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Chaos and Classicism

November 5, 2010

An unbelievably stressful day yesterday; absolutely no reading or writing possible.  So to take a break I’m going to talk about the Chaos and Classicism exhibit I saw last month at the Guggenheim (WARNING: autoplay video on site). 

Next time I go to NYC, if there’s something at the Guggenheim I want to see, I’m definitely going to get a membership, or at least an advance ticket.  Membership, as the plush voice on television reminds us, does have its privileges, in this case being able to get into the museum before the mob.  And what a mob of people there were on a Friday morning – it’s a great thing that so many people love art, but must they love it at the same time I do?  My understanding of why rich people pay so much money for a work of art grows every day – not just because even the “finest” print reproductions lose so much of the original’s three dimensionality, but because it’s impossible to just be with the work you want to engage with.  If I lived there, I could go at 7 on Saturday night, and probably not have to jostle or be jostled to see what I wanted to see.  But when you’re visiting, every night is play night, gotta pack it all in, so 7 pm is almost right out – almost, now that I think of it.  It’s so easy to move around the city that you could leave the museum at 7:40 and still be in your seat by curtain time.

The other thing that drives me crazy in museums is the font size and placement of the placards accompanying each work.  I know, the point is to keep them unobtrusive, not to “draw the eye away” from the work itself, but still – there’s a point where aesthetics fail, and that point is the one at which utility is abandoned.  Even given the need to keep the size the way it is, and in some cases to use hard-to-read white text on a colored background (usually to match the walls), why o why are they placed so low!  I’m tall, but not that tall – why aren’t the placards placed at least at the average person’s eye level, instead of 3 feet from the ground?  I know, they provide audio tours, but I want to read at my own pace, not hear at someone else’s.

All that said, the exhibition is wonderful, a mix of both avant-garde and proto-fascist – and in the case of Mussolini’s head, outright fascist – art.  There were a couple of pieces that were incredibly disturbing reminders of how art could be “turned to the dark side” to display raw power and instill terror and awe.  The Continuous Portrait of Mussolini and Il Duce with Milestone have a menacing power in person that no horror film can replicate.  The Continuous is like an all-seeing eye, Sauron, Cylon, Panopticon all summoned up at once.  (Photo hyperlinks to source.)

Continuous Portrait of Mussolini

And if the designers of Darth Vader’s mask haven’t seen the Milestone, I’d be surprised – even more surprised if Fritz Lang hadn’t when he created the robot for Metropolis.  The photo doesn’t do justice to the malevolent power of the real thing. 

Il Duce with Milestone

I loved the placard text about this absurdly oversized bust:

Mussolini Gigantor

Which noted slyly that since Mussolini himself was only 5 foot or so, the broadness of the shoulders as displayed in the work was all the more untrue to life.  And there must have been some irony intended by the curators in the placement of the “all-seeing head” in what looks like a jar.

There was one other mocking note in the exhibition, Heinrich Hoerle’s painting Masks, which captures the essence of the angry right-wing rabble of any age:

Hoerle Masks

But I’ll talk some other time about the painting I loved the most, Barthel Gilles’ Ruhr Battle.

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