CURATOR'S CORNER: Shaken, Not Stirred

The Art Institute to launch its new Modern Series with an exhibit that examines the artful ouput of a society jarred by rapid change.

By Laura Kinter

From the Winter 20145 Issue of
Clef Notes Journal

On Sunday, February 15, the Art Institute of Chicago will premiere the first exhibit in their Modern Series, Shatter, Rupture, Break. With the launch of the new exhibition, museum-goers will be propelled into the rapidly and radically changing society around the outbreak of World War One, and will experience the exhilaration and anxiety of artists caught in societal transition. 

The Modern Series will feature modern objects from the Art Institute’s collection across all media, and unite them in newly devised exhibits. Shatter, Rupture, Break will bring together photographs, collages, paintings, books and films to explore how the three words permeated modern art and caused a momentous shift in artistic perception. Artists such as Robert Delaunay and Gino Severini will be featured for their exploration—and disruption—of depth and illusionism by responding to the new, faster-paced metropolis. Delaunay’s Champs de Mars: The Red Tower, a key piece in the exhibit, depicts the Eiffel Tower in fragmented and shifting form. This image perfectly exemplifies the “shift in perception” the exhibit will evoke, by showing how modern life in an accelerated metropolitan environment encouraged new and fractured worldviews. “Picturesque vistas no longer adequately conveyed the fast pace of the modern city,” explains exhibit curator Sarah Kelly Oehler.

Shatter, Rupture, Break will span two galleries that feature works arranged thematically. Oehler notes the importance video and projected images will play in the multimedia experience of the exhibit: “The goal is to create a dynamic space that evokes the exciting, disruptive and cacophonous nature of modern art at this time, as well as alludes to how modern artists did not confine themselves to one medium but explored different visual effects across a variety of media. We want visitors to make their own associations and be inspired by the connections they see; to that end, we are prominently featuring the voices of artists, writers, scientists and intellectuals of the period.”

Three films will be projected in the gallery space adjacent a variety of media: photographs, paintings, sculpture, decorative works and designed objects, works on paper, textiles and books, truly giving a museum-goer the anxious and overstimulated nature of modern society.

The Art Institute has played a pivotal role in Chicago’s modernity for over one hundred years, and this show will feature both new acquisitions of modern art, but also important pieces that have formed the core of the museum’s modern collection.

The works of Ivan Albright hold special significance as a Chicago modernist, and the Art Institute owns his most important works. Shatter, Rupture, Break will feature several Albright pieces, including a rarely displayed water color medical sketchbook. The sketchbook depicts gruesome images of soldiers wounded at war, and even x-rays of their injuries, thus incorporating an artistic perspective of the (then) new medical technology.

The body plays a key role in this exhibit, as it often did in modern art. “A devastating and mechanized world war had blasted bodies to pieces and returned men to the front with fragments missing. Surrealists fetishized body parts in images, separating out eyes, hands and legs in suggestive renderings. The exhibition will combine these two impulses—violent and sexual—in salon style display,” notes Oehler. Albright’s sketchbook will show a gruesomely literal representation of those shattered bodies.

Oehler also draws special attention to Mz 13 Call, a Kurt Schwitters piece assembled from salvaged materials. “The employment of thrown away, ripped-up and scissored out pieces of paper, divorced from their original meanings and reassembled with nails and glue into new aesthetic statements was an act that exposed social and political disruptions,” Oehler explains. Schwitters used the garbage of German society in the service of Merz, “an invented term meant to signify an artistic practice that included collage, assemblage, paintings, poems or performance.” 

Another notable piece is gelatin silver print Self Portrait, Zacopane (broken glass) by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1910). Converging with the exhibit’s themes of fractured perception, Witkiewicz literally broke a glass negative and reassembled it to create a print. The piece represents the broken psyche that was endemic to the modern period, especially in artists.

In this cacophonous exhibit, museum-goers will be thrown into the brutal, fractured and hectic age of modern art during the outbreak of World War I. This experience, however, is not all that different from our very own society in 2014. The world, particularly Chicago, finds itself in just as much of a transitory state as in the early 1900s. The digital age has rapidly descended on our everyday lives and created a new age of paranoia, anxiety and over-stimulation. The exhibit, therefore, creates a bridge between the chaos of a century ago, and the chaos of today.

Shatter, Rupture, Break will show the freshness and novelty of ideas we find old and archaic. It will evoke a sense of social, political and artistic change that we feel in present day, over an entirely new set of fractured perceptions and changing technologies. “We rightly see the present day as a period of rapid change,” Oehler explains, “but this sense of social change is not new. It is precisely how people felt a century ago, in the period roughly from World War I to the post World War II period. This was a time of great change; world wars, destruction, and death; new technologies of communication and transportation, and production that accelerated the pace of life; new understandings of psychology and the mind; and disruptions of the old artistic traditions and the development of new ideologies and methods.”

The artists in Shatter, Rupture, Break reacted to these changes with anxiety and paranoia the same way we react to our own rapidly changing life in Chicago. The broken glass, collages and assembly of garbage all evoke the fear and confusion we feel in the middle of a transitioning society. Oehler hopes the exhibit “excites interest in the modern period as a crucial precursor to the changes of our own time.” Shatter, Rupture, Break is the first of the Art Institute’s Modern Series, which is meant to be nimble and experimental. The next exhibits in the series will not appear in the very near future. However they are being planned with an eye for the changing conditions of society and continuing the freshness and liveliness that Shatter, Rupture, Break exemplifies.

(Otto Umber). Untitled, 1928. Julien Levy Collection, Gift of Jean and Julien Levy. © 2014 Phyllis Umbehr/Galerie Kicken Berlin/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.