Past masters

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 100 years ago, and to consider how the objects from that year on display here may 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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 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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