Museum of Modern Art – rekindling a love affair

By Cressida Smart

Last week, I rekindled an old love, one I met four years ago. The moment I first laid my eyes upon all its glory, I knew I was struck. There was nothing that quite compared in London nor in fact anywhere I had visited. When I returned last Wednesday, I wondered if my feelings would be the same or if perhaps I had moved on. As I walked through the revolving glass door on East 53rd between 5th and 6th avenue, I looked up. The sun bounced off the white gleaming walls that reached high. I inhaled and knew my feelings hadn’t changed. I fell in love with the Museum of Modern Art and my ties with it were as strong as ever. I relished the prospect of exploring this beauty once again.

The museum’s collection offers an unparalleled overview of modern and contemporary art including works of architecture and design, drawings, painting, sculpture, photography, prints, illustrated books and artist’s books, film, and electronic media. I, however, would like to gently skim the surface of the collection and look at two paintings by artists who not only inspire through their art, but through the lives too. Vincent Van Gogh is all too often associated with cutting off his ear. Incidentally, it was actually his earlobe.

I wrote an essay several years ago on Van Gogh and his contemporary Gauguin. It focussed on their relationship when Van Gogh had persuaded Gauguin to come to Arles in the south of France to live with him at the Yellow House and set up a studio. Van Gogh spent weeks creating what he thought would be place of inspiration for them both. Sadly, after two months, he suffered a psychological crisis and spent the rest of his life in a mental institution.

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh depicts the view outside his sanitarium room window at night, although it was painted from memory during the day. The Starry Night is one of the most well known images in modern culture as well as being one of the most replicated and sought after prints. From Don McLean’s song ‘Starry, Starry Night’, to the endless number of merchandise products sporting this image, it is nearly impossible to shy away from this incredible painting.

Cast your eye over the night sky filled with swirling clouds, stars ablaze with their own luminescence and a bright crescent moon. Although the features are exaggerated, this is a scene we can all relate to, and also one with which most individuals feel comfortable and at ease. The sky keeps the viewer’s eyes moving about the painting, following the curves and creating a visual dot-to-dot with the stars. This movement keeps the onlooker involved in the painting while the other factors take hold. Below the rolling hills of the horizon lies a small town. There is a peaceful essence flowing from the structures. Perhaps the cool dark colours and the fiery windows spark memories of our own warm childhood years filled with imagination of what exists in the night and dark starry skies.

The centre point of the town is the tall steeple of the church, reigning largely over the smaller buildings. This steeple casts down a sense of stability onto the town and also creates a sense of size and seclusion. To the left of the painting there is a massive dark structure that develops an even greater sense of size and isolation. This structure is magnificent when compared to the scale of other objects in the painting. The curving lines mirror that of the sky and create the sensation of depth in the painting.

The second painting is by an artist of whom I am terribly fond. As the subject of my dissertation, notably the use of Christian iconography in his work, I am continually amazed at his ability to weave it into Russian and Yiddish culture. I and the Village is by Marc Chagall. It features many soft, dreamlike images overlapping each other: in the foreground, a cap-wearing green-faced man stares at a goat or sheep with the image of a smaller goat being milked on its cheek. Continuing in the foreground is a glowing tree held in the man’s dark hand. The background features a collection of houses next to an Orthodox church and an upside-down female violinist in front of a black-clothed man holding a scythe. Note that the green-faced man wears a necklace with St. Andrew’s cross, indicating that the man is a Christian. I and the Village seems to examine the relationship between the artist and his place of birth.

The significance of the painting lies in its seamless integration of various elements of Eastern European folktales and culture, both Russian and Yiddish; its clearly defined semiotic elements e.g. The Tree of Life and simply its daringly whimsical style, which for the time was considered groundbreaking. Its frenetic, fanciful style is credited to Chagall’s childhood memories becoming shaped and reshaped by his imagination but not diminishing with the passing of time.

It would sound like a cliché if I were to say that looking at the Museum of Modern Art inspires me and leaves me with a sense of calm. Yet what other way could I describe the overwhelming sense of belonging that I feel when wandering around the rooms; their cool white walls and floor-to-wall windows that sustain supreme works of art. My heart flickers at the many opportunities I will have to explore the collection, continuing an everlasting love affair.


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