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NGV's mammoth MoMA exhibition will tell 'the greatest stories of modern art'

Written by
Maxim Boon

It’s a dilemma that few gallery curators will ever have the opportunity to face: which artworks should you exhibit when you have the pick of the most significant collection of modern masterpieces in the world?

This was the enviable task facing the National Gallery of Victoria’s senior curator Miranda Wallace as she, alongside counterparts from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, programmed a blockbusting collaboration between NGV and MoMA. More than 200 key works – cherry-picked from MoMA’s 200,000 strong collection – will make the 16,000km trek from Midtown Manhattan, arriving on St Kilda Road in June.

“You can very easily feel overwhelmed by the quality of [MoMA’s] collection,” Wallace admits. “Obviously, the curators at MoMA know the works very well, which was certainly helpful. If I had been given a completely blank slate, it would be tough to know where to stop.”

On a brief four-month loan while MoMA undergoes building works, the carefully selected collection boasts a rollcall of the most influential visionaries of the past 130 years. It’s no exaggeration to say every major artist to have created work following the pioneering post-impressionism of Van Gogh in the 1880s will be found within the NGV’s walls.

But the show isn’t merely about dazzling gallery-goers with Picassos and Dalís and Rothkos, (oh my!) Wallace and her team have crafted the exhibition to reveal the social, technological and political contexts that shaped the great artistic trends of the 20th-century. “We really wanted the show to talk about this idea of artists responding to the key developments of modernity, such as the rise of the city or the spread of industrialisation,” Wallace explains. “We very deliberately avoided grouping works together by [artistic] movements. We wanted the collection to reflect this idea of transformation and change, to show how artists were not only responding to the history of art and trying to contribute their own new vision within that, but also how they were responding to the external world and broader cultural concerns.”

Following a loose chronological framework, eight thematic zones guide visitors on a sprawling survey charting the evolution of contemporary creative thought. The ‘Arcadia and the Metropolis’ section that opens the exhibition explores how the rise of modern cities both fascinated and frustrated artists like Cézanne and Gauguin. The ‘Things as They Are’ section, the biggest zone in the exhibition, examines how pop art and minimalism in the 1960s and ‘70s used representative simplicity to make complex social and political commentary. These zones offer an extra layer of interest without being overly insistent or obtrusive, Wallace says. “We definitely encourage people to experience and understand a single work on its own terms. But we’ve tried to create a kind of balance between that intimate experience, and offering those contexts that heighten an understanding of the work and what it represents within a broader continuum.”

In addition to its many show-stopping drawcards – Dalí’s The Persistence Of Memory, Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl, and Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe to name a few – the exhibition also features works by lesser known artists, as well as photographers, designers, architects (including the late Zaha Hadid) and artists working in new, digital mediums. Bringing together such a vast variety of techniques and disciplines is not only about presenting a comprehensive view of modern artistic achievement. It’s also about celebrating the legacy of MoMA as arguably the most important institution of its type in the world. As Wallace puts it, “This show is telling the greatest stories of modern art.” 

Five essential artworks heading to Melbourne

1. Vincent van Gogh: ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’, 1889

Courtesy MoMA, New York

One of the earliest works on display, this may not be van Gogh’s most recognisable work, but it is a key example of the post-impressionist use of colour and form, that the artist himself hailed as the birth of “the modern portrait”.

2. Pablo Picasso: The Architect’s Table’, 1912

Courtesy MoMA, New York © 2016 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

One of the most dynamic examples of cubism in MoMA’s collection, the fractured composition is interlaced with references to Picasso’s personal life, such as the words ‘Ma Jolie’, the nickname of his lover, Eva Gouel-at.

3. Marcel Duchamp: ‘Bicycle Wheel’, 1951

Courtesy MoMA, New York © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp

It may not look like much, but this watershed example of dadaism was the first of Duchamp’s so called ‘readymade’ sculptures, paving the way for found object and outsider art as legitimate forms of creative expression in the 20th century.

4. Roy Lichtenstein: ‘Drowning Girl’, 1963

Courtesy MoMA, New York © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/Licensed by Viscopy, 2016

Like many of pop art’s most important exponents, Lichtenstein made appropriation the cornerstone of his practice, lifting his compositions wholesale from comic books, such as in this example, from DC Comics’ Secret Love #83.

5. El Anatsui: ‘Bleeding Takari II’, 2007

Courtesy MoMA, New York, © El Anatsui. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

One of the most recently acquired pieces on loan from MoMA, this flowing sheet of pearlescent drapery by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui is made from repurposed bottle caps, representing the infiltration of European culture over centuries of African colonisation.

MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art is open from June 9 to October 7.

Looking for more art around town? Check out our hit-list of the best art exhibitions in Melbourne this month.

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