In what ways did the Cubism and Abstract Art Exhibition in 1936 set out a history of modern art? (What did it include/ exclude? How has this impacted art history?)

The Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition of 1936 traced the influence of major nineteenth-century artists on avant-garde styles. The art on display included work by well-known nineteenth-century artists, establishing the newer paintings by such painters as Picasso and Kandinsky as being part of the same tradition. More conservative representational pieces were not included, and the exhibition had the effect of moving avant-garde art towards the mainstream.

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In 1936, when the Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition opened at New York's Museum of Modern Art, these styles were widely derided by public and art critics alike. Alfred H. Barr, the curator of the exhibition, sought to establish the pedigree of Cubism and Abstract art, linking them to important aspects of nineteenth-century painting and therefore to the wider European tradition. Even more ambitiously, Barr wanted to break the link in the public mind between painting and realistic representation. Photography was, by this time, a well-established art form, and Barr wanted to showcase the ways in which a painting could accomplish much more than a photo-realistic copy of reality.

Barr produced a complex chart (copy linked below) in which he set out the development of European art between 1890 and 1935. This provided a distinguished ancestry for Cubism and Abstract art, including the works of Cezanne, van Gogh, Gaugin, and Seurat, all of whom were included in the exhibition. This had the effect of placing more recent artists, such as Picasso and Kandinsky, firmly in the mainstream of the European tradition, while more conservative representational artists were excluded. Barr's analysis has been widely accepted and is now uncontroversial, but it was by no means inevitable that these avant-garde movements should have entered the mainstream. The 1936 exhibition was a major factor in creating this narrative, which continues to shape the academic and popular conception of art to this day.

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