Last Friday I mentioned that I had a date with my Aunt Karin scheduled for that morning, and this week I’m going to write a little journal about that date. We went to see the Calder exhibition at the MMFA. I learned so many interesting things about him!
The coolest thing that I learned was that Einstein was familiar with his work and vice versa. Allegedly, Einstein was so entranced by one of his pieces (A Universe, 1934) that he stood before it for 40 minutes so that he could see its full cycle of motion. Einstein is also reported to have said, “I wish I had thought of that,” in reference to an exhibition of Calder’s work in 1943. I can’t imagine how flattering it would be to receive that kind of compliment from someone who had previously received a Nobel Prize for his capacity for thinking.
Alexander Calder was a great thinker in his own right, if you take the MMFA’s word for it. He is credited with having invented both the wire sculpture and the mobile. Both of these, but especially the mobile, is so ubiquitous these days that it had never before crossed my mind that someone would have invented it as recently as the 1930’s.
I thought that it was smart of the gallery to curate this exhibition chronologically, it made me feel as though I could really see the trajectory of thought throughout the evolution of Calder’s career. They did a wonderful job of curating the work in a way that made me feel as though I was discovering the magic—in the same way the artist did as he was creating it. His influences (the circus, the study of physics, modern painting) were highlighted throughout the show and they provided historical context for us, the viewers, to feel as though we could really understand why his work was so appreciated in its time. For example, I enjoyed the anecdote about Calder’s visit to Mondrian’s gallery; Calder suggested to Mondrian that he might think about creating mobile paintings, so that the colours would actually dance in their different planes instead of just appearing to do so as they did in his work already. Mondrian rejected the idea, so Calder decided to use it in his own work and made his own Modernist paintings that do move in space.
I think the thing that I appreciate most about Calder is how well his exceptional skill for spatial reasoning is displayed in his work. This was most obvious to me in pieces like his wire portrait of Kiki de Montparnasse, a well-loved dancer who was his neighbour in Paris in the 20’s. Every single spatial detail was taken into consideration, including how the portrait’s shadow would fall on the wall behind it, the volume expertly noted from every possible angle. Her voluptuous lips and iconic haircut were attentively captured.
If I have one criticism of the curation of the show, it would be that certain pieces weren’t given enough physical space to be properly experienced. In my opinion, the mobile named “Starfish” (1937) would have been better served by being given its own small white room instead of being placed immediately next to a piece that was very distractingly red. The beauty of Starfish, in my opinion, is in its meditative quality. The mobile is made up of only two pieces, both sculpted from a caramel-coloured wood. The smaller piece is hung higher on the support and is reminiscent of the shape of a gull, while the larger and lower piece calls the starfish to mind. Both pieces move in an incredibly slow waltz. It is beautiful in its simplicity and for that reason I think that the viewer would deeply benefit from being able to be alone with it, to avoid having one’s attention continuously disrupted by all of the other moving pieces in the large hall.
I often prefer the MMFA’s painting exhibitions, and wasn’t planning on going to see the Calder exhibit until my aunt invited me. I’m happy that I did go though, and if you are in Montreal, I suggest that you do too!