“Everything had broken down in any case, and new things had to be made out of the fragments.” —Kurt Schwitters, 1930
I can hear the exhibit Shatter Rapture Break before I even open the door. Chaotic overtures on the piano displaced by blaring sirens lure me to the entrance, daring me to come inside. Ballet Mécanique, a 12-minute, 35 mm black and white film of grainy images and block text frenetically interwoven with body parts by Fernand Léger cannot be ignored. As if compiled by a whirling dervish, elements of the then modern experience are starkly flashed before my eyes: it is hypnotic and overwhelming and irritating all at the same time. As Léger’s interest was “to emphasize the new realism of being human, the personality…interested only in these fragments, though no more important than the whole,” it is evident that the pace of society and life at the time had a radical impact on the artist. Through exploring the idea that it is in our understanding of the pieces or fragments not only of our selves, but also of our environment and our experiences – it is suggested that the only coherence to be found is in the attempt to find the uniqueness of our individual existence. With both exhilaration and anxiety (in the work and reaction), Léger presented a break from the restraints of tradition and developed groundbreaking pictorial strategies that reflected this new shift in perception.
Further into the galleries, at the very center, is a wall of unique images and objects, many depicting fragmented body parts that surround a singular image titled Composition in Blue, again by Fernand Léger. Completely unsentimental, Léger renders the body as the machine and the machine as the body: exposed, nude, and in pieces. Often reflected in his unique brand of Cubism, Léger relied heavily on the cylindrical form and the use of robot-like human figures (both found here) to express harmony between humans and machines – equally felt in his muted palette and bold structures. Influenced by the chaos of urban spaces and the ideas of fragmentation and rupture, Léger thoughtfully expressed and captured the noise, dynamism, and speed of new technology and machinery in his paintings through intricate movement and the illusion of three-dimensionality. Though he embraced recognizable subject matter, Léger experimented with the duality of concept and expression - successfully synchronizing the often-competing abstract and visual themes in much of his work as well as much of the art of the modern age.
In the wake of new theories of the mind as well as the literal tearing apart of bodies during World War I, artists such as André Kertész and Umbo (Otto Umbehr) produced photographs and objects revealing the theme of the fractured self and actual dismemberment. Clayton “Pegleg” Bates by André Kertész, is subtle and penetrating. As is obvious in much of his work, his decisive compositions were less about the seen than the unseen. Kertész once stated, "I photographed real life—not the way it was, but the way I felt it. This is the most important thing: not analyzing, but feeling." Here he has captured an incomplete figure without the most recognizable feature that would often be the center of a portrait – the face; however, here the distinguishing trait of the individual is his artificial leg. It is a poignant rebuttal to the question: what is the status of the whole without the sum of one’s parts?
Avant-garde artist Umbo (Otto Umbehr), known for his untraditional approach in depicting a chaotic and unsettling world, inverted that which was familiar into something mysterious. (Heads) Untitled, is an excellent representation of one of the main themes of his work – the metropolis - which he portrayed through the eyes of the free-spirited loafer. The rows and rows of heads, life-like in appearance and gaze, are unsettling in their separation from the body. Shelves and shelves of what feel like memorials and shadows are smiling artificially, reflective of a time of collapse and re-building – truly a collection of the remains of the day.
Taking it one step further into the realm of the erotic, The Doll (La Poupée), by Hans Bellmar is obviously about distortion, exposure, and pleasure (referencing each physically and psychologically). Bellmar constructed the doll after a series of life-changing events in his personal life that overwhelmed him with nostalgia and impossible longing: the reappearance of a beautiful teenage cousin; the viewing of Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, in which the protagonist falls tragically in love with an automaton; and the receipt of a box of toys from his childhood. Oddly, these incidents, in Bellmar’s words, stirred a need to “construct an artificial girl with anatomical possibilities...capable of re-creating the heights of passion even to inventing new desires." It is a disturbing image, off-putting actually when I understand his intention; but interesting in juxtaposition with the other works that surround it. Bellmar is not the first sculptor or photographer to delve into the uncompromising and confusing world of sexual fantasies, several Surrealists paved an immediate path before him; but his integration of such deep, personal desires combined with childhood longings during a time of great societal and political upheaval is pervasive. He offers no answers, only more questions, instability, and isolation.
In a far corner, hidden by an unusable exit is Soap Bubble Set by Joseph Cornell: an exquisite example of his intricate boxes (originally made in 1940 but interestingly, reworked in 1953). Cornell often wrote in his diary that “collage = life,” and so it seems fitting that his piece works as the punctuation mark for this exhibition. In his simple assembly of wood, glass, paper, metal, and seashell, Cornell has collected and presented pieces of our lives, of our experiences that have been cast away, often discarded on purpose and without regard. It is precisely in using things that we can see that Cornell made art about things, which we cannot – ideas, memories, and dreams. Enveloped in nostalgia, a consummate feeling of this era of art, these objects and collections begin to tell the story long forgotten and far away; but their intent and appearance are thoroughly modern.
One last work worth mentioning is Object by Claude Cahum (pictured at top), one of the few sculptures included in the exhibition. A small work made of wood, print, and hair; it is an intriguing three-dimensional representation of how strange objects equal the cracking of reality. It is a charming little piece by an even more fascinating artist. Also a photographer and writer, Cahum produced work that was both political and personal, and often undermined traditional concepts of gender roles, specifically those associated with women. Her chief concern throughout her career and life was transforming and transcending her self – both outrageous endeavors matched only by the complexity of the times in which she lived.
The show is excruciating in its detail and at times, in its intensity; which leads to an overwhelming and complex conceptual experience. These are not works that can be understood at a glance, which is ironic to their message, but instead must be considered within the context of their making - which is arguably not so different from the present. At the crux of many of the works, it is about looking at the world in a new way and replicating that experience back to us, including all aspects that are beautiful, troubling, or heart breaking. More so than ever, society is in a constant state of change and perception, and it is the artists (then and now) who can provide the platform for us to explore, reveal and understand our secrets and subsequently, the bigger picture at large.
Shatter Rupture Break (the first exhibition of The Modern Series*) is on view now through Sunday, May 3, 2015 in Galleries 182–184 in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. By bringing together diverse objects from across the entire holdings of the Art Institute—paintings, sculpture, works on paper, photographs, decorative arts and designed objects, textiles, books, and films—the final presentation is a rich cacophony that exemplifies the radical and generative ruptures of modern art. For more, visit: http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/shatter-rupture-break
*A quintessentially modern city, Chicago has been known as a place for modern art for over a century, and the Art Institute of Chicago has been central to this history. The Modern Series exhibitions are designed to bring together the museum’s acclaimed holdings of modern art across all media, display them in fresh and innovative ways within new intellectual contexts, and demonstrate the continued vitality and relevance of modern art for today.