Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My MoMA top 8

Egon Schiele, "Girl with Black Hair" (Mädchen mit schwarzem Haar, 1912). Certainly a work that grabs one's attention, or at least my male gaze. There's a shimmer, a rippling detail that you can glimpse in the purple passages if you peer closer. That hue was not easy to see even under the light at the current exhibition (March 27-July 11, 2011) of "German Expressionism: the Graphic Impulse," which Layne and I went to see at New York's Museum of Modern Art, last Sunday, however.

Schiele's appealed to me for his blowsy, restless, fevered, woozy images of desire. His disheveled bodies, especially his satiated or satiating young women, naturally (!) may appeal to my sensibilities, or most men for all I know. Yet, he more than most artists also brilliantly captured his own consumption of the soul, the inner frenzy that distorted and distended his body and those of his models, including tender ones of his wife and child. He combined the before-and-after states of sexual longing and erotic limitations unforgettably. A century later, it's easy to see why he's still controversial, and perhaps why I felt uneasy in public looking for so long at his women, clothed and unclothed, and half in-between. 

Often I don't get much more of an impression in front of a work (except maybe marvelling at its size vs. what I'd expected. I'm sick of Frieda Kahlo as anyone from the neighborhoods where the trendy arrivistes blend into my city's Eastside natives-- and immigrants, more to the point-- might be), but I was surprised how tiny her two portraits were as I rushed past them, as so much at MoMA. I feel like a philistine, but I like my 20c art figurative, I like watercolors, and as you can tell here, the eight works out of hundreds scanned and skimmed that remained most with me prove fanciful, bold, and/or (3:8) nude females. Frida excepted.

Egon Schiele,  "Nude with Violet Stockings and Black Hair"  (Akt mit violetten Strümpfen und schwarzem Haar, 1912) A more tender, reflective moment? I th0ught about this woman, this canvas, this atelier, where sometime this was created the same year my godfather was born in stockyard-adjacent immigrant Chicago.  The naturalism of the novel, the experimental art, both likely expressed in a manner no upright Catholic back then might have even dared to imagine (supine lapsed Joyce with or without his Nora notwithstanding!) 

What a difference between my godfather's upbringing and the bohemian demi-monde of the Kaiser and Emperor's final reign. Juxtaposed with Schiele's other 1912 black-haired nude, I admired both versions of dark-haired sirens. For this, he looked down a ladder at his model. And for such as this, he was briefly imprisoned for morals charges consorting with minors, pornography, the sort that led to his reputation.

Otto Dix, "Shock Troops Advance Under Gas," (Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor) from The War (Der Krieg, 1928-32, 50 total prints) They all went to war, the men in this exhibit. Many volunteered.
Some died, some were invalidated, some lost it. All suffered. Schiele by comparison was lucky, transferring to a desk job in the Austrian army so he could keep drawing and painting. No wonder the Dual Monarchy with its double-eagled symbol, distracted, two directions at once, no one-track mind, lost the war.

The caption at Schiele's mini-bio at the German Expressionism MoMA site concludes: "Exhibition at Vienna Secession in March 1918 heralded financial and critical success. Seven months later, at age twenty-eight, succumbed to the influenza pandemic, three days after his pregnant wife." I wonder what happened to Schiele's lissome, dissolute, supple models.

After the war, this acid etching represents one out of a horrific series. The women as well as the men in these scenes, bloated, starving, gnawed, grappling, show other contortions after the poses of Schiele and his bold circle succumbed to rictus, syphilis, TB, the flu, and rigor mortis. This project by another, far more long-lived, veteran reminds me of and compares to Goya's anti-war prints. The corrosive composition suits bitterly the subject: form and content blend into a sharp, graphic illustration.

Max Pechstein, "The Lord's Prayer," (Das Vater Unser, 1921) (complete portfolio as slideshow at this link). This titles twelve woodcuts. They take Martin Luther's version of the prayer and simply tell its story. I was moved by this. The simplicity and elegance of the raw depictions speaks well for the humanity that needed to be restored after so much devastation. As with Eric Gill's British designs, Pechstein's direct, angular, medievalist, awkward, sharp images may not as appealing on the surface. So, check out the series via the hyperlink; it grows on you as you follow its familiar path along those venerable verses. This exhibit after hundreds of evocations of horror and exposure needed this gentler post-war chastening.

And, after so much relentless angst, lust, and tension, we left this special display of German outbursts for the permanent, if no less agitated, collections on other floors below. Not as much halted my roving eye as I thought. Even if this shows my aesthetic retardation, I prefer earlier, more representational periods to much of abstracted modern art, I confess, and on a crowded April (I can't imagine this place in summer or the holidays) Sunday afternoon in two-and-a-half hours, you do reach overload soon, especially if footsore, jet-lagged, and harried. So, four more that I record for my own recollections...

Amedeo Modigliani, "Reclining Nude" (1921). A new biography proves again what a roue he was to his women, but this one, rounder and less elongated than the woman depicted in another painting by him next to it, reveals a kinder side to him, I hope. The reddish tones stood out yet softened the impact on the eye. It's a golden, glowing work, compared to many which draw upon or remain in darker, muted tones.

Paul Klee,  "Cat and Bird" (1928). I learned in my "Studies in the Contemporary American Novel" freshman lit class in college how Klee's "The Twittering Machine" defined modernism as capturing the inside of the character as what's revealed, not the pictorial-photographic attempts of realism and naturalism that sought to pile up vividly rendered exact details from one's observations. Here, with the bird "inside" the feline's head, we can see this strategy at work.

When I got back to L.A. the following day after my visit, my two cats were the pestiest they'd ever been, especially Gary, whose intent, composed, yet slightly awry, green-eyed gaze resembles Klee's kitty, to have me upstairs to cuddle them, or at least so he (less so sister Mary) could sit on my chest and fall asleep after being fed by me. They'd refused the ample food left out for them in my absence. I
gave Gary extra cat treats shaped like fish, as here reproduced artfully if less tangibly and tastily.

James Ensor,   "Tribulations of Saint Anthony"  (1887).  I stood in front of this the longest. It was more respectable a passage spent peering than my elapsed and then repeated stays in front of Schiele's paired nudes. For decades, I've liked Ensor's "Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889" similar send-up now at the Getty Museum.

Anyone who knows me well could (as my wife predicted when she'd caught up with me) figure I'd camp out here. Many small squiggles as with the devil falling high over the center, the inflated marginal figure, the romping satyrs, entwined debauchees, the floating, half-visible Blue Meanie Peter Max apparitions, take time to surface from the chaos of this wonderful vision. One painting worth visiting, at nose-length at least for myopic me. This is one work meriting a much larger reproduction and a magnified resolution.

Dorothea Lange,  "Mother and Child" (1954). This amid a magpie's heap of photos in a special exhibit of women photographers from the dawn of the camera. This crammed arrangement of so many disparate images reminded me of what "Songs by composers who happened to be gay" might sound like on a CD-box set. That is, so varied that I'd miss the (essentialism as destiny or savvy niche marketing?) sales pitch.  (Yet, I've seen jazz and classical compilation collections aimed straight at this "sexual preference" cohort.)

But, a handful of those again who know me, if fewer than for Ensor's choice by me, may recognize why I cottoned to this out of a wall of Lange's iconic images. Even if I had not seen the place labeled where it was shot, San Francisco, the title and the time period arrested my glance enough for this to make the final cut.  I did a bit of research: it's Market Street with one of its streetcars passing, the edge of the Emporium department store seen, those two stores (are there any non-chains left anywhere in any downtown?) now replaced by the massive mall that's the SF Center. 

I'll leave it to discretion rather than say why, but this photo remained with me, the last seen in this array of eight chosen which I wanted to frame in my own private gallery for you and me to share.


Tony Bailie said...

I have long been fascinated with Egon Schiele and though I have never seen any of his work exhibited I do have one off those large album-type books with around a hundred colour reproductions and sketches. His life and work serve as an erotic sub-plot in Mario Vargas Llosa's novel The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto.
There is an exhibition of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera running in The Museum of Modern Art in Dublin which I hope to get to see in the next few weeks.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Tony, I long ago read that Vargas Llosa novel (as most of his work over the past thirty years, long before he became a deserved laureate), but that Schiele detail completely vanished from my recollections of "Don R.," so thanks for the reminder. The few times before I've come across Schiele's images, they've always grabbed my attention, and for me he's easily the standout in that exhibit. His mastery of line and emotion combines memorably.

The museum even had (separately shown) a few Hungarian Soviet Republic (133 days under Bela Kun, 1919) posters separately, showing a similar aesthetic, on a massive and exuberantly graphic scale. The MoMA's book on the German Expressionism exhibit may be worth purchasing. However, I like the fact that the website has an extensive amount of their collection ready for retrieval.

I find Rivera's work, however agitprop, often moving in its humanity despite the ideology, as with the other muralists of his time and nation. Kahlo does not lack talent, but I weary of her by sheer over-exposure, sort of like the Beatles! More of a pop culture icon, her unibrowed image multiplying all around me as if in some Borges tale. Hope you get to see the exhibit soon; shows how little I know that there was a modern art museum titled as such in Dublin...