The Great Upheaval: Guggenheim’s Masterpieces Illuminate the Art Gallery of Ontario

Robert Delauney, "Red Eiffel Tower" ("La tour rouge"), 1911–12

I’m seated on a chair in the middle of floor at the Art Gallery of Ontario, foot traffic bustling on all sides. Guggenheim Museum senior curator Tracy Bashkoff sits directly across from me, Vasily Kandinsky’s Blue Mountain peeking over her shoulder.

“The fact that society was starting to move at such a pace, and the idea of space and time was changing because of the way these technologies were affecting people’s lives,” she explains, “that’s what you see in the painting(s) – the integrated affect of it.”

Bashkoff’s talking the early 20th century – a time of rapid technological growth and widespread political strife. Still, if you replace the telephones, typewriters, and talking motion pictures of that age with our smartphones, tablets, and big screen blockbusters, you’ll see how little has changed in the last hundred years.

It’s food for thought as you peruse the AGO’s latest offering, The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918, an eye-catching evolutionary timeline of avant-garde art movements – from cubism to expressionism and onto futurism – in the years before, and during, the First World War.

“People were moving back and forth without passports before the war. You could just go from one city to the next,” Bashkoff notes, “so you can see how ideas went from Paris to Russia and moved into different places.”

The exhibit itself is striking, both visually – vivid works, from Marc Chagall’s Paris Through the Window to Franz Marc’s Yellow Cow to Juan Gris’ Newspaper and Fruit Dish illuminate the gallery – and in the scope of history it covers.

Beginning in 1910, the various groups of artists and methods of artistic experimentation are revealed, with each room providing a historical and cultural context for the era, illustrating how everything from technology to political turmoil affected the works hanging all around.

And it’s not only paintings – there’s sculpture too, such as Otto Gutfreund’s Embracing Figures, a sharp, passionate, entangled display of human intimacy that commands the floor.    

The exhibition itself is Bashkoff’s baby, a collection she long hoped to curate as a means of spotlighting a period that she says served as “a moment of innovation and freedom.”

“This is where the cubism of Picasso and Braque really breaks free and all these other artists start to join in and make cubism their own,” she explains enthusiastically, motioning to the artwork on the walls that she playfully refers to as her ‘friends’. “Once the surface of the painting is fractured in that way, it opens up all sorts of possibilities for artists.”

Possibilities, Bashkoff points out, that shouldn’t be lost on contemporary artists looking to make a statement on our own technologically and politically active time.

“One of the things I love about how the scientific experimentation and new technologies had an impact on these artists is that it’s not that you see the automobile or you see the x-ray machine in the works,” she says. “And so perhaps the same thing for us today. If we stop looking at the iPhone for itself but look at what it’s changing in our lives and how it’s making things different I think that’s what the artists can bring into the picture – a thoughtful consideration of those circumstances.”

If you’re a lover of more traditional artwork, you’ll have to open your mind to this exhibition. But for those who enjoy their art with a side of groundbreaking experimentation and social commentary that remains relevant today, make sure you catch the Great Upheaval during it’s only Canadian stop. After March 2nd, it’s history.

The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910-1918 opens November 30at the Art Gallery of Ontario. For more information of the exhibit and related events, visit