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Cosmos: From Romanticism to the Avant-garde


To celebrate the imminent arrival of the year 2000, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts will present from June 17 to October 17, 1999, the exhibition Cosmos: From Romanticism to the Avant-garde. This is a huge topic, covering the myth of the New Frontier from the nineteenth-century explorations of America, including the Far North, to contemporary explorations of the solar system. The exhibition consists of some 380 works from twenty different countries - paintings, sculptures, drawings, books and decorative art objects - executed between 1801 and the present day. Alongside paintings of earth and the heavens will be rare vintage and contemporary photographs (from Daguerre to NASA), as well as observational instruments. The history of ideas, of art and science, together with artistic movements from Symbolism to the avant-garde, are tackled each in turn in order to illuminate these two centuries that have left their stamp not only on our technology and aesthetics, but also on our sense of spirituality.

The exhibition, organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is divided into seven themes: Nature and the Cosmos, The Promised Land, The Voyage to the Poles, Beyond Earth; The Moon; Imaginary Cosmologies; The Foundations: The New Jerusalem; and To Infinity and Back..

The opening-up of the American West was a religious venture before becoming a political one. This wilderness was seen as the Promised Land, and its wonders, such as spectacular waterfalls, giant redwood trees and Yosemite, were celebrated by painters like Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt and photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge and Carleton E. Watkins. American painting, initially inspired by the European landscape tradition, whether visionary and Symbolic (John Martin, J.M.W. Turner) or Romantic (Caspar David Fnedrich, Carl Gustav Carus), began to evolve little by little. The format became panoramic, and the sense of the sublime gradually pervaded these depictions of the unpeopled West, shown as a new Eden.

The search for new frontiers extended to the icy reaches of the Arctic regions in the nineteenth century. This northern landscape of colossal icebergs and limitless space, as well as the spectacular effects of the aurora borealis, are depicted in the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church, William Bradford and the watercolors of British naval topographers. Later the Canadian artists of the Group of Seven, such as Lawren Harris, would draw inspiration from the cold solitudes of the Canadian Far North.

The romance of polar exploration began to lose its attraction towards the end of the century. Earth had been dealt with, and a new frontier beckoned: the moon. From the astonishing pastels of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot to late-nineteenth-century daguerreotypes and the photos taken by NASA's Surveyor probes, the moon still exerts an attraction. The proof can be seen in works by contemporary artists such as Claudio Parmiggiani, Mark Tansey, Ilia Kabakov, Paterson Ewen and Joyce Wieland.

Astronomy's discoveries about the infinite depth of space and the links joining mankind to the cosmos had a powerful influence on late-nineteenth-century painters like Alfred Stevens and Van Gogh, and after the turn of the century on artists as different as the Italian Divisionist Pellizza da Volpedo, the Lithuanian Symbolist Mikolajus Ciurlionis and the German visionary Wenzel Hablik.

In seeking to make the dynamism of the universe visible, Italy's Futurists, including Giacomo Balla and Luigi Russolo, shared Robert Delaunay's and Frantisek Kupka's fascination with the cosmos. The allure of the heavens also gripped the imaginations of Soviet "revolutionary" artists like Ilia Chashnik, Kazimir Malevich and Aleksandr Rodchenko, whose works foreshadowed space stations.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, many artists, among them Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder and Joan Miró, drew inspiration from speculations on the origin of the cosmos; they were followed in the 1960s by artists such as Yves Klein and Lucio Fontana. Thanks to the Hubble space telescope, the far reaches of the universe have come closer. The quest for the beginnings of creation, and the conquest of space, as seen by artists of today like Vladimir Skoda, George Segal, Vija Celmins, Thomas Ruff and Kiki Smith, complete the exhibition, in the image of a universe that doubles back on itself.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a major catalogue, available at the Boutique and Bookstore of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It will be distributed in French by Gallimatd and in English by Prestel. After the exhibition's presentation in Montreal, it will be shown at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània in Barcelona, Spain. This project has received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and support from the French Consulate General in Quebec City.

Images from top to bottom: Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, 1861, oil on canvas, 1.635 x 2.858 meters, Dallas Museum of Art, anonymous gift, 1979.28; Mark Tansey, Action Painting II, 1984, 193 x 279.4 centimeters, collection of Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, gift of N. Gelber, © courtesy of Carl Marcus Gallery, New York; George Segal, Jacob's Dream, 1984-85, painted plaster, wood, rock, electric light, plastic, 213.4 x 304.8 x 127 centimeters, collection of the artist, courtest of Sidney Janis Galery, New York, ©1999/Vis*Art Copyright, Inc./V.A.G.A. New York. Please click on images for enlargements.

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For biographical information on artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 7/16/09

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