Art Around the World

Controversy at the Royal Academy

By Tom Gross, February 22, 2000

Art critics in Britain are at each others throats over the Royal Academy’s new exhibition, “1900: Art at the Crossroads.” They are lashing out at each other over the show, which recreates a cross-section of the famous 1900 World’s Fair in Paris in order to demonstrate what art was regarded well at the time.

The World’s Fair was the grandest celebration of the dawning century and drew 50 million visitors. Most of the works at the 210 pavilions have long been forgotten, but some other features – notably the Paris Metro and the Gare (now Musee) d’Orsay – remain very much with us. In the “Decennale” pavilion, on which the new Royal Academy show is based, the works of 2000 artists from as far as Nicaragua, Tokyo and Melbourne were displayed.

The curators of the Royal Academy’s new exhibition spent five years scouring the globe to gather works by 180 artists. They have not limited themselves to works actually sent to Paris in 1900, but all the chosen exhibits were painted, carved or modeled between 1898 and 1903, and the majority were actually on display at the Paris fair. Little known or forgotten artists hang alongside Degas, Cיzanne and Klimt.

Some critics think it is a brilliant idea to show what actually happened at the turn of the century, rather than rely on the conventional textbook version. Others regard it as virtual sacrilege to hang “such bad art” next to major names.

And nobody is mincing their words. John McEwen of London’s Sunday Telegraph leads a pack of British art critics calling it “debauching,” “reprehensible,” “turgid” and “sickening.” This “pig’s breakfast... dog of a show” is “enough to make you puke,” he says, and is “surely one of the worst in history.”

By contrast, Richard Dorment, the art critic of McEwen’s sister paper, London’s Daily Telegraph, says that this “stunning show” is so “glorious” that he will “have to go back again and again.” William Packer of the Financial Times agrees, writing that this “splendid” and “beautiful” show contains “long disregarded” works with “real qualities.”

Certainly it is interesting for today’s public to stroll through the galleries as if we were alive a century ago, wondering whether we would have been attracted to works by a then unknown art student named Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, rather than to a then established but subsequently despised painter such as Bouguereau, who is now best known for sacking Matisse from his art class for not being able to draw.

Some works are now of note less for the artist, than for the sitter, such as a bland portrait by Franz von Lenbach of the young Peggy Guggenheim.

“Art at the Crossroads” runs in London until April 3, and then moves to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. It will be interesting to see whether it elicits as much controversy in the Big Apple as the last exhibition to move there from London’s Royal Academy – “Sensation.”

Article copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.