The vision of the world in interwar Europe.
Aug 6, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 44 • By EVE TUSHNET
Some artists tried to recapture landscape, but it's hard to do pastoral with a Leica. Albert Renger Ratzsch striking Little Tree (1929) depicts one spindly tree in a wrecked landscape--think Waiting for Godot, only without people--but the silvery gloss of the photo and the smooth perfection of the tree make it look artificial, almost as pretty as a machine.
Kata Kálmán's political portraits do manage to make humans as interesting as machines. The exhibit's wall captions praise her for depicting workers as individuals. Although her work does skid into left-wing iconography (her workers are obviously only getting their pictures taken because they are The Workers) she always shows her subjects' eyes, catches their gaze, and in that way returns to them their subjectivity and their individuality.
This accomplishment is all the more notable given that the show's other attempts to focus on humans as individuals, rather than exemplars of political or historical categories, often rely on extreme close-ups of subjects stripped of almost all social context: portraits in which the interior life of the subject is resolutely separated from other people, from jobs and politics and culture. Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz's portrait of a dejected, unsettling Arthur Rubinstein, face pressed too close to the camera, or his self-portrait behind a film noir shattered windowpane--this is modernism at its most introspective, and its most isolated.
Then war comes again. Surrealism, in which bodies melt into objects or twist into unrecognizable shapes, provides a fitting artistic vocabulary for 20th-century war. Perhaps the most memorable of the war photos--for their artistic merit, as well as for the extreme circumstances of their composition--are Wladyslaw Strzeminski's. Strzeminski spent much of World War II in hiding, creating makeshift darkrooms in his hideouts. The pieces here are taken from his 1945 series To My Friends the Jews, and contrast twisting black lines and gouts of red with small, chilling photographs of dead and dying bodies. The photos are a surrealist's Dance of Death, all starved limbs and tortured, skeletal abstractions.
It's easy to see how the curators chose the show's final photograph. It's Jindrich Marco's 1947 Souvenir, which depicts a couple posing in front of a jaunty painted backdrop set in front of a bombed-out building. The self-conscious contrast could be dully obvious, a cheap shot; but the photo has a light touch, perhaps because it relies on naturalistic grays rather than the harsh, high-contrast black-and-white favored by so many of the show's pictures. Moreover, the picture's self-consciou sness allows it to suggest that photography, despite its illusion of veracity, can be used to lie, and should be regarded as no more transparent and no less suspect than any other medium.
But in the end, the show's most lasting impression concerns not what we can do to photographs, but what we can do to bodies. The distortions of the body and the psyche are a recurring theme in the show--and, given our own practices, from partial-birth abortion to torture, a theme that remains relevant. The first and final rooms of the exhibit feature 1924 and 1934 variations on the same image: The German artist John Heartfield's Fathers and Sons. In each photomontage, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg stands at the front of a rank of skeletons, while at the bottom of the image lines of uniformed children with mock weapons march forward. This image is a rejection of the idea of progress; the new beauty can't overcome the old horrors.
Eve Tushnet blogs on politics and the arts at EveTushnet.com.