Shock of the old

<em>1900: Art at the Crossroads</em>, the Royal Academy's first exhibition of the millennium, has be

The critic - Sarah Jane Checkland

For most 20th-century art, being new was shock enough. As the spirit of the most recent fin de siecle took over, however, the need to shock gained sway even over the desire to be new. Remember the "Sensation" exhibition at the Royal Academy a couple of years ago, with the Chapman brothers' merry sculpture of children wearing penises instead of noses and Chris Ofili's paintings enlivened with dollops of dung. Cynics for whom it was all one big deja vu took comfort in the knowledge that, the RA being such a conservative institution, exhibiting there can mean death to a given career or movement. With 1900: Art at the Crossroads the Royal Academy has done us another service, by unleashing the shock of the old, or more particularly, of the "nude".

Rather than feature the dry, dull, academic work that one often imagines the impressionists rebelled against, this vast exhibition of monumental-sized works offers a veritable orgy of political incorrectitude. Alfred Guillou's Brennan and his Loot (1893) , for example, features a conquering hero gloating over the five naked, squirming lovelies he has locked up in his strongroom. Elsewhere women are portrayed naked and akimbo or entwined with suggestive looking snakes, or dancing coquettishly at the side of a lake, their drapery either non-existent or transparent. But the star turn of the exhibition is a paedophiliac fantasy: Leon Frederic's gigantic triptych, The Stream (1890-99), in which thousands of babies tumble down streams and waterfalls, to congregate centre stage in a crowd of toddlers - ruddy, winsome and naked. A century on, the overall effect is hilarious.

Less encouraging, however, are the reactions of the audiences both a century ago and now. Photographs of the 1900 World Fair in Paris, where many of these paintings were first exhibited, show women in their bustles and stays, and men in their boaters, promenading impassively before the paintings as though strolling down a country lane. Perhaps they imagined the excesses away, just as they covered up the legs of pianos in the interests of respectability. The only recorded incident of objections being raised was when the artist Jean Leon Gerome attempted to bar the president of the French Republic from entering one gallery by crying: "The shame of French painting is in there!" He was, in fact, objecting to the work of the impressionists.

Today, the crowds at the Royal Academy are similarly po-faced as they make their rounds, although I did hear one woman mutter that the baby painting "wouldn't be allowed nowadays".

In the RA's thorough and suitably lengthy catalogue, the art historian Robert Rosenblum hopes that if "this confusing diversity" of paintings "makes us want to shuffle the deck of history once more, then we will have achieved our aim". For exhibition organisers such as Rosenblum, the show is a prelude to the exciting stylistic developments to come, and they scour the works for nods in that direction - although it must be said that these are few.

Even Picasso, who exhibited in the Paris 1900 exhibition, was still painting relatively conventionally, as witnessed by his Portrait of Cardona and Absinthe Drinker. Yet this exhibition offers illuminating insights into the changing nature of collecting and the changing role of women both in life and art.

The painter - Michaela Gall

You have to walk past an acreage of flesh, cavorting nymphs and faceless nudes, before you discover a painting of a real woman in this exhibition. She looks you straight in the eye. Finally, here you are, face to face with a person - or so you think. In fact the painting, by Edvard Munch, is titled The Beast; here is a woman, nude but no longer the passive object of the viewer's gaze, who has become the predator, engulfing the viewer in a look of unashamed lust. Munch's "beast" is surrounded by other femmes fatales, Eves and Salomes who recline lasciviously with serpents or drool over severed heads in a glut of fin- de-siecle decadence. One painting, however, is in striking contrast: the Bavarian Wilhelm Trubner paints his Salome with the cool poise of an Aryan athlete. No trace of obsession or neurosis ruffles the calm surface of this scene, which shows Salome holding the platter with John the Baptist's head in a manner that could be construed as absent-minded.

It is this, the juxtaposition of wildly contrasting attitudes and styles, that makes 1900: Art at the Crossroads such a riveting show. Across a range of thematically organised sections - "Woman-Man", "Religion", "Bathers and Nudes" - we get the opportunity to see painting by new visionaries such as Munch hanging next to the popular painters of the day. This is a stimulating exchange which provides new insights into Munch, who adopted a series of styles when he came to Paris before developing a voice that we regard now as extraordinarily distinctive. In the section devoted to portraits, a painting by Picasso made before he arrived in Paris shows just what an accomplished exponent of the traditional portrait he was. Soon, as we see in his painting Moulin de la Galette, he would jettison this style entirely.

Much of the source material and the inspiration for this millennial show has come from what was undoubtedly the biggest exhibition of late 19th-century art ever seen - the mammoth Exposition Universelle staged in Paris in the spring of 1900. Most of the Victorian worthies of the day were selected to represent their countries and contribute to the staggering 5,000 sculptures and paintings on show. So were newcomers Klimt, Cezanne and Matisse. Without the two miles of trottoir roulant that Paris had at its disposal, the Royal Academy has scaled things down a little, selecting just under 300 works, with paintings from the Paris show hung alongside others executed contemporaneously or just after 1900. The opening room of the show skilfully evokes the prevailing mood of late 19th-century painting by way of a short immersion course. Large paintings crowd in with a surfeit of detail leaving you totally disorientated; here a Grand Duke, there a sunlit scene of what looks like people mending a duvet, and in between a heaving sea. And this is just the point: the logic of this exhibition is contrast or, if you like, apparent illogicality. As you step into the first room, a long, light-filled gallery, you see P S Kroyer's scene of a moonlit summer's night, which breathes with a modernist feeling of space. Nearby, Thomas Eakins's wrestlers seem suspended rather than animated, their ruddy faces and beautifully rendered limbs forerunners of Lucian Freud's and Stanley Spencer's exacting scrutiny.

The themed rooms work best where there is a piece or pieces of exceptional quality that throw our preconceptions into doubt. Klimt's strange portrait of Marie Henneberg does just this, exercising an atmosphere of compelling ambiguity that pervades the entire room. Boldini and Sargent are made to look like painters who resort to effects, while Whistler's portrait of an emaciated George Vanderbilt seems fascinatingly withdrawn.

The show ends well with a large array of self-portraits that make for some very funny companions and show varying degrees of self-examination. The 32-year-old Emil Nolde paints himself looking like a disenchanted old Bolshevik; next to him the 22-year-old Raoul Dufy, a trilby perched coquettishly on his head, pouts petulantly at his public. En route, there are some wonderful examples of kitsch in the grand manner, the most hilarious being Leon Frederic's triptych The Stream, where children spew forth in shades of sick pink. A homage to toddler power? Or a warning against genetic engineering?

"1900: Art at the Crossroads" is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 3 April

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why arms sales are bad for Britain