We were trying to find a unique way to show off our experiences at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York City, because “we saw art, it was cool” doesn’t really make for a great blog post. Neither of us are specifically art enthusiasts, and while we do love exploring different galleries, we don’t always know what we are looking at. Especially when visiting a place with a collection as massive as the MoMA, you see so many different memorable paintings and sculptures in such a short time, that its hard to keep track of everything.
There were many paintings that really caught our eye; sometimes this was because it was a famous artist (Picasso) or famous painting (“The Starry Night”) that we had seen before. Sometimes it was the sheer size (Monet’s “Water Lilies”) or something that just jumped off the walls and caught our eye (Paul Signac’s “Opus 217”). So what we’ve decided to do, using a couple pictures we snapped with our phones, is to learn a little something about these paintings, and relive the experience with everyone.
The MoMA has to be considered one of the best museums in the world. It’s definitely worth spending a couple hours of your trip to New York to explore this vast art collection. It houses some incredible permanent art pieces – such as Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso – and celebrates the amazing and sometimes weird art of the modern era. The 5th floor collection will blow your mind. There is so much great art in this museum that there is a good chance you won’t be able to see it all.
So, what exactly is “Modern Art”? It is a pretty broad category that includes artwork produced roughly between 1860s to 1970s, and is usually associated with artwork that has moved away from traditional methods and attempted more experimental techniques. This coincided roughly with the Industrial Revolution. These artists trended away from the narrative style, focusing on more abstract and experimental styles. This includes style’s like Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism, Art Deco and Abstract Expressionism.
We’ve really enjoyed working on this post, as there was so much to see in the museum and there was a lot of information to retain. So working on this article, going back to examine some of our favourite paintings, was quite the journey. We have decided to feature 22 paintings from our visit, but we’ve decided to split it into two different posts, so stay tuned later this week for the follow up, Museum of Modern Art – Part Two.
Buckle up folks, this is a long journey; we hope you enjoy reading this post as much as we enjoyed writing it. Our trip through the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is about to begin…
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – Part One
1 “The Starry Night” – Vincent Van Gogh
This is probably the most famous painting in the museum, so it seems like a good place to start. Vincent Van Gogh painted “The Starry Night” in 1889 and it depicts the view out of the window at the asylum he had checked himself into shortly after he had a breakdown and cut off one of his ears.
He spent a year in St Remy at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a monastery that was used as an asylum, and during this time he would create many of his most famous paintings. He wasn’t allowed to paint in his room, but there was an empty room downstairs in the monastery that he was allowed to use as his studio. He would draw or paint this same view out of the window, depicting it with different lighting, seasons and times of day at least 21 different times.
Vincent Van Gogh was born in the Netherlands, but spent a lot of time living in France, where he painted most of his most well known paintings. Much of his work, like “The Starry Night”, was done with oil on canvass. Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most well-known artists in the world and “The Starry Night” is one of his most iconic works. The Museum in Amsterdam that bears his name has the largest collection of his works.
This was obviously one of the top highlights for our trip to the MoMA, and seeing it for the first time – even if it was a little smaller than we had expected – was quite impressive. It is one of the museums most popular pieces of art, and it has been a part of the permanent collection since 1941.
2 “Girl before a Mirror” – Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso is a painter who’s name is known around the world, and he produced a lot of really stunning artwork throughout the 20th century. The style that he is most famous for is Cubism, which is pretty evident in this painting.
He utilized a very abstract and colourful style, which makes his artwork jump off the walls when viewed in person. He is credited as being one of the co-founders of Cubism (alongside Georges Braque) in early 20th century Paris, where shapes and different perspectives were combined to great effect, creating distorted images. When you see a Picasso painting, you can usually tell it’s his almost immediately.
“Girl before a mirror” was painted in 1932, and depicts one of Picasso’s favourite muses – Marie-Therese Walter – looking into the mirror and seeing her reflection. The woman on the left side is brightly coloured, while her reflection is imperfect and uses darker colours, probably signifying the perception we have of ourselves.
As you walk around the gallery of impressive paintings on the 5th floor, this painting stands out (even alongside many other Picasso paitnings) for its use of bright colours, which immediately caught our eyes.
3 “The She wolf “- Jackson Pollock
This painting, known as “The She Wolf” was created in 1943, a few years before the artist would develop the unique “drip technique” that he is most famous for. Jackson Pollock is known for some of his later works, in which he painted with his canvass on the ground, violently throwing paint in what seems like erratic paintings.
Pollock was a leading artist of the New York School, members of which were pioneers in the world of Abstract Expressionism. This painting was featured at Pollock’s first solo-exhibition in 1943, and a year later it would enter the MoMA, the first of many paintings by Pollock to enter a gallery.
When asked about what the painting represented in 1944, Pollock responded; “She-Wolf came into existence because I had to paint it. Any attempt on my part to say something about it, to attempt explanation of the inexplicable, could only destroy it”.
Many of his contemporaries examined primeval and mythological themes in their works, and this one is could be alluding to the twin founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus – who survived with the help on the she wolf. It was drawn at time of turmoil in the world, midway through WW2 and has many primitive thick looking brush stokes that reminds of myth or hieroglyphics.
4 “The Persistence of Memory” – Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali was a Spanish artist who worked with many different mediums, including paintings, film, photography and other formats. He had a big imagination, and was known for painting many surreal scenes, mixing reality with dreams in some of the most fantastic ways. His most famous painting – “The Persistence of Time” – was on display at the MoMA when we visited.
Salvador Dali was born in Spain in 1904, and is one of the most well known surrealist painters of all time. He had a big personality, an eccentric style and sometimes his attention grabbing antics gained more attention than his actual artwork. This painting was created in 1931, and has been at the MoMA since 1934
The idea or image of melting clocks is something that will always be remembered as something Salvador Dali brought to the world. One art critic – Dawn Ades – wrote that “The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order” to which Dali insisted it was a surrealist perception of Camembert cheese melting in the sun.
This is an iconic image that we’ve seen represented in many pop culture forms in the past; I believe even the Simpsons has even done a spoof on this. This painting was surprisingly tiny, which actually made it even more impressive. Despite it’s small size, the details were so intricate on such a small canvass, which is one of the reasons we were so impressed by this painting.
5 “Picture with an Archer” – Vasily Kandinsky
Vasily Kandinsky was born in Moscow, Russia in 1866 and is credited as one of the earliest pioneers of Modern Art. Early in life, he studied Law and Economics in Russia, and had a very successful career, and was even offered some high ranking positions such as a professorship at the University of Dorpat. He didn’t start painting until he was 30 years of age when he moved to Germany to study fine arts.
It wasn’t until you read the title, that you even notice the archer on horseback in the bottom right corner. “Picture with an Archer” was completed in 1909, and it uses many vibrant colours to tell a story. This painting really stands out and it comes alive with colour. At the time of this painting, he was living in Germany, and the scene probably depicts an image of his home in Russia, which is remembered romantically. Men in Russian dress in the foreground and the domed buildings of a village in the background.
Kandinsky is considered the first painter in the modern era to paint a completely abstract painting, which he would accomplish in a few years later in1911 with “Composition V”. Some of the elements that would later develop can be seen in this painting. With an amazing use of vibrant colours, this painting stands out, almost like a blurred vision when seen from a distance. In this painting he is moving closer to the more abstract elements that would make him famous later in life.
6 “Phantasy II” – Norman Louis
Norman Louis’ art was often inspired by music, especially Jazz, as the artist grew up in the New York neighbourhood of Harlem. He was strongly influenced by the works of Russian artist Vasily Kandinsky, and this inspiration helped him in creating a unique abstract style on his own.
He began his career 1930 as a figurative artist, with most of his work focusing on the neighbourhood he grew up in, painting the world as he saw it. In the post-world war era, he began moving towards a more unique style of the abstract expressionism, moving away from what he called arts “stagnation in too much tradition.”
His artwork in the 1940s were either inspired by music or had a political tone to them. He once commented about how world war two pitted the US “against an enemy whose master race ideology was echoed at home by the fact of a segregated armed forces.” He stopped painting social realist and political art, as he found it wasn’t effective in combating racism and wasn’t as effective as artistically pleasing either. He said “…the goal of the artist must be aesthetic development, and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture.”
This painting was created in 1946, and was strongly influenced by his love of Jazz music. As opposed to trying to paint in a representative form, he is attempting to paint a “conceptual expression” of these ideas. In this painting, an oil on canvas, there is a very linear movement, with the improvisational element of Jazz in the boldly coloured lines.
7 “Water Lilies” – Claude Monet
This painting really jumps out at the viewer, especially because of its size, as the 3 large canvasses cover the entire wall of the gallery. It’s hard not to notice a painting of this size. Claude Monet was born in Paris in 1840, and was one of the pioneers who helped invent French Impressionism. He adhered to the philosophy that expressing the artists perception was more important capturing its true scene.
Monet was in love with nature. This painting is one of the many “water lilies” that Monet dedicated a lot of his life to. In 1883, Monet moved to the french countryside, to a small town called Giverny, so he could be closer to nature. He purchased a large property which he would undertake massive landscaping projects as his wealth and fame grew. He spent almost 20 years painting water Lilles in France, as he enjoyed painting the same scene over and over to capture the way it looked in different lights and seasons. This was one of over 250 paintings he did during this time.
His home in Giverny was turned into a museum after being restored in 1980, where a collection of Monet’s Japanese woodcut prints are located and its possible to visit the estate and see some of the gardens he loved (and painted) with your own eyes. We will make sure we visit here the next time we’re in Europe.
8 Various Paintings – Philip Guston
Phillip Guston was a painter who worked alongside many of the abstract expressionists of the New York School, such as Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning. In 1967 he moved away (both literally and figuratively) from this way of painting and towards a more representative form.
Philip Guston was born in Quebec and moved to California as a young man, began painting in 1927 at the age of 14. By 22, he moved to New York, where he became part of the abstract expressionist movement, as he preferred it to be called, the New York School.
In the 1960s, at the peak of his career he switched lanes, moving away from the abstract movement that had made him famous, into a more personal representative style. In 1967, he moved to Woodstock, New York and cut himself off from the rest of the art world, and abandoned his previous pure abstract style in favour of a more representative paintings done in a simplistic style.
This change was not well received by many people; the art world perceived this change as wasting his talents on simple, almost cartoonish paintings. He painted simple things like cigarettes, Klu Klux Klan members and cherries, and each painting had a story to tell. As more of his later work was rejected by the general art community he cut himself off even further, preferring to continue with what he wanted to work on, not on what the art world told him to.
When we visited the MoMA, there was a large collection of his work on display, and this series of paintings were from these later years. When asked about painting the Klu Klux Klan, “The edge of Town” painting below on the right, he responded: “They are self-portraits. I perceive myself as being behind the hood. . . . The idea of evil fascinated me . . . I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil?”
9 “Goldfish and Sculpture” – Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French artist, born in 1869, and is best known for his paintings and sculptures. Alongside Picasso, he was one of the leading visual artists of the 20th century. The two artists were both friends and rivals in many ways, but the impact they both left on the world is very tangible.
He was one of the leading artists in the “Fauvist” movement, which only technically lasted a few years (1905-1908), but emphasized strong colours and its influence would be felt in the years afterwards. This was era of Fauvism coincided with the time of Matisse’s most productive decade, and he slowly shied away from the representative and realistic values found in some of the impressionist art of the time.
A lot of Matisse’s work focused on still life, and this painting was in the midst of his move away from Fauvism. “Goldfish and Sculpture” was completed in 1912, while Matisse was living in Tangier, Morocco, and it emphasized a flattened and decorative form. He did a series of 10 paintings in the spring/summer of 1912, where goldfish are one of the main focal points.
10 “The Olive Trees” – Vincent Van Gogh
This is another painting from Van Gogh’s time at the asylum in Saint Remy, where he would spend a year of his life in 1889. Vincent Van Gogh had a love of nature, and this picture sums up that love quite well. During his stay at the asylum, he was allowed to occasionally leave the monestary, and he would wander out towards the Olive trees, which he used as a painting subject on several occasions.
He wrote a letter to his brother, describing some of the paintings to him before he sent them to Paris. “I did a landscape with olive trees and also a new study of a starry sky. The olive trees with the white cloud and the mountains behind, as well as the rise of the moon and the night effect, are exaggerations from the point of view of the general arrangement; the outlines are accentuated as in some old woodcuts.”
Van Gogh had little success during his lifetime, and was considered a madman and failure by many. It wasn’t until after his suicide that he became famous. He has become the standard bearer of the romantic idea of the “tortured artist”. His art took on a life of its own after his death, and he is remembered as one of the great artists of his time. Much of his artwork and images live on in popular culture, and his artwork has been sold for exorbitant amounts of money at auctions to this day.
11 “Agapanthus” – Claude Monet
By the time of his death, Claude Monet had transformed the property he owned in the small town of Giverny, France into a massive garden which required 6 full time gardeners to maintain.
He was the mastermind of this project, and it was all meticulously planned by him; he would give the gardeners specific daily instructions for how he envisioned this transformation.
There was a pond that was nearby the property which became an obsession of his. He imported a lot of plants from around the world in order to bring together his vision. Along the edge of this pond, he planted Agapanthus, a tall thin lily native to Africa, which is the subject of this painting. During his time in Giverney, he would paint over 250 painting in a series of paintings known as “Water Lillies”. “Agapanthus” was just one of the many scenes he painted. As he grew older, he began to suffer from cataracts, and some of his later paintings would reflect this change in his vision.
He drew a lot of inspiration from nature, which is one of the reasons he moved to this property in the first place. It was obviously a good move on his part, as some of his most famous works came from this very productive period of time.