Today we are continuing the journey we started yesterday, following our afternoon of exploring the MoMA in New York City. Welcome back to the Museum of Modern Art. The museum is massive, and your legs will get tired long before you’ve had a chance to appreciate their entire massive art collection. There are thousands of art pieces on display located in this 6 story museum, and some consider this to be one the best collection of Modern Art in the world.
We really enjoyed the afternoon we spent in the museum, but the problem with visiting an art collection as large as the MoMA, it’s hard to retain all the information that you pick up along the way. While completing this article, we have found a way to learn a lot more about what we saw and it’s been fun re-living this experience, while picking out some of the most memorable paintings and exhibits that we got to see. This is a follow up to yesterdays article, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – Part One, and together, it has allowed us to appreciate what we saw, weeks after our visit.
The Museum of Modern art has some of the most well-known paintings in the city, including artwork from Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. We had a hard time choosing which paintings we wanted to write about, so instead of leaving anything out, we instead broke up this examination into two parts.
Modern Art is a comprised of a pretty wide variety of styles, from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism, and many distinct styles in between. A general timeframe puts art from the 1860s to the 1970s into the category of Modern Art, but as you will see from the following pictures, there are many styles that encompass this era. Most of the artists focused more on an experimental and abstract style, trending away from a narrative or trying to capture things exactly as they are.
We hope you enjoy reading our story as much as we enjoyed writing it. Without further delay, here is the second half of our afternoon of exploration at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – Part Two
12 “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” – Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso is known for being one of the founders (alongside Georges Braque) of Cubism, but this style did not happen overnight. First the artists had to experiment with this style, and changing the shapes and perspectives of their earlier paintings before the style was perfected. This is known as the proto-Cubist period.
“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is another one of Pablo Picasso’s more famous paintings, and it is said that he took over 6 months preparing (hundreds of sketches and drawings) before undertaking this painting; the whole process took over 9 months. While it was finished in 1907, it wasn’t well received by his immediate colleagues and wasn’t shown publicly until 1916. Some of his close friends would never love this painting.
This painting doesn’t show the ladies in a flattering light, moving away from a romanticized look at the human body. It depicts five women working as prostitutes in Barcelona and is another example of the pro-cubist artwork that shows some of the development between his early years and into the cubist style he later developed fully. Avignon refers to a street in Barcelona, known at the time for being a place where prostitutes would frequent.
During this time, Picasso was influenced by primitivism and African art, and the two ladies on the right side of the painting are both wearing masks. Another notable feature of this painting is the lack of perspective, as there is no focal point of the picture. It is simply flat, leaving nowhere for the eye to wander. It doesn’t help that all 5 women appear to be staring at the viewer.
13 “One: Number 31, 1950” – Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock is an American known for being a pioneer in the world of Abstract Expressionism. On first viewing, some of his work might seem like a bunch of paint thrown on a canvas, and in many ways that’s all it is. The technique he became famous for – known as the “drip technique” – utilised the entire body; he would throw paint at the canvass often done in a frantic dancing style known as “action painting”.
As the title of this painting hints, it was created in 1950, and is one of his largest paintings; this masterpiece took up the entire wall of the gallery. Even with its massive size, looking at this painting draws the eyes outward, as if it is even bigger than the canvas suggests is possible.
He would stand above his horizontal canvass, which allowed him to see it from all angles while he poured, dripped or threw paint from above. Pollock said “On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting”. His art wasn’t always critically loved, as some people praised him while others didn’t. One of his paintings recently sold for over $200 million dollars, so maybe he was right.
14 “Greenwich Village Cafeteria” – Paul Cadmus
Paul Cadmus was an American-born painter, and was one of the first artists to receive a grant from the Public Works of Art Project, which was part of the New Deal, to help the United States recover from the great depression.
He spent 1931-33 traveling around Europe with his then lover Jared French, and they moved to the island of Mallorca, and only returned to the United States in 1933 when they ran out of money.
It was in 1934 that he received a grant to work on the Public Works of Art Project, which brought him his greatest fame. He refused to celebrate and glorify certain parts of America, instead focusing much of his attention on the common man. He was commissioned to paint a series of paintings for the US Navy, and he included a controversial picture of two gay sailors on leave, which the Admiral in charge demanded it would be excluded from this collection. He claimed a lot of his success to the Admiral who tried to suppress this painting.
This oil on canvas painting was created in 1934, and it depicts a wild scene at a diner somewhere in New York. One notable thing about this painting, is the man on the right corner, who is looking back at the viewer on his way to the bathroom, which is likely a reference to his secretive gay life in the Greenwich village in New York.
His artwork was very bright, colourful and the characters always very animated. Cadmus was quotes as saying about the scene he painted here; “There was on Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street a large cafeteria named Stewart’s . . . full of beatniks, delinquents, minor gangsters of its day.”
15 “Opus 217” – Paul Signac
Paul Signac – a neo-impressionist painter from France – was born in Paris in 1863. Originally he was to be an architect, but was inspired by a Claude Monet exhbit he saw when he was 18, and he changed courses in life to become a painter, and we’re grateful that he did.
Alongside several other artists in 1884, he helped to create the Societe des Artistes Independants (Society of Independent Artists) to go against the establishment at the time “to allow the artists to present their works to public judgement with complete freedom.”
This painting – “Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890” – so we can assume he created his painting in 1890. The subject of this piece was a close friend of Signac’s, Félix Fénéon, who was an art dealer and political activist amongst other things.
To be honest, Paul Signac isn’t really a name we were too familiar with, and we didn’t really know much about his contributions to the art world before being inspired by this painting and writing this. While walking through the gallery, this painting really caught our attention, especially when we were able to take a close up look at some of the techniques used to create this piece.
This painting has an amazing background which contrasts the portrait, but also accentuates this obviously charismatic individual, who is walking with a top hat and flower. What impressed us the most about this painting was the amazing detail work, with many different colours with small circular brush strokes.
16 “Trafalger Square” – Piet Mondrain
Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan (after 1906, known only as Piet Mondrain) was a dutch artist that has been credited as being one of the pioneers of the 20th century Modern Art movement. He was born in the Netherlands and spent much of his time in Paris and was part of the cubist movement.
His art was greatly impacted by the two World Wars that happened in his lifetime. In 1914, he was visiting his home in the Netherlands when war broke out, and he was forced to stay there for the duration of the war.
It was during this time he worked with other painters and helped found the De Stijl (the Style) and where he found a love of primary colours from fellow artist Van der Leck, in 1916. In the post war years (1919 – 1938) he returned to Paris, where he would be one of the most influential artists of his generation. In 1919, he began to paint the grid-style works that he is best known for.
In September of 1938, he left Paris and moved to London as the threat of the Nazi German Invasion was looming over Europe. This was the first of a series of paintings which paid homage to cities that gave him refuge during World War Two. It was painted between 1939-43, likely finished sometime after he moved to New York in 1940, where he would live out the rest of his life.
17 “The Dream” – Henri Rousseau
Henri Rousseau was a self-taught artist that didn’t start painting until his 40s, and at age 49 he quit his job as a tax collector to paint full time. His previous career path earned him the nickname Le Douanier (the customs officer).
This painting, “The Dream”, is an oil on canvass that he produced in 1910, that is said that to depict a woman on a couch in Paris imagining that she is listening to a snake charmer in the jungle. This painting was the first of his to receive critical acclaim when it was shown at the Société des Artistes Indépendants in 1910, only a few months before he died.
His work would inspire many of the later Avante Garde artists that came after him. When Picasso first saw one of his paintings for sale on the street, he rushed to meet Rousseau, and later held a party in his name. La Banquet Rousseau, according to American John Malcolm Brinnin, was “one of the most notable social events of the twentieth century” because of all the great minds that were in attendance.
He didn’t receive a lot of credit or success during his painting career, and a lot of his work was only appreciated later in life, when his career was re-branded as that of a self-taught genius.
During his lifetime, he would paint over 25 jungle scenes, despite the fact that he never once traveled to an exotic destination, like the one he portrays in this painting, in fact, he never traveled outside of France. He took his inspiration from visits to the Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Paris, describing this experience as part of his inspiration; “When I am in these hothouses and see the strange plants from exotic lands, it seems to me that I am entering a dream.”
18 “Flag” – Jasper Johns
Is this a flag or a painting? Jasper Johns created his most famous work in 1954 (when he was 24 years old), and only a year after he was discharged from the Army. He is said to have had a dream about painting a flag, and when he woke up the next morning, he went out to buy the necessary supplies to complete his vision.
Part of why he did this painting, was that he felt the flag was something that the mind already knows quite well, as it is a symbol known all around the world and it isn’t until you make a closer examination that you see that this is art. During his long career, he would create over 40 pieces using the flag. This is his most famous.
From a distance, it really does just look like an old flag that has been mounted on the wall, and as you get closer to it you start to notice the details. The painting is made up of 3 large canvasses mounted on plywood.
The artist used an encaustic paint (a combination of pigment and molten wax) leaves the painting imperfect, with smears and bumps. Underneath the top layer of paint, you can see strips of newspaper that the artist used as part of this project. The newspaper clippings were chosen specifically and not at random, and while it avoids the use of headlines from specific events, it instead featured inconsequential events and advertisements.
Created in 1954, the political climate was quite interesting in the country, midway through the Red Scare and McCarthy trials. It is said that the art director of the MoMA – Alfred Barr – wanted to purchase the flag for the museum, but was worried that it might be considered unpatriotic, so he convinced his friend Patrick Johnson to buy it instead, and it was donated to the Museum.
19 “The Resevoir, Horta de Ebro” – Pablo Picasso
This was another one of Pablo Picasso’s earlier pieces – painted in southern Catalonia (Spain) in 1909 – while he was still developing the “Cubism” that would later make him one of the most famous painters of the 20th century.
This is a landscape painting that Picasso created in 1909, while he was in the southern Spanish town of San Joan, using the name “Horta de Ebro” which Picasso referred to the town as. This painting shows the buildings of the village (the shapes above) and the water resevoir (from which the painting gets its name) from in the bottom.
This painting uses different perspectives in the same shot, using geometric shapes to tell the story of this landscape view. You can see the steep buildings representing the village as if you’re looking up towards it, as well as the perspective of looking down towards the cistern below.
Many of the ideas and techniques he would later incorporate into the “Cubist” style, which he is best known for, can be seen here. This painting has many elements that reflect his move towards this new style he helped develop.
20 “The Storm” – Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch is a Norwegian painter, born in 1863, who was influenced greatly by his surroundings growing up. He was surrounded by illness, sorrow and the fear of developing a mental illness which ran in his family; his mother died when he was quite young.
Many of the painters in his life would push him to paint his feelings, urging him to paint his emotional and physiological state. He was influenced first by his time in Olso (by Hans Jæger, who was a part of the Kristiania-Bohemians) and later by his time traveling around Europe, where he got to know artists like Van Gogh.
He moved back to Norway, where he completed some of his most famous works, including his most famous piece of artwork, “The Scream”, which has come to symbolize angst of modern man. He was inspired when he “heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.” Painted in the same year (1893) “The Storm” has similar elements to it. The painting portrays a small fishing village in Aasgaardstrand, Norway, where he spent a lot of his summers.
The subjects of this painting are covering their ears from the deafening sound of the storm. You can see from the leaning trees in the painting, that the storm was a particularly bad one. This painting probably also symbolizes a feeling of isolation, as the one figure of the painting stands out from the crowd of women behind him reflecting the artists focus on the idea of an individual who is apart from a community of others.
21 “Exit the Ballets Russes” – Fernand Leger
Ferdinand Leger was another French painter, born in 1881 in Normandy, France. His family were farmers and cattle breeders, and he was sent to school to become a architect by his parents. This painting really stood out to us while walking through the gallery, as it felt so similar to something you could understand or have seen before, but still very uniquely its own.
Once he had moved to Paris, he was able to support himself through his career as an arcitect, but spent a lot of time learning how to create art by studying at some of the most prestigious schools in the city. In 1911, he began to develop his own Cubist style, inspired by Picasso and Braque, but put his own twist on things that made his artwork uniquely his own.
He was not interested in still life or portraits, instead wanting to capture the excitement of modern life in the city. This painting, created in 1914, the “Exit the Ballets Russes” was bold using the same primary colours of advertising used during this time period. It seems really simplistic in its use of colour contrasted against the black and white of the background and the shapes of the bodies.
He would be conscripted to serve in the Army the same year, spending 2 years on the front lines of the first World War, and many of the techniques seen in this painting would be expanded upon after this experience.
This period of his life would produce some of his most stunning paintings as part of his “mechanical period” and he would paint many of the troops, airplanes and machinery of war that he witnessed during this time. “I consider that a machine gun or the breech of a 75 is more worth painting than four apples on a table or a Saint Cloud landscape.”
22 “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” – Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an American artist at the forefront of the abstract expressionist movement. He was born in New York city, and was one of the leading members of the “New York School” alongside Philip Guston and Jackson Pollock, amongst others.
The painting fits into the style known as “chromatic abstractism” which would lead to the colour field painting that would follow. His paintings are quite simple, using only a few colours and lacking any real subject. This piece of artwork was completed in 1950-51, and at the time was the artists largest painting.
“Vir Heroicus Sublimis” is latin for “Man, heroic and sublime”. This painting answers the question that Newman asked himself in an essay; “If we are living in a time without a legend that can be called sublime, how can we be creating sublime art?”
This painting has been interpreted in many different ways, and unlike other artists of this time, he tried to leave hints in his titles. Because of its size, he wished that it would be viewed up close, in an intimate encounter similar to meeting someone for the first time. “It’s no different, really, from meeting another person. One has a reaction to the person physically. Also, there’s a metaphysical thing, and if a meeting of people is meaningful, it affects both their lives.”