In January of 1940, Stephen C. Clark, chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), received an irate letter. “As a visitor of the Museum of Modern Art I object very energetically to seeing this boring old stuff,” it read. “I do not use a buggy either when I can ride with motor cars.”
The exhibition that provoked this outcry was Italian Masters, an incredible gathering of 21 paintings and seven sculptures from the Italian Renaissance. In Esopus 24, the most recent issue of the nonprofit Esopus arts magazine, MoMA Chief of Archives and Library Michelle Elligott shares the story of the exhibition. It’s part of the recurring “Modern Artifacts” series in Esopus, which excavates narratives from the MoMA archives.
“The Museum of Modern Art is our oldest and most significant institutional partnership,” Tod Lippy, Esopus editor, told Hyperallergic. “Michelle Elligott and I have created 17 installments of the ‘Modern Artifacts’ series over the past 10 years, ranging in subject matter from the Museum’s first guest book to its significant Scott Burton archive, and it’s been a privilege to bring these otherwise hard-to-see archival materials to our readership.”
Organized for the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair, Italian Masters had traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago before its stop in New York. Clark had stated in a release that MoMA’s “acceptance of this exhibition of Italian masterpieces does not indicate a change in the established policy of the Museum,” and added that “the influence of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque traditions upon the modern artist is fundamental and continuous.”
In fact, the exhibition was first offered to the Met, but it declined. Supplemental insurance of $5,000 per week — a considerable expense at the time — was required due to the high valuations of the artwork, and the Met reportedly found this added expense unpalatable. (At that time, the Met had an agreement with the city of New York requiring that it be open to the public free of charge on certain days, and there was a general inclination there against instituting any special admission fees.) By increasing its own admission fee, MoMA not only covered the costs but actually brought in twice as much revenue as was required.
Since its founding in 1929, MoMA had avidly pledged its galleries to modern and contemporary art. An artists’ group known as the American Abstract Artists organized a boycott, and issued a broadside that asked “How Modern is the Museum of Modern Art?” They declared: “In 1939 the Museum professed to show ART IN OUR TIME.” Now they questioned what this celebration of the Italian Renaissance suggested about its commitment. “Why and when does a modern museum depart from presenting ‘the Art of Today’ to promoting the art of yesterday? Why not day-before-yesterday? Why not Resurrections, Adorations and Madonnas? Why not build Pyramids? Why not tear down the Museum and build a pyramid!”
Esopus 24 reproduces this broadside alongside other archival materials, including a ballot on which visitors could vote for the three works they liked the most, whether Fra Angelico’s “The Naming of John the Baptist” (1430) or Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (displayed dramatically between velvet drapes). Director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. created a catalog diagram, similar to his Cubism and Abstract art charts, with one line linking Raphael to Caravaggio to Velázquez to Goya to Manet. MoMA reinforced this lineage with a concurrent exhibition called Modern Masters, which featured work by artists like Matisse, Picasso, and Brancusi. And despite the displeasure from some, Italian Masters was a blockbuster. A photograph captures the quarter-millionth visitor — Barbara Gossling of Sydney, Australia — standing in front of her favorite work, Titian’s “Portrait of Pope Paul III.”
It would be the last American visit for these masterpieces. “During the exhibition’s tour of the United States, the government of Italy passed a law barring any future travel of these works outside the country, making Italian Masters a literal once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those who were able to see it,” Elligott writes.
What was more concerning than MoMA’s embrace of the Italian Renaissance was its association with Prime Minister Benito Mussolini (the exhibition was lent by the Royal Italian Government), and the museum leaders recognized that. A February 1, 1940 letter from Barr describes his rejection of decorations from Mussolini, affirming that the “Museum stands for free development of cultural and spiritual matters in a liberal democracy and the Italian Government stands for exactly the opposite.” He went on to state that the museum and its officials could not “afford to accept decorations any more than they could afford to accept them from Stalin or Hitler.”
More materials from the 1940 Italian Masters exhibition are digitized online at MoMA. Esopus 24 is available to order, and also features a participatory project by Marco Maggi, 16 removable prints by Tony Tasset, and Hayden Dunham’s melting paper among its 228 pages.