Sunday, March 19, 2006

Munch, Spanish architecture at MoMA

Edvard Munch exhibit at MoMA

After being a member of the Met Museum and N.Y.P.L. this past year, I decided it was time to try out membership at the Museum of Modern Art. Individuals pay $75, so I'll have to return three times in a year to make it worth my while, as the single-visit price is $20. Plus members get in free at almost all of the museum's film screenings. I basically stuck to the sixth floor this time, and had more than enough to keep me and a friend occupied for about two hours.

On Site: New Architecture in Spain, on display through May 1, is a must-see for anyone who finds the creativity lacking in most new projects on this side of the Atlantic. I was just floored by some of the awesome designs recently built or going up now all across Spain, from the most remote locations to the heart of Barcelona. It makes me wish architects working for cities and towns here could be bolder. General themes of the projects depicted, in model form as well as oversized murals and more modestly sized posters, are creating multi-use public spaces that aim to draw different kinds of people together for different purposes as well as responding to the existing environment of the site, whether rural or historically urban in nature. Even the public housing projects look exciting. I was impressed by one that consists of nine different "vertical neighborhoods," each marked by a different building material and featuring a separate entrance for residents, and an elevated cutout park from the 12th to 16th floors, added as a creative solution to city codes.

The Edvard Munch exhibit, The Modern Life of the Soul, is no less powerful for lack of a fully realized Scream. (There are prints of it, and works that directly precede it in composition and tone.) While some of the images on display are familiar, either from reproductions or from other museums (the Philadelphia Museum's Mermaid, for instance), so many of the works on display normally reside in Oslo's Munch Museum and rarely get out of Scandinavia. Munch, from what we can tell of so many early deaths in his family and failures at love, may not have lived an especially happy life, but he plumbed that despair to create work that is so rich and reaches into such a wide variety of styles. At times, he is like the late Matisse; at others, Cezanne; a street scene evocative of Monet; or a group picture akin to Renoir. I even saw hints of what would become Abstract Expressionism creeping around the edge of certain canvases. I haven't studied him enough to know whether he was being influenced or he was doing the influencing or some of it was occuring simultaneously, but it was neat to see him so confident in different modes.

At heart, though, his best works are the ones that seem like nothing except Munch himself. The motifs of death and the stages of life leading to the inevitable. The allegorical progression of womanhood. The desire for love and sex, and yet the giving-up of individuality, depicted in a work like The Kiss, where there is no division between the face of the man and the face of the woman embracing. You think of Rodin and Brancusi and countless others, but this one is perhaps the least erotic and most haunting. As a rule, I hate horror movies, but this kind of art so full of horror is just captivating, because it is not as much the gore or explicit violence of Picasso's Guernica or certain pieces by Velázquez or Goya (if I'm thinking of the right paintings), but the kind of horror depicted by the new production of Sweeney Todd. As Munch once said: He paints not what he sees, but what he saw. (And thus, felt.)

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