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In Search of Perfection:
"The MoMA in Berlin" and Modernism's Progressive Visions

Like a torpedo moving through time - that was how Alfred H. Barr Jr., MoMA's founding director, imagined the developments in modern art to be. In the MoMA in Berlin, over 200 paintings and sculptures trace a path through the 20th century. But is it really as straight as it seems? Oliver Koerner von Gustorf on his encounter with modern masterpieces and the unorthodox attitudes that have made a legend out of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Exhibition view: MoMA in Berlin, (Modern Starts), Neue Nationalgalerie
Photo: Jens Liebchen

The Customs Official's Dream
In Berlin's New National Gallery , the path to Modernism begins with a hypnotic vision. Stretched out on a bright red sofa, a naked woman is drowsily listening to a snake charmer playing the flute; surrounding her are vibrant lilies, jungle plants, and exotic birds, and her hand is pointing to a pair of lions lurking in the bush. Henri Rousseau's painting The Dream from1910 oscillates between quiet beauty and imminent danger, innocence and inscrutability - a seemingly perfect overture to the show of a century: The MoMA has arrived in Berlin. Already on the first day, more than 4,500 visitors turned up at the transatlantic art show; over 200 works from the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art provide highlights of 20th-century art while offering a retrospective view of the social upheavals of an epoch scarred by world wars and National Socialist terror.

Henri Rosseau: The Dream I, 1910, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller

The painter Max Beckmann called his friend Rousseau a " Homer of the doorman's booth," whose jungle dreams "sometimes brought him closer to the gods." Picasso, Delaunay, Kandinsky, Marc, Léger, Schlemmer, Ernst , and Beckmann: at the beginning of the last century, an entire generation of artists sought contact to the self-taught painter, in whose work they'd found the forms and archaisms they were themselves experimenting with at the time. Technically speaking, the visual narrative that chronologically unfolds in The MoMA in Berlin begins with a farewell. The Dream , as the exhibition's starting point in the rooms of the Mies van der Rohe building, seems to arrest a state that has been forever lost - an apparently childish, simple world that resembles a botanical Garden of Eden. As though tamed by beauty, music, and the power of art, the wild cats loom transfixed among rich green leaves. Rousseau's dream image is almost magically static, imbued with standstill and contemplation. At the same time, however, this primitive idyll is deceptive. Perspective dissolves in this jungle landscape, becomes reduced to elementary forms. Taking the place of vanishing lines are clear overlapping shapes composed into an unreal, flat space that seems to anticipate the surreal and fantastic art of the coming decades.

Constantin Brancusi: Madmoiselle Pogany, Version I , 1913
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Aquired through the Lillie P. Bliss bequest.

Rousseau painted The Dream the year he died. It was the last important painting by the Frenchman, who had developed from a customs official and Sunday painter people patronized to a celebrated artist. When he died of blood poisoning on September 4, 1910 in a Paris hospital, most of his famous friends weren't present in the city. Only seven people attended his funeral. In 1912, through the sale of two portraits, Robert Delaunay, with Picasso's help, financed a cemetery lot for Rousseau for thirty years. One year later, Constantin Brancusi transferred Apollinaire's inscription onto the gravestone, which ended with the following words:

"We bring you canvas, brush and paint of ours,
During eternal leisure, radiant
As you once drew my portrait you shall paint
The face of stars."

Robert Delaunay: Formes circulaires, soleil lune (soleil et lune, simultané nr.2)
Museum of Modern Art, New York Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund

It seems programmatic that Henri Rousseau, of all people - a painter situated at the threshold of Modernism - should provide the prelude to the MoMA in Berlin. Proceeding into the exhibition, the visitor immerses himself in a tour de force through the 20th century characterized by the crossing of formal and artistic boundaries reaching into every area of life: personal biographies; cultural, political, technological, and social change; visions of the future and reflections upon the past. Although director Glen Lowry emphasized at the press conference given at the opening of The MoMA in Berlin that it's not the institution of the Museum of Modern Art that's the star here, but the masterpieces themselves - in The New National Gallery, it nonetheless becomes clear just how closely connected MoMA's history has been to the development of art over the past century.

Visitors of the exhibition MoMA in Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie
Photo: Jens Liebchen

A story with an open end
"This museum is a torpedo moving through time, its head the ever-advancing present, its tail the ever-receding past of 50 to 100 years ago." Alfred H. Barr Jr. (1902-1982) could hardly have found more apt words in the nineteen-sixties to describe his life work in retrospect. As founding director from 1929 to 1943 and as director of the museum's collection from 1947 to 1967, he determined the fate of the MoMA as no other, at the same time radically transforming how the art of his time was perceived. (On this subject, read the article Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Emergence of Modernism in America in the last issue of The image of a projectile shooting straight through time visualizes the clear goal of constant progress.

For Barr, whose thinking had been influenced by his classical art historical training at Princeton and Harvard, but also by the ideas of the German Bauhaus and its investigation of industrial production, Modernism appeared to be a chronologically proceeding story with an open end - a canon in which one art movement led to the next in continuous movement. His catalogues and publications, which are used to this day as educational material, illuminate this positivist approach as well as the academic precision with which he attempted to analyze and structure movements in modern art. The MoMA concept, still revolutionary in the thirties, of an interdisciplinary, multi-media museum that included the various departments of design, photography, architecture, and film alongside the fine arts, also served to make the progressive development common to all these areas understandable to everyone.

Alfred Barr's diagram, of the ideal permanent collection of the MoMA: a
"torpedo, moving through time,' 1941
The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York: Alfred H. Barr Jr., Papers 9a.15.

In the MoMA in Berlin , the exhibition's set-up in the New National Gallery gives evidence of just how strong Barr's thinking still prevails in the museum's history. "In the past nine years the torpedo has moved a little farther and the committee (of the MoMA) would sketch it today in the following form: …" - Barr was referring here to the drawing of a projectile he made in 1941 with lines dividing it into the various time zones it was passing through. In his sketch, Gauguin, van Gogh, Seurat, and Rousseau are at the torpedo's stern, marked as the time between 1875 and 1900. Between 1900 and 1925, the School of Paris and the European avant-garde form the hull, until finally, between 1925 and 1950, North American and Mexican art increasingly occupy space, constituting the nose that juts into the future. Compared with this paper diagram, the visitor to the National Gallery literally feels as though he or she were moving through the inside of this imaginary torpedo.

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