An ex­hi­bi­tion of world-chang­ing master­pieces from New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art is about to open in Perth. Don’t miss it, writes Se­bas­tian Smee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

BE­FORE artists went back to lament­ing the world that might have been, or re­flect­ing it back as it is, they were hero­ically in­volved in a more am­bi­tious pro­ject: reimag­in­ing it. It was an episode in art that to­day we call mod­ernism. It be­gan in the late 19th cen­tury, and its pro­ject con­tin­ues — al­though by now, mostly in a spirit of nos­tal­gia, or glazed-eyed de­feat. Many of its best parts (like most other forms of ide­al­ism) did not sur­vive the po­lit­i­cal cat­a­clysms of the 20th cen­tury.

Some even say they con­trib­uted to those cat­a­clysms: to reimag­ine the world, af­ter all, is to re­cast it — a wrench­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and not al­ways a de­sir­able one.

Ei­ther way, mod­ernism’s legacy is ours. And its hey­day and long de­noue­ment are the sub­ject of a teem­ing, tu­mul­tuous show that ar­rives in Perth from the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York.

The ex­hi­bi­tion, like the two that pre­ceded it at the Art Gallery of Western Aus­tralia, is a money-spin­ner for MoMA. To earn its fees, it has in­cluded plenty of great works by fa­mous names: Cezanne, van Gogh, Pi­casso, Matisse, Bonnard, Gi­a­cometti and Dali.

But Van Gogh, Dali and Be­yond: The World Reimag­ined dares to take us past those heroes of early mod­ernism and right up to the present. It has works by liv­ing artists who are as fa­mous for throw­ing the achieve­ments of high mod­ernism in doubt as for imag­in­ing the world afresh: artists such as Cindy Sher­man, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, and Ger­hard Richter.

Along the way, The World Reimag­ined throws into the mix dozens of artists — as many as 50, say the or­gan­is­ers — whose work has never been seen in Perth be­fore.

In a time of im­mense and ac­cel­er­at­ing change, all th­ese artists dared to ask fun­da­men­tal ques­tions: What can we know? How can we un­lock the valves of feel­ing? How can we be at home in this new world?

If mod­ern artists were less ex­plic­itly con­cerned with ethics — with ask­ing ‘‘ What is the right way to live?’’ — they were in­stinc­tively crit­i­cal of an­swers to that ques­tion that no longer ap­plied. And in this crit­i­cal im­pulse was a moral beauty: here were free and in­de­pen­dent hu­man be­ings dar­ing to cast off the strait­jacket of tra­di­tion and cliche.

In all, the show has more than 130 works by 96 artists. Only nine of th­ese, by my count, are women, an in­ex­pli­ca­ble gaffe. But in other ways, MoMA has been gen­er­ous.

The show com­bines qual­ity with sur­prise in equal mea­sure. It is or­gan­ised along de­lib­er­ately con­ven­tional lines: the works are di­vided, very sim­ply, into por­traits, still lifes and land­scapes. The frame­work ap­pears al­most lazily con­ven­tional, but as such it makes the sheer in­ven­tive­ness of mod­ern artists seem all the more strik­ing.

A por­trait here might be a pho­to­graph of a death mask of the artist’s son (Au­gust San­der). A still life might be a paint­ing of a still life jig­sawed into puz­zle pieces (Vija Celmins). A land­scape might be a run of words: ‘‘ Rocks Upon the Beach Sand Upon the Rocks’’ (Lawrence Weiner).

In each sec­tion, the more re­cent work holds its own, jolt­ing us out of the pre­sump­tion that mod­ernism is a mu­seum spec­i­men. Its notes may be played to­day in a dif­fer­ent key, but this ex­hibit proves the mu­sic of mod­ernism plays on.

The still life sec­tion con­tains not only master­pieces of early mod­ernism by Pi­casso, Matisse, Bonnard and Miro but won­der­ful later things by Ge­orge Brecht, Philip Gus­ton, Urs Fis­cher and Michael Craig-Martin.

Among the high­lights in the por­traits sec­tion are Frida Kahlo’s Self-Por­trait with Cropped Hair, Balthus’s Joan Miro and his Daugh­ter Dolores, and a scream­ing pope by Fran­cis Ba­con. But we also see more con­tem­po­rary and enig­matic in­ter­pre­ta­tions of what a por­trait can be by the likes of Jasper Johns ( Paint­ing Bit­ten by a Man) and Andy Warhol ( Dou­ble Elvis).

The land­scapes sec­tion con­tains the ear­li­est work in the show, van Gogh’s The Olive Trees (1889), as well as great things by Cezanne, Braque, Klimt, Re­don and Duchamp (yes! a Duchamp land­scape, from 1911). But the more re­cent con­tri­bu­tions to the genre by Rack­straw Downes, Celmins and Richard Long are ev­ery bit as com­pelling.

The strength of the more re­cent work re­minds us MoMA, once the Vat­i­can of mod­ern art, pos­sessed of an au­thor­ity akin to the pa­pacy’s (and blink­ers to match), has been open­ing it­self up re­cently. It now sup­ports a more ex­pan­sive idea of mod­ernism than the one it used to dis­sem­i­nate, via su­per­cil­ious cu­ra­tors and natty di­a­grams with branch­ing ar­rows.

The most in­flu­en­tial of those di­a­grams, drawn up by MoMA’s first di­rec­tor Al­fred Barr, help­fully ex­plained how Cezanne led to cu­bism which led to supre­ma­tism and con­struc­tivism, and so on. It was slightly more com­pli­cated than that, and per­haps too easy to mock: Barr was a great cu­ra­tor and a fer­vent pros­e­ly­tiser for mod­ern art. And yet — amaz­ingly — all the branches of his fam­ily tree led ei­ther to ‘‘ geo­met­ric ab­stract art’’ or ‘‘ non-geo­met­ric ab­stract art’’.

What about those mod­ern artists who had de­clined to turn ab­stract? What about all the ec­centrics and vi­sion­ar­ies who fit­ted into no di­a­gram at all? This prob­lem and many re­lated ones have been ad­dressed by MoMA through the years.

Now, less high tem­ple and more crowded lend­ing li­brary, with busy cafe and gift shop at­tached, MoMA has al­lowed its ruth­lessly dis­crim­i­nat­ing (be­cause self-con­sciously canon­i­cal) col­lec­tion to loosen up and over­flow. Both as a mu­seum and as a part­ner to other mu­se­ums around the world, it seems the bet­ter for it.

It can tell more sto­ries, and it can tell them more con­vinc­ingly. In the show’s Por­traits sec­tion, for in­stance, we be­gin with Rodin’s full-length bronze statue of Balzac in a frock coat. The great writer’s arms are tightly folded, his scis­sor­ing legs clenched. The ef­fect is not only phys­i­cal to the point of in­tim­i­da­tion, it’s in­tensely psy­cho­log­i­cal.

This was an en­tirely new way of show­ing a pub­lic fig­ure. You get a sense, just star­ing at the piece, of the awkward, ugly and pro­mis­cu­ous na­ture of creative ge­nius.

And in dar­ing to show us the great Balzac in this nakedly per­sonal way (Rodin’s first at­tempt at the com­mis­sion left Balzac lit­er­ally naked), Rodin demon­strated how art could align it­self with awk­ward­ness and dis­tor­tion in or­der to ex­press tremen­dous psy­chic en­er­gies. Rodin, wrote art his­to­rian Leo Stein­berg, ‘‘ re­stored to in­ward ex­pe­ri­ence

(1889) by Vin­cent van Gogh, top; (1926) by Au­gust San­der, left

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