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Modern art comes home

Facing upheaval in Europe, modern art found a very special refuge in New York. So, says CLAUDIA PRITCHARD, a new blockbuster MoMA exhibition in Paris represents something of a homecoming

When the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York was founded in 1929, it had no museum building, and precious little art. But it did have invaluable resources, not least three well-connected women sharing the unusual combination of vast personal wealth and a taste for artistic innovation, and 600 years of European art crystalised in the painting and sculpture of the late 19th and early 20th century.

With generous loans rapidly converted into gifts, and philanthropy both an addiction and a contagion, months later permanent premises were secured and masterpieces of modern art put before a new audience. The American public was well served by the vast and complementary collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it dropped the ball after Impressionism.

MoMA picked up that ball, and ran to the limits of not only painting and sculpture, but of new media – photography, film and, latterly, installations. At the heart of the collection, however, and still arguably the biggest draw to MoMA in premises currently being revamped is a new extension – opening in 2019 – were the Cézannes, the Picassos, the Surrealist adventures, and the work of European migrants.

Either they or their family fled from poverty or persecution, or both, like the father of Mark Rothko (born Marcus Rothkowitz in what is now Daugavpils, Latvia); or else they laid low in Europe, often, like the Ukrainian-born Kazimir Malevich, separated from their work.

During the improvisatory scramble of the late 1930s, much European work was rescued and shipped to the US. The visionary first director of MoMa, Alfred H Barr Jr, while researching a new exhibition, learned in Hanover of a number of Malevich canvases, left by the artist in Germany after a stay there in 1927. Recognising that they were at risk, he bought four, including White on White (1918), took them off the stretchers, rolled them round his umbrella, and smuggled them back to New York in his luggage.

Such tales of art heroism – daring intellectually or in the circumstances of their rescue – run through the 200 works of Being Modern: MoMA in Paris at the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

In many ways it is a natural sequel to the Fondation’s last winter show, Icons of Modern Art, showing works, again largely modern and Western, bought by the foresighted Russian collector Sergei Shchukin.

MoMA’s core works are, similarly, the product of eclectic personal taste. Happily, the personal taste of the affluent benefactors – notably Lillie P Bliss, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Mary Quinn Sullivan, favoured the new and the international.

But not everyone was so enlightened, and populism was looming. ‘It is important in a period when Hitler has made a lurid fetish of nationalism that no fewer than 24 nations other than our own should be represented in the museum collection,’ stated the first catalogue in 1942 of the MoMA collection. Quentin Bajac, curator of the Paris exhibition, describes it simply as ‘polyphonic’.

The art stories written into each work unfold in roughly chronological order across 10 galleries, with a coup de théâtre in the last, and from the outset the landscape is pan-European: Cézanne, wanting to ‘astonish Paris with an apple’ in his Nature Morte aux Pommes (1895-98); the same artist’s The Bather (1885), both mobile and stolid, its flesh tints indistinguishable from the flat landscape behind, was parent to Catalan-born Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse (1905-06), and to the angular studio scene of L’Atelier (‘The Studio’, 1927-28). The works hang within a few metres of each other in this thoughtfully curated show.

The gift to MoMA of L’Atelier by Walter P Chrysler Jr typifies the perhaps uniquely American scene in which fortunes made in industry at home were lavished on works from another continent – which were then given away.

Across the Atlantic, the self-made 19th-century industrialists of the Midlands and the North, if they invested fiscally and emotionally in art, stocked up on the home-grown pre-Raphaelites.

But while donors such as Lever Brothers and Helena Rubinstein have their names in lights, MoMA has also received an astonishing 1,400 anonymous donations. Salvador Dalì’s hugely influential and much imitated The Persistence of Memory (1931) was received this way in 1934, when a then substantial $350 was handed over to secure the purchase. Later it was discovered that advertising executive and museum trustee Helen Lansdowne Resor had stumped up.

Dali admitted in the artist questionnaire that MoMA usefully issued upon the acquisition of a work that the hellish vision of melting clocks and sickly colouring came from ‘a migraine attack’, during which, at night, he revisited and added to an already painted barren coastal scene from his native Catalonia. Art out of adversity – from which, some would say, the best creativity always stems, which bodes well for stricken Britain over the coming months or years – frequently ends up at MoMA.

Artists working in a shifting world found stability in their European art heritage. Max Beckmann, depicting the privations of the two world wars spawned in his native Germany, adopted the centuries-old triptych form in Departure (1932-35). Renaissance-like monumental figures are borne to freedom and safety in the central panel of his quasi-altarpiece, while on the left is the sadistic cruelty of the oppressor, and on the right, a tightly-bound figure resembles a saint and martyr. ‘Not only must the artist of Nazi Germany bow to political tyranny, he must also conform to the personal taste of the great art connoisseur, Adolf Hitler,’ Barr stated contemptuously on acquiring Departure in 1942. The painting had been dubbed degenerate and put up for sale. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street, Berlin (1913), was secured in the same way. Later that year, MoMA staged an entire exhibition of so-called degenerate art.

That was entirely in keeping with a forward-looking policy.

While at the outset it was decided that the museum would only ever show work of the past 50 years, disposing of earlier pieces as time passed, this rule was rapidly overturned.

The Met, which has updated its collection independently, was also to be the recipient of deaccessioned works. However, by 1953 the temptation to hang on to masterpieces became irresistible. But another pledge, to cash in works in pursuit of others was, bravely, upheld.

Gustav Klimt’s gold-flecked comforting figures in Hope II (1907-08) were only secured by disposing of the artist’s The Park, with the enlightened permission of that picture’s donor, Gertrud Mellon.

While the Abstract Expressionists would break new ground in their lofty city studios, time and again European outriders cleared the path for their US counterparts.

The unsettling visions of eviscerated cities dreamed up by the Surrealists’ way-maker, the Italian Giorgio de Chirico, as in Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure, 1914), a perspicacious vision of displaced people, resurfaces in Edward Hopper’s bleak townscapes.

The repurposing of found materials by de Chirico’s Surrealist successors, notably Duchamp, a version of whose Bicycle Wheel, dating from 1913, is shown, re-emerges a century later in Mark Bradford’s Let’s Walk to the Middle of the Ocean (2015), the litter from the streets around his Los Angles studio peeling away from his explosive seascape.

Either side of the Atlantic ocean and the English Channel, the ephemera of cheap mass communication and mass entertainment delighted artists who were breaking away from the precious materials of conventional art-making.

Kurt Schwitters, as the US industrialist benefactors would do, delighted in the concept of commerce – the art of making and exchanging something useful – and borrowed the Merz syllable of Kommerz to describe his own productions. These ranged from the tiny collages in the exhibition (1920-23) salvaged from news cuttings and tickets, to the largely lost Merz Bau, whole buildings as artwork. (By good fortune, it is now possible to see one Merz Bau wall as Schwitters intended: rescued from the artist’s hideaway in Windermere by pop artist Richard Hamilton in the 1960s, it is restored and newly on display at Newcastle upon Tyne’s recently re-opened Hatton Gallery.)

Schwitters would surely have appreciated the contemporary Italian artist Lele Saveri’s The Newsstand (2013-14), an installation – part collage, part building – at first glance made up of the usual clutter of newspapers and periodicals, but whose racks of titles prove to be self-published books and magazines, 21st century equivalent of the hand-drawn illuminated manuscripts of mediaeval monasteries.

But the song of civilised Europe rings out most audibly in the exhibition’s closing installation by Canadian-born Janet Cardiff.

Forty loudspeakers on footed stands, each a black box at head height, relay in harmony the individual voices in a vast musical soundscape.

Singing are the adults and children of Salisbury Cathedral Choir and the work is Spem in Alium, the late 16th century 40-part motet by Thomas Tallis. He was British; and he was spurred on by the complex settings of his Italian rival Alessandro Striggio.

The Forty-Part Motet (2001) is MoMA’s ‘polyphonic’ collection rendered in sound. Modern art was forged in Europe, the music seems to say, as it soars skyward. It could add: British culture, too.

Being Modern: MoMA in Paris, Fondation Louis Vuitton, 8 avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, Bois de Boulogne, Paris (, Wed to Mon, until 5 March 2018. Admission 14 euros

Claudia Pritchard is a freelance arts journalist

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