Icons of Modernism at the Art Gallery of Alberta

I hope everyone had a lovely February. It was a very busy month for our family, and I’m hoping that March will be a change of pace!

In spite of the hustle and bustle, this Monday we finally had chance to visit the Art Gallery of Alberta for the first time in a long time, which was wonderful. This was my youngest daughters first visit to the gallery, and since we have two small children, we decided that Family Day (a holiday here in Alberta) would be a great day to attend. The reasons were twofold: first, the gallery would be noisy, so we wouldn’t feel uncomfortable if the kids weren’t quiet, and second, gallery admission is free on Family Day, so we wouldn’t feel guilty about only seeing one exhibit!

The exhibit we took the girls to was Icons of Modernism, which runs from now until May 11, 2012 at the AGA. It featured approximately 15 works by artists such as Braque, Matisse, Cézanne, Francis Picabia, Ferdinand Léger, Dalí, Mondrian and Marcel Duchamp, together with a dozen or so of Picasso’s sketches. It was interesting to see so many different works by modern painters and sculptors in one place, but it was also a bit strange for me to see them all laid out together…almost like opening an art history text to the chapter on modern art!

As inevitably happens when you try to distill an entire period of art into 15 or so works, the results necessarily felt a bit hurried. There was significant emphasis on the alienation and violence that gripped much of the world at the beginning of the 20th century and its manifestation in cubism, etc. But often there was only a a single work to represent movements like Surrealism, Futurism, Constructivism, etc., while the exhibit had at least a dozen of Picasso’s sketches and two major works by Dadaist Marcel Duchamp.

The works by Duchamp really stole the show, in my opinion. I’m sure this was at least partially the intention of the curator who chose them. Somehow, after seeing the grim works that preceded them, Duchamp felt like a breath of fresh air. My two year old daughter was utterly blown away by the wooden hat rack dangling from the ceiling (the shadow that it cast on the wall was quite transfixing as well).

Now, she is two, so of course conceptual art is going to be a hit with her! Nevertheless, I came away thinking that it’s probably far more stimulating to see one of Duchamp’s readymades when you are surrounded by more traditional pieces. Looking at a piece like his Bicycle Wheel on a Stool can be quite refreshing, especially after seeing so many works that force you to contemplate the harsh realities of war and the less promising aspects of the modern age.