Past masters: A bold new show that's time well spent...

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Was 1913 really the year that changed the cultural world? Perhaps not, says Michael Glover, but a  bold new show has much to teach art-lovers in 2013

Critics, commentators and journalists are always seeking out dramatic moments of historical fissuring, eye-catchingly convenient ways of dividing off past from present.

This show at an  important sculpture  research centre in Leeds is modest in size – it consists of 24 objects in total, the  majority free-standing European sculptures, displayed across three galleries of relatively modest dimensions – and  immodest in its ambitions, even to the point of recklessness. It invites us to look at the importance of 1913, exactly one-hundred years ago, and to consider how the objects from that year on display here may have have been influenced by everything that was in the air then.

In short, it invites us to ask ourselves whether there was such a defining  cultural moment for sculpture as 1913, and then, having defined what exactly 1913-ness might have consisted of, to consider how the objects fabricated in that year speak to other times – our own present, for example. Have they become a part of our notion of some long-dead past, distantly dreary in the way that much 19th-century salon painting often is to us, or are they in some respects still vitally alive, and feeding into all that we strive to do in our studios today?

And when exactly did modernity begin anyway? 1907? 1910? 1870? Virginia Woolf once wrote that human character changed in 1910 (or thereabouts). It was at that moment that a great project called literary Modernism got off the ground. The Victorian prose narrative was tossed into the lumber room of history. Others have pointed to 1907 as a moment of  tectonic cultural shift, when Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and radically challenged the way artists  depicted the female body. Unfortunately, and rather inconveniently for some, the present is also much to do with the  appropriation of the past. A brilliant new book by Alexander Nagel called Medieval Modern – Art out of Time suggests that we should seek out the roots of contemporary art in the Middle Ages.

Most of all, we need to ask ourselves this: can it really be true that 1913 was as distinctive as this show seems to claim it to be? Let us consider what was happening – or about to happen - during that year, and how sculpture may or may not have been affected by it. Nineteen-thirteen was a year of premonitory  foreboding – the Great War was in the offing. The first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past was published. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was staged in Paris, to an almighty kerfuffle. The Armory Show opened for the first time in New York. Guillaume Apollinaire’s Alcools, a book of poetry that manages to combine the hermetic with the experimental and the classically suave, was published. The most important idea of all, according to this show, was to do with the nature of time. The 24-hour clock was under discussion. The world was formally divided into sequential time zones. International wireless transmissions were helping to make that world a much smaller place. We were getting about faster. There was more sense of pressure. A terrible catastrophe was about to be unleashed.

From the point of view of art, most significant of all was the notion of  simultaneity. What exactly does that mean though? It means the representation of successive phases of movement, or successive aspects of the same object, on the same canvas. That definition, in case you are wondering, is lifted from a dictionary of art terms published in 1988. Immediately, we think of two art movements, Cubism and Futurism. Both these movements are to do with agitation, and with the wish to burst out of the inertia associated with the idea of the dead art object. Cubism wants us to see around and through an object, to enjoy multiple perspectives; Futurism urges us to be aware of the fact that we live in a world in motion. It wants art both to embody and to represent that motion.

Ardengo Soffici’s Deconstruction of the Planes of a Lamp, for example, “analyses” or disassembles the way in which a lamp sheds its light by breaking up our visual understanding of lamp and light into blockish facets or patches of colour. Picasso’s collage, Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper seems to belong in the hectically transient world from which it has scavenged its constituent parts: fragments of wood and newspaper. It seems to swarm about the moment of its making. The way in which the still life, the portrait bust or the full-length figure is being fabricated feels distinctively different here, more agitated, more aggressively expressive of its own materials .

There is, everywhere, an awareness of the fact that sculpture is now being obliged to acknowledge that it exists  in relation to the ever onward and  relentless flow of time, whether that is shown in the arrested movement of the two linked figures in Archipenko’s Dance or in Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné’s Rhythm, which represents two dancers as a network of interlocking wheels and curves. Umberto Boccioni’s Development of a Bottle in Space seems to show us a bottle that has been caught in the act of both shedding its form and  re-making it, simultaneously. Most prescient of all from the point  of view of future sculptural  practice is Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages, which consists of solid, three- dimensional representations of the haphazard fall of three pieces of string.

Unfortunately, the chronology, this insistence upon the year 1913, is just a touch  fanciful. It is certainly not the case that Futurism was born in 1913. Its founding year was 1909, when Marinetti’s first manifesto was published. It is also fanciful to suggest that sculptors might have been influenced by the buzz surrounding the publication of the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past, which was privately published by its author. But sculpture was undeniably changing dramatically in these pre-war years, and we cannot fault the bite, verve and energy of this important show.

1913: the Shape of Time,  Henry Moore Institute, Leeds  (0113 246 7467) to 17 February

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