Exhibition at Centre Pompidou-Metz Provides an View of the Year 1917

A man looks at a giant painting on a theatre curtain by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, during the presentation of the exhibition "1917" at the Centre Pompidou in Metz, eastern France, on May 23, 2012. Paintings, sculptures, photographies, movies or musics realized during the wartime will be shown to the public from May 26 until September 24. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK HERTZOG

This vast multidisciplinary exhibition provides an instant view of every field of creativity during this year of the First World War. It asks what such a narrow, precise context as a single year might mean for creative activity, while avoiding the pitfalls of expectations and assumptions as to the nature of wartime art.

1917 was a year of extreme diversity in artistic production. The exhibition sets out to convey this by illustrating artists’ various positions relative to the battlefront and the multiple forms their work took. Alongside established artists who drew inspiration more or less directly from world affairs were the amateur artists who felt the need to respond to the trials of war through creative expression, not least in the trench art – objects made from shells and weapons – an ensemble of which is one of the highlights of the exhibition. Equally important are the war artists who were sent to the front to record events and bring back images of battle, and the many individuals who, as eyewitnesses, left their memory of the conflict for posterity.

The exhibition shows works from public, private, art and military collections, both French and international. Foremost among these are the many works loaned by the Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, including Picasso’s stage curtain for the ballet Parade. 1917 also gives rise to partnerships with the Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine (Nanterre), the Musée de l’Armée (Paris), the Musée du Service de Santé des Armées (Paris), the Historial de la Grande Guerre (Péronne) and the Imperial War Museums (London).

1917 is the first in a series of events taking place in France to commemorate the centennial of the First World War. It is endorsed by the Mission du Centenaire de la Première Guerre Mondiale 1914-2014.

The exhibition is devised in two parts. In Galerie 1, it considers artists’ physical and mental involvement with the events of 1917, and highlights the diversity of their work that year. In the Grande Nef, it looks at interactions between destruction, reconstruction and creation, particularly in the theatre and culminating in the presentation of Pablo Picasso’s stage curtain for the ballet Parade.

As it leads away from the heart of the conflict to regions further afield, or to inner worlds, the first part of the exhibition shows how artists responded differently to the events of 1917. These individual reactions, when taken together, form a map of creative expression in 1917 from which different types of artist emerge: nineteenth-century personalities, avant-gardists, official war artists, artistsoldiers and soldier-artists, people of all nationalities. This section is structured around recurrent themes, motifs or practices; the emergence of artistic communities and avant-garde movements in troubled times; and how certain artists rejected or distanced themselves from events. A large body of documents highlights the vital importance, in every country, of images and the written word.

The second part of the exhibition is arranged in a spiral, a recurrent motif in the art of 1917 which conveys as much the physical maelstrom as inner torment. It considers the links between creation, destruction and reconstruction. War scarred the soul as much as bodies and faces, buildings and landscapes. Death and injury were omnipresent, putting protection at the centre of concerns, from camouflage to masks whose multiple avatars—military, mortuary and primitive—run throughout this section. Changing identities and altered appearance also belong to the theatrical world, both in civilian society and on the battle front. They reprise the male/female role reversal engendered by war and social upheaval. Harlequin, another masked character, makes repeated appearances up to the climax of the exhibition: Picasso’s stage curtain for the ballet Parade.

1917 goes beyond these two gallery spaces to encompass a display of large military equipment in the Forum. This spectacular presentation, of a type not usually found inside a cultural venue such as the Centre Pompidou-Metz, will plunge visitors into one aspect of the year 1917.

An event in its own right: the exhibition of Picasso’s biggest work, the stage curtain for the ballet Parade
Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes, commissioned Picasso to paint the stage curtain for Parade. The ballet, with a scenario by Jean Cocteau and music by Erik Satie, is one of the first examples of avant-garde artists from different disciplines working together. As Guillaume Apollinaire wrote in his preface to the programme, the ballet reveals “for the first time this union of painting and dance, costume and theatre which hails the advent of a more complete form of art.” First performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 18 May 1917, Parade was hugely controversial and prompted important debate within the Paris avant-garde milieu.

The stage curtain – a huge canvas measuring 10.5 by 16.4 metres (more than 170 square metres) and weighing 45 kilos – is Picasso’s largest known painting. It has not been shown in France in more than twenty years. Its mysterious figures and autobiographical nature, reinforced by references to his Rose Period, make it one of the masterpieces in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne. Inspired by the ballet’s theme of a travelling circus in search of fame and fortune, Pablo Picasso imagined a curtain depicting poetic scenes, with a Harlequin, performers, a fairy..

Source: Centre Pompidou

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