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The 1930s: The Making of The New Man

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Jun 6 to Sep 7 2008
Salvador Dalí  <i>Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)</i> 1936 Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950 © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí / SODRAC (2008) Salvador Dalí Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War) 1936 Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950 © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí / SODRAC (2008)

Salvador Dalí <i>Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)</i> 1936 Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950 © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí / SODRAC (2008)

There is no shortage of monumental events that tell the turbulent story of the 20th century. But it’s a grand historical framework that often overshadows the importance of lesser-known contextual bridges between wars, revolutions or depressions. The 1930s makes a perfect case in point. Students of history know this decade as a bubbling cauldron of political upheaval, social discontent and economic imparity that set in play the rise of fascism, totalitarianism and otherwise extreme conditions across Europe. But for the layperson, the destructive course of the 1930s have remained a somewhat vague footnote to a larger historical narrative—until now.

“The 1930s: The Making of ‘The New Man’” takes an omnibus look the troubled decade in more than 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photos and film works drawn from museum collections worldwide. The premise of the exhibition, as co-curator Jean Clair notes, rests on two driving ideas of the era: regeneration and re-education. These were intertwining and pointedly dogmatic ideals, based on the veiled notion of building a new and eerily homogenous perfect society. In short, this was to be the epoch of the “Superman.” Of course that meant doing away with any “degenerate” elements in state-sanctioned programs of eugenics informed by radical advances in biological science. Artists responded with works that tore into the rampant megalomania and systemic violence of this new age. But as the mass sanitization continued, the critical idealism formed by Dada, Surrealist and Constructivist art retreated under persecution and the monolithic propaganda of Socialist Realism flourished.

The art in the exhibition reflects these changes in a thematic presentation that tellingly starts with “Genesis” and ends in “The Charnel House.” In all, it helps make some sense of a dramatic and tragically complex era that, according to Clair, was designed as “a work of total art, whose subjects would be elements shaped, organized, structured and modeled, in the plastic sense of the term, from the masses.” (380 Sussex Dr, Ottawa ON)

This article was first published online on June 26, 2008.

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