Art is soon to celebrate a dazzling centenary. When the new year chimes in and we enter 2013, it will be 100 years since Marcel Duchamp put a bicycle wheel on top of a wooden stool to invent the readymade; since Henri Matisse came back from a trip to Morocco that sparked his most radical phase; since the Armory Show gave America its first big blast of modern art; since …
Well, you get the picture: 1913 was a glory year for modern art. An exhibition that opens this week, 1913: The Shape of Time at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, can’t wait for the new year and is getting its centenary party started early. You can see why. In 1913 the Paris avant garde was at a peak of inventiveness, courage and danger after years of cultural revolution that began six years earlier, in 1907, when Pablo Picasso painted his lethal grenade of the new, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. You could say that every year since 2007 has been the centenary of modernism – for in each of the years after Picasso painted Les Demoiselles, fundamental, world-changing artistic discoveries were being made.
Why, then, is 1913 special? For one thing, it was the year modern art burst into popular culture, the year the modernists broke out from working like experimental scientists in hidden laboratories in Montmartre to become internationally notorious cultural terrorists. Only a handful of people had seen Les Demoiselles back in 1907; only the cognoscenti knew about cubism. At the Armory Show, which opened in New York on 17 February 1913, Marcel Duchamp's painting of a fluttering, sexy robot, Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2, scandalised America – and entranced it. The idea of modern art was no longer a secret: it was mainstream news.
The futurist movement had been agitating for that kind of infamy since FT Marinetti wrote its first manifesto in 1909 and by 1913 it too was at its brilliant zenith, for this was the year the futurist artist Umberto Boccioni created his sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space – a striding figure seen not as a closed physical form but a constellation of waves, flanges and aftershocks that seem to show space and time warping as the figure pushes through the universe.
Here is another thing about 1913: it was profound. As modern art’s fame increased, so did its intellectual scope. The exhibition in Leeds, which features Boccioni, argues that sculptors in this deep-thinking year were exploring the very nature of time as they showed different moments simultaneously. Meanwhile, in Paris, the cubist experimenters Picasso and Georges Braque were discovering new ways of seeing and representing the world. From taking reality apart, they were starting to put it back together, incorporating pages from newspapers in complex, playful masterpieces such as Picasso’s Guitar.
In short, art in 1913 was at one of those moments of originality that are only possible every few centuries. Picasso and his contemporaries were lucky enough to have 500 years of artistic continuity to gleefully pull apart: the idea of the perspective picture had ruled art since the Renaissance and now modern art was revealing how much richer and stranger the world is than it looks in neat and tidy pictures.
But there is one more reason why 1913 is the big one. This is the centenary we really should celebrate, because 1913 was the last year that the first modern artists could be so joyful, youthful and unfettered. The following year will see a very different centenary – of the first world war. In 1914 all would be changed utterly. Cubism came to a crashing halt as Braque went off to war and was wounded. Boccioni was killed on a cavalry training exercise in 1916. The misery of the war years would see French critics call for a “return to order” – a conservative retreat from modernism. The most revolutionary epoch in the story of art was about to end. Modern art would never be quite so new again.