Pictures at an Exhibition

Yes, as you might guess from the title, I have Mussourgsky's orchestral suite of the same name playing right now. (Actually, he composed it for piano, and Maurice Ravel was the guy who orchestrated it.) It's actually somewhat coincidental, as I chose the music I wanted to hear, then settled in to write an entry, then decided on a topic, and then realized that the background music would offer me the perfect title for that entry. I love synchronicity.

But my point: Kelly and I recently went to see such an exhibition. Actually we went to see a wide variety of things, one of which was pictures at an exhibition, but the others were so numerous and varied that I'm not sure I have room or energy to mention them all right now. We ate foods of all nations--China, Japan, Vietnam, Mexico, Denmark, Scotland, Belgium, Jamaica, Russia, you name it--visited bookstores and cheese shops and taverns and coffee shops and bakeries, traveled by car and train and subway, saw old friends and new, old(ish) relatives and new, and wallowed in the muck that is New York City. I was there with a purpose--one I should be able to talk about soon--but the chance to do all of the above was greatly welcome after a long winter in the trenches.

One of the best bits, however, was our stop at the Museum of Modern Art. Kelly had been before--a picture of her standing beside Van Gogh's Starry Night was taken on that long-ago trip--but it would be my first visit. I don't think I appreciated just how many of the seminal works of modern art were held in MOMA's collection--everything from Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy to Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon--and getting up-close views of it all was a delight. I had no idea, for example, that Monet's Water Lilies is so freakin' huge (a triptych that filled an entire gallery wall) or that Dali's The Persistence of Memory is so tiny (only 9.5 X 13 inches). Indeed, it's really the size that allowed me to appreciate the Monet, which I've never found all that moving in reproductions, and to further marvel at the Dali, an image which looms large indeed in my thinking about art.

I had the chance to see some familiar names displayed more prominently than I'd have expected, too; Joan Miro and Giorgio de Chirico are all over the place, and I now have a better understanding of their importance to the twentieth century than I did before. Still, the name I was most intrigued by was one I'd never encountered before: Gerald Murphy. One reason he's not better known is that he produced only fourteen paintings during his career--and apparently only seven of them survive. This is something I expect to see written about the work of an artist from prehistory--the seven surviving plays of Sophocles, say. It shouldn't be true of an American artist who died in my lifetime. But there you have it: MOMA has one of those few, and it was both electrifying and strangely familiar, a 1929 painting titled "Wasp and Pear":

Murphy Wasp and Pear.jpg

If that mashup of geometry and anatomical precision seems familiar to you, you may be (as I have been for years) a fan of the art of Charley Harper. Murphy's style seems a bit more symbolic, a bit less naturalistic in its foundations, but it's hard not to see some of the same elements in his work that you'd see in a Harper painting such as this:


I have no idea whether Harper (who was 7 years old when Wasp and Pear was created) knew Murphy's work, or if it influence him; it's possible that he, like Murphy, was directly influenced by the technical drawings available in biology textbooks, rather than indirectly by the older artist. Still, it was nice to visit a building full of famed artists Seurat and Mondrian and Warhol and see the style of an old favorite being given some public approbation--a form of admission into the hall of heroes, sidelong through the Great Gate of Kiev, so to speak.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on March 26, 2014 5:19 PM.

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