I got to see the MoMA at NGV exhibition on 8 June 2018 and enjoyed it a lot; my experience enhanced a lot by the Curator’s talk that preceded it. Not knowing much about art, I find these talks for members preceding major exhibitions the best thing about NGV membership.

This one was given by Miranda Wallace, Senior Curator, International Exhibition Projects. I’m in awe of her expertise; spoke for an hour with only the barest of glances at written notes accompanied, but not overwhelmed, by slides that were always to the point. A short history of MoMA; who knew that it was founded by three wealthy women philanthropists? The building itself, its mission as an educational museum, the interest in new technology (flight, telecommunication, urbanisation), the emphasis on the practical as well as aesthetics. Terrific.

After a quick bite to eat, on into the exhibition after the initial rush of members. It’s been suggested that this looks like a quick tour of the best of MoMA, which I suppose it is. But if you’ve never visited New York and seen it all in situ that’s exactly what you want. There are over 200 works on display – paintings, objets d’art, wall hangings and floor rugs, furniture, sculptures. I enjoyed it a lot. Although after about an hour and a half both my concentration and enjoyment were fading. This wasn’t enough time to do it justice and I look forward to going back for a second viewing; especially of the final few galleries that contain the most recent art work. Continuing to fulfill MoMA’s mission of presenting the most recent artworks in public.

Here are some pictures; mostly bad but that is because I take them quickly so as not to get in the way of others, and they are only intended as aide memoir’s for me for the purposes of this blog. These are just some of the works that caught my attention, click on them to expand the picture. I didn’t take any photos of the terrific furniture and sculptures included in the exhibition as these are hard to capture with crowds of people milling around.

At the outset of the exhibition we see works by four artists from whom the ideas and techniques of modern painting can be traced; as we were informed by the curator. They are given seminal status in MoMA itself and this is reflected in their position at the start of the exhibition. First we have Georges-Pierre Seurat’s with his pointillism technique, the careful placing of individual dots of paint. These generate a shimmering effect for the viewer. There are at least 25 different colours in this painting, Evening, Honfleur . He also liked to include man-made structures in his landscapes rather than seeking to present nature in its pristine glory; as he has done here. If you look closely you can see that the frame itself has been painted with tiny dots, adding greater luminosity extending the image past its boundaries.

Paul Cezanne chose simple subjects. He wanted to shake up the academic art world, saying I will astonish Paris with an apple. He wanted to present everyday objects in radical new ways. As he has done here, in Still life with apples painted in 1895-98. We are told in the accompanying note, the painting is deliberately not a complete likeness, the left side looks unfinished and the table appears to be tilting. He’s deliberately drawing attention to the act of painting itself.

Vincent Van Gogh, in addition to being recognised as a genius, is especially lauded as one of the founders of the modern portrait and he painted many. Here is his Portrait of Joseph Roulin This painting will be familiar to anyone who saw the wonderful animation, using thousands of real paintings, Loving Vincent. Joseph was voiced by Chris O’Dowd who bears an uncanny resemblance to the man in this portrait. I do recommend the film to any admirers of Van Gogh. The artist himself, said, in a letter to his brother Theo, that he wanted to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolise and which we try to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our colouring. I love the use of the royal we and us.

The fourth seminal artist recognised as central to modern art is Paul Gauguin. He sought different myths from those of Western civilisation that had traditionally been the subject of artists. He went to Tahiti because it was a paradise unspoiled by European social customs. This is his The Moon and the Earth painted in 1893. It depicts an ancient Polynesian myth: the female spirit of the Moon (Hina) is imploring the male spirit of the Earth (Fatou) to grant humans eternal life; a request denied. In addition to the subject matter, the expressive colours, flat planes and simplified, distorted forms are all radically new.

So on into the exhibition. One of the things celebrated by many of the new, modern, artists was the use of bright colours to express emotional responses to things, rather than trying to replicate things in realistic ways. I loved these two paintings, the first by Andre Derain entitled Fishing boats, Collioure painted in 1905. It looks as though it could have been painted yesterday! While you can make out the fishing boats fairly easily, this beautiful work from Henri Matisse, is so free flowing you don’t see La Japonaise: Woman beside the water until you’re told she’s there. At least I didn’t. Also painted in 1905.

Another focus for these artists was the changing nature of the city at the turn of the century. This painting, Street, Dresden by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painted in 1908 and reworked in 1919 was highlighted in the curator’s lecture as a good example of how the vibrancy of these rapidly expanding metropolis’s could be captured. We see people, individuals in front and then crowded together in an anonymous mass at the back along with barely visible tram tracks and tram. The colours are vivid, un-natural. But these artists were keen to do more than just replicate a scene. They wanted to convey psychological insights and emotional responses to the things depicted. Here, the accompanying note tells us that Kirchner’s mask-like faces and vacant eyes are an attempt to capture the psychological alienation wrought by modernisation.

Movement – in all its forms – was a focus for the new moderns. There are lots of depictions of flight and of the technology that enabled it. Propellers everywhere – in painting (a famous Fernand Leger cubist one entitled Propellers), in sculptures (a great one of a walking man by an Italian artist whose name I can’t remember) and other objects d’art. Here is a murmeration of swifts by the artist Giacomo Balla who was interested in the dynamics of movement and speed. Its called Swifts:Paths of movement + dynamic sequences. It is so focussed on industrial forms; belying the title there is no sense of swifts in their natural state but you can see the shape of a murmeration of birds.

Here is a woman artist I had not heard of; Lyubov’ Popova, a Russian. This is called Painterly architectonic, painted in 1917. I love this title which reflects Lyubov’ approach to painting which she described as a construction likening the artist’s role to that of an engineer who builds through colour and line. She sounds so Russian! I really liked the colours, the angles, the overall composition of this painting and its very simple frame.

The works of a painter unfamiliar to me, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, were also interesting. He was a Uruguayan who we are told helped Antoni Gaudi create church windows which explains a bit about these pictures. This one is called Composition, painted in 1932. And this is Colour Structure, painted in 1930. Both have a vaguely religious feel and the second in particular could be a window in a church quite easily.

Here’s an early Cubist painting by Picasso. The Architect’s Table was painted in 1912. The oval shape reflects the shape of the table and on it we see a jumble of architectural tools – all muddy browns and greys and all angled planes. The calling card on the lower right has Gertrude’s Stein’s name on it! And here is something similar from his fellow Cubist Georges Braque’s Soda painted in 1912.

The importance of the German Bauhaus on the development of modern art is recognised. This is a poster for a 1923 Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar designed by Joost Schmidt. It reflects the Bauhaus’s interdisciplinary ethos and emphasis on basic forms and primary colours.

Making aesthetically pleasing things that served a useful purpose was one of the guiding principles of the Bauhaus. Here is a Design for a stained glass window for the Christian ULO School, Rhoboth te Drachten, the Netherlands by the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg in 1922-23 and his Preliminary colour scheme for ceiling and short walls of dance hall in Cafe Aubette, Strasbourg, France in 1927. Very Art Deco I think

Here is a painting by the same artist, Rhythm of a Russian Dance. Painted in 1918. So clever.

As is this famous painting by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, Composition in red, blue, and yellow. His theory was As a pure representation of the human mind art will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say, abstract form. There you go! One of the mementos of the exhibition that is on sale is a two or three piece vase based on this work. I may be tempted to buy it on my second visit.

Here is Salvador Dali’s famous painting entitled The persistence of memory painted in 1931. A destination work we were told; meaning one that people go to a museum specifically to view, like the Mona Lisa. I’m not sure whether I have seen it before in the big Dali exhibition held here in Melbourne some time ago. I’d say I’m not that keen on surrealism but I like Dali’s paintings. Maybe that’s a contradiction. But there you go. I love his melting clocks alluding as they do to the fragile nature of time – le temp pass lentement ou vite! I like this picture’s dreamlike quality; as with all of his work. The accompanying note says the cliffs in the background evoke his native Catalonia and the fleshy creature in the centre looks like Dali’s own face in profile. It’s very small as this picture which includes a couple of viewers demonstrates.

This work by Giorgio de Chirico, Gare Montparnasse (The melancholy of departure) (what a great title!) was said to influence later surrealists like Rene Magritte. The dramatic diagonals leading to multiple, conflicting vanishing points are said to destabilise the viewer. Not to mention the bunch of banana’s in the corner. The accompanying note points out the train seems to be arriving not departing. It’s all about keeping us on our toes; making us think. It’s a great painting. Much bigger than the Dali.

I loved the vibrant colours in this Joan Miro work, painted in 1929, called Portrait of Mistress Mills in 1750 It’s also humorous in the detail. A telephone, a letter and perhaps a guitar doubling as as a hat.

Then there was this Frida Kahlo painting; very representative of her work with which I’m quite familiar, having seen a couple of exhibitions of her work. It’s so singular! It’s immediately recognisable. I love the passion she expresses in her paintings, and her use of colour and her strange compositions that make you think long and hard. This one, Self-portrait with cropped hair was painted in 1940 after her divorce from Diego Rivera (who she later married again). She’s wearing his suit – does it mean she’s taken over his role, taken control over her life? And what about her cutting off her hair – is she repudiating her femininity? Is she declaring her freedom from judgement on her appearance? All sorts of interpretations are possible. The message from the song based on the lyrics inscribed at the top of the painting is rendered in the accompanying note as: Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore. I l also love the creepiness of the hanks of hair appearing to be crawling all over the floor.

I’ve always liked Rene Magritte. I like the solid blocks of colour he uses as a background and his unsettling juxtaposition of objects and ideas. As demonstrated in this painting entitled The portrait from 1935. Who would want to eat that meal! I thought at first the food on the plate was a pancake, but it is a slice of very tasty looking ham; realjamon. I like the clarity of the objects; the cutlery, the glass, the bottle, their careful placement, the shadows, the clean background. And also the simple frame.

Picasso gets two pictures in this exhibition. Seated bather was painted in 1930, with lovely soft colours. And it seems to me to be not so angry and misogynist as many of his paintings of women. I liked it.

Of course Mark Rothko is represented. Another whose work I’m quite familiar with. We saw quite a few of his paintings in Buenos Aires of all places! I liked this one, entitled simply No. 3/No. 13. Beautiful colours. It was painted in 1949. He wasn’t only interested in colour relationships the accompanying note tells us. Rather he viewed colour as a means to a larger end: ‘I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions’, he declared, ‘tragedy, ecstasy, doom’.

This is completely different from the Rothko, but seems to me to be in the same vein. The American painter, Franz Kline, White forms painted in 1955.

This one is more Rothko- like. It’s by the American Barnett Newman, who we are told worked in expanses of deep colour, in his case divided by a single vertical band. He was interested in the idea of the sublime. The title, Onement III alludes to a sense of being ‘at one with the world’ and the religious idea of atonement.

This painting was rather wonderful, made, the curator told us by painting in the black and leaving the white canvas. Which explains the depth in the black bits. It’s by the American artist Ellsworth Kelly, entitled Running White. Painted in 1959.

This is a great Jackson Pollock; Number 7, 1950. It’s impact is hard to capture in a photograph as it is very long and narrow. Here’s a close up. apparently the rust orange background is unusual for Pollock.

As we move into the 1960′s we encounter some very familiar images. Like Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning girl from 1963. And this screen print from 1967, LOVE by Robert Indiana which is one of the most widely copied images of all time.

By this time I was getting tired. As I am now. I only photographed one image from the later galleries. This monumental work by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui entitled Bleeding. Made in 2007 and composed of discarded liquor-bottle tops and seals from Nigerian distilleries. These have been flattened, folded and linked with copper wire. It conveys a powerful message about contemporary consumer habits and the history of colonialism in Nigeria with bottle tops representing material (including alcohol) for bartering that has been there since the beginning of contact between Africa and Europe. It covers a wall and is very powerful. And here is a close up.

So that’s that. I’m going to go back. There’s enough there to warrant multiple visits and I expect, if I have time to go more than once more. I thoroughly recommend the exhibition.


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