Calder: Suspension in the Museum of Fine Arts

By Marie-Caroline Roussel

Alexander Calder was a key figure in 20th century art. It is likely that you are familiar with his artworks, one of which (Trois Disques) is located in Parc Jean Drapeau on Montreal’s Sainte Hélène island.

Born in Pennsylvania, he was, as Kiki de Montparnasse called him, a Francophile and French-speaking “Yankee.” Calder developed an international career that lasted decades and  saw his work exhibited in Europe and the United States. He joined modernist avant-garde circles of artists like Jean Arp, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger… all who admired his innovation and radical use of movement. The exhibition is called Radical Inventor, in reference to his use of wire, rather than the typical medium of clay, to create figures and objects. His miniature circus,the  “cirque Calder”, caught the attention of Jean Cocteau in the 1920’s.

As the first major Canadian retrospective on the artist, this exhibition features an astonishing number of his mobiles and “stabiles”. These objects alone make the trip to the MMFA worth it, in my opinion, as more than one or two mobiles are rarely exhibited together in one place. Their size and ability to move, and often their fragility, make them difficult to transport and require a certain type of space that is not too crowded, visually nor physically, so that they can be showcased in a successful way.

The exhibition is located in the original Michael and Renate Hornstein pavilion, which nicely parallels the grandeur of Calder’s work. As you walk up the flight of marble stairs, you are greeted with the sight of a massive red mobile and its impressive shadow, cast against the wall behind it. Under the mobile, dating from 1956 and titled Red Lily Pads, is a large circular couch slowly pivoting onto itself, allowing visitors to lie down under the artwork to observe it.

This installation is the result of a collaboration between the MMFA and the Cirque du Soleil, and itis  a successful curative element for several reasons. Because it is the first thing you see when you arrive, and the last thing you see when you leave, you have the opportunity to appreciate it twice: once with a feeling of awe as you are about to enter the world of Calder, and another with a developed understanding of the artist and the significance of such an artwork. Another success of this installation is that it plays with role reversals, as the work encourages viewers to  to take on the role of the mobile that moves as the couch turns. Finally, it acts as a catharsis, marking the beginning and the end of the exhibition; as you walk around the circle of exhibition rooms, you eventually get back to your starting point, performing the same slow dance as a mobile in the wind.

A key point in the exhibition is that Calder was an artist, born in a family of artists, but that he combined his studies in mechanical engineering and fine arts to achieve a new way of exploring beauty through movement. This was the case for his mobiles, literally, but it was also visible in earlier works. For example, a wire portrait of Kiki de Montparnasse casts a shadow of her face on the wall as it turns around slowly on itself.

An ingenious representation of Jean-Paul Sartre conveys movement too, although the medium (ink on paper) is a static one: the use of only three lines curved in strategic ways creates a vivid translation of the cigarette smoke and the philosopher’s lazy eye.

The highlight of the exhibition is a spacious white room in which twenty or so mobiles are on view. In between darker rooms, the impression you get when you step inside this true hall of enchantments is one of fascination and childlike wonder. No description is apt enough to convey the unique feeling that you will get from it. For some, it sparks vivid conversation - for others, like me, a instinct for silence and quiet meditation.

If you go to Calder: A Radical Inventor, take the time to stop and observe Red Disc and Gong, a mobile comprised of a mallet attached to a red disk and another, smaller, golden disk. By infusing lightness of movement into industrial materials, Calder eschews the heaviness and noise that they are traditionally associated with. In this piece, sound is reintroduced, but in a musical way. However, it seems that the mallet never actually hits the gong, which further reinforces the notion of silence so present in Calder’s mobiles. Maybe I didn’t wait long enough, and what must be a very satisfying gong sound does resonate - perhaps you can investigate if you go and see the piece for yourself.

Alexander Calder, Red Disc and Gong, 1940

Alexander Calder, Red Disc and Gong, 1940

Calder’s works are popular and often accessible. It seems to appeal to everyone in a timeless way, inspiring wonder and magic in viewers of all ages. Calder: A Radical Inventor is truly a haven of silence and meditative suspension in the midst of midterms and the cold, busy streets of Montreal.

If you have the chance, try to schedule your visit so that you arrive in the white room at 2:00pm for Momentum, the setting in motion of the mobiles by an expert handler.

The exhibition is on view from Tuesday to Sunday until February 24th, 2019.

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