“Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945”. July 2008.

I have now been to see the festival exhibition at the Dean Gallery, “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945” twice.

It is quite an interesting exhibition: it does exactly what it says on the tin: it looks at photography in central Europe between the wars. This also means that it doesn’t necessarily work as an exhibition: despite the curators’ attempts to provide cohesion and themes, it doesn’t necessarily hang together very well. There is just too much to cover: a large geographical area in political turmoil, an art form newly available to the masses, and economic changes ranging from depression to boom. Inevitably, it is a very bitty exhibition. Many of the images were new to me, as were most of the photographers.

There are some interesting pictures, though. There are too main – and very connected – themes that the curators focussed on for me: new ways envisaging and manipulating photographs, and the political threads running through the work. This last was balanced by the way the medium was commercialised, as advertising turned to photography and incorporated the techniques that the political artists had pioneered.

Photomontage features heavily the show. Many of the photographs were reminiscent of the recent Rodchenko show at the Hayward – in the use of montage, the way politics which was fundamental to the work on display, and – for the portraits – the very direct gaze of the sitter. Much of it reminded me of the work of the cubist painters – Braque and Picasso used collage, too. The shapes the photographers created also made me think of the Italian futurists – all those lines and jagged edges.

John Heartfield: Fathers and Sons. Source: Alki1 on flickr

Heartfield’ “Fathers and Sons” is a famous image, but still chilling: simple in its construction but terrifying in its implications. It is shown in the exhibition in two versions – the first printed after the first world war, the next before the second, with barely a change except a new title.

Paul Citroen: Metropolis. Source: Wikimedia. Used under Creative Commons licence.

Paul Citroen’s “Metropolis” is also familiar. The montage is used to create a very claustrophobic image – clearly “modern” for the early 20th century.

Many of the images in the exhibition touched on the surreal: either through montage or, more interestingly, the way the photographer saw the world: the way they interpreted the patterns they saw and the angles they created within their pictures. Otto Umbehr (“Umbo”) had several startling images in the show: in “Eerie Street”, the steep angle he is shooting from makes the image appear surreal. Herbert Bayer’s image Lonely Metropolitan is surrealistic through montage.

Otto Umbehr (“Umbo”): Eerie Street. Source: Kbias on flickr

Herbert Bayer: Lonely Metropolitan. Source: sprechensienicht on flickr

There was also a move to abstraction through a concentration on details, reducing an image to its essentials – the lines and shadows – and creating minimalistic pictures. Many of these photographers were associated with the Bauhaus, and as well as photography they worked in other media, too, such as sculpture.

Another theme the exhibition tried to bring out was the role of women within the modernist movement. The thesis was that photography allowed women to have careers within an artistic field that wasn’t dominated by men: there was no baggage in photography, compared to painting or sculpture.

I think my problem with the exhibition – which I believe was first shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington – was that any of the themes identified by the curators could have filled an exhibition of its own. By spreading itself relatively thin, the impact was lost: so that showing the work a handful of women out of the many photographers on show weakened the argument. The same for the role of politics, the impact of surrealism, the power of photomontage, the move to abstraction – each of these could have supported a whole show.

As it was, I was left wanting more of each of the sections, and not convinced of the whole.

Still, a very interesting exhibition, full of fascinating images.


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