Icarus in science and in art

It is not often that Greek museums mount exhibitions of this scope and weight. «Conquest of the Air, an Adventure in 20th Century Art,» currently on view at the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, is an ambitious and imaginative exhibition that follows the parallel course of science and art and brings museum-quality works that are rarely seen here to the Greek public. The exhibition is produced by the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Toulouse «Les Abattoirs» and is curated by its director, Alain Mousseigne. It was first shown in Toulouse and, thanks to the valuable Kostakis collection, which the State Museum of Contemporary Art owns, an exchange of temporary loans was made possible, and the exhibition is now being hosted at the premises of the museum in Thessaloniki. Although cut down almost to half from the original exhibition in Toulouse (partly because of the lack of space), the version shown in Thessaloniki is still impressive. Works by artists such as Duchamp, Panamarenko, Ilya Kabakov or the reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci’s «Flying Machine» (Navicella Volante) would have been great to see, but the copious catalog with its researched academic essays – all well translated into Greek and published by the State Museum for the present exhibition – makes amends for the exhibition’s omissions. The catalog reflects museum director Miltiades Papanikolaou’s policy of supplementing each exhibition with a comprehensive and excellently researched catalog. In a subject as complex and broad as the one of the current exhibition, the catalog’s essays provide a valuable guide to the works shown, which range from Odilon Redon’s lithograph of an eye-shaped air balloon, to the work of cubists, futurists, surrealists, and from the Russian avant-garde to modern and contemporary artists such as Sam Francis, Tony Cragg and Javier Perez. The exhibition spans the entire history of 20th century art, but throughout it looks for a single concept: man’s dream for a utopia, his struggle to attain the impossible and his hunger to comprehend the universe in which he lives. In several periods during the century, this search produced a wondrous convergence of science with art. Russian avant-garde art exemplifies this phenomenon. Like its scientists, Russia’s artists of the time aspired to make utilitarian objects that would match the modern world and lead society forward. Progress and social reform were the guiding principles and shape, form, material or any other visual properties were aligned with them. Technical ingenuity paired with a utopian vision and a faith in the capacities of man: These are the qualities that, as in other works of the Russian avant-garde, are captured in Tatlin’s «Lelatlin» (a wing support of the construction is shown in the exhibition) a human-powered flying machine that was a combination of a bicycle and glider. For Kazimir Malevich, all technological progress stemmed from pure form. Malevich, who shared many of his ideas with the scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, the father of the Russian space launches, designed models that were inspired by the idea of colonizing the planets. El Lissitzky made drawings of a planetary city and envisioned a new architecture for outer space. Some of them are included in the exhibition and so are the earlier, utopian drawings of a flying colony that the German Wenzel Hablik envisioned in the early part of the century. The experiments of the Wright brothers and Louis Blériot’s crossing of the English Channel were two of the examples reflecting the interest in navigation at the time. The fascination with flying was almost immediately reflected in art. Robert Delaunay pays homage to Blériot through a painting that he exhibits in 1914. Roughly at the same time, Leger, Brancusi and Marcel Duchamp visit an exhibition on navigation; «Our Future is in the Skies» was, back then, one of the favorite slogans of the French press. Francis Picabia compares an artist with an engineer, and at times raises technological and scientific ingenuity above artistic talent. In Italy, the futurists produced what is perhaps art’s most vigorous embrace of technology and science in Europe at the time. The exhibition spans all those periods throughout the postwar period and into the ’60s. Some works such as Jacques Villon’s painting «Conquest of the Air» from 1937 or Matisse’s drawing of Icarus from 1943 show how some artists choose flying as a subject. In other works, such as Lucio Fontana’s ripped orange canvas from 1962 – one of the exhibitions best works – the relationship is less evident upon first sight. Art does not represent flying but, influenced by the developments in navigation and technology, it welcomes innovation and experimentation. In the late ’40s, for example, Lucio Fontana came up with the new art of Spatialism, intended to transcend the areas of the canvas and to use the discoveries in science and technology. With man’s conquest of space in the ’60s, fiction became reality. Man’s relationship to the planetary system had to be redefined. So did the role of the artist. Yves Klein’s «Leap in the Void,» a montaged picture in which the artist is seen plunging into the air out of a building is, in many ways, symbolic of this reinvention of the artist’s role. Together with a photo by Pere Catala i Pic from 1931, showing a biplane led by the head of a woman and flying over a city, Klein’s fantastic leap can be taken as the exhibition’s emblematic images. For what they suggest is that during the course of the 20th century art and science came together under a common goal: the ambition to «fly,» the aspiration of discovery and the utopian search of a better world. «Conquest of the Air» will run at the State Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki (Lazariston Monastery, 21 Kolokotroni, tel 2310.600.123) through the end of June.