Review: The Great Upheaval Exhibit at the AGO

[I]t’s moments like these, when the brand names of the art world visit our humble city of Toronto, that make art history enthusiasts like me short of breath, and it’s not just my asthma acting up in this the frigid weather. For those unable to reach the artistic hotspots of the world anytime soon, they can find a satisfying appetizer in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s newest traveling show.

The Great Upheaval Exhibit at the AGO, which opened late November last year, displays some of the best works from “a time of tragic collusion between spirit and matter, a time of terrible inescapable vacuum, a time of enormous questions,” as expressed by Wassily Kandinsky, one of the most prominent movers from this modernist art period that changed the way future generations looked and thought about art.

Perhaps it was that mindset which raised my expectations for the grandeur I thought awaited me. When you first enter the exhibition, you’re greeted by a majestic display of some of history’s most inspirational works from the cubist, futurist and expressionistic movements. In a small walkway that opens up to the first hall of the exhibit lies a brief introduction that holds little new information about this time period, 1900-1920, that I hadn’t already learned in my university art history class. The first hall commences with a piece by Cezanne and another by Picasso that set the stage for the gradual abstraction of shape and form that awaits, moving further into the 1900’s.

But as I finished dissecting the renowned pieces and was ready to move on, I found that I was already lost halfway into the decade. The direction to follow in order to keep the chronological flow wasn’t clear, and continuing through the halls, I noticed this was a persistent and distracting problem. I wasn’t sure whether I should turn right towards the Kandinsky or head left towards the Matisse. At one point I gave up and decided to wander wherever my eye would lead me.

The visual aids that cemented my place in time were the very informative entrance boards, placed at the beginning of each hall. Text on these boards stated the achievements of each epoch within the modernist movement to the happenings in other facets of life, such as the technological advancements at the turn of the 1900’s and the political turmoil initiating the 1910’s.
Other decorative details were disappointed, such as a wall of randomly placed quotes that wouldn’t have made anyone stop if it didn’t precede the entrance to the subsequent hall. Albeit, the focus of the gallery space should be on the artworks, but these details appeared to be integrated into the space as more of an afterthought than a fundamental part of the exhibit.

Fortunately, the artworks don’t fall short of expectations. A carefully curated selection of works in The Great Upheaval is what really makes this exhibit a worthwhile visit and the highlight of the AGO’s calendar year. The most vibrant works belonging to the greats of the Modernist period were present, in addition to some lesser acknowledged pieces of the time that still commanded attention, such as Alexei Jawlensky’s Helene in Colored Turban. Pristine white walls and spacious halls enhance the presentation of the works, and superbly comfortable couches allow you to sit and stare at Picasso’s Accordionist until your eyes cross.

As I lingered in front of Robert Delauney’s Simultaneous Windows, 2nd Motif, a gallery assistant engaged me in an eye opening discussion about whether or not there were actually curtains draped over the abstracted French doors, which I found, there were. Making your way through the exhibit, you will find that Franz Marc’s Yellow Cow smiles wider in person, and Juan Gris’ collage-like paintings seemingly imitates Photoshop filters and layered effects before the technology even existed. Kaleidoscopic colours in Kandinsky’s compositions pop out from the white walls and leave you energized for the remainder of the journey.

The little excitement you finally develop dies down once sadly realizing you are approaching the exit. As you turn the corner thinking the typical gift shop is to follow and the exhibit had overlooked the final pivotal detail, one last burst of inspiration awaits in the form of a quote projected onto the dark floor: “The world cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” In one sentence by Albert Einstein, the underlying message of The Great Upheaval, the period that symbolized a radical, influential change in artistic communication, has been summed up, and you’re left feeling that trudging through less than pleasant winter conditions was ultimately worth the trip.