ALEXANDER CALDER (1898-1976) The Mountain, 1960

Artistic peak

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 12

Alexander Calder's playful mobiles may look like toys, but it is to the laboratory and not the nursery that they owe their inspiration, argues Jonathan Jones

It is a strange and beautiful fate for an artist to be remembered as the creator of a children's toy. Perhaps 'toy' is the wrong word. Mobiles are part of the landscape of modern childhood, the decorations of the nursery's magic world. Perhaps it is by understanding their place in the cosmos of infancy that we can best apprehend their inventor Alexander Calder's unusual genius.
Mobiles are unexpectedly serious. Their gentle motion as they hang in the air and the bold primary colors of their floating fins and orbs do not make them clownish. Not Calder's, anyway. His suspended abstract sculptures have a curious gravity. This is why they belong in the nursery. Not to provoke laughter, but to instill wonder. Not to distract, but somehow to educate.

That sense of wonder is shared by Calder's sculpture The Mountain, which is to be sold by Bonhams New York in May. This is a stationary floorbound fantasia, not a floating dream, but it has Calder's very distinctive playfulness and innocence – qualities he showed as an inventive and creative little boy. Born in Pennsylvania in 1898 to a sculptor father and artist mother, who built him a workshop where he made toys and jewelry, Calder later studied engineering as well as attending drawing classes.

When he moved to Paris in the 1920s, he became closely involved in the Surrealist movement and it's easy to see how much The Mountain has in common with the paintings of his friends Joan Miró and Hans (Jean) Arp. Yet Calder pushes into another dimension, spreading out The Mountain across floor space, just as his mobiles occupy the sky. Aloft or on the ground, he creates theaters of organic forms, operas of atoms, cosmic puppet shows. (It was his Cirque Calder, a mechanical show, that first drew him to the attention of the Parisian art world.) Like his American Surrealist contemporary Joseph Cornell, he seems totally cut off from the adult sexual forces that European surrealists worshipped.

In the 18th century, besotted with the new knowledge and curiosity of the Enlightenment, people gathered by candlelight in country houses to gasp at scientific experiments conducted by visiting lecturers. In Joseph Wright of Derby's painting An Experiment on the Orrery (circa 1766), two children gaze in rapt attention into the candlelit metal frame of an orrery, a clockwork model of the solar system that revealed the motion of the planets and their orbit of the sun, as then understood.

The orrery, and Wright's painting of it, bear witness to a sense of wonder that may seem very remote from modern art. Ever since modernism was corralled into museums, beginning with the Museum of Modern Art in 1929, its custodians have been creating a Byzantine history for it in which internal artistic trends are discussed in pristine isolation from anything as messy or human as the actual ideas and passions of the 20th century. Viewed in museums, the Soviet avant garde looks like a bloodless utopia remote from the violence and slaughter of the Russian Civil War, while marvelous objects like Calder's mobiles are drearily classified as belonging to this or that art movement.

Yet the art of the 1920s and 1930s was also made at a time of wonder. This was the age when scientific images of the universe were turned upside down. Modern physics is even stranger than modern art. The orrery that fascinates Wright's golden-faced boys is an illustration of Isaac Newton's orderly and mathematically predictable theory of the universe, which laid the foundations of the Enlightenment when his Principia was published in 1687. In the early 20th century, however, that clockwork Newtonian universe melted like a Salvador Dali watch.

First Einstein proposed that we inhabit a continuum of space time, and gave the equation for matter's transformation into energy. Then quantum physics began to prise information out of the smallest things in nature and found them to be very bizarre indeed. "We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry," said the physicist and collector of modern art, Niels Bohr in 1920. "The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections."

Look at the work of Arp, or Miró – Calder's closest artistic allies – and that poetry of the atom is immediately visible. Miró's 1925 painting The Birth of the World, with its atom-like red and white spheres dangling in primordial chaos, is not just a surrealist image of dreams, let alone a pure abstraction. It is a vision of the birth of the cosmos, at one with the real scientific ideas emerging in the 1920s.It also looks like a flattened Calder mobile. He was so respected in the age of Surrealism – and so politically engaged – that in 1937 he showed in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition, along with Picasso and Miró. Picasso unveiled Guernica at this legendary event, while the Spanish Civil War raged. Calder created a fountain that flowed with mercury instead of water. This improbable fountain – which survives at the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona – paid homage to the Spanish city of Almadén, that was famous for its mercury and which was under siege by Franco when Calder made the piece. And yet it also resembles a scientific experiment, a wonder to be shown like a modern orrery.

Calder's mobiles, too, have the feel of modern scientific toys. This is why they seem educational – because they are. Far from merely deriving from Miró's blobs, they resemble models of the atom. In the 1920s such models were becoming popular and with their interweaving wire orbits and colored papier mâché particles they resemble a cross between an orrery and a Calder sculpture. This is not just coincidence and Calder's scientific allusions are not merely superficial. The reason his mobiles portray a modern understanding of the cosmos so well is because their fluidity and non-hierarchical relationships between 'particles' capture, more poetically and therefore more scientifically than those old 1920s science models, the subtlety and ambiguity of space-time and the sub-atomic realm.

Calder is surely very American, a kind of surrealist Benjamin Franklin, in his tinkering and inventiveness. Marcel Duchamp, who also loved inventing scientific toys, gave Calder's creations the name 'mobiles'. Arp suggested he call his static sculptures – such as The Mountain – 'stabiles'. The Mountain is a 'stabile' if you like (the name never caught on), whose molten form evokes, as with all Calder's magical creations, the origins of the world and the strangeness of the cosmos.

Jonathan Jones writes about art for The Guardian.

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