A Modernized Past, or The History in Art History

As an intern in a New York City museum this semester, I was told during my first few weeks that my museum ID would be good for free visits to other city museums. I didn’t make good on this perk until yesterday, and I now realize that I must make good on this while I can. I’ve never been one who was dependent on other people to do things or go places. In fact, I rather enjoy the solitude found in quiet afternoon strolls through my city. I went to the Met and the Whitney (I’d never been to the Whitney before.) The Met is probably my favorite museum in the city (sorry, MJH…) because it has such an extensive collection. I’ve gone quite a few times, but the best part of the experience of going there is that each time I go, I always see or feel something new.

My favorite pieces in the Met’s collection amidst the armless Grecian statues and indigenous Oceanic artifacts are found in the contemporary art galleries. I’ve always been fascinated by modern art and its unconventional features. People, past and present, are so perplexed by it. What message are we to receive from staring at a giant canvas with just three different hues of the same color on it? What are these geometric shapes supposed to be in the form of? This woman has no eyes, and it looks like my four-year-old could have painted this. These are the disturbances that we internalize as we view contemporary art. It’s nontraditional, and it makes us downright uncomfortable. Yet I find it to be more symbolic and interrogative than its predecessors. It’s existential, it aches for a purpose and a meaning.

As I roamed the galleries inhaling the bells and whistles of the collection, my mind began to search for something to put it at ease. Piece by piece, I realized what it was that made the art modern, but also what made it traditional and commemorative of the past. Modern art is laced with nostalgia. While it distorts the styles and methods of its predecessors, the modern certainly does not forget what came first. It juxtaposes the past with the present, it creates a sense of appreciation for the historical origins of art. And sometimes, it even expresses a desire for the reemergence of a past life where the days were much simpler without the burden of innovation and advancement by technology.

 

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This is “Ariadne” by Giorgio di Chirico, painted in 1913. It depicts a statue of Ariadne lying prone in a deserted, vast space. Her effigy is sealed away from the backdrop by a brick wall, alienating her from a sailing ship and a steaming train. While they are separate, each element does not go unnoticed. “Ariadne” is an example of how the classical period survives in the present. Think about the Met’s ancient Greek and Roman collections. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of statues that have withstood time for thousands of years and stand as proudly and erect in the Met as they once did in their original homes, and they do so amongst a multitude of different pieces from different periods. Works like these strike the balance between past and present. They incorporate history with the here and now.

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This piece is “July Hay” by American Thomas Hart Benton, dated 1943. Best known for his regionalist style, Hart Benton combines a surrealist look with a scene common to Massachusetts in the pre-World War II world. The men in the painting appear to be farmers, making their fortune and dedicating their life’s work to the land. It comforts us because it is reflective of easier days without the obsessive drive for innovation. Perhaps Hart Benton was expressing his desire for these days back, inserting a sweet nostalgia of America’s last strands of natural beauty before life continued to modernize during and after the war. There is a romantic message to this painting. The past survives and flourishes even through our memories, be it of childhood or of simpler days.

And this is what I observed yesterday during my museum visits. I saw the incorporation of art into history and history into art.

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