Modern art developed outside the accepted channels of Academic art from the late 19th century onward. Think of those eccentric outsiders who created the myth of the modern artist, such as Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Picasso. Following in their wake, it was the enthusiasm of a few wealthy collectors who enabled the new ways of seeing to become dominant in the 20th century. One of the beneficiaries was the Museum of Modern Art in New York, founded in 1929, which has been a venerable home of many iconic masterpieces.
Almost 90 years later, in MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art, we are given a chance to see what MoMA stands for in the 21st century, and how its vision of art has tried to remain up-to-date. The resulting exhibition is a discordant mix of inspiring modernist idealism, exhausted post-modern irony, and boring contemporary globalism. Taken as a whole, the aesthetic appeal of the artwork on display falls steadily as it approaches the present moment.
The show begins with a fascinating group of Post-Impressionists, Fauvists, and Expressionists. In some powerful pictures by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, André Derain, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the predominance of sickly green hues exudes a mood of existential anxiety that would haunt the 20th century. This foreboding angst was in some ways the opposite of the utopian fervour seen in Cubism, Futurism, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus, in which traditional forms were replaced with revolutionary purism. The ambition of these movements brought art closer to design than ever before.
MoMA at NGVincludes a few examples of the new architecture, furniture, advertising, and everyday design, and highlights how our contemporary world was gradually shaped in the last century. The decorative flourishes were stripped away in a crusade to simplify and streamline modern life. Some results we can see are a featureless electric wall clock from 1910 by German designer Peter Behrens, some uncomfortable machine-like furniture, and plans for soulless mass architecture by Le Corbusier among others. For better or worse such things remain with us today.
This was not a soulless campaign by any means; for instance, my personal favourite is the ardent minimalist Piet Mondrian. Like the pioneering abstractionist Wasily Kandinsky, Mondrian was keen on Theosophical concepts, and his starkly simple Tableau I: Lozenge with four lines and grey (1926) has an enigmatic aura about it; a white diamond with crossing black stripes, like an arcane puzzle for the higher mind. Anyone who thinks 'I could do that myself' is using the benefit of hindsight and ignoring the unique historical context. Unlike Mondrian, we were not born 150 years ago, nor do we believe so fervently today in the spiritual power of art.
As we follow the exhibition, we are borne back ceaselessly into a utopian future, that in Australia existed for most of us only in library books. Growing up in suburban Melbourne in the 1970s, my parents' tastes in art were solidly for landscapes and bush scenes. So as a teenager, I was drawn like many adolescents to the otherness and absurdity of Surrealism, and artists like Salvador Dali. The surrealist strain in this show is best represented by Giorgio de Chirico's disturbing enormous streetscape The Melancholy of Departure (1914), and by Picasso's equally monolithic Seated Bather (1930) with her grasping insectoid face. Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst and Frida Kahlo also rate a mention for exceptional examples of weirdness in art.
The surrealist aesthetic was long relegated to a side-path of Modernism, but in this eclectic age of confusion, it seems as relevant as ever. This mood of strangeness is certainly reflected in the works of the American artists Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keefe, both highlights of this exhibition. Hopper's gas station on the edge of nowhere, titled Gas (1940), conveys the ordinariness of life engaged in daily commerce, but the emptiness of the scene strikes a worrying chord. Somehow our humanity has been lost on the way to progress.
Making a detour around Marcel Duchamp's incongruous readymade bicycle on a stool of 1913 (remade in 1951), we come to the Abstract Expressionists and some of the best non-representational painting in the 20th century – Barnett Newman's Onement III (1949), Mark Rothko's No.3/No.13 (1949), and Jackson Pollock's Number 7 (1950). Here we see the monomania of Mondrian transformed, with sensuous paintwork and deep colours that sing vibrantly. These pictures invite a meditative state, asking you to drop your thoughts like shabby clothes and step into the light.
From this high point of the modernist urge for truth, the trajectory of art steadily shifted away from profundity. Through the 1960s and 70s both Minimalism and Pop Art jockeyed for influence as empty mirrors of contemporary life, eventually to be overtaken by the Duchampian game-playing semiotics of the post-modern.
In a more innocent age before political correctness, Pop Art used to be sexy, frivolous, and fun. Here we have a selection from the big names, all very bright and hip, but also looking rather tired and out of date. Of course the key artists (Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg, and Lichtenstein) all had a great sense of what was cool and trivial, and took pleasure in celebrating popular culture with tongue firmly in cheek. Kenneth Anger's short film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), is a seductive relic from a time when gays were still dangerous. However, the inclusion of some rock album covers and an electric guitar to the exhibition seems unnecessarily didactic and somewhat trivial.
Pop art draws the crowds, but conceptual art does not. So thank goodness they are in the same room. Two extremely boring performance videos from the 1970s by Martha Rosler and Sanja IvekoviÄ‡ are described as cutting edge feminist critiques. On Kawara's date painting is another example of idea over expression. Apart from a small Anselm Kiefer, the exciting, colourful 1980s Neo-Expressionist painting movement is edited from history. Instead we are presented with critically accepted Post-Modernism, composed mostly of installation, photography, and mediocre drawing. There are some interesting works by famous artists of the late 20th century – including Cindy Sherman, Robert Gober, and Luc Tuymans – but overall there is less emphasis on artistic skill and visual enjoyment than ever before.
From this point, as we enter the current century, the importance of the art on display has almost nothing to do with public enjoyment, understanding, or acceptance. It is more 'conceptual', 'political', and 'diverse' than ever before, which translates to more boring, progressive, and multicultural. While Modernism was mainly European, the current art world is decidedly not. In the last section of the MoMA survey, we are presented with work by artists from Turkey, Ghana, China, the Sahara, and of Palestinian background. This new global view references colonialism, immigration, and displacement, all the sine qua non of conscience-driven contemporary art. The visual enjoyment is gone, however, in place of blankly presented information and objects, bureaucratically pompous in style and intent.
One last item in MoMA at NGV is an airline flight board from 1996 by Solari di Udine, makers of industrial timekeeping systems. I wonder is this telling us that the underlying wish of Modernism, to reshape and control society, has actually been achieved? If this exhibition is any indication of the future, we can only hope Cate Blanchett is wrong about the ability of the arts to "process experience and make experience available and understandable". It seems like the end of the modernist dream is really a post-modern reality of bland, conforming statements, driving an agenda of shared progressive ideas at the expense of beauty and the sublime.