One hundred years ago, the U.S. Post Office sent its first parcel post, Kafka stopped working on “Amerika,” Jim Thorpe relinquished his 1912 Olympics medal, Grand Central Terminal opened, the National Institute for Arts and Letters was founded, and the first avant-garde show in America opened and the New York Armory Show introduced Picasso, Duchamp, and Matisse to the American public.
And that was just the first two months of 1913.
Meanwhile, across the pond, modern art and literature were getting underway in Paris. Guillaume Apollinaire established his reputation as a poet with the publication of “Alcohols” and crystallized the cubist movement with his essay “The Cubist Painters.” Marcel Duchamp created his first readymade, Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes performed Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” and Eugene Atget assembled his photographic album “The Zones.”
The exhibition “1913: The Year of Modernism” at the Princeton University Art Museum, which runs through Sunday, June 23, explores the Modernist moment in Europe through 50 prints, drawings, and photographs drawn primarily from its collections, as well as rare books and periodicals from the special collections of the Princeton University Library. Though a small show, it includes work by the heavy hitters of the era.
A few weeks before the installation, curators Efthymia “Effie” Rentzou, assistant professor in the Princeton University department of French and Italian, and Calvin Brown, associate curator of prints and drawings, gathered around a table in the prints and drawings study room, inches from works on paper by the likes of Picasso, Chagall, and Klee.
There are woodcuts on Japanese paper by Raoul Dufy that were done as illustrations for Apollinaire’s “Bestiary” and part of a portfolio by Otto Dix. Princeton University students are encouraged to take advantage of the experience of seeing these works up close.
Rentzou teaches a graduate seminar in French modernist poetry in this room, where students can discuss original works of art. Last year she taught the Avant-Garde Century class to undergraduates. “The collection is here for teaching, and we put together seminars and exhibitions around the collection,” says Brown.
“It’s like a show-and-tell for what the university holds, as well as what’s in Firestone and Marquand libraries,” says Rentzou. “We realized that, collectively, we hold a lot of interesting material from 1900 to 1930. We were interested in 1913, when everything happened, because it is 100 years later.”
Rentzou, who had never curated before, proposed the exhibition to the museum and Brown, and fortuitously there was an opening in the exhibition schedule.
The spirit of 1913 was one of experimentation, opening new directions in art and literature and collaborating between the two, says Rentzou. The modernist esthetic sparked movements in Italy, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and America. Then, a year later, World War I erupted.
“The dynamic exhilaration of the prewar period gave way to an esthetic that underscored brutality and irrationality of modern life,” write the curators. “If the global proliferation of modernist ideals constitutes a positive expression of internationalizations, the First World War and its aftermath may be seen as its negative side, as the German expressionists Otto Dix and George Grosz, the war-time periodical L’Elan, and the Dada movements and its publications represented a facet of generalized violence and anxiety.”
The Dadaists formed in 1916 as a reaction to the horrors of war. Dadaists rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality, and intuition. Francis Picabia, a French poet and painter who is credited with introducing modernism to America in 1915, created the periodical 391, based on Alfred Stieglitz’s 291, with Man Ray and Duchamp as contributors.
“Many of these movements favored pamphlets and publications to reach out to a broad public and experiment with different media to get the word out,” says Brown. Just as Daumier had, some experimented with the book. Brown carefully thumbs through one on futurism by F. T. Marinetti. Rejecting the art and culture of the past in favor of modern life, Marinetti experimented with different typefaces in various sizes, colors, and layouts. “Zang tumb tuuum” is a sound poem; when performed it re-creates the sounds of gunfire and grenades.
Others experimented with pullout pages for poems. Movement, locomotion, and machine sounds were incorporated in text in the books shown in the exhibit.
One wall is devoted to poetry, with a portrait of poet, playwright, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau by Amedeo Modigliani — he often painted friends from the bohemian world — and two Raoul Dufy woodcuts, to illustrate the cross-pollination between painting and poetry. Apollinaire’s “Calligrammes” is a kind of visual poetry — the poem itself becomes the image and blooms like a flower.
Being able to see the image formed by the words adds a level of interpretation, says Rentzou. “It’s a characteristic of modernism, making the reader work. Typical verses are abandoned with this re-orientation.”
A poem by Mallarme, translated as “A Throw of the Dice Never Abolishes Chance,” has no concrete image but is spread over two pages. “White space is important to create visual rhythm,” says Brown.
Considered a milestone in the evolution of artists’ books and modernist poetry, the poem “Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France” by Blaise Cendrars, illustrated by Sonia Delaunay, is about a 16-year-old’s journey through Russia on the Trans Siberian Express during the first Russian Revolution. With its abstract colorful brush strokes, Cendrars himself referred to the work as “a sad poem printed on sunlight.”
Twelve fonts in differing sizes, colors, and images complement, rather than illustrate, the text that recounts the narrator’s journey in the company of a young Parisian prostitute and the apocalyptic scenes of hunger, death, and war devastation they encounter.
At 80 inches tall by 14 inches wide, it was originally intended as an edition of 150 so that if all were stacked end to end, it would have reached the height of the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of modernity.
Chagall’s “The Poet,” a watercolor, was originally part of a commission for Nikolai Gogol’s “The Wedding” for the Hermitage Theater, and though it was never produced, Chagall’s designs survive.
By 1919 jazz was the music of the day, and Leger illustrated it. “It was based on different rhythms coming from Africa after the war,” says Brown.
Two walls look at the German expressionist experiments with forms and genres. Printmaking could reach a broader audience and evoked the Germanic modernist esthetics begun in Paris, says Brown.
Leaving behind the forms and experiments of the first room, the second room focuses on art and society during the First World War. There are soldiers who were victims of a gas attack in a trench by Otto Dix.
“Both Apollinaire and Dix fought in the war,” says Rentzou. “Leger was an artillery guy. Both he and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, fighting on different sides, had breakdowns.” Max Beckmann, too, suffered a nervous breakdown while serving as a medical orderly.
The futurists, prior to the start of the war, admired power, force, movement, and technology, and glorified war, says Rentzou, while the Dadaists focused on the absurdity of war. “No war had been as deadly, nor had technology been used as much.”
The British responded to Italian futurism with vorticism, a term coined by Ezra Pound to describe a group envisioning themselves an alternative to cubism, futurism, and expressionism. A magazine with a bright pink cover titled Blast contained paintings, poems, and the Vorticist Manifesto, which included such tenets as: “Our Cause is NO-MAN’S”; “We set humor at humor’s throat. Stir up civil war among peaceful apes”; and “We only want humor if it has fought like tragedy.” The vorticist movement ended with the second issue of “Blast.”
There is a wall of Atget’s photographs documenting vanishing Paris. In just over three decades, Atget made 10,000 negatives of images of shop windows, parks, street scenes, and a rag picker’s shack. He only achieved widespread recognition when American photographer Berenice Abbott published many of his images and championed his work in the 1920s.
“These were made long before 1913 but were influential to the avant-garde after the war,” says Rentzou. “The vanishing 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was a moment of change, and Atget captured it.”
The last wall includes abstractions by Paul Klee, slaughtered chickens by Chaim Soutine, and allegorical scenes by Pablo Picasso “to show where the spirit of 1913 goes,” says Rentzou.
1913: The Year of Modernism, Princeton University Art Museum. Through Sunday, June. 23. Free.
1913: The Year of French Modernism. Poetry readings in the galleries and Princeton’s French theater troupe L’Avant Scene will present Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1917 surrealist play “Les Mamelles de Tiresias” (the Breasts of Tiresias). Thursday, April 18, 6 to 8 p.m. Free. 609-258-3788 or www.princetonartmuseum.org.