New York is probably one of the very few places that I really really want to go to in the United States (and I’d say that Vegas is the other, but come to think of it, Vegas would probably be one of those places that I’d drive down the strip once, have a beer at the casino, and then head off to go and see the Hoover Dam). However, due to complications having a slice of New York, in the form the the Museum of Modern Art (otherwise known as the MoMA) coming to Melbourne does temper that urge somewhat, even if it is the case that most of the works here are basically what one would consider Modern Art.
Yet, when it comes to art, it really feels as if New York is pretty much the centre of the American scene. Sure, Hollywood is where all of the movies are made, and some have even suggested that Los Angeles is probably America’s cultural capital, but considering that the likes of the Broadway Musical, Andy Warhol, and many others, have come out of New York, I am almost inclined to feel that this city is not only America’s cultural heart, but gives the nation more of a character beyond hamburgers, Chevy’s and stock market crashes.
Arcadia and Metroplis
And so, our first encounter when we walked in through the entrance was a gallery in which we find, not American artists, but French, namely those of Gaugin, Van Gogh, and Seurat. What we encounter are the post-impressionists, as we start our trek at the beginning of the 20th Century. The world has changed, yet there is a struggle with the artists, between in idyllic landscapes of the past, and the massive metropolises of the future. At this time, though, the British Empire still rules the world as the sole superpower, yet little does anybody know, that by the end of the century, that position will move to the other side of the Atlantic.
Mind you, and this is something that I have mentioned previously, and that there was one particular technological invention that changed everything: the camera. In fact, the camera was one of those majorly disruptive developments of the time, literally putting portrait painters out of business. Mind you, the cameras of the time were pretty shocking, but what they did was that they forced artists to experiment and to look for different means challenging their audience. Notice, though, how with the impressionists, the focus was very much on colour, which ironically was something that the camera couldn’t produce at the time.
This painting, called Evening at Honfluer, is by the artist Georges Seurat. He was the guy that invented the style known as pointilism, which is basically creating an image by using thousands upon thousands of little dots. It is quite interesting to look at, and is actually supposed to capture a scientific idea at the time, which believed that images were generated by thousands upon thousands of beams of life penetrating the eye. The other reason behind this painting is that Seurat had been cooped up in his apartment for quite a while, and was really looking for an opportunity to get outside.
It turns out that Van Gogh painted more than just one painting of the postie while he was in Arles unsuccessfully attempting to establish an artists’ commune (of which only one artist, Paul Gaugin, even bothered to come and check out). Actually, the name of the postie is Joseph Roulin, and this particular painting was once owned by Norman Rockefeller, among many, many others, but was gifted to the MoMA in 1989. However, I have already written quite a few things on Van Gogh, so I guess I’ll leave it at that and move on to somebody else.
These two posters are probably best done together, and not just because they were produced by the same artist (Jules Cheret, though that is probably quite obvious). These posters were produced using lithographic techniques, which basically means stone prints, as opposed to woodcuts, where the stamps are made of wood. The style was a new technique, particularly for posters, which has certainly been borrowed from the Impressionist movement, and here we are seeing them being used in the form of advertisements. The first, Fuller, is of the American cabaret dancer Loie Fuller, and the second being an advertisement for the Theatrophone, a form of telephone that would pipe music down to the listener – an early form of radio.
In a way, this is a theme that we begin to see through this exhibition, and that is that art does not necessarily exist on the walls of galleries and homes, but it exists everywhere, in the streets, on the bill posters, and even as the designs of your lounge suite, or the album cover. However, we are getting ahead of ourselves here, and instead we will slowly move ahead.
We now move from the Impressionists to the Expressionists, this one being painted by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who formed the collective known as Die Brücke (or the bridge). This painting is of the fashionable Königstrasse in Dresden. Notice the difference between the paintings of the impressionists and the expressionists – the painting is much harder, the colours much more solid, and also with a darker tone. This in a way emphasises the violence of the city scenes, as people push past each other for reasons only known to them. Yet also consider the faces, which are more like masks, also suggesting that this world is a nameless, faceless, and characterless work.
We can certainly see that the art of the modern era is starting to take on different tones. In this painting by Andre Derain, called Bathers, there has been some borrowing from non-European cultures, particularly with the mask like facial features. In one sense this painting is rather abstract, but not so abstract that we start to loose all features of the subjects, three women bathing in a river. Yet, the surroundings aren’t distinct, instead focusing on the style, and the nature of the event.
This is another painting by Dauvin, this one called fishing boats. The style is known as Fauvism, which is nowhere near as well known as styles such as impressionism, or even cubism (thanks no doubt to Picasso). Notice how this painting seems to emphasise the bright colours, something that fishing boats in parts of Europe are well known for. Yet even with the colours, the shapes don’t stand out as much – in fact they are quite vague and indistinct. This is a characteristic of such works at the time, which focus ever more on the colour, as the artists begin to move away from the realistic nature of the subjects of their works.
Machinery & the Modern World
The twentieth century could been seen as the century of the machine. Sure, machines have been with us for centuries, even if they were as simply as something like a wheel. However, in the twentieth century machines had not only taken a life of their own, but as begun the process of displacing us. The camera had displaced the painter, and film had displaced the theatre – it was a time where one had to adapt, or perish.
Thus, artists began to take up the challenge of competing with the machine, with artists such as Picasso, whose cubist paintings would take the three dimensional and compress it into the two. We also have artists who would take elements of the machine and create art around it, or even go as far as the legendary Marcel Duchamp, who would dare, and succeed, at taking an ordinary object and make the claim that this object was art. Of course. We even have architecture, even architecture of the modern home, which had transformed itself from a dirty hovel to a machine for living.
Guess what, this is Picasso, but if you are familiar with his work then you probably already know this. Yeah, this certainly doesn’t look like what you would expect from him, but the thing is Picasso was an incredibly prolific artist, and while his most famous paintings are his cubist paintings, he did an awful lot more. In fact, even his doodles could garner quite a lot of money. Sticking with the theme though, this painting, which is cubist, exemplifies the disconnect that the new technological world was bringing about. The problem is that to be able to properly appreciate the painting, you need to look at it from the angle of the wall, because looking at it on a computer screen, well, it just looks like a muddy table.
This painting, by George Grosz, is called explosion, and it certainly looks like an explosion, and also goes to demonstrate the way art has changed at this time to capture raw emotion as opposed to just, well, capturing an image of a pretty landscape, or a person. Grosz fought for the Germans in World War I, but was discharged as being unfit to fight (which sort of says something because it wasn’t easy to get out of the army back then). This painting brings about the destruction that was caused by the war, both physically and psychologically. In many ways the perspective of the painting changes based on how you look at it, but in all aspects it is about destruction, and a new type of destruction brought about by modern warfare.
This is an example of a style of painting known as futurism, and is painted by Giacomo Bella, and is called Paths of Movement. In this painting Bella is attempting to capture motion, and in particular the motion created by a bird known as a swift. Here it is hard to actually see the bird, as it flies across the canvas before our eyes. However, this painting was also inspired by photography of the movement of birds, which considering the time at which it was painted, was still in its infancy. Once again, we are seeing art move away from its traditional form, and in this instance, delving into the scientific world.
This piece, called Sun and Moon, is by the abstract artist Robert Delaney. In fact Delaney was an early adopter of the concept of abstract art, and the above is an example of this. The circle represents the universe, and the merging of the various colours represents the interplay not only between the sun and the moon, but also between the night and the day. Then again, the only reason I know this is because I read the plaque that happened to be placed under the painting. Basically, if it wasn’t for that plaque I probably would have no idea what this actually meant, but then again that is probably because I’m a heathen
Okay, this may not be anywhere near as famous, or as gutsy, as Fountain, but this is another example of Duchamp’s readymade, that is work of art that has been created out of prefabricated materials. Actually, this is slightly more because it is what he termed as an ‘assisted readymade’ namely because it is made out of a bicycle wheel and a kitchen stool. Basically it is a useless machine, which not only is it challenging the concept of art, something that he basically loved to do, but it is also challenging the concept of innovation, considering a lot of innovation is, well, useless. Then again, the thing with invention is that you do have to go through a lot of useless ideas before you stumble upon something that is truly transformative.
This painting, by Ferdinand Leger, is called Propellers. In a way it is basically Picasso meets the machine world were Leger takes Picasso’s cubist techniques and applies it to a world of machines. Looking at this painting we can sort of make out the propellers, and the blades, and other items such as tubing and pistons. Leger appears to be trying to capture the dynamics of this new work, but he also senses a strange, outerworld beauty to it. Mind you, most people would probably just look at it, and not even read the little plaque down the side, but it is there that one can get the most information about a painting such as this one.
A New Unity
By now art is starting to become particularly strange with the development of, well, lots of different styles. Yet in these different styles one sort of sees a unity, and that unity in a way is a break with the past. Gone are pretty decorations to be replaced by geometric form and function that arose from the avant-garde movement. He we also meet constructivism for the first time, something that arose from the ruins of the Russian Revolution. It is here that we can certainly see a break with the past as the old world of Tsarist Russia has been left behind to be replaced with the dictatorship of the proletariat. In a way what we have is a nation that is now trying to find a new identity.
In a way this seems to the be the case across Western Europe as many people seek to try to understand a world that had gone, and a new one made in the trenches of the Great War. Gone was this ideal that humanity was on the cusp of something new, and instead we have a world seeking purpose and meaning. This, of course, were to come to a head ten years later with the onset of the Great Depression, however we are still in a world where people are attempting to drink the memories of the Great War away as we head into the roaring twenties, a time still dominated by outdated ideas of class and sex.
Well, now we are starting to get strange. This is by the Russian artist Lyubov Popova and is called Purely Architectonic. Well, I probably shouldn’t call it strange since it is attempting to channel to works of the cubist, but what is it a painting of? Well, I guess that is the question, isn’t it? Honestly, it simply looks like a collection of shapes, and really lacks any formal meaning as it is. Still, Popova did suggest that painting is like, well, engineering, and some engineers have described engineering as being an artform. Here, we are merging the two to a point where the artist isn’t creating something, but rather building something out of basic blocks.
Here is another couple of works by another Russian artist, this one Kazimir Malevich, and the work is called Supremist Elements. Actually, they are titled square and circle as well, but the collection is Supremist Elements. So, what do we make of them because all they seem to be are a couple of shapes drawn on paper with a pencil, placed in a frame, at which point they ended up an in art gallery. Apparently he consider this form of art to be supreme, at least compared to the natural world. Well, in my mind it is just a couple of pencil sketches, and there is nothing all that supreme about it. Yet, it is what you could consider constructivist, that is that the artist has constructed it with their mind, as opposed to letting nature dictate the result. Still, I have my own opinion regarding the piece, but it does show us how humanity is ever attempting to claim supremacy over the natural world.
This is a movie poster by Validmir and Georgii Stenberg and is advertising a 1926 movie called The Three Million Case. Mind you, I use the word advertising in as loose a way as possible considering that, as you can tell, this is in Russian, and in 1926 Russia was actually called The Soviet Union. Well, no doubt this is a Russian film, and no doubt the rich people are the bad guys. However, the main reason that I have posted it here is because I thought it looked cool. However, as we continue on our trek through the MoMA you will discover that a lot of the art actually involves movie posters and album covers.
Thus here we have another example, this one from a 1921 film called Pounded Cutlet. Actually, the original title is ‘At the Ringside’. If this one looks strikingly similar to the one above, that is because it is also by the Stenberg brothers. You can probably figure out that I do actually appreciate their work, with the rather modernist styles. Honestly, it is a shame that they don’t make posters like this anymore.
These nine drawings are by the Russian constructivist Alexandra Exter, and are from her portfolio of works called Stage Sets (or Decors de Theatre). These weren’t commissioned works, but rather works that she designed that could be used for operatic, ballet, or other theatrical performances. These designs, along with numerous others, were included in her portfolio. I’m not entirely sure whether they ended up being built, however they have certainly landed up on the walls of the MoMA.
This final piece that we will look at for the time being is called Colour Structure by Joaquin Torres Garcia. He came to Paris and not really satisfied with the direction of the surrealists decided to establish his own group known as Cercle et Carre (otherwise translated to Circle and Square). As you can probably deduce from the name, this group was more interested in geometric abstraction. An example is above, where the entire painting has been divided into rectangular shapes of various sizes, each of them having a vibrant colour. While it was was suggested that they were ‘primary’ colours, one can tell that this is not actually the case. Mind you, it does sort of feel as if the curator really had no idea if the painting carried any meaning, and just talked about its composition (which, in some cases, is all that really can be said).
The MoMA comes to Melbourne by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me