MoMA at NGV

MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art is like an Art History course – the module on modern western art. It starts with four foundation works, by Seurat, van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin, then speeds through the decades, finishing with an ephemeral installation, Roman Ondak’s Measuring the universe which is growing with audience participation throughout the exhibition time. There are over 200 works in all – painting, sculpture, film, digital, plus architectural models, graphic designs, furniture and textiles…

It’s a pretty nice life when you can give three days to experiencing an exhibition. For me in practice not full days – it can be a race to see if back, feet or brain give out first – but I could spend half a day going through getting a feel for the whole thing, initial impressions and reactions, then keep returning for concentrated time with key (to me) works. In between I wandered through the NGV generally, including visits to old favourites from my week there in 2013 (21-Jul-2013 gives an overview, 23-Jul-2013, 7-Sep-2013 and 13-Sep-2013 annotations of particular works).

Paul Cézanne
Still Life with Apples
1895-98

What a luxury, to stand in front of a Cézanne still life and go “slow down, wait… what are you seeing. ..”. To take as much time as you can to focus, concentrate, and see. What is happening here? Why is it important? What am I seeing? Paint. The act of painting. The act of seeing. Of experiencing. Space. A man’s effort, struggle, belief.

At times I was absorbed, following hills and valleys of “cloth”, play of colour and light, deep shadow behind. Then listening to the conversations around me – painters, educators, general punters… We shift around each other with varying degrees of awareness of sight lines. Some give just a glance at the painting, more spend time with the wall label. Few are able to stand and look – this is only the first wall.

André Derain
Bathers
1907

André Derain
Fishing Boats, Collioure
1905

One of many great advantages to seeing actual works is the sense of scale. Bathers is 132.1 x 195 cm; Fishing Boats, Collioure just 38.2 x 46.3 cm. Both exciting to look at – the colour, the application of paint, the forming of space, the vivid worlds created, the insight into a moment of significance in art history – but one surrounds you and has a sense of sustained effort and intention.

Umberto Boccioni
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space
1913 (cast 1931)

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is 111.2 cm high. Seeing photos of it in the past, I imagined something that could sit on a table. On its pedestal in the exhibition it has so much more force and dynamic energy than I anticipated. Folds or flames flutter and snap behind the striding figure, the powerful thighs and buttocks propelling it from the classical past into hard, fast, machinery, racing forward. There seems such purpose, such confidence and exhilaration…

I felt maudlin, missing the point, thinking of Boccioni’s death in WWI, and on to my grandparents and the impact of that war on their generation. But then, that’s part of looking at art, being taken on one’s own journey.

Aleksandr Rodchenko
Non-Objective Painting
1919

My response to Rodchenko’s Non-Objective Painting is deeply subjective, personal. From this perspective its place in the chronology of art history seems irrelevant. Instead I felt it captured some of my own recent swirling thoughts and interests. I could write about the materiality of the painted lines, but what I saw was movement and depth. Lines and grids, the impact of limited colour. It was all about my own desire to be making.

The Art as Action gallery was the place I kept returning to. Two free-hanging room dividers by Anni Albers were spare and linear, using materials to great advantage. One was a spanish lace structure (I show an early sample version 24-Aug-2008) – very effective. A large mobile, Snow Flurry, 1, by Alexander Calder, moved slowly and majestically in one corner.

What absolutely captivated me was a 1949 work by Mark Rothko, No. 3/No. 13, also called Magenta, Black, Green on Orange. This was an experience. Immersion. A physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual experience. I returned to it again and again. I also wanted more, so on the first day went searching for the NGV Rothko I remembered from 2013. Confident strides to the 19th – 20th Century galleries… and it wasn’t there. I tried again on day 2, and found it. In a side gallery. Tucked away in an area focused on decorative arts.

The platform in front kept me far away. Other items impinged on peripheral vision. The ceiling was low. The lighting drab and uneven. On first attempt I didn’t even find it. On second I just couldn’t see it, couldn’t enter into it. Third attempt I went earlier in the day, before my eyes and mind were filled. Finally I got somewhere. Just a little I lost myself in it, was absorbed, expanded.

Rothko works, roughly to scale.
On the left MoMA’s No. 3/No. 13
1949.
On the right NGV’s Untitled (Red)
1956.


The works are not too dissimilar in size. One has more – is “incident” the right word? More varied in colour, and incredible vibration in the lower green/orange area.

The current presentation is entirely different.

Rothko in MoMA at NGV installation


The MoMA work is in an airy, well-lit, high-ceiling gallery, plenty of breathing space, seen in this photo with works by Barnett Newman, Louise Bourgeois and Jackson Pollock.

Rothko – NGV installation


This photo flatters the NGV presentation. As well as the single other painting, a work by Pierre Soulages, there is a chaise longue designed by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand, a mannequin in evening dress by mayber Lagerfeld, then mainly furniture on that side of the gallery. All 20th century, but spread across it. I think possibly three visitors glanced in during the times I was there.

It made me cranky, and then wondering just why I was so cross. Pretty much all the galleries I went into at NGV had a mixture of what might be termed fine art, decorative art, applied art. The ratios of these varied wildly. The sequence of galleries following the NGV Rothko were heavily furniture focused, including entire room and apartment settings. A broader view of “art” seems a reasonable idea. The decorative arts were really my entry point to looking and experiencing beauty, back when I first traveled in the 70s and 80s, and it’s good to see them afforded respect in an institution like NGV. Objects of interest in themselves can also give a wider context for the traditional gallery art – for example see my comments about a cabinet of items displayed next to a still life by Jan Davidsz de Heem (21-Jul-2013). But apart from coming from the same century, the works sharing space with the Rothko had nothing to say to it in my view. It felt more like a bunch of oddments that they wanted to display but couldn’t quite fit anywhere else.

Pollock’s Blue Poles in the apartment of Mr and Mrs Ben Heller, New York.

It did start some reflection on the nature of art, how we expect to see and experience it. Pollock’s Blue Poles used to be in a living space. Work may be intended for a chapel or a restaurant (read a bit about Rothko’s works intended for the Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building in New York – an article by Jonathan Jones, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/dec/07/artsfeatures, and the website of the Tate, where Rothko gifted the works https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern/display/in-the-studio/mark-rothko). A big gallery is really quite a strange idea. Then there’s seeing contemporary works in a smaller commercial gallery, in groupings and repetition/variation that won’t survive purchase and dispersal…

This post has been underway for too long already. A couple more quick notes.

Still from Pathé Frères film of Loïe Fuller

In the NGV Rothko room there was another connection to the MoMA exhibition. That included a film by the Lumière brothers which paid homage to American dancer Loïe Fuller’s ‘Serpentine dance’ (in the film performed by an anonymous female figure). In the NGV room there was a 1905 Pathé Frères film showing Fuller herself. Next to it was a lighted sculpture by François-Raoul Larche, Loïe Fuller, the dancer.

François-Raoul Larche
Loïe Fuller, the dancer
c. 1900

Interesting to compare the two sculptures of moving bodies, Larche’s and Boccioni’s, created around 13 years apart.

Also on at the NGV, Japonisme: Japan and the birth of Modern Art is a fascinating exploration of the impact of Japanese art and design upon the arts in the West in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Well worth a browse.

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