Robert Rosenblum, the promiscuous mind behind the incessantly illuminating “1900: Art at the Crossroads,” is a true imp of the perverse. For more than 40 years, and to the horror of many, this art historian-cum-rebel angel has reshuffled the deck of art history, undermined orthodoxy, and twisted the clean linear progression of modernism.
As much as anyone, Rosenblum helped initiate ways of looking at art that are not exactly antiformal or antichronological but bend and blend these modes into new patterns. He likes to hold up very different things from different times or places and say, “What do these things have in common?” In 1961, he linked abstract expressionism to 19th-century landscape painting, rather than seeing it as the logical outcome of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In 1975, he literally wrote the book on Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, connecting artists like Caspar David Friedrich and Augustus Vincent Tack to Mark Rothko and Clifford Still.
By now, nearly every local museum has mounted a revisionist or antichronological survey. But where other countercanonical exhibitions seek to establish new canons, Rosenblum’s credo is “only subvert!” He knows we’re a little embarrassed about modernism’s messy ancestry; that we’ve deleted the humiliating bits. But that doesn’t stop him from looking in every closet. No mere exercise in historical relativism, his archaeological approach is a reminder that history is teeming with styles and subjects, that art comes from all manner of aesthetic DNA, and that we have no way of knowing what will look good a hundred years from now. In his own roguish way, Rosenblum—one of the Charles Darwins of revisionism—elbows the competition, plays a game of “revival of the fittest,” and seems to say, “You’ve seen the rest, now see the best.”
This show may be his crowning achievement. Realizing the art historian’s fantasy of organizing an exhibition as a walk-in slide lecture, Rosenblum dreams a delirious dream; he takes us to a moment in time just before the modernist canon was wheeled into place and many of the artists here were swept under the carpet of time—a period when heterogeneity ruled and history was in the balance. He asks if any of this might be of use today. Things get thrilling when the answer turns to yes before our eyes.
Using the 1900 “Exposition Universelle”—the Paris fair that brought together thousands of artworks, including 78 of the 240 pieces on view here—as a jumping-off point, Rosenblum (assisted by Vivien Greene) rounds up a motley panoply of 170 artists from 26 countries. All the works, installed in pithy bay-by-bay bits according to 12 themes, date from the years immediately before and after 1900. Rosenblum mixes unknowns and outcasts, the avant-garde and the academic, the talented and the talentless; reactionaries are pitted against prodigies. The 20-year-old Picasso stares out of his self-portrait with extraterrestrial eyes; the young Mondrian paints himself as a Coptic mystic in the manner of an Egyptian fayum; Paula Modersohn-Becker’s heavenly, barely-there self-portrait is a study in delicate Symbolist haziness melting into something expressionistic.
Nascent Fauvists and Futurists Henri Matisse and Giacomo Balla muscle in on the fading Pre-Raphaelite Sir Edward Burne-Jones; soon-to-be Expressionists and Abstractionists Emil Nolde and Vasily Kandinsky battle it out with academics like Paul Chabas—whose Joyous Frolics, a scene of semiclothed women splashing about in water, reminds us that old styles sometimes die slow, painful deaths—and Emile Bernard, represented by The Three Races, a painting of three women in a brothel that might be an antecedent to Picasso’s whorehouse or an allusion to the three Graces but seems more fixed in odious Orientalism.
A late, roughly hewn Redon still life, with its complicated background, dominates its iffy next-door neighbor, a Vuillard interior. You might be surprised when Maurice de Vlaminck’s vulgar, heavy-handed portrait, The Bar, holds its own against two strong Picassos, including The Absinthe Drinker, a painting that still oozes empathy and horror and suggests—contrary to popular opinion—that even if he had died in 1905, we might still recognize Picasso’s greatness. Elsewhere, an overwrought Giovanni Boldini painting of a Bernini bust in an empty room suggests Boldini was trying to turn himself into Whistler by way of Corinth. The six works by Munch project a genius so staggering and eerie it’s possible you will declare him the 1900 World Champion; the three paintings each by Klimt and Eakins put them both in contention for runner-up.
You can start anywhere and be in the thick of things. You might go to the top ring, park yourself in front of Eakins’s astonishingly solitary portrait of Cardinal Sebastiano Martinelli, a cleric in the body of a sensuous man, stare into its disturbing brown abyss, and hope a New York museum mounts an Eakins exhibition soon. A bay away is John Singer Sargent’s breathtaking Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children. Its luxurious grays, pinks, and satiny silvers stand in stark contrast to the seductive Rupert Everett eyes of the young son and make you wonder what hearts this little boy went on to break. In small doses, Sargent is a superstar. Nearby is Whistler’s portrait of George W. Vanderbilt, whose lithesome posture is pure Elizabeth Peyton.
If you want to get a feel for Rosenblum’s kinky side and the reason people sometimes brand his taste as kitschy, go into the large gallery just off the first ramp. Installed salon- style, on hideous burgundy walls, are paintings that museums like the Guggenheim were founded to fight against. Here, among the academics, is one of the biggest screwball paintings of the 19th century: Léon Fréderic’s freakish, pedophiliac, over-the-top triptych, The Stream. In it we see what Rosenblum calls a “spermatic abundance” of naked, frolicking babies; they pour over a waterfall, cascade down a stream, and sleep in a riverbed. It’s Mel Ramos meets Vargas meets Henry Darger.
Elsewhere, in three back-to-back paintings, we see P.S. Kroyer’s Boys Bathing, Summer Evening, Skagen, a work in which two young boys swim naked in the moonlight; here, innocence seems to give way to something else. Next, in Henry Scott Tuke’s magnetic Noonday Heat, we see what that something else might be: Two young men (perhaps Kroyer’s boys 10 years later) linger in a lonely cove; one is naked and looks longingly into the eyes of the partially clad other, who lies in the sand at his side. The denouement is supplied by Eakins’s The Wrestlers, an intense painting of two men grappling that brings Barbara Kruger’s truism to mind: “You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.”
But Rosenblum never leads. He puts things in front of you, escorts you to the brink, steps aside, and lets you decide. That’s what makes this show such a blast. In the end, it’s interesting to think that all these artists were operating at the same time. In a way it’s like now: Artists come from all over, and all over the style map; no one thing dominates; and critics identify the moment as “mediocre.” Rosenblum’s polymorphous method suggests that only time can tell who will have the last laugh.