Paris in 1900 was the most cosmopolitan city in the world. A long, painful century of post-revolutionary upheaval, violence and rapid urban development was giving way to an era of progress and openness. Through great exhibitions and ambitious engineering projects, Paris promoted itself as a beacon of modernity. Tourists, thrill seekers and diplomats flocked to the city in numbers never seen before – as, of course, did artists. A new exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao charts this extraordinary period between the turn of the century and the second world war, when Paris was the unquestioned capital of the arts. Using works selected exclusively from the collection of its New York partner institution, it attempts to make sense of the breakneck speed at which figures including Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay and Mondrian changed all conceptions of what art could be.
Picasso, “Le Moulin de la Galette” (1900)
It’s not just a matter of convenience that the Guggenheim’s show takes 1900 as its starting point. That year, Paris staged a highly anticipated “great exhibition”. The event itself was a flop, attracting only a fraction of expected visitors. One of the few who did turn up for it, though, was a 19-year-old Pablo Picasso. Despite his youth, you can already see a stylistic tension in his first Parisian painting, this depiction of the Moulin de la Galette dancehall in Montmartre. He’s evidently indebted to Toulouse-Lautrec and the Impressionists here, but the almost floating faces and odd gazes of the crowd he paints hint at an imminent breakthrough to an altogether more muscular style.
Picasso, “Carafon, pot et compotier” (1909)
By the end of the decade, Picasso’s work had become almost unrecognisable from those comparatively polite beginnings. This early Cubist still life breaks up the image into jagged planes that render it a domestic hall of mirrors – a wholly novel way of depicting a three-dimensional scene in a two-dimensional medium. Disproportionate though the image is, it still clings to perceptibly representational forms. Along with his sparring partner Georges Braque, Picasso would test the limits of form to the point of abandoning figuration entirely.
Fernand Léger, “Le modele nu dans l’atelier” (1912-1913)
Picasso and Braque weren’t the only painters thinking this way. Indeed, Fernand Léger and his friend Robert Delaunay didn’t see any Cubist paintings until 1913, by which time they were already well out on their own limb. Broken up with bright red and yellow, the metallic planes look almost like aluminium fittings – sections of a disassembled pipe, perhaps. Compared to the severe edges Picasso and Braque preferred in their compositions, the forms in Léger’s work seem almost voluptuous – which, given the suggestion of the title, is surely part of the point.
Robert Delaunay, “La tour rouge” (1911-1912)
In 1889, Paris held a great exhibition to mark the centenary of the storming of the Bastille. Famously, the centrepiece was Gustave Eiffel’s tower, then the tallest structure in the world. It had stood for 20 years by the time Delaunay began painting it, but he remained fascinated by it. This composition trembles with movement, the bulges of swirling grey suggesting dust clouds. There is so much energy here, the tower could almost be a living creature, a baby giraffe rising to its feet for the first time. Standing proud on its four legs, the Eiffel Tower is shorthand for the triumph of technological progress.
Amedeo Modigliani, “Nu” (1917)
The modernity Delaunay projected onto the Eiffel Tower was probably better embodied by another mechanical wonder: the machine gun. When war broke out in 1914, many of the leading lights of modern art (including Braque, Leger, Guillaume Apollinaire and Albert Gleizes) were called up to serve in the French army. Others, like Delaunay, sought refuge in neutral countries. Modigliani, who had arrived in Paris in 1906, actually tried to sign up to fight, but was rejected for service due to poor health. Had it not been for his sickly nature, we might never have seen the extraordinary series of nudes he painted from 1916 to 1919. The pose of his reclining nudes harks back to Renaissance style, but the faces of his figures owe more to the African masks he and other artists studied at the Ethnographic Museum in Paris. At first glance, the seductive nude seems to be extending an invitation to the viewer, but her eyes are closed, turning us into uneasy voyeurs.
Pablo Picasso, “Mandoline et guitare” (1924)
The war didn’t diminish Paris’s status as the centre of the artistic universe – far from it. The old hands returned, and in the form of Dada, a new wave was ushered in. Ever the contrarian, Picasso performed a volte-face by returning to figuration. But through his association with surrealist demagogue André Breton, he soon patented a form of the style for himself. This work, painted the year Breton published the Surrealist Manifesto, has been debated to the ends of the earth. On the face of it, it’s a still life, albeit a far more vibrant one than the carafe and coffee pot of 1909. The room is a standard-issue Paris studio space, the open windows giving it a boundless depth of field. But doesn’t the arrangement of instruments at the centre of the composition look like one of the masks Picasso, Modigliani et al used to fetishise? It’s even been suggested that you can see the artist’s profile in the brown bulge to the right of the apparently flying guitar, and that the work is an homage to Apollinaire, who died in 1918.
Yves Tanguy, “Là ne finit pas encore le mouvement” (1945)
At the time he painted this scene, Yves Tanguy had been in exile in America for some years. New York, not Paris, was now the centre of the art world. The sheer ugliness of this painting, the coda to the exhibition, is no accident. If the meaning of the work isn’t immediately clear, then the date should provide a hint. While Paris’s citizens had suffered terribly during the German occupation of 1940 to 1944, it wasn’t until the Nazi death camps began to be liberated that they, along with the rest of the world, learnt of the full extent of Hitler’s genocide. The mangle of bleached but perceptibly human forms to the right of the composition is truly sickening, but how else could an artist react to the images coming from Auschwitz and Buchenwald? It is a difficult painting to love – but one that clings mercilessly to the memory.
Windows on the City Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, until October 23rd 2016