Afew months ago, The Museum of Modern Art of New York had a very large exhibition, entitled ‘modernstarts’. So large, in fact, that it was not shown alongside the permanent collections but instead of them (it occupied all three floors of the Museum). Given that ‘modernstarts’ was just the beginning of the ‘MoMA2000’ project, and that the MoMA itself will move into a new building in four or five years, when the Statement from the Director spoke of ‘a unique opportunity for the Museum to literally reconfigure many of its galleries’, it was clear what was happening: they were trying to imagine a Modernism for the twenty-first century. What would it look like?

‘modernstarts’ came in three parts (‘People’, ‘Places’ and ‘Things’), with smaller sections entitled ‘Actors, Dancers, Bathers’, ‘Guitars’, ‘Unreal City’ or ‘Tables and Objects’. It was a thematic exhibition, organized around subject-matter: train stations, trees, naked bodies, whatever. Not promising, in general. But since we are still looking for a coherent explanation of the Modernist big bang of ninety years ago, and you never know where a solution may come from—why not. After all, if the richest collection of Modernist art in the world reshuffles all its cards, and it turns out that aesthetic experiments somehow ‘clustered’ around two or three major themes, it would be fantastic. Not just an exhibition, but a true intellectual breakthrough: ‘an experiment designed to offer a different understanding of modern art’, as the Director said; while the Press people described it as ‘unprecedented’, ‘unusual’, ‘unparalleled’, ‘provocative’, ‘fresh’, ‘major’ and ‘innovative’, all in the first sixteen lines of their blurb. (Then they realized they’d forgotten ‘radical’, ‘rethinking’, ‘probing’ and ‘unconventional’, and got them all in, in the first sentence of the press release.) This is unfair, you will say, press packs are not for real. Maybe. But when I asked to have a brief chat with someone—anyone—involved in the project, to get a sense of what they had in mind, I was told that I should read the press release first, and only then could a meeting perhaps be arranged. I said I wasn’t interested in the press release. They insisted. So I read it.

Anyway. Thematics and Modernism, such an odd pair, you go to the MoMA in high spirits. And quickly realize that ‘modernstarts’ is indeed epoch-making, but in a totally unexpected way. Having seen it twice, and read the catalogue, the thematic thesis—namely, that the themes chosen can explain major Modernist ‘starts’—is clearly untenable. Sure, they talk of the role of the metropolis and the war, but that’s obvious, it’s been a commonplace for eighty years now; it’s even sort of true: but new, no. And when the claim is made more directly, it’s a disaster. When the press release for ‘Places’ asserts that ‘the unique quality of light in the port of Saint-Tropez influenced the use of the pointillist dots in Signac’s The Buoy’, of 1894, this is already very unconvincing, and becomes simply unreal a few lines later, when the same ‘careful technique, a “pointillist” method’ is said to arise four years earlier, on the opposite side of France, in Seurat’s The Channel at Gravelines, Evening. (That pointillism originates in neither place does not help.)

But if the thematic arrangement does not open your eyes, it is quite effective at closing them. Take the wall caption for the section ‘Composing with the figure’: speaking of Picasso’s Girl with Mandolin, it states that ‘we must puzzle out precisely what it represents’, just like the other paintings, which ‘offer similar puzzles to be deciphered’. Viewers are invited (twice) to treat Modernist technique as an odd arrangement of pieces: implicitly, as soon as the puzzle is solved, and the ‘real’ object has been teased out, it can simply be forgotten. ‘We surely would never know what an actual guitar looks like from any one of these works’, says the wall caption of ‘Guitars’: ‘Without exception, the artists rely upon our knowing what a guitar looks like in order to decipher the guitar from the fragmented parts.’ Here even grammar (that ‘guitar’ repeated three times in two sentences, to make absolutely sure we won’t miss it) reveals that the MoMA wants viewers to see ‘through’ the technique (collage, Cubism, whatever), and to focus on the ‘actual’ object instead. And indeed, if you manage to ‘forget’ that you are looking at a collage, Picasso’s guitar becomes much more visible. Why you should do that, however, is a mystery. Since the emancipation of technique is the greatest feat of Modernism, treating it as a mere puzzle to be overcome destroys the whole point of this art. To see a guitar, you don’t need the MoMA.

The peak of thematic euphoria is reached with four works by Kandinsky, in a room entitled ‘Seasons and Moments’. Kandinsky painted them for the vestibule of Edwin R. Campbell, which has been reconstructed for the exhibition, so that the four panels can again be seen in their original position. Great idea. And it’s breathtaking, the vestibule is small, maybe four metres across, so you’re always a little too close to the canvases, everything blurs and bleeds, if you step back you end up with two or three of them simultaneously in view, at unwieldy angles. It’s a fantastic experience of hyperstimulation and disorientation: ‘too much for my bourgeois head’, as Thomas Buddenbrook would have said: the kind of impact that Modernism must have had then (and is so difficult to imagine now). Great. But for the MoMA the important thing is that these works are also known as ‘The Four Seasons’ (which is not their actual title: that is Panel for Edwin R. Campbell No. 1, 2, 3, 4), and all the wall caption has to say is that ‘the so-called Four Seasons contain what look like simplified details from nature’. Whence a lively argument among three high-school students next to me on whether a certain shape could be seen as a pumpkin: which would identify the canvas as ‘Fall’, and give rise to a whole four-season sequence. They could have had the aesthetic experience of their lives; but the Museum sent them looking for pumpkins instead.