Once upon a time modern art had a third dimension: a mood-axis. In 1890s Europe, Symbolism plumbed the depths of myth and the macabre in order to dive beneath the surfaces of Impressionism. At the same moment in America, Tonalism whipped up a haze of glittering pigment in the landscapes of the Hudson River School to reveal an underlying spiritualism. Neither movement was long for the twentieth century. In the cold war of Mondrian versus Duchamp, two dimensions versus no dimensions, the third dimension went the way of the old Pennsylvania Station: flattened and dumped in art’s Meadowlands.

After a much-discussed makeover that added zeroes to the bottom line but heretofore nothing to the discussion of modern art, you might expect The Museum of Modern Art to bet the ranch on little more than the Berkshire-Hathaway aesthetic of “Contemporary Voices: Works from The UBS Art Collection” and “Pixar: 20 Years of Animation.”

But such fare makes MOMA’s interest in the mood visionaries of the late nineteenth-century all the more unexpected. For an art world still locked in formalist detente, modernism’s neglected depths can offer a way to come in from the cold. The “deep” art of Symbolism and Tonalism, from Paul Gauguin to Maurice Denis, George Inness to Birge Harrison, produced some of the most haunting and also the most overcooked art of the modern period. MOMA’s “Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon” which closed in late January, tracked the most spectral of the Symbolists from “noirs” to wild color, prints and book production to canvases of swirling pastel. The downside of this midsize exhibition from the Department of Drawings was its failure to examine the curatorial habits of the Ian Woodner family, which donated not only the collection on display but also the funds to produce the catalogue. Whether such oversight is a missed opportunity or a breach of museum responsibility is up for debate. The show appeared to speak to the worst impulses of MOMA as a corporatizing juggernaut, cleansing modern art of its essential, private, and personal provenance.

But the museum has now put such doubts to rest with yet another Symbolist exhibition, this time clearly the obsessed preoccupation of its curator.

“Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul” suffers from many of the flaws that might be expected of its size.[1] It is neither a narrowly focused show nor a career-defining survey. An academic-heavy catalogue contains four expert essayists on Munch repeating what they have written for decades. Reinhold Heller wrote better on Munch thirty years ago, explaining back then, “By his de-emphasis of detail throughout the painting, Munch replaced the specific with the universal … to permit the mood to emanate from form and colour, from gesture and posture.”

Occasionally, the wall labels of the show are verbose, as in the purple description of Mermaid (1896). But more often than not the exhibition reveals too little. Take the un-remarked-upon portraits of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1896), the author Hans Jaeger (1889), and the art critic and printmaker Julius Meier-Graefe (c. 1895).

Yet the unwillingness of Kynaston McShine, MOMA’s Chief Curator at Large, to explore every aspect of Munch’s oeuvre makes for this exhibition’s surprisingly redeeming feature. McShine’s interest in Munch arises not out of scholarship but personal inspiration. His selection of work, mainly culled from the artist’s bequest of his estate to the city of Oslo, now housed in the Munch Museum of Oslo, focuses on the self-referential, notably dwelling on the late self-portraits. As McShine writes in his brief introduction: “The extremes of joy and pain all come to him, and human emotions are presented in his work with a naked rawness that still startles more than a century after his vision was formed. His iconic constructions depicting events and moods from his own life create indelible images that occupy our minds.” So McShine takes a shine to Munch’s campy drama. His affinity with the artist generates an urgency that supercedes other curatorial concerns. Munch, all of a sudden, has become contemporary again, maddeningly so. As for the The Scream (1893), that all-too-iconic image bugging out from every college dorm room and novelty punching bag in the free world, its absence in paint is replaced in this exhibition by the cri de coeur of the Chief Curator at Large.

A concurrent Munch exhibition now at Scandinavia House, organized under the independent direction of MOMA’s Department of Prints, forgoes emotion for a cool exploration of the technical innovations of this modern master.[2] In his Symbolism of 1973, Robert Goldwater noted that Munch “put the meaning of his pictures into design and colour, and into the stance and gesture of the whole human body, whose pose and contour flowed and fused with a larger composition that gave direct expression to the mood and substance of the theme.” Nowhere does Munch more fully “subordinate Nature, his model, to the mood” through overall composition, as his contemporary Christian Krohg put it, than in his print-making. At Scandinavia House, the curator Deborah Wye presents Kyss IV (1897–1902), a woodcut where the woodgrain itself becomes a central compositional component. Wye also matches prints from the museum’s archive featuring analogous images with different tonal effects. A series of variations on “The Lonely Ones,” for example, depicts a couple gazing over the water at the midnight sun. By using a stencil to change the lighting in one image over the other, Munch tweaks the mood. Munch the artist as well as Munch the technician comes through loud and clear in this small show, which also features informative wall labels.

Inquire as to the state of Symbolism today and you might never hear the name William Kentridge. Yet this white, French-trained South African is ever more in demand for work that is a direct descendant of the Symbolist legacy. Like Munch, Kentridge employs a variety of media, illustrating books of poetry and designing sets for the stage. Both were on display at Marian Goodman in February.[3] Here a thirty-six-leaf book of etchings, dry points, and photogravures illuminated the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska. But the show mainly presented Kentridge’s designs and animation for his production of The Magic Flute, which opened in Brussels last year and will travel to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in spring 2007. I can think of few artists who take such joy in the process of production, and who render the journey in such rewarding ways as Kentridge. An animator who photographs multiple frames from a single image, Kentridge builds up a record of movement in the shadow of lines erased and redrawn. These cells, featuring birds, temples, and other ancient symbols appropriate for Mozart’s Masonic fantasy, went into the creation of Preparing the Flute (2005), a “model theatre installation, with two 35 mm animated films transferred to DVD.” As Papageno sings “Der Vogelfanger bin ich ja” and plays his panpipe, the animation of Kentridge’s birds flutter and flap in their cages, projected onto the back screen of the mock stage. At Marian Goodman, seated before this Wunderkabinet, there could hardly have been a more charming place to be last month, although I suspect the gallery attendants would have preferred to pull the plug on the Königen der Nacht rather than hear another round of “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.”

Kentridge is often mistaken for a political artist. The gallery press release noted that Kentridge recently completed a “project whose subject is also knowledge, violence and the Enlightenment, particularly Germany’s colonial history in Africa and the massacre of the Hereros in 1904.” Kentridge’s sketchy aesthetic could easily be mistaken for the naive pieties of World Culture Night. And you might expect a South African artist to be political. But why shouldn’t a Symbolist artist conceal himself in the outward markings of political comment: for his audience, the concerns of the state are more readily accepted than the profundities of the soul—Kentridge’s genuine subject. Whereas Munch descends from positivism to anarchy, as Meier-Graefe called it, with The Magic Flute Kentridge has built up moody, primitive images into the ultimate story of the Enlightenment. Both are products of the same impulse.

Chelsea this month is full of surprises, including the beautiful still lifes, portraits, and landscapes of a close friend of Max Beerbohm’s at Paul Kasmin (the artist’s great grandson).[4] Nearby, I never thought I would see the contemporary answer to an excellent survey of American Tonalist art that ran at Spanierman Gallery through January. But Betty Cuningham has done it. The Tonalist Birge Harrison noted that “veiled and half-seen things make a stronger appeal to the human imagination than the commonplace and obvious facts of nature.” Such has been the discovery of Jake Berthot, a formerly abstract painter who has returned to nature and filled his geometric paintings with dense foliage and terra incognita.[5] With equal debts paid to George Inness and Mark Rothko, Berthot, like his friend Christopher Wilmarth, reacts against the minimalist realisms of his generation with mood. Wilmarth sought the light. Berthot descends into darkness.

One final show, apropos of nothing so grand as the changing of the seasons, presents the matter-of-fact work of Lois Dodd.[6] A collection of chaste, perfectly composed winter paintings now on view at Alexandre will give way to the more indulgent images of summer by the time this review is published. For half a century Lois Dodd has offered her own way of coming in from the cold. The results are welcome in every season of the year.

 

Notes
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  1. “Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul” opened at The Museum of Modern Art on February 19 and remains on view through May 8, 2006. A catalogue of the exhibition, edited with an introduction by Kynaston McShine, has been published by the museum (256 pages, $60). Go back to the text.
  2. “Edvard Munch: Symbolism in Print, Highlights from the Museum of Modern Art” opened at Scandinavia House, New York, on January 31 and remains on view through May 13, 2006. Go back to the text.
  3. “William Kentridge: The Magic Flute, Drawings and Projections” was on view at Marian Goodman Gallery from January 19 through February 25, 2006. Go back to the text.
  4. “William Nicholson: Paintings” opened at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, on February 16 and remains on view through March 18, 2006. Go back to the text.
  5. “Jake Berthot: Recent Paintings and Drawings” opened at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York, on February 2 and remains on view through March 4, 2006. Go back to the text.
  6. “Lois Dodd: Recent Paintings,” at Alexandre Gallery, New York, is an exhibition in two parts. “Winter” was on view from February 2 through February 28, 2006. “Summer” will open on March 2 and remain on view through March 25, 2006. Go back to the text.

 

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 7, on page 48
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