For more than two years, researchers in London and New York have been working to track down and reunite 250 works by artists such as Gauguin, Munch, Mondrian, Klimt, Picasso and Cezanne, which were last seen together at the Expo in France.
If the plan is approved by Royal Academicians early in the new year, the show will be one of the major cultural events of 2000. The new exhibition - tentatively titled Around 1900: Art at the Crossroads - will be jointly curated with the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which will take the show when it leaves the Royal Academy in April 2000.
Selecting and tracing the works of art exhibited in Paris has been the most challenging part of the project. The RA's chief curator, Mary Anne Stevens, said: "The items chosen for inclusion back in 1900 were of variable quality, which is interesting in itself, but we have inevitably had to make our own value judgements about what to include because of the smaller space available here - although we will be devoting all our 12 galleries to this show.
"It has been fascinating to see which works of art each country put forward as they were looking into this century and to consider other ways it might have gone."
Miss Stevens added: "Where we haven't immediately known the image concerned, we have had to do an enormous amount of photographic research before writing off to museums all around the world.
"For instance, there is a painting by the French painter Raphael Collin, called At the Seaside, which will now be coming to us from the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan. But it took some time to trace. At first, we could only be sure that it had be sold in New York in 1913 and then, by chance, I spotted it when I was riffling through a catalogue."
The original idea of bringing together central pieces from the Paris show sprang from a conversation between Miss Stevens and the New York art historian Robert Rosenblum.
"Together we have concentrated on finding works shown in the pavilion that was devoted to French paintings and on those shown in a pavilion that covered international work from the 10 years leading up to 1900," she explained.
That was a historic year for Paris. It had a new tower by Gustave Eiffel; it was preparing to stage the Olympics; and the underground railway system, or Metropolitain, opened. The Exposition Universale covered all this innovation with glory. It was opened in April by the French president with a plea for world peace and was visited by 50 million people.
The French themselves have no equivalent plan afoot to revisit their historic Exposition. "It is no criticism of the French that they have not taken this route," said Miss Stevens. "Instead they have a plan to look at the changes that happened at the beginning of the century as they relate to connections with decorative art."
The Exposition Universale was a wide-ranging celebration of human achievement, with an understandable emphasis on Gallic contributions. Miss Stevens has been just as concerned to reflect the kind of work that was left out as to reveal the accepted conventions of the era.
"We want the exhibition to be a dialogue between what was included and what was not," she said. "We are even hoping to have pieces on opposing walls.
"Our show's basic argument will be that there is a need to reconsider the artistic priorities of that time. We certainly see part of our purpose as being to question the canon."Reuse content