When Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc formed the group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) in late 1911, the artists predicted a watershed in the arts, a große Umwälzung (great upheaval) that would radically challenge traditional artistic production. Tremendous creativity and innovation characterized the years leading up to World War I. European cities were evolving, and the artistic avant-garde likewise adapted and responded to twentieth-century modernity, from its spectacles and technological feats to the social fragmentation and alienation of the modern metropolis. Cubism achieved recognition in Paris, sparking new directions in France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Russia. Art’s more expressionistic manifestations were at an equally momentous stage in Germany and Austria; Kandinsky wrote his influential treatise Über das Geistige in der Kunst. Insbesondere in der Malerei (On the Spiritual in Art: And Painting in Particular) in late 1911, and abstraction took hold.
The Great Upheaval: Modern Art from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910–1918 illuminates the dynamism of this fertile period, as artists hurtled toward abstraction and the ultimate “great upheaval” of a catastrophic war, and also highlights the masterpieces of modern art that launched the museum’s collection. The exhibition unites the Guggenheim Foundation’s remarkable collections in New York and Venice in order to trace the origins of the museum and capture the spirit and dynamism of the European avant-garde. Featuring more than one hundred paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by 48 artists including Umberto Boccioni, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, Kazimir Malevich, Marc, and Pablo Picasso, among others, The Great Upheaval attests to this period of collaboration, interchange, synthesis, and innovation. The exhibition is curated by Tracey Bashkoff, Curator, Collections and Exhibitions, and Megan Fontanella, Assistant Curator, Collections and Provenance.
This exhibition is supported by a grant from the Joseph and Sylvia Slifka Foundation.
The Guggenheim Museum’s engagement with the modern period began nine years after the 1918 ceasefire, with a portentous meeting between founder Solomon R. Guggenheim and the young German artist Hilla Rebay in late 1927. Rebay was commissioned to paint the retired industrialist’s portrait, but what transpired was a fruitful collaboration that would last until Guggenheim’s death. Under Rebay’s guidance, the focus of the art collection Guggenheim had formed with his wife, Irene Rothschild, shifted dramatically away from the old master paintings, French Barbizon school, American landscapes, and other similar work that was fashionable within their circle. Instead, in 1929 Guggenheim began enthusiastically collecting the art of his time and especially exponents of nonobjectivity, an art form that aspired to spiritual or utopian aims. He simultaneously began to amass prime examples of European modernism, acquiring art directly from such artists as Robert Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, and Kandinsky. Since the establishment of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1937, subsequent acquisitions have augmented and enriched Guggenheim’s original collection.
The Great Upheaval is arranged chronologically, ascending the unique spiral of the Frank Lloyd Wright– designed building in order to trace artistic development toward abstraction and underscore the interconnections between emerging artist groups. The first five ramps of the rotunda represent a different year of artistic activity from 1909/10 through 1913, while the topmost ramp highlights the war years, 1914–18.