Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945

National Gallery of Art

Through September 3

At the National Gallery's exhibit on Central European photography, the machinery is glamorous and the pretty women are mangled.

Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945 is organized in an unclosed loop, moving from one war's aftermath to the next. This smartly designed show has a definite storyline--the dreaded return of war is mirrored by the return of photomontage, the technique that creates what the curators call "the cut-and-paste world," the technique of making art from wreckage--but never feels heavy-handed. The show moves easily through surrealism, political propaganda, and design for advertising, each genre and style part of the same propulsive storyline that pushes inescapably from awe through horror to salvage.

From the first room, the "modern" sensibility is obvious: The important lenses for viewing the world are technology, politics, and newspapers. The emphasis on confusion and reconstruction, scissored or discolored photographs, jumbled text unmoored from meaning, suggests a kind of pre-post-apocalyptic style. The use of rolls of film and cut-up photos as pieces of the work of art stems from a self-conscious focus on the maker of art as well as its subject. Religion as a means of understanding the world, or as anything more than an anthropological artifact, is almost entirely absent from the exhibit's works.

(Exceptions are one harrowing montage, Hans Bellmer's 1937 Machine Gun(neress) in a State of Grace, in which a mounted gun has grown lips and breasts; and perhaps the ersatz blood-and-soil mythos of Nazi propaganda.)

It's often easy to see why modernist techniques were so readily incorporated into advertising: With their sharp contrasts, sharp angles, and shocking combinations, they're designed to catch the eye amid a chaos of competing images; the use of blank space, white or dark, is especially striking. The montage technique and the free mixing of words and images allowed pictures to be more narrative, more easily able to imply a course of action rather than simply capturing a moment in time.

Machines are everywhere in this show. They can be beautiful: Eugen Wiskovsky's Insulator is a gorgeous flow of curves, seeming more natural than man-made, like a distilled or stripped-down nautilus. They frequently suggest awe mixed with dread: Paul Citroen's Metropolis is a montage of almost 200 pictures of skyscrapers and neon signs. It's both awe-inspiring and overwhelming, a towering city pressing in on the viewer, with only three tiny patches of sky remaining at the very top of the image.

Ambivalence is the most common note. Umbo's (Otto Umbehr) The Raging Reporter, in which Czech journalist Egon Erwin Kisch has become a kind of retro-tech cyborg with a camera for an eye, pen hands, and a typewriter heart, is both creepily Frankensteinian and wittily charming. Kisch liked the image enough to use it as the cover for the second edition of one of his books. There are archetypal man-vs.-machine battle pictures, like Max Burchartz's Worker before Machines, in which a small, hunched worker confronts a big, glossy, curvy machine. But the pictures are often wry or uncertain rather than hectoring, anxious rather than crusading, and sometimes exuberantly hopeful about technological advances.

József Pécsi's 1932 Fashion (Mrs. Pécsi) shows two female mannequins standing and facing one another, while the artist's wife, a young woman with a sharp conspiratorial smile, leans in confidingly toward the viewer. The human is contrasted with the artificial, yes, but not dominated by it; the mannequins are eerie, but the woman is able to face away from them, ignore their faux conversation for her "real" one with the viewer.

In many of these photos, humans don't have Mrs. Pécsi's insouciance; they are reduced to insignificance by the grandeur of the technological landscape they've created. The curves of the insulator are mimicked by the sweeping curves of an outdoor café, seen from high up in Jan Lauschmann's 1932 photo. Edith Tudor-Hart's 1928 photo shot through the thick black ironwork of a Ferris wheel makes the crowds below seem faceless. It's impossible to forget the historical context, and so it's impossible to view the serried ranks of the café crowd, or the blurry masses in Karel Hájek's beehive-like Demonstration at Charles University (1934), without shuddering at the power of men who have lost their individuality in the mob.

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

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