certainly the worst to be seen in one place anywhere in New York at the moment. I don’t think we have instruments fine enough to determine whether the horrors of William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Regina Angelorum (1900) are any worse than Léon Fréderic’s massive triptych called The Stream (c.1890-1899),butwhilethe Bouguereau is merely hilarious, the Fréderic is really quite nauseating-a kind of Wagnerian fantasy of pedophile delights.

What is finally most dispiriting about this 1900 exhibition is that it is being shown at the Guggenheim Museum and its curator, Robert Rosenblum, is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished art-historical scholars of his period. For some of us, this makes 1900: Art at the Crossroads a double loss. For it wipes out whatever remaining respect we might have for the museum, and it extinguishes the intellectual credibility of a distinguished scholar.

The exhibition remains on view at the Guggenheim, 1071 Fifth Avenue at 88th Street, through Sept. 10.