The decade portrayed by the exhibition The roaring twenties which opens this Friday, May 7, at the museum Guggenheim of Bilbao, it actually started in 1918, with the end of World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic. The twenties of our 21st century arrived, on the other hand, quite punctual, in March last year, when another pandemic came to mark an era. If, when it happens, a new golden age of creativity and hedonism will arrive like that is still a mystery that entertains the optimists and the curators of this exhibition, which will remain open until September 19.
In his proposal, which comes from the Kunsthaus (art museum) in Zurich, where he was between July and October, there is an eagerness to extract current teachings from the past, with their amazing innovations in quantum mechanics, fashion, customs, work or leisure. The Swiss center, about to inaugurate an ambitious expansion, provides most of the pieces. And that explains the focus: Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Zurich in the interwar period. There is no trace of what happened in Spain or America, except in a didactic section. The exhibition has been adapted to lose part of its title: in Zurich it was called sound and smoke (noise and smoke), that, in addition to a reference to Fausto of Goethe (“the feeling is everything; the name, noise and smoke”), was how Max Reinhardt baptized his cabaret in Berlin, a laboratory of satire and freedom, which also produced his own magazine, exhibited in Bilbao.
The staging has also changed, in which the famous director Calixto Bieito, artistic manager of the Arriaga Theater in the city of Biscay, has worked. Decisions such as the choice of colors for each of the seven sections into which the tour is divided are due to him, or the projection on the ceiling of the film. Berlin: Symphony of a great city (1927), by Walter Ruttmann. The demanding spaces of the Frank Gehry building have done the rest. “They are wonderful, but at the same time they offer you a really tough tennis match that encourages the imagination,” explained Bieito in the presentation of the sample. His mission has been “to provide it with a dramaturgy.”
The imagination of the set designer has flown especially in the theatrical room dedicated to “desire and eroticism”, which shows montages of little-known films of the time and phrases by Schoenberg or Virginia Woolf scattered on the walls. A neon with the legend “Schall und Rauch” and a Berlin address illuminates a set that includes projections on the tables of a gigantic cabaret without chairs.
The tour opens with a memory of “the traumas of the Great War”, in a dimly lit space dramatically lit, where, among notable pieces by Fernand Léger (who is great in various disciplines) or Heinrich Hoerle (Three invalid), highlights installation Open your eyes, 2010 piece by Kader Attia on the broken mouths (literally, broken mouths), those mutilated on the front with which, according to Bieito, the malaise in the culture took the name of neurosis. It is one of the many anachronisms of the exhibition, mounted with the help of the BBK.
Thus, in the part dedicated to Bauhaus design, architecture and pedagogy, contemporary photographs by Thomas Ruff or Hiroshi Sugimoto are interspersed. And in the section devoted to dance, also dramatic in its museography, the visitor comes across a delicate video of the young Chicago conceptual artist Rashid Johnson, and realizes that the debates on gender and identity are not so new issues after all.
That spirit of mixing doesn’t just span the decades. Cathérine Hug, curator of the Zurich Kunsthaus, writes in the catalog: “Unlike many exhibitions dedicated to the 1920s, this one does not separately present trends such as Dada, the Bauhaus, New Objectivity or New Photography, or certain icons of modernity in the fields of architecture and design, but rather in dialogue with each other, so that the stylistic heterogeneity of those groundbreaking years is clearly revealed. This is evident in the room called New ways of seeing, which houses exquisite pieces from some of the great names in photography, painting or the collage of the time.
Beautifully exposed, the set admits a reading of the twenties for beginners, where jazz, Charleston, transgression in ways of life, faith in the progress of cinema or the provocations of the dancer Josephine Baker are not lacking. But among the well-known chairs of Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus students playing football and the Mondrian dresses, exquisite pieces by the masters of the avant-garde also shine, such as Town, the Josef Albers; Rhythm 23, by Hans Richter, or the sensational psychological portraits of Otto Dix or Christian Schad. The exhibition also values less well-known stories, such as those of the artists Jeanne Mammen and Marianne (My) Ullmann, or that of the dancer Anita Berber, which the Guggenheim curator Petra Joos places in “the origins of the performance contemporary ”. His nude dance numbers and his “undisguised addiction to drugs and his bisexuality, which he lived openly”, provoked public indignation then, in the same way in which, surely, they would continue to do now.
The Roaring Twenties. Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao. From May 7 to September 19. From 11.00 to 19.00 (closed Mondays). Tickets, from five to 10 euros.