Speaking to me on the phone, Miranda Wallace, senior curator of International Exhibition Projects at the National Gallery of Victoria, is palpably excited, talking a mile a minute. She has every reason to be, what with the gargantuan exhibition she and her co-curators have pulled off over the last two years. This winter, the National Gallery of Victoria will be home to 200 works from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, spanning 130 years and featuring a bevy of big name artists like Gauguin, Mondrian, Dalí and Pollock.
Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872–1944) Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1937-42 Oil on canvas 23 3/4 x 21 7/8″ (60.3 x 55.4 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Sidney and Harriet Janis
“I began working at the NGV in October of 2015 and started on this project that same week,” Wallace tells me. “Within four weeks I was in New York meeting my co-curators, Samantha Friedman and Juliet Kinchin. That the NGV was working with these curators of design and architecture at MoMA was a sign they wanted the show to be broader than the paintings and sculptures that are the most iconic works in MoMA’s collection. We wanted to tell the story of the development of modern art through a diversity of practitioners.”
Initially, Wallace and her co-curators thought they would focus on the 1890s through to the 1960s, wanting to present a more contained story for audiences. But it soon became evident that MoMA’s very purpose as a collection of contemporary art meant that “we had to bring the exhibition all the way to the present, and trace lots of different stories.”
The idea of art as always being in conversation with the times therefore lies at the heart of MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art, with a particular emphasis on how artists responded to changes in technology. “What’s fascinating is the way you see certain interests among artists recur over a period of time. Developments in communication technologies or in transportation directly impacts on the aesthetic of certain artists, and now with the advent of the digital you see similar reactions and reverberations with very different outcomes.”
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901) La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge, 1891-92 Oil on board 31 1/4 x 23 1/4″ (79.4 x 59.0 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. David M. Levy
To trace these reverberations over time, the team of curators decided to divide the exhibition into eight thematic sections, beginning with work that reflected late 19th-century urban and industrial transformations. “At the start of the show, the artists emerge from a time when art is becoming incredibly visually different from this period onwards. Impressionism itself was a fairly unified movement so when it ended there was just an explosion of different tangents that artists went on because they pursued more of their conceptual interests.”
Wallace points to Gauguin’s The Moon and the Earth (1893), a painting in the exhibition that draws heavily on Polynesian mythology, as an example of how artists sought alternatives to the religious imagery of European art to understand the rapidly changing times they lived in.
“The love-hate relationship the artists had with these new cities, the mind boggles when you think about living through the period when cities had electric lights installed. Somewhere like Paris was so transformed by those public civic projects, and you can see those shifts reflected in how artists thought of themselves and of what their works should be representing. So for Gauguin, the story we’re telling in this first section about the city versus the escape to nature is really being played out in his work on the Pacific.”
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903) The Moon and the Earth, 1893 Oil on burlap 45 x 24 1/2″ (114.3 x 62.2 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Lillie P. Bliss Collection
The second section of the exhibition naturally emerges from this preoccupation with industrial development, but with a particular focus on the machine. Dividing lines are drawn clearly if not unwaveringly between works that are more optimistic and despairing, with those more celebratory ones typically composed before the Second World War exposed the utter devastation that machinery could wreak. For instance, Grosz’s Explosion (1917), an apocalyptic rendering of man-made destruction, sits alongside something as hopeful as Balla’s Swifts: Paths of movement + dynamic sequences (1913), a breathtaking abstraction of bird flight into motion and light. “This section delights in the tension between potential and despair,” says Wallace.
Sure to be a favourite with audiences, the fourth section is a deep, dazzling dive into surrealism. Titled Inner and Outer Worlds, it draws together artists representing the interiority of the individual, with the influence of Freud and psychoanalysis running riot.
A profound influence on the surrealists, Giorgio de Chirico’s Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure) (1914) is one of the key works in this section. A painting of a train station in Paris, it is a wonderfully fractured image, playing with perspective and the logic of the elements themselves. “It’s got a sense of accuracy about it but you understand that it’s not a real railway station,” Wallace enthuses. “There are clues in the picture as to why it’s not quite right but it does look so familiar at the same time. A lot of surrealists cited de Chirico as the reason they became artists – he draws a lot on the language of classicism with his colonnaded buildings and statuary, so he’s very interesting in the way he mixes traditions, but he also manages to create a psychologically charged space,and I think that his ability to depict these dreamscapes is what becomes so important for the surrealists and why they cite him as this hugely influential figure.”
Giorgio de Chirico (Italian, born Greece. 1888–1978) Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), early 1914 Oil on canvas 55 1/8″ x 6′ 5/8″ (140 x 184.5 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Thrall Soby © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome
We both agree that it’s inevitable that audiences will flock to see Dalí’s iconic The Persistence of Memory (1931), which has become the surrealist work par excellence. “It’s quite a small painting, but it’s done with this incredible beautiful clarity of detail that’s almost in the way of a Dutch painting of the 17th century. This is from Dalí’s classic period where he was trying to be as close to the Freudian truth of psychoanalysis as possible and really paint a dream. This is him at his most purely surrealist.”
Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904–1989) The Persistence of Memory, 1931 Oil on canvas 9 1/2 x 13″ (24.1 x 33 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously © 2016 Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
As audiences move closer to the present day, the political concerns of the time become more salient, due in part to the familiarity of the issues themselves as well as the different modes in which they are expressed. Al Loving’s magnificent dyed canvas works, such as Untitled c. 1975, are an explicit attempt to get away from the history of European colonial art, much like what Gauguin tried to achieve at the turn of the century. “As an African American, Loving felt that traditional easel painting or stretched canvas in a frame was too loaded with this white history,” Wallace explains. “He wanted to work on the wall and with colour, but with something from his own tradition. He used torn, dyed fabric in the quilting tradition to make a statement about how the medium can reflect on its own history, as well as the need to create new forms if you want to do something different.”
The passage of time is particularly felt in the final sections of the exhibition, with Wallace drawing my attention to Rineke Dijkstra’s photo series Almerisa, portraits of a young Bosnian refugee taken from the ages of six to 20. They are profoundly moving, posing questions about the individual and her relationship to the concept of statehood and assimilation. “It obviously speaks to a lot of concerns about the modern day but they’re not tricked up photographs, it’s straight documentary photography. It’s so powerful to do a project that persists over time and to see change over a 14-year period, and I think that so encapsulates this show. It reminds us that we’re always in a point of transformation although we may not see it happening at the time.”
MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art is on at the National Gallery of Victoria from June 9 – October 7