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Essays On The Museum Of Modern Art

Morley was a perfect fit for the San Francisco job: a California native with impressive academic credentials, international exposure to modern art, and firsthand experience in state-of-the-art museum practice. She studied French literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and then traveled abroad to earn a PhD in French literature and art at the Sorbonne. It was in Paris that Morley received her first comprehensive exposure to modern art, attending exhibitions of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Raoul Dufy, artists she would later champion in San Francisco. After finishing her degree Morley took a job teaching French language and literature at Goucher College in Baltimore but was soon recruited to take on art history as well. For training she was sent to a summer course for art professionals at Harvard,3 and soon thereafter she was hired as a curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum. She returned to the Bay Area in 1933 and a year and a half later was hired to direct the fledgling San Francisco Museum of Art, only months before it was set to open. Morley quickly assembled a small staff and got down to work.

The inaugural shows were an eclectic array, a result of the compressed time frame and meager resources: the fifty-fifth Annual of the San Francisco Art Association (SFAA), French prints, gothic and renaissance tapestries, ancient Chinese sculptures, and modern French paintings. To some extent the schedule was dictated by what was available to show, but Morley was also quite deliberate in her effort to balance the program to appease the more conservative trustees and critical members of the public who were not prepared for a steady diet of new art. Even progressive trustees, those who were sympathetic to what Morley called her “modern tendencies,” needed slow nurturing and guidance. Equally important was the strategic inclusion of work by local artists, many of whom as members of SFAA had played a major role in establishing the museum and had a vested interest in its activities. During Morley’s tenure, roughly one-third of the museum’s gallery space was dedicated to Bay Area artists.

The mingling of modern art with material meant to appeal to a broader audience would continue for the first five years of Morley’s directorship—and at a pace that is astonishing. During the first year alone, she and her small staff mounted seventy exhibitions; they then showed between seventy-four and one hundred each year through 1941, when World War II intervened. Morley’s intention was to get the public into the habit of visiting frequently by making sure there was always something new on display. To increase the odds, she also took the unusual step of keeping the museum open late, until ten in the evening, six days a week.

Commenting on this innovation in the local paper, Morley lets her populist sympathies shine through: “Museums have long dreamed of open evenings, but virtually none in America have ever taken the step. . . . They felt that art was for the leisure class only. We are embarking on this new and democratic experiment in hopes that we will build up a regular following of art lovers whose days are occupied.”4Open evenings had been the brainchild of trustee Timothy Pflueger, a leading Bay Area architect, but Morley had embraced his idea with gusto, recognizing the benefits of providing convenient access to the museum for day laborers, office workers, and artists alike.5

Those evening visitors were in for what today seems quite a feast. Morley generated a systematic introduction to European modernism through exhibitions by a who’s who of artists we now view as canonical: Max Beckmann, Georges Braque, Cézanne, Dufy, Gauguin, Vassily Kandinksy, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, Joan Míro, Picasso, Yves Tanguy. Many of these shows came on loan from galleries on the East Coast, while Morley originated others, such as the Matisse exhibition she mounted in 1936, which drew heavily upon the holdings of local collectors Michael and Sarah Stein. 6 There were also a number of important exhibitions borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, which in the 1930s maintained an active program of circulating exhibitions that were often a natural fit for SFMA.

In keeping with her vision of the modern museum as a site for experimentation, Morley presented the latest developments in a wide variety of media, including photography, experimental film, architecture, and landscape design. There were also exhibitions of what were termed “special phases of art”—a numismatic exhibition, a book fair, a fine printing display—which were of particular interest to groups who might not be regular museumgoers.7She mounted shows exploring the “art” of everyday life, meant to demonstrate that art was not only a painting that hung on a gallery wall but was also to be found in simple, soundly designed objects and materials that were often readily available to the average consumer: cutlery, ceramics, textiles, furniture, and the like.8

In the mid-twentieth century, India was a new democratic country carved out of the subcontinent and led by the Indian National Congress. During this nascent period of independence, its citizens sought to define its parameters and understand its reason for being. The cultural sphere was highly politicized. Authors wrote stories and poems that critiqued the way nationalist leaders handled the events leading up to independence and partition of India and Pakistan. Within the burgeoning art scene, artists introduced themselves as modern and secular practitioners. Some were political, while many more were concerned with formal issues. Some incorporated indigenous traditions, while others turned to art practices from outside of India.

The Bombay Progressives
During the 1930s and ’40s, a number of communist groups were active in the cultural arena in India. Along with theater professionals and writers, visual artists joined together under the banner of “progressive” and identified with Marxism. In Bombay in 1947, Francis Newton Souza (1924–2002), Maqbool Fida Husain (born 1915), and others formed the Progressive Artists’ Group. They had leftist leanings, rejected the nationalist art of the Bengal School, and embraced international modern art practices. Over the years, Souza gained international notoriety for his erotic and religious paintings that were informed by a variety of styles, including Expressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, and Primitivism. Husain has also worked in a number of international painting modes; he was exposed to the art of Europeans including Emil Nolde and Oskar Kokoschka through the Progressive Artists’ Group. His work, however, retains traces of indigenous traditions; in particular, he has had an ongoing interest in Indian cinema. Husain first supported himself as an artist by painting cinema billboards; more recently, he has directed films and depicted contemporary film stars in his paintings.

“Living Traditions”
K. G. Subramanyan (born 1924) invented traditions by juxtaposing contemporary art with popular culture, and folk art with urban trends. He studied under Nandalal Bose at Santiniketan outside of Calcutta. This art school, founded by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, emphasized Indian traditions and handicrafts. Subramanyan passed on his knowledge of both popular and fine arts to new generations of artists. His influence extended far and wide through his writings on art theory and teaching at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda (an important art department inaugurated in 1949).

Abstraction, Minimalism, and Figurative Painting
Upon first looking at the work of a number of modern Indian artists, there seems little to differentiate their imagery from art made in other parts of the world. Yet their cultural heritage does affect their work, even if it is not apparent. In his ethereal abstract paintings, Natvar Bhavsar’s (born 1934) fields of color breathe and throb (1980.227). Although he moved to New York in the 1960s and was a contemporary of Abstract Expressionist painters, Indian culture continued to inform his work—Hinduism guided his use of colors, for instance. Nasreen Mohamedi (1937–1990) made minimalist ink drawings. The reverberating lines in her work recall Indian music, and she was influenced by the clean forms of Islamic architecture and design. The figurative work of Arpita Singh (born 1937) is made with pigment and very little oil to form cakes of impasto paint. This patchy quality references the folk art of quilts in India. And Krishna Reddy (born 1925) played with multiple printmaking techniques in Paris during the 1950s. He felt free in this environment in contrast to India, which had just experienced the light of freedom after centuries of foreign rule.

Ebrahim Alkazi is known for his visual eye, theatrical mastery, and deep interest in the relationship between art and theater. He recently received the “Living Treasures of Bombay Award” in recognition of his contribution to the cultural life of the city. Director of the Art Heritage Gallery at Triveni Kala Sangam, he was one of the first promoters of artists such as Maqbool Fida Husain. Alkazi now has one of the largest private collections of historical photographs, Sepia International, which is based in New York City.

During his brief life, Raghubir Singh (1942–1999) published over twelve books of color photographs taken of the various regions of India (1991.1282). Singh’s books are usually dedicated to a geographical region or area such as Rajasthan, Kashmir, and Bombay, and frame contemporary India within a historical and legendary context. Color is an essential tool in his candid images of everyday life.

Atteqa Ali
Independent Curator

October 2004

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