‘The Roaring Twenties’ Redux: Art Imitates Life at the Guggenheim Bilbao

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Kunsthaus Zurich are working on an exhibit for the ages. Starting May 7, the museums,

Guggenheim Bilbao

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Kunsthaus Zurich are working on an exhibit for the ages. Starting May 7, the museums, located in Spain and Switzerland respectively, present “The Roaring Twenties” exhibit—a stimulating tour through the groundbreaking era one century ago. The 1920s was famously known for its progression and backlash following World War 1 and the 1918 pandemic. CELEB talks to Guggenheim Bilbao curator Petra Joos about the parallels and reflections that come with the 1920s in comparison to the 2020s. With over 300 items coming from various European cities, “The Roaring Twenties” will display pieces from photography, architecture, painting, sculpture, drawing, fashion, film and furniture design.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is located in Bilbao, Spain, and designed by architect Frank Gehry. It was established in 1997 as part of a revitalization effort for the city of Bilbao. A feat of contemporary architecture, the museum garners attention not only for the art it contains, but for the art that it is. The Guggenheim Bilbao is one of the largest museums in Spain, and it features a broad range of Spanish and European art. Additionally, it features international works. Moreover, this museum host large-scale exhibitions.

Kunsthaus Zurich is a museum in Zurich, Switzerland and its collection ranges from Middle Age to contemporary art, emphasizing Swiss works. It opened in 1910 and was designed by architects Karl Moser and Robert Curjel. This is not the first time that the two museums are collaborating on an exhibition.

The Roaring Twenties: Quick History Lesson 

Photo: Erika Ede

American history recognizes the roaring twenties as an era of economic prosperity, culture, and rapid industrial growth. The nation’s wealth more than doubled in 1929, and it’s all thanks to the decade’s new focus on consumer society. However, there’s more to this era than mass consumerism, flappers, the lost generation and jazz. In fact, the roaring twenties is best understood on an international level.

We’re about to get heavy on that ‘history repeats itself’ saying. The 1920s, for all the progress and innovation it saw in art and society, was equal parts traumatic. Following the recession ignited by World War 1 and pandemic for the N1H1 ‘Spanish Flu’, this era suffered a great deal. The war ignited cultural conflicts between people not only in America, but in European countries, too. Some countries saw a rise in political movements.

As far as the bloom in creativity and culture goes, the French call this time period “Anees folles” or ‘the crazy years.’ Art deco became prominent in Europe and then later, America. The surrealist movement was beginning. Picasso, Magritte, and Duchamp celebrate some of their best personal works.

The Exhibit

The exhibit will cover artifacts and pieces that encompass change and progression from European cities of Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Zurich. Displaying a decade of peak creativity, the exhibit naturally draws attention to the inherent parallels that we live in today. Exploring these CELEBspeaks with Petra Joos, chief curator of Guggenheim Bilbao.

The Roaring Twenties exhibition will reflect on various progressive movements such as the Bauhaus, Dadaism and the New Objectivity through seven narrative chapters. Joos sums up the transformative nature of the 1920’s in a simple statement. “The 1920’s witnessed an explosion of creativity, erotic freedom, sexual urges, and feminism; also trauma, struggle, and ubridled, merciless economy. And all of this is reflected in the Guggenhein Bilbao in a very special way thanks to the exhibition design by Calixto Bieito.” Bieito, who Joos mentions, also happens to be the opera director for this exhibit. 

Joos shares that she, along with the other curators, did not want to make the exhibit as a sequence from Germany, France and Switzerland. They wanted to mix everything up in the spirit of Europe. “There’s always something different that you’ll discover, for example, the exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zurich; they have a different angle” says Joos. “A little bit, not too much, and we wanted to add something more.” 

Tour Through The Exhibitions

Photo: Erika Ede

Want to know what each of the galleries offer? Here’s an introduction to them. Gallery 205 ‘Moving on from the Trauma of War,’ focuses on insights and scientific discoveries arising from the Spanish Influenza outbreak. Warner Heisenberg, Max Born and Niehls Bohr are among some of the names mentioned in this section.

Gallery 206 ‘New Roles, New Models’ presents gender roles given shortly after the dreaded World War 1. It explores the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement, where Europe defied conventional sexual mores and broke taboos surrounding certain perversions.

Gallery 207 ‘New Ways of Seeing’ highlights the essence of speed. Speed was prominent in the progression of the automobile industry, factories (assembly lines), and new ways of transmitting information (radio). Speed was changing the way in which people saw things. Works by Hans Richter and Fernand Leger are shown.

Gallery 202 ‘The Fashion Revolution’ explores the rising functionality of women’s clothing, including the introduction of silhouette. The flapper or ‘garconne’ was the face of the ‘new woman’ of the 1920s. This shifted the women’s fashion industry, especially in the silk sector. This gallery explores the forgotten sector of Switzerland being the largest silk industry at the time.

Gallery 203 ‘Work and Leisure’ displays the icons of design and architecture of the 1920s. Additionally, it showcases the mass production of consumer goods, and what a transformation that was for the decade. 

Gallery 209 ‘Lust’ uncovers the sensual lifestyle of dancer Josephine Baker, the first person of color to become an entertainment star. She was so influential that Parisian women, who are known to have fairer complexes, applied darkening creams to their skin to resemble their favorite dancer.

1920s and 2020s: Pandemics, Wars and Art Parallels

Photo: Erika Ede

“The Roaring Twenties” exhibit was initially programmed before the pandemic. There was never an intention to create a relative mirroring experience at first, but now it seems like that will be the main focus of attendees. The irony of this may come as a surprise because the parallels between that time and our current time seem ridiculously similar. However, that just goes to show how history repeats itself and serves as a backbone for future lessons and archived information. 

When asked people will solely focus on the accidental pandemic parallels of the exhibit rather than a holistic look, Joos shares her thoughts. “I think you find both of the aspects in the exhibition. We have, for example, a space in the exhibition, which was not in Zurich, and it covers music and dancing. We have one gallery that we think gives you a good idea at what the moment was.”

Seeing the tendency of art imitating life and vice versa, Joos explains how the “The Roaring Twenties” serves as a cultural blueprint for our own ‘roaring twenties.’ “I think it was just an explosion,” says Joos. “I think we should think of the former twenties and now, the current twenties, and we just have to look at what’s happening.” People will be able to draw parallels in terms of economic impact, political issues, and more, even if the pandemic was not a part of the exhibit. 

“The Roaring Twenties” Exhibition runs from May 7 to September 19 2021, in the Bilbao and Kunsthaus Zurich locations. You can find more information about the exhibit on www.guggenhein-bilbao.eus.