Art Review Archives:
Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945
Milwaukee Art Museum
The Milwaukee Art Museum presents the exhibit Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945 through May 4, 2008. Featuring more than 165 original works of photographs and photomontage, Foto is an important documentation of the enthusiasm and variety with which European nations adopted photography as the new language of modernity after the great World War. The camera as social recorder, as exaltation of speed and the dizzying new architecture, as experimental tool reflect some of the diverse aspects of the explorations seen in these select and compelling works. Professionals and professors, amateurs and camera-aficionados in Germany, Austria, the former Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary embraced the new technology, extending the photographic vocabulary to the range of approaches we are familiar with today. Among their innovations are the introduction of radical viewpoints and camera angles; a willingness to experiment deeply with photography in abstract image-making representative of shade, transparency and shape; and the use of the photograph as documentary tool to record disappearing aspects of regional identity and in the service of agitating against social injustice. But beneath their enthusiasm and apparent subject matter vibrate two conflicting emotional poles, and this, too, is modernity's legacy: on the one hand, optimism; on the other, insecurity.
The pressures and devastation of World War I (1914-1918) led to a world radically redrawn in its borders, and in the type and quality of life available to its citizens. The great empires which had held sway over vast stretches of Europe, Germany and Austro-Hungary, Russia, and to the south, the Ottoman Empire, had fallen during the war. Nations were newly-written in their place, some restored, some cobbled together as new boundaries were drawn. The war had, further, wiped away many traditional social conventions and means of life. Village and town life, slow and stable for centuries, grandparents who lived and dressed like their own grandparents did, had been severed and dislocated, jolted into a life of modernity. In an aftermath of four years of wartime production a new era awakened, one in which industry was preeminent. The shift into a youth culture of health and sport had begun, and an exaltation of machinery, speed, and modern construction formed the basis for the belief in the creation of a new and better world. This was the mindset known as modernism.
Within it, photography proliferated as a medium alluring for its technical aspects and for its opportunity to afford even the amateur with a means by which expressive pictures could be made. The photograph was to become the conveyor of a common pictorial language, the camera's use as common as the pen. Even in their quantity the selections of Foto represent merely a sliver of the prodigious output of the photo craze in post-war Europe, in which both commercial photography and talented amateurs and clubs proliferated.
Enthusiasm for sports, café life, architectural construction, personality as something enacted before the camera lens, all represent aspects of the modern optimism revealed in Foto. Sports, in particular, became a craze, not only the heroes and competition or organized sport, but the very idea of sport and sportiness as a healthful, youthful pursuit. This was the new life in which all was possible and all ills curable through modern living and science. Leni Riefenstahl (cat. 41; gelatin silver print: 29.4 x 23.4 cm: 1931) by photographer Martin Munkacsi (American, b. Hungary, 1896-1963) typifies several overlapping areas of modernity as expressed in the "new photography": the interest in sport, the emancipation of women into active roles, and the adoption of an identity based on constructions before the camera's lens. Dancer, actress and filmmaker Riefenstahl is photographed in an athletic pose, sweat-streaked yet with face and hair fully made-up: beauty and vigor in a pose whose apparent candor relies on a great deal of preparation. The twinlike androgyny of the identically-dressed Klaus and Erika Mann (cat. 51; gelatin silver print: 16 x 19.2 cm: c. 1928-1932; photographer Lotte Jacobi, American, b. West Prussia, 1896-1990), and the extreme sports action of The Goalie Gets There a Split Second Too Late (Der Torwart kommt den Bruchteil einer Sekunde zu spät) (cat. 80; gelatin silver print: 29.8 x 36.7 cm: 1928; photographer Martin Munkacsi, American, b. Hungary, 1896-1963) may be seen as representative of tangents of these interests shooting off into specialized areas, the one revealing the excursions into male dress and habit of the New Woman of the postwar era, the other highlighting the camera's ability to capture, and celebrate, split-second moments of tension and drama in sporting events, hitherto unseen.
And yet, if modern life had its allure, its origins could not be denied. Its conveniences and pleasures were built upon transience, the word 'modern' itself derived from the Latin modo -- mode, fashion -- and representative of the impermanent, the fickle and changing. In the mere four years between 1914-1918, old ways of life that had been in place for centuries had been torn away. Modern living was based on precarious footing indeed. Contrasting the manufactured candidness of Riefenstahl's sporty image are a series of sincere and penetrating psychological portraits by Lucia Moholy (British, b. Bohemia, 1894-1989), wife of László Moholy-Nagy. The photographs Franz Roh (cat. 52; gelatin silver print: 37.3 x 27.8 cm: 1926) and Florence Henri (cat. 53; gelatin silver print: 37.2 x 27.7 cm: 1927) explore the camera's ability to probe, the photographer's quest to represent the ineffable complexities of thought and personality through a visual means. Roh's eyes are closed, withdrawn, almost painfully so; Florence Henri faces the camera with eyes open, but with a lingering world-weariness or dissatisfaction perceptible beneath her calm composure. Far from the exertions of sport or the allure of speed, Moholy's portraits reveal the subtle insecurity in those who had lived through the World War and all its changes.
A fascination with the dizzying perspectives inherent in the new architecture, and the magnificence of burgeoning industry, reveal further subjects of popularity and optimism. Radio Tower Berlin (Funkturm Berlin) (gelatin silver print: 39.5 x 29.9: 1928) by László Moholy-Nagy (American, b. Hungary, 1895-1946), with its acute viewpoint looking sharply down the steel skeleton of the radio tower is a breathtaking exercise in dramatic composition. The godlike perspective permitted by the architectural construction dominates and subordinates the orderly, merely mortal umbrellas of the café below. Industrial subjects, such as Antoni Wieczorek's (Polish, 1898-1940) Factory (Fabryka) (cat. 93; gelatin silver print: 20 x 27.7 cm: 1935) or Witold Romer's (Polish, 1900-1967) High Voltage Lines in Chorzów (Linia wysokiego napięcia w Chorzowie) (cat. 92; bromoil print: 30.5 x 40 cm: 1928), elevate factories and power lines to an all but mythical presence. In Factory (Fabryka), Wieczorek portrays the industrial interior as a cathedral-like space formed of shadowy pipes and tubes, bathed in an insistent, luminous glow. Romer captures the high-voltage towers as upright, dominant elements carrying multiple power lines into a seemingly limitless distance: electricity for all, power, dominance.
But the surreality of Herbert Bayer's (American, b. Austria, 1900-1985) Lonely Metropolitan (Einsamer Großstädter) (cat. 97; photomontage (printed matter with gouache and airbrush): 41 x 29.8 cm: 1932)), with its unsettling 'seeing hands' held up before an image of a wall of empty tenement windows, is again a reminder that despite its power and goods, modern society is fraught with an underlayer of psychological uncertainty. At the same time, photos such as the one by Vladimir Hnízdo (Czech, 1906-1983), Hands That Cannot Close into a Fist because of Calluses (Ruce, jež pro mozoly nejdou sevřít v pěst) (cat. 118; gelatin silver print: 6.3 x 6: 1936) -- also focusing on hands, here the thickened, wear-hardened palms of the working man -- or the series of portraits of laborers by Kata Kálmán (Hungarian, 1909-1978), reveal the disheartening truths of modern living, that underpinning its industrial production and the ease and comfort of its urban dwellers is the hard manual labor of uncounted millions.
Further insights are to be found in photographs of landscape and folkways, also representative of the new awareness of transience that was a hallmark of the period. Photographs of shepherds, of village women planting in their native dress, have an interest in preservation of national identity that is almost that of a tourist's eye: a dispassionate regard, intent on capturing every detail, yet unemotional in their accuracy. Landscape subjects hover among those motivated by a mixture of artistry and love of homeland, the propagandistic, and some which subsequent events render up in painful remembrance. Among the most poignant is Roman Vishniac's (American, b. Russia, 1897-1990) Entrance to the Ghetto, Kazimierz (cat. 152; titled later; gelatin silver print: 25.2 x 19.5 cm: 1937), its lonely vista a scene that the looming second World War would soon paint with scars of loss.
Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945 is as much a study of sociological interest as of the diversity and durability of photographic insight. The unresolved pressures of 'modernity' are made explicit here, revealing the two poles between which the new European photography vibrated, from the blithe love of speed, sport and the drama of the new architecture, to the disturbance and inheld unrest of moody experimental photos in which brooding faces, light, shape and shadow predominate. In the Europe of 1918-1945, Germany, Poland, Austria, the former Czechoslovakia and Hungary saw the dawning of the elements -- and paradoxes -- of the modern experience, now accepted as simply our milieu of daily living: a life filled with casual pleasures such as sports, an attraction to youthfulness and dynamism, a fluidity of image and gender roles, an endless fascination with industry (today, technology) and the comforts and benefits it brings, and yet fraught with a deep undercurrent of anomie, insecurity, and hidden labor. The 165 works of Foto are organized around eight themes, including experimental photography, portraits, modern life, surrealism, activist photographs, photocollage, and landscape. Primarily photographs, they also include photocollage, magazine covers as representative of photojournalism, and select artists' books. While featuring many acknowledged masters, other photos by contemporaries are on exhibit for the first time. Technical mastery, diverse subject matter, and the timely subcontext make Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945 well worth a special trip.
A 320-page, fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition and is available at the museum (hardcover, $60.00). Authored by Matthew Witkowsky, assistant curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art and the organizer of the exhibition, the catalogue illustrates each exhibited work along with additional figures. The thoughtful text explores the photographs, artists and issues in depth. Biographies of featured photographers and a full bibliography are included.
--Katherine R. Lieber