Circa 1900
By Linda Levine

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John Singer Sargent, Venetian Bead Stringers,
from the Albright-Knox Collection
What was art anticipating and becoming at the dawn of the twentieth century? Buffalo’s 1901 Pan American Exposition serves as the glittering inspiration to Circa 1900: From the Genteel Tradition to the Jazz Age, 1880-1920, an exhibition now on at the Albright Knox Art Gallery.

Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Realism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Abstraction, Modernism—how startling it is to see a show drawing upon so many movements.

Yet consider the focus, the year 1901, when a panoply of movements met nearly simultaneously. I try to think of another forty-year period as full of artistic development as this, and am hard put to do so, because the era produced a staggering number of distinctly different developments, which then became mainstreams in art.

Photography, glassware, ceramic, furniture, and sculpture, apart from painting, illustrate some of the best markers in the four-decade journey of the show, every portion putting every other into context. This very rich approach to fine art and correlative arts portrays the relationships among styles of creativity as well as the media or genres they are created in.

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Gertrude Kasebier, The Manger, from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
The specific point of the show is to suggest what was occurring in America in the years leading up to the Pan-Am, and up to and after World War One. Many of these were years of unrelenting harshness, in our country and others. The works on display indirectly reflect this. There is Camille Pissarro’s painting of a mother, father, and children toiling in the fields; Joan Sloan’s interior scene of hard domesticity, Julien Alden Weir’s portrait of pensiveness. The show also includes depictions of free-wheeling sensuality, a marriage ceremony, and elegantly conceived mythologies.

Highlights from early twentieth century American portraiture include Robert Henri’s Dutch Soldier (1907), very similar to the best paintings by Franz Hals. Romantic images of women, like Thomas Wilmer Dewings’ Portrait in a Brown Dress (1908) and Adolphe Bouguereau’s Young Priestess (1902) seem steeped in the genteel tradition. Inevitably, both strains of figuration disappear, merging into abstraction and the rebelliousness of the Jazz Age.

A 1901-era audience would regard some of these objects as not at all beautiful, nor appropriate for museums. Impressionism—shown here in examples by Renoir, Prendergast, and others—had difficulty gaining acceptance. Later, photography and abstraction had equal difficulty with popular audiences. According to Helen Raye, project organizer of this show, which was two years in the making, each category had trouble in Europe, and even more in America. “All the abstraction met with confusion and resistance in this country at first. It was shocking, breaking all the rules, here and abroad, but there was a rebellious tradition more established there,” she said. “There was more desire for moral and spiritual content here.” America’s pilgrim roots die hard.

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John Sloan, The Scrubwoman, from Munson-Williams Proctor
Even the virtuous and sturdy furniture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Gustave Stickley and the pottery of the Roycroft community—arts emanating from the Arts and Crafts movement which celebrated handwork, simplicity, and practicality — did not enter the realm of the fine arts and come into museums until well after the mid-twentieth century. It takes time for the new to come into its own and become assimilated into our imaginations and histories. As Circa 1900 makes clear, it is good to keep an open mind, make room for transformations in art, and stay humble. All the art here has been adjudged to have the crucial quality of significant form, has challenged the eye, has added to what went before, has lasted and entered art history.

A show whose very framework reinforces another important aesthetic theory, the value of integrity within variety, Circa 1900 could as honestly be called “pre-modernism into modernism.” Comprehensive yet cohesive, it has enough work to prompt the viewer to make connections, and not too much to be dizzying. It inspires the wish to grasp the subterranean interconnectedness of art, including influences from Asia and the Africa.

A consortium of New York State museums contributed to Circa 1900, coordinated by Helen Raye for the Albright Knox under the guidance of Curator Douglas Dreishspoon. She had fun preparing it. “It was exciting visiting all the museums, seeing entire collections, including work in storerooms. People were very gracious.” (Even at the Buffalo museum, some of the work is rarely on display.) She wouldn’t argue with the assertion that there is an amazing amount of high quality work at museums in our state outside New York City.

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Frederick Macmonnies, Bacchante with Infant Fawn, from the Albright-Knox
Among the participating museums — in Utica, Ithaca, Albany, Syracuse and Rochester—the Albright Knox provided the majority of objects. That’s somewhat of an eye-opener, because Buffalonians and national audiences tend to tout the Albright Knox as the museum of post-World War II art. It actually has extraordinarily good holdings for its size in earlier periods, for example the years between 1880 and 1920. Circa 1900 is a great chance to examine this other part of the collection.

Helen Raye has written a rigorously researched in-depth essay for the finely-illustrated exhibition catalogue (which includes a first-rate essay on photography by Assistant Curator Claire Schneider). Raye gives a wealth of historical background to illuminate the era. She plows the art historian’s field to make sense of strains in art. She also finds social webs: friendships and antipathies among artists who influenced one another.

I try to think of another forty-year period as full of artistic development as this, and am hard put to do so, because the era produced a staggering number of distinctly different developments, which then became mainstreams in art.

You’ll see names you know and names you won’t, but now that there’s a light shining upon them, you’ll wish you could see more of the artists represented in this show. The little-known Belgian sculptor Constantin Meunier, nearly as weighty as Rodin, is one such artist. Louis Comfort Tiffany as a ceramist is another. To mention just some of the painters, there are Jean-Leon Gerome, Thomas Couture, Berthe Morisot, John Singer Sargent, Albert Pinkham Ryder, George Inness, Edward Dufner, James McNeill Whistler, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Adolphe Bouguereau, Thomas Eakins, Andre Derain, George Luks, John Sloan, Childe Hassam, Ernest Lawson, and Gifford Beal.

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Fernand Leger, Smoke, from the Albright-Knox.
There are the photographers, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Imogen Cunningham. And there is Eadweard Muybridge, who in the same moment that Einstein published his theory of relativity—making time the fourth dimension—made it his mission to render time’s photographic equivalent. The technological medium of photography, woven into a show with sculpture and the decorative arts, is a contrast that adds its own dimension.

But of all the arts represented, painting clearly dominates the exhibition. “Ah, ah,” said a Frenchman of my acquaintance, “painting, painting,” as if in his view the illusion that the painter achieves is the most elusive, magical, mysterious, mystical, and ultimately beautiful.

Each one of the works in this exhibition will warrant your attention, as you start seeing how importantly realism enters into abstraction, with exquisite effects of light and shadow informing the abstract. What seems at first glance immediately apprehensible, if that were possible, wants deeper looking. From the genteel tradition which offered up subjects of exterior nature, to the jazz age and increasing technology, the sense of a subject led to pure abstraction and painting seemed largely in the mind.

A show of marvelous diversity and consistent high quality, Circa 1900 closes in Buffalo on August 19 before traveling to the other contributing museums.

Admission to Circa 1900 is free with regular gallery admission.

Circa 1900 has been organized by the following museums, and travels to all:
Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, Utica (March 3-April 15, 2001)
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (May 6-August 19, 2001)
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca (September 8-November 25, 2001)
Albany Institute of History and Art (December 14, 2001-March 3, 2002)
Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse (March 22-May 26, 2002)
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester (June 15-September 15, 2002)

Linda Levine writes on the arts and historic preservation.


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