MASTERS OF INVENTION
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
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