Guggenheim Unveils Modern Art’s “Great Upheaval”

Exhibition Traces Famed Artists’ Influence on One Another and Their World


Published: February 16, 2011

When most people think of great modern artists, names like Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh come to mind, but there are others who revolutionized the art world. From now through June 1, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is showcasing 100 pieces, including a variety of paintings, drawings and sculptures from 1910 to 1918 in an exhibition entitled “The Great Upheaval.” The exhibition features famous pioneers from the modern movement, including giants like Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh alongside the likes of Franz Marc and Vasily Kandinsky.

During the early 1900s, the art movement changed significantly. Throughout the world, especially Europe, artists were joining together to create a movement combining cubism and expressionism that today is known as modern art. During that time the world was also changing drastically; the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated and the world was preparing for World War I.

Solomon R. Guggenheim, founder of the Guggenheim Museum, began collecting the artwork displayed in the exhibit nine years after WWI ended. According to the curator’s description, “The Great Upheaval illuminates the dynamism of this era, as artists halted towards abstraction and the ‘great upheaval’ of a catastrophic war.”

As you walk up the museum’s rotunda, the first visible painting is Kandinsky’s “Blue Mountain.” “This is an iconic work of early modernism,” said Tracey Bashkoff, curator, collections and exhibitions at the Guggenheim. Kandinsky’s painting includes a cobalt blue mountain with men on white horses surrounded by colors of yellow, fuchsia and green. The painting sets a precedent for the varying, brightly colored pieces displayed throughout each ring of the museum.

Each new level of the spiral rotunda displays the artwork of a different period from 1910 until the last level, which displays works from 1914 to 1918. Before the artwork for each year is displayed, information is presented from that year in three categories: “On the Historical Front,” “With the Artists” and “Notes on Literature.” These categories give bullet-point facts about what happened historically in the year, what happened to the featured artists in that year, and what important literary works were published that year.

“Arranging the work chronologically provides people with a different way of looking at things,” Bashkoff said. “At that time artists traveled to different countries without passports and WWI brought an intense division. We thought breaking the art up into cubists and expressionists and futurists would have done a disservice to the time period.”

Each level showcases a variety of styles and varying color patterns. The third level features abstract shapes, straight lines and dark colors slowly moving toward brighter colors as visitors head toward the fourth level. Those paintings look vastly different from the first level, featuring classic portraits like Picasso’s “Woman Ironing,” a painting of a tired, young woman in drab colors bending over as she irons a cloth.

For the average art history student, the only correlation between each painting appears to be that they are in chronological order by year. But the art-goer may see a Kandinsky on the second level that reminds them of another Kandinsky on the fourth or a portrait on the sixth level that reminds them of one of the first.  The artistic evolution presented here is dramatic yet follows a logical progression.

“The exhibit displays different groups of artists working together, promoting themselves, publishing books,” Bashkoff said.

There are several art pieces worth seeing, including Picasso’s famous “Woman with Yellow Hair,” a painting of a fluidly-shaped woman with purple skin and yellow hair sleeping with her head on a table and Kandinsky’s “Light Picture,” a canvas of varying yellows with what looks like ink splotches from a broken pen surrounded by soft pinks, blues and greens.

Some pieces created during the same time were placed next to each other deliberately. According to Bashkoff, for the works displayed from 1911, Franz Marc’s “Yellow Cow” was put next to Robert Delaunay’s “The City” because they were included in the same exhibit during the early 1900s and are often associated with each other.

The last piece of the exhibit invokes the great change that had occurred in the world since the earliest work on display was created. Ernest Ludwig Kirchner’s “Artillerymen” depicts a group of skinny men, seemingly prisoners of war, showering while being watched by a guard. Reminiscent of WWI concentration camps, it is evident that the collection ends with the painting to remind viewers of the tragic and turbulent time during the “Great Upheaval.”