Front Cover and Final Section of "La prose du Transsiberien et de la Petite Jehanne de France,"
A Collaboration By Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars, 1913
The MoMA's magisterial "Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925" (up through April 15th) reminds us that everything old is new again. (Click here for the MoMA site for the exhibition). No matter how hard we strain to create the New New Thing, the rupture that abstraction caused a century ago is still rippling and rending its way through our own time-- a Newness that we still struggle to get past, to overcome.
Oh, and for all our emphasis on multimedia today, the Modernists beat us to that punch as well. Most arresting for me- in the midst of so many familiar and iconic images- were the inventive mash-ups, the collaborative hybrids such as "La prose du Transsiberien..."-- a work inspired in part by a trip across Russia in the year of the first revolution, 1905. (Click here for more on this revolutionary illustrated text).
Collage is born at this time, Picasso runs headlong into African art, Klee takes the line for a walk, geometry is exploded and dissected, color leaps and somersaults, splashing into radial circles, costumes striped and hued, warping and expanding the human form...deliberately matched with atonal experiments in music, and the flickering motion of the new-born cinema.
The greatest revelation was Duncan Grant's "Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting With Sound," from 1914, which I had not seen before (it is on loan from the Tate). Grant painted a series of abstract shapes on a roll c. ten feet long. According to the Tate site: "The artist made ["Abstract Kinetic..."] with the intention that it should be viewed through a rectangular aperture 24 in. (61 cm.) wide and of the same height—11 in. (28 cm.)— as the painting. As the painting was viewed, it was to be in continuous slow movement across the aperture, moving from left to right. Movement was to be effected by the scroll’s being mounted on twin spools, one on each side of the aperture and hidden from the spectator’s view, which would be turned by mechanical means. The artist intended that as the painting passed across the aperture the spectator should hear slow music by J. S. Bach."
The piece has never been displayed as intended-- it is wall-mounted in one long band at the MoMA, with a film of how it would appear with the planned movement. I could gaze for hours into the slow parade of perfectly aligned shapes, their colors a stately, transcendental expression of somber joy, the music a measured accompaniment.
Yet, at the time, no less than D.H. Lawrence (who saw the piece at Grant's workshop, and who liked Grant personally) derided it, saying "Tell him not to make silly experiments in the futuristic line with bits of colour on moving paper."
To see "Abstract Kinetic Collage...," click here.