Within just a few years, before World War I, the appearance, and indeed the very notion of (western) painting changed radically. The history of early 20th century modern European art has often been written as the development of new forms and “isms”. Conversely, little systematic research has been done about how those forms and “isms” were presented to and received by the public, and whether and how artists used specific strategies to gain an audience. In the 19th century exhibitions had become the primary place to originate discussions about advances in painting and this seems also to be the case after 1900.
The research project “Exhibitions of Modern European Painting 1905-1915” (funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, Project Number P 29997-G24, Project duration from January 2017 to January 2021) aimed to study the history of a crucial moment of modern European painting from the perspective of exhibitions or, more precisely, through the analysis of the corresponding exhibition catalogues. In order to manage an exhaustive research we concentrated on the catalogues published in the period from 1905 to 1915. This time frame covers a particular density of avant-garde movements such as Fauvism (the term originates 1905 at the Salon d’Automne in Paris), Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Rayonism, Orphism, Suprematism (springing up in the December 1915 exhibition 0,10 in St. Petersburg, already in the middle of a World War).
The first step of the project was the creation of this database of exhibitions taking place in the said period, in which living European artists participated. We were able to include about 1300 exhibitions with over 200.000 catalogue entries and over 13.000 artists. The database is as exhaustive as possible and open to research for anybody on the internet. Within the time frame the quantitative and qualitative analysis of the collected data serves to outline:
- The geography and networks of modern painting: Where (in which cities, in which institutions), when, and with whom did artists exhibit?
- The chronology and geography of exhibiting new forms and propagating “isms”: Which kinds of paintings were exhibited when and where?
- The exhibiting strategies of modern painters: How did artists choose the works to present in which exhibitions? Did they pursue specific policies to make themselves publicly known?
- The discourses around modern art exhibitions: How did exhibitions (and their catalogues) interact with art criticism?
The project delivers a new and much broader ground for our knowledge and understanding of the history of European painting in the early 20th century. Beyond our direct scope of research, the database is a research tool for multifold purposes, such as research on lesser-known artists, on specific art works and their provenance, on the role of specific institutions and/or cities for modern art. In this respect, the outreach of the project transcends the scholarly field and is also of interest for the art market and for regional histories.