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The Most Important Art in Museum of Modern Art
Paul Sachs, one of MoMA's first board members, gifted the nascent museum a set of prints and drawings by prominent German Expressionists, including Max Beckmann's Before the Mirror, thus seeding a permanent collection long before the museum officially had one. A nude woman sits, with her back to the viewer brushing her hair, while the mirror in front of her reflects her face back out to the viewer. The etching is simple but contains many themes and formal treatments favored by many modern artists. Sachs, in addition to being an early supporter of MoMA, was a professor at Harvard University and developed a program of museum education, training who he termed "the connoisseur-scholar." Famously, his Print Course saw students analyzing prints and drawings from his own collection.
Though MoMA would go on to amass a considerable collection of German Expressionist art, including paintings, prints, and books, Alfred Barr and others championed the French artists, particularly Picasso and Matisse, above most.
MoMA purchased van Gogh's Post-Impressionist masterpiece in 1941 through the Paul Rosenberg Gallery, an important source of modern European art. With its juxtaposition of quiet order and swirling energy, The Starry Night remains to this day one of the Museum's most prized acquisitions. Of the painting, van Gogh once said, "Looking at the stars always makes me dream....Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?" The closeness and accessibility van Gogh spoke of provides a nice parallel to the closeness and accessibility for which MoMA strived. Interestingly, conservators were forced to put glass over the painting when it was discovered that viewers liked to kiss the work.
While MoMA does not have the deepest holding of van Gogh's work (they own three paintings and three prints), van Gogh has appeared in ninety-five different solo and group exhibitions over the years, and he featured prominently along side Cézanne, Gauguin, and Seurat in MoMA's first exhibition. In the story of modern art told by MoMA, van Gogh and the Post-Impressionists forever changed the trajectory of painting.
Picasso's Girl Before a Mirror was Barr's first major acquisition for the museum, purchased in 1938 for $10,000 with the assistance of Olga Guggenheim, the wife of businessman Simon Guggenheim. In a 1974 interview, Alfred Barr's wife Marga said that Girl Before a Mirror was "the first really important picture Alfred was able to buy."
In the painting Picasso used one of his favorite subjects, his mistress Marie-Therese Walter, to achieve a strange and somewhat off-putting mixture of tranquility, sexuality and mortality. Consciously or not, Barr's first major acquisition echoed the theme and form of Beckmann's Before the Mirror, one of the first works to enter MoMA's collection.
Barr's positioning of Picasso as the greatest modern master had profound effects on the understanding of modern art for many decades. For Barr, Cubism was the great impetus that led later avant-garde artists into the realm of abstraction, which he argued in his 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art, and three years later, Barr's Picasso retrospective showcased the modern master's forty-year career, cementing his reputation. Girl Before a Mirror was part of a series of portraits that Picasso embarked upon, and Barr described them as "unlike anything he had done before in their great sweeping curves."