10 Exhibitions That Changed the Course of Art History


Temporary art exhibitions have existed for centuries. Over time, the most influential exhibitions have transformed from juried salons, to “blockbuster” extravaganzas, to themed group exhibitions. These daring new curatorial formats changed the way people viewed and appreciated art and steered the course of artistic innovation. Here are ten exhibitions, spanning 1824 – 1989, that changed the course of art history.

Paris Salon, 1824

Royal Academy, Paris

haywain John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821, Photo Credit: The National Gallery

In nineteenth century Paris, the public viewed new works of art at annual Salon exhibitions. Jury members selected paintings by their peers for exhibition, and the chosen works soon became influential benchmarks of artistic trends. Paintings of historical events were considered the most prestigious, followed by portraits, landscapes, genre scenes, and still lifes. In the Salon of 1824, dramatic landscapes by John Constable and expressive history paintings by Eugéne Delacroix emphasized the primacy of nature over adherence to classical academic tradition. The transitional moment is now known as the “Romantic Salon”.

Salon de Refusés, 1863

Palace of Industry, Paris

manet Left: Edouard Manet, Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Lunch on the Grass), 1863. Right: James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, 1862. Photo Credit: Wikimedia

The Salon de Refusés (Salon of the Refused) was initiated in response to the complaints of artists whose works had not been accepted for exhibition. Contemporary accounts reported rooms full of spectators scandalized by the sensational female nudity displayed in Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe and baffled by James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. The works are now treasured. This challenging exhibition struck a cord with the public, receiving more than a thousand visitors per day and legitimizing avant-garde practices.

Rembrandt Exhibition, 1898

Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

nightwatchImage: Rembrandt van Rijn, Officers and Men of the Amsterdam Kloveniers Militia, the Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq., 1642, Photo Credit: Museum Het Rembrandthuis

Rembrandt was active in the sixteenth century and had been designated the “King of Dutch Painting” in the nineteenth century. Organized to celebrate the Princess Wilhelmina’s inauguration as Queen of the Netherlands, this exhibition is often considered the first “blockbuster” museum show. Arranging the exhibition took enormous effort because few works by Rembrandt remained in the Netherlands. The organizing committee borrowed more than one hundred works from royal houses and institutions across Europe. This was the one of the first single-artist exhibitions and an early example of a state deploying an art exhibition to project cultural power.

Manet and the Post-Impressionists, 1910

Grafton Galleries, London

folies-bergere Image: Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, Photo Credit: The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Galleries

The curator Roger Fry arranged this landmark exhibition, which included works by Paul Gaugin, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, and Vincent van Gogh. Fry coined the term “Post-Impressionism” to describe a range of new art practices and establish links to the well-known Impressionist movement. While the public generally ridiculed the works on display, Fry’s term “Post-Impressionism” helped to contextualize new artistic practices and situate them into a coherent art historical narrative.

International Exhibition of Modern Art, 1913

Park Avenue Armory, New York City

duchamp Image: Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1919, Photo Credit: Wikipedia

For audiences in New York, the first armory show served as an introduction to Cubism and abstract art, both of which were received with skepticism. The exhibition also gave American audiences a chance to view Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase, which elicited shock and outrage. A milestone for modern art in America, the massive exhibition is widely regarded as a catalyst for the American art market.

Bauhaus Exhibition, 1923

Bauhaus School, Weimar

109_268_bauhausaustellung_weimar_1923_0 Image: Joost Schmidt, Poster for the 1923 Bauhaus Exhibition in Weimar, 1923, Source: bauhaus-online.de

The German Bauhaus had been formed in 1919. Four years later, the school exhibited designs by Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and published Walter Gropius’s essay Art and Technology – A New Unity. The statement was a departure for the school, which had advanced a more expressionist aesthetic up to that point. Amid political upheaval in 1924, the Bauhaus was relocated to Dessau, Germany, where it eventually closed up shop in 1933. Nonetheless, the constructivist forms and building techniques promoted in the 1923 exhibition have remained influential in modern art.

London International Surrealist Exhibition, 1936

New Burlington Galleries, London

AS11140_0 Image: Salvador Dalí, Visage du Grand Masturbateur (Face of the Great Masturbator), 1929, Photo Credit: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Originating in Paris, the Surrealist movement was an attempt at harnessing unconscious thought and unlocking the power of imagination. In this particular show, organized in London in 1936, much attention was directed towards Salvador Dalí: according to newspaper reports, the artist had to be rescued after nearly suffocating during an attempt to deliver a lecture from inside the confines of a deep sea diver’s suit – while holding onto two leashed hounds. All said and done, the exhibition was quite a hit; the British public could not ignore astonishing works by André Breton, René Magritte, and Man Ray.

Documenta 5, 1972

Kassel, Germany


Image: Biokinetic, 1972, Photo Credit: HA Schult

Since 1955, the Documenta, an international exhibition of modern and contemporary art, has been held approximately every five years in Kassel, Germany. For the fifth Documenta, general director Harald Szeemann designated the theme Questioning Reality – Pictorial Worlds Today, and chose to include works in the show that explored the relationship between visual art and reality. The 100-day exhibition featured performances, happenings, and outsider art. It was criticized as bizarre and deranged. But today, art historians have generally come to expect and respect such conceptual art practices.

Treasures of Tutankhamun, 1972

British Museum, London (other locations, 1972 – 1981)

tutenkhamen death mask

Image: Tutenkhamen’s Gold Funeral Mask, Photo Credit: Carsten Frenzl

Organized following an agreement between Egypt’s President Nasser and the government of the United Kingdom, this exhibition marked half a century since the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. The display of fifty items from the tomb’s treasury included his now-infamous gold funeral mask, a gilded wooden statuette of Tutankhamen, jewelry, furniture, coffins, scarabs, and many other ornate artifacts. The public went wild over the exhibition, which remains the British Museum’s most visited exhibition of all time. The objects later toured throughout the USSR, the United States, Canada, and West Germany, fueling a deeper appreciation of Egyptian heritage and ancient art in general.

Magiciens de la Terre, 1989

Centre Georges Pompidou and Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris

magiciens de la terre

Image: Magiciens de la Terre, 1989 Source: SFAQ

The French curator Jean-Hubert Martin created a show that would counter ethnocentric practices in the contemporary art world. Seeking to correct art exhibitions that were “ignoring 80 percent of the earth,” he organized a show half comprised of works by non-Western artists, with Western artists contributing the other half. The exhibition departed from previous displays of non-Western work by identifying the proper names of non-Western artists, a sign of respect they had not typically been afforded. Though today, the 50/50 formula receives significant criticism for failing to truly represent the world’s population, Magiciens De La Terre was responsible for a major push towards diversifying the art world.

Feature image: International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London, 1936. Photo Credit: Henry Moore Foundation Archive.