Coupling permanent collection works with a handful of stellar loans, “WWI and the Rise of Modernism” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is an unlikely blockbuster. Since it opened in mid-December in the 20th-century galleries, the exhibit has been attracting a steady stream of visitors.
The show tackles an overwhelming topic without being overwhelming. It’s unpretentious but lucid; it mixes horror with humanity minus false sentiment. It gives equal weight to objects of design and what is traditionally considered fine art.
Finally, it’s provocative without telling you what to think. Most of the art speaks very well for itself, no matter what country the artists were from or what languages they spoke.
Organized by Jan Schall, the Nelson’s curator of modern art, “WWI and the Rise of Modernism” did not follow the traditional route to becoming a popular museum show.
The exhibit was assembled in two years, not the usual five to 10 required for many institutional shows. In addition to selecting the art, which included arranging some key loans, Schall worked with the curators of American art, decorative arts, photography, and prints and drawings to choose definitive pieces from their respective departments.
The resulting exhibition of 60 works is a stimulating mix of objects ranging from a Bauhaus-inspired tea service to a dadaist photo collage of a female nude to paintings that aspire to the sublime.
Monet’s impressionist “Water Lilies” from 1926 co-habitates with an Otto Dix etching of two corpses before burial, created in 1924. If the show feels like a mash-up, the point is deliberate: Modernism was birthed at one of the most chaotic eras in history.
The show comes with an illustrated timeline, posted in the hallway and reprised in an interactive version on the exhibit’s website. Also there you’ll find a playlist of the songs you hear at the exhibit.
The impetus for the show was the WWI centennial (the war started in 1914), which the major Kansas City arts institutions honored with individualized events. Schall decided she wanted “to tell the story of the rise of modernism — how it began right before the war and then how the war affected it.”
“Everything was changing”
The section “Before the War, 1890-1913” illustrates “that it was a radical time on so many different levels,” Schall notes. “Everything was changing. There was a complete eruption as societies changed from agrarian to industrial economies.”
Not since the Renaissance has there been such a watershed moment in Western art. “The notion of an avant-garde, which is a military term for cutting edge, did not exist until then,” Schall says.
At the turn of the century, a number of artist communities formed across Europe, the Americas and Russia that fractured all the old academic restraints. In Germany, two short-lived but highly influential groups rose to prominence, both utopian in nature, and they are well represented in this show.
Wassily Kandinsky was one of the founding members of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) and, along with Franz Marc, August Macke and others, believed that abstracted forms combined with a prismatic color palette represented spiritual values that could counter the materialism of the age.
Kandinsky’s 1910 “Sketch for ‘Composition II,’” a major work on loan from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, is one of his most ethereal and mystical paintings. In its center is a horse and rider, a key motif for Kandinsky that symbolized the need to move beyond representational art, which he felt had been corrupted.
Animals were also essential to Franz Marc’s art. His small, glowing depiction of horses in “Kuhe,” another choice loan, this one from the Bloch Foundation, is one of the exhibit’s highlights.
German expressionism came into being with the Die Brucke (The Bridge) group, organized in 1905. The members of Die Brucke sought to be a bridge into a new future, and for inspiration they looked outside the Western canon of imagery for examples of primal emotion.
Emil Nolde’s painting “Masks” from 1911, a truly notable work in the Nelson’s collection, exemplifies the interest in ethnography typical of these artists, whom Adolf Hitler, three decades later, condemned as “degenerate.”
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1910 painting, “Portrait of the Poet Ghuttmann,” is another outstanding example of Die Brucke’s style, as is Erich Heckel’s 1914 print “Two Soldiers.” Other outstanding prints, by Nolde, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Ernst Barlach and George Grosz, are included here.
For the German expressionists, printmaking was a medium of choice, not just because of its low cost, but also because they knew that savagely rendered woodcuts, lithos and etchings would deliver a real jolt to the viewer.
In Austria, expressionists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele favored edgy drawings and scatological sketches as a way to redefine portraiture. Schiele fought in the war, only to die at 28, a victim of the 1918 global flu epidemic that killed 50 million people. Despite a relatively small artistic output, his influence has grown exponentially over the decades, and the Nelson has a doozy of a drawing here.
Another masterwork that shines is Marsden Hartley’s “Himmel,” c. 1915. Hartley was American but lived in Germany as a young man and soaked up contemporary aesthetic influences from cubism to expressionism. He also fell in love with a German military man who died in the war, and “Himmel” is one of the best known of his German Officer series.
In search of the essential
While German and Austrian artists were fracturing the picture plane, designers and architects such as Josef Hoffmann and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were radically simplifying the forms of everything from furniture to buildings to cutlery, and capitalizing on the availability of cheap industrial materials.
As with the painters and sculptors, these designers wanted to throw off older, degrading influences in search of the essential. Their art is now considered classic, and even today, a century later, reproductions of the furniture in this exhibit are in demand.
There are a few choice works from artists who attended the Bauhaus, that most influential of all modernist schools, which was founded in 1919 and combined both fine art and design classes. Only a few women are represented in this exhibit, but former Bauhaus student Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein’s three-piece, gleaming metal tea service is as stunning as any sculpture in the show.
A 1924 painting by Kandinsky, “Rose With Gray,” is as geometrical as his earlier work was painterly. It shows the change in the artist’s style after living in Russia and seeing constructivist works and then teaching at the Bauhaus.
Another Bauhaus instructor was Paul Klee, and his marvelous watercolor and drawing “The Virtue Wagon (to the Memory of October 5, 1922)” is a reference to some of the internal troubles brewing at the famous art school.
There are notable cubist works, especially the Nelson’s “Book, Glass and Bottle on a Table” by Juan Gris from 1913.
After the war, utopian philosophies were discarded in favor of movements such as dadaism and surrealism, which evolved in response to the nightmare that was WWI. Photography moved from the diaphanous look of pictorialism to the hard-boiled, experimental visions of such dadaist artists as Man Ray. His “Dadaphoto” from 1920, which combines collage with a female nude model, may be the most revolutionary work in the show.
And then there is Marcel Duchamp, also a former dadaist who looked down his nose at what he termed “mere retinal art.” His “Box in a Valise” gives us an inkling as to why he is considered the godfather of postmodern conceptualist art.
Other modernist impulses from the United States, Russia and Great Britain are not as well represented in this exhibit, nor is there art by people of color. “Because the show draws primarily from the Nelson’s collection, there are gaps,” Schall explains. “There are many other things we would love to have.”
Still, a careful reading of the texts is sobering. Umberto Boccioni, one of Italy’s most famous futurist artists, died in the war, as did Franz Marc. Kathe Kollwitz’s son died, which dramatically affected her art. Max Beckmann, Kokoschka and Kirchner all suffered serious mental health problems after serving in the war, and Kirchner later committed suicide. George Braque and others suffered permanent injuries. Many artists had to flee their countries.
As Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote in “The Splendor,” her poem about artists who create during times of upheaval: “What if incubation can only occur in darkness? What if hope and new life that truly endure are not born from airy happiness, but from black dirt grief?”
“World War I and the Rise of Modernism” continues at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., through July 19. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Admission is free. For more information, call 816-751-1278 or go to Nelson-Atkins.org.