MoMA at NGV

July 23, 2018
Paul Cézanne, 'Still life with apples' (1995-98)

Museums have an historical mission to preserve a cultural legacy and bring it before the public. It’s a goal shared by all such insititutions, big or small, but there are huge disparities between the leading international museums and their aspirational counterparts. For the art of the 20th century the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) sits at the very top of the mountain, flanked by the Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s MoMA at NGV is couched as the meeting of two great art museums but it’s an unequal exchange. Even allowing for its current run of success the NGV is simply not in the same league when it comes to modern art. The current show acts as a client gallery’s celebration of MoMA’s achievements since its inception in 1929. If it’s not simply a package show that’s because the NGV has been determined to put its own stamp on proceedings, with local curator Miranda Wallace sharing in the selections and catalogue essays with MoMA’s Samantha Friedman and Juliet Kinchin.

On the day MoMA opened its doors the NGV was already 68 years old. From 1904 the Felton Bequest had made it one of the richest galleries in the world. If the trustees and directors had been so inclined the NGV could have hoovered up many of the great masterpieces of modern art for a fraction of what they paid for dull paintings acquired from the Royal Academy and the French Salons. It’s one of the great “what ifs” in Australian cultural history.

Vincent Van Gogh, ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’ (1889)

Needless to say there was little appetite for modern art at the NGV in those days, and the resistance would drag on into the 1960s. MoMA, by contrast, would make rapid inroads into public consciousness over the same period. This was largely due to the missionary zeal of the museum’s inaugural director, Alfred H.Barr Jr., who took on the job at the age of 27.

When MoMA opened its doors, about a week after the Wall Street Crash, it was addressing an audience that viewed modern art as hardly more than a joke or a hoax perpetrated by foreigners – a bit like Donald Trump’s view of climate change or NATO. Barr did his job so well that by the time he finally retired in 1968 modern art had conquered the world.

Even after he had been dismissed as director in 1943 Barr continued on in an advisory role. They simply couldn’t prise him out of the place. It was integral to his vision of modernism that the museum should be open to both high and popular culture. During his tenure he would oversee the opening of departments of architecture (1932), film (1935) and photography (1940). One groundbreaking show followed another. The crowning achievment came in 1939 when MoMA moved into a new, purpose-built headquarters, designed according to the clean, functional principles of the Bauhaus, the famous German school of art and design which the museum had championed in an exhibition of 1938.

Fernand Léger, ‘Propellers’ (1918)

It was the triumph of the ‘white cube’ which became the standard method of displaying modern art around the planet. We’re still trying to escape its stranglehold today, but for MoMA at NGV, the designers have dutifully copied that clinical, neutral look. It conveys an idea of the museum as a laboratory in which the latest artistic experiments may be demonstrated.

The show begins with representative paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat and Van Gogh, who featured in MoMA’s opening display in 1929. In the rooms that follow we are taken on a potted history of modern art and design, with works that appeared in landmark exhibitions such as Modern Architecture (1932), Machine Art (1934), Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1937), and Art of the Real (1968). There were also important monographic exhibitions of artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh.

We see works by all the big names in modern art – not the indubitable masterpieces such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) or Matisse’s Red Studio (1911), but pieces of good quality that allow a whirlwind overview of a century of innovation. If there is one serious omission it’s Henri Rousseau, rightly hailed as a seminal figure in Roger Shattuck’s classic study, The Banquet Years (1955). The only Australian presence is Martin Sharp’s album cover for Cream’s Disraeli Gears (1967).

Martin Sharp, ‘Disraeli Gears’ (1967)

The curators have woven a few subtle repetitions into the selection. Peter Behrens’s desk fan of 1908 is echoed by Fernand Léger’s painting, Propellers (1918). Both Léger and Duchamp are quoted praising planes and propellers in the catalogue. The motif is picked up again by Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Soft Fan (1966-67), and Olafur Eliasson’s suspended fan in the gallery entrance hall. Even Rauschenberg’s silkscreen print series, Currents, seems to allude to the air currents disturbed by the fans. One wonders if it’s all an elaborate joke on the idea of ‘revolution’ as a political, aesthetic and physical concept.

Pablo Picasso, ‘Seated Bather’ (1930)

There are other playful echoes: Wilfredo Lam’s Satan (1942) alongside Picasso’s Seated Bather (1930); Robert Indiana’s LOVE (1967) mirrored by General Idea’s AIDS (1988). Jeff Koons’s vacuum cleaners in vitrines lament the tragic obsolescence of ‘the new’, while spoofing the Minimalist objects of artists such Donald Judd and Robert Morris.

Jeff Koons, ‘New Shelton wet/dry double-decker’ (1981)

From its earliest days commentators wondered how a museum of modern art could stay modern when every object was foredoomed to recede into the past. The solution has been to treat “modern” as a period style, as art historian Bernard Smith argued, while opening up a broader, vaguer category called “contemporary art”.

The contemporary part of this exhibition is much weaker than the modern but still artfully linked into the narrative the museum wishes to convey. As for MoMA itself, the reign of Alfred H.Barr Jr. has given way to the era of Glenn D.Lowry, whose 23-year stint as director has seen a succession of renovations, expansions and policy rethinks.

Where Barr was a visionary aesthete, Lowry is a master fund-raiser – a skill more highly valued in this day and age. Where Barr’s idea of the world barely extended beyond Europe and the United States, Lowry is pushing MoMA’s interests into South America, Africa and Asia. With this new global emphasis one might optimistically expect that one day the museum will recognise Australia not simply as a highly appreciative venue for a touring show, but as a place that actually makes art.

MOMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until 7 Oct.

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July, 2018