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A Citadel of Civilization

Bird%20in%20Space.jpgThat's what President Franklin Roosevelt called the Museum of Modern Art when it first opened at its current digs, 11 West 53rd St. in New York City, on May 10, 1939. "Crush individuality in society and you crush art as well,” Roosevelt said in the radio address. “In encouraging the creation and enjoyment of beautiful things we are furthering democracy itself. That is why this museum is a citadel of civilization." Take that, fascists!

The opening exhibition, entitled "Art in Our Time," was timed to coincide with the influx of tourists to the World’s Fair in nearby Flushing, Queens. Planned as a summary of modern art since the late 1800s, it included pieces by many artists that still make the MOMA a popular destination: Alexander Calder, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Duchamp, and Picasso to name a few.

MOMA has a very nice online archive of its art. I found a New York Times article from 1939, in which the museum’s first director, Alfred Barr Jr., chose some examples from "Art in Our Time" that he believed were good examples of modern art. I can’t reproduce the page here, but I found most of the pieces on the MOMA website, like Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” (right).

Click through for the rest, with Barr’s remarks.

“Modern art is an adventure of the eye and mind... Understanding modern art does not require any great effort of the intellect... but understanding modern art, or for that matter the art of the past, does require some initiative and imagination.” -Alfred Barr Jr.


"The Sleeping Gypsy," by Henri Rousseau.

“Much has been made of the naïve, simple-hearted spirit and childlike vision of Henri Rousseau, the French customs collector who became a painter. Yet Rousseau shares these qualities with a hundred other self-taught ‘modern primitives.’ What he does no share with them is his magnificent pictorial talent and his imaginative intensity, which made it possible for him to paint ‘The Sleeping Gypsy,’ a masterpiece of hallucinatory power. Rousseau’s paintings have great decorative effect and freshness.”


"The Seer", by Giorgio de Chirico.

“Only a few artists in history have been able to create so strange and so original a world as Giorgio de Chirico: a world of silent architecture, of cold light and haunted shadow, timeless, airless, and peopled by enigmatic automata. Out of his pioneer work done twenty years ago come many of the pictorial ideas of the Surrealists, those amateurs of the disquieting dream.”


Two Acrobats with a Dog,” by Pablo Picasso.

“Picasso’s art may be described as a forty-year war between two natures, one of which is violent, experimental, arrogantly iconoclastic, magnificently bold, the other gentle, rather sweet, and inclined to the pensive and sentimental. It is this gentle Picasso who painted the ‘Two Harlequins With Dog’ [sic] in 1905. A year later he was to become a roaring lion in ‘Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon’ also in the exhibition.”


Zapatistas,” by Jose Clemente Orozco.

“With his slashing brush and mastery of dynamic movement Orozco has painted this epic composition to honor the memory of the guerrilla warrior, Emiliano Zapata. The recent revival of non-academic mural painting in this country owes much to the Mexicans Orozco and [Diego] Rivera.”


The Dance,” by Henri Matisse.

“In 1910 Matisse completed for a Moscow business man his most famous painting, ‘The Dance,’ of which this full size study, twelve feet long, is included in ‘Art in Our Time.’ The color ‘the bluest of blues, the green of the trees, the vibrant vermilion of the bodies’ (Matisse’s words) and the vigorous drawing and swinging dynamic rhythms were carefully calculated to produce a single overwhelming effect.”


“Chess Pieces,” by Juan Gris.

“Obviously the artist was not interested in trying to paint an accurate reproduction of what he saw on his studio table. Instead he has taken these objects in his imagination, broken them up, and transformed them into a new and esthetic order. He has molded his table-top world after his heart’s desire--and since his was an artist’s heart, this Cubist masterpiece is to be valued for the precision of design and distinction of color which made Gris one of the finest painters of our time.” (image via metajedrez.com.ar)


Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash,”
by Giacomo Balla.

“It is probably that the pre-war Italian Futurists more than any other group were responsible for the public’s feeling that ‘modern art’ is a violent revolution supported by elaborate theory. When we examine Giacomo Balla’s Futurist ‘Dog on Leash,’ we find that it is a simple study of motion which anticipated by twenty-five years the effects of stroboscopic photography.”

(This final piece is at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY.)


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