(The series of out-of-date art exhibition reviews continues unabated)
”Photography… is bringing something entirely new into this world.”
- Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, 1932
The Camera Lies Splendidly
After having Noel Gallagher to thank for a Lowry show at Tate Britain, it now seems it’s Elton John’s turn. Whether we’ll soon have a Bauhaus exhibition brought to us by Gary Barlow remains to be seen.
His collection’s chiefly from the era of photography’s coming of age, where cameras first became both portable and affordable. (The Leica hand-held film-roll camera, for example, was released in 1925.) The standard narrative is of course that photography’s arrival liberated visual art. By offering to faithfully delineate anything put before it, and at the press of a button, it offered to take off art’s hands the plodding task of just recording stuff. Picasso gave the orthodox view: “now at least we know what painting isn’t.”
But perhaps what’s most interesting is how many took precisely the opposite tack. The lens was taken up as an artists’ instrument as much as the paint brush or sculptor’s mallet, if not a tool for modern times which rendered its predecessors redundant. Matisse countered Picasso: “We are encumbered by the sensibilities of the artists who have preceded us. Photography can rid us of previous imaginations.”
And you can see that by comparing some of the photos here to the ‘Picasso Portraits’ exhibition showing contemporaneously at the National Portrait gallery across London, with much the same subjects. See for example, Picasso’s ’Portrait of Nusch Eluard’ (1937), and May Ray’s 1929 photo, both above. Yes, freed from fidelity to subjects, Picasso expressively warps and distorts his subjects. (Though whether he waited for the Leica camera to arrive and give him permission, that’s another matter.) But the notion that the photography faithfully depicts while the hand of the artist interprets, that’s played with throughout.
Take for example Man Ray’s well-known ‘Noir et Blanche’ (1926, above). The title underlines the contrast between the face and the mask. Yet in many ways the work’s a comparison, the woman (model Kiki de Montparnasse) with her shut eyes and face made up, as much an artifice as the mask. Similarly Norman Parkinson’s ’Edward James With His Death Mask of Napoleon, Painted by Magritte’ (1938, below) up-lights two faces, one real the other a mask, again both with closed eyes. In both it’s as if the objective was to blur the distinction.
Marcello Nizzoli’s ’Portrait of a Woman’ (1936) goes further – cutting part of a woman’s face out of the photograph, revealing an image of a mask beneath. And this reversal of the standard order may be a key image. Once simple distinctions between mask and face, between appearance and actuality, are at times challenged and at others simply over-ridden.
May Ray’s ‘Glass Tears’ (1932, above) pushes further still into the contrast between nature and appearance. May Ray was a Dadaist, who also produced the anti-art totem ’Object to be Destroyed’ (1923). And here shed tears have turned into valuable diamonds, a visual metaphor for the way an artist needs to harvest his angst if he’s to produce material for the art market. And yet at the same time as it’s an anti-art provocation it’s a lush and glamorous image, a magazine cover in waiting. Notably, they made it the exhibition’s poster image.
The Selfie Gene
And why should all this be? Partly it’s a goldilocks moment. The democratisation of the portrait had been underway before this show starts. You no longer needed to own land to get immortalised in oil. Yet the significance attached to the portrait still lingered. Being photographed still meant a form of reification, whereas today we’re filmed for simply walking down the street. (In what is in many ways a proto-modern exhibition, it’s worth keeping that in mind.)
In series of 1948 photo-portraits by Irving Penn not only are the diverse group (including Duke Ellington, Noel Coward, Joe Lewis, Salvador Dali, Spencer Tracy and Gypsy Rose Lee) united only in being photographed, they’re all placed in the same plain, acute corner. Moholy-Nagy proclaimed proudly “everyone is equal before the machine … there is no tradition in technology, no class-consciousness”.
We might want to note that beyond such-high-mindedness the camera is still being pointed at celebrity, that most of us remain unreified and effectively faceless. But there’s an equivalence established between celebrities, which works as a kind of democracy within them. Painters sit alongside strippers and jazz musicians. What characterises them is not the background, their clothing or accoutrements as it was in classic portraiture. Instead their physical presence emerges out of neutral space. Who you are is based on innate qualities.
So Lewis lolls back, Ellington casually slides one foot forward, while Dali (above) looks coiled, like he can barely sit still long enough to be snapped, as pert as his patented upturned moustache. As Steve Dunneen puts it, you see “his personality exploding from the frame”.
And even when the sitter was not an artist in their own right, the pictures often remain an effective collaboration between them and the photographer. It’s the reversal of the soul-stealing superstition primitive people are supposed to have had. The camera takes nothing from you. In fact it's the mechanism by which you can construct yourself.
Man Ray said of his subjects in 1934: “They collect themselves. Carefully, as if tying a cravat, they compose their features. Insolent, serious and conscious of their looks, they turn around to face the world.” It’s reminiscent of the famous Rimbaud quote: “I is another… I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I hear it.” We have no a priori existence. We bring ourselves into being through assembling ourselves. We click the shutter therefore we are.
And this is perhaps clearer still if we look to photographic self-portraits. For Paul Citroen’s ‘Self-Portrait’ (1930) he poses with his camera. While, further down the same path, Alma Lavenson ‘Self-Portrait With Hands’ (1932, above) is titled as though the camera is her, an eye with an added record button, capturing film inside itself as our heads do memories. With all our fleeting, varying appearances it’s the camera which has become the constant.
Plus the camera is not the only lens here. Herbert List’s ‘Lake Lucerne, Switzerland’ (1936, above), defies its own title by placing glasses on a table before the scenic view. There’s no further context or integration between the two, the table just juts out abruptly before the lake. And this leaves us less prone to see the table and objects simply as sign of a human presence before a nature scene. Those glasses become both a synecdoche of their owners, and an emblem of looking.
The show breathlessly tells us how “this re-evaluation of photography coincided with a period of upheaval.” Indeed, photo-journalism had done much to reveal the horrors of the Great War, to the extent that (perhaps for the first time) cameras had been banned from the battlefront. Yet you would never guess from the images above what tumultuous world events were going on. It lies outside their camera frames, as everyone took turns to compose their features and record each others’ existence.
You can see the embryo of today’s selfie culture, with it’s ceaseless Facebook updates, clear as day. From here it’s easy enough to spot how this degenerated into narcissistic self-absorption. Yet perhaps we see that slide all too easily. The chance to construct yourself, rebuild yourself in your own chosen image, was then much more of a new and exciting notion.
The Camera Chops
Along with portraits, there’s frequent close-cropping on parts of the body, with heads de-centred, obscured or even cut out entirely. The indica comments that “fragmented limbs and flesh were depersonalised and could be treated like a landscape or a still life.” Edwards Weston’s ‘Nude’ (1936, above), presents a curled figure reminiscent of Matisse’s ‘Blue Nude II’ (1952). These anonymising images should seem incongruous set against the constructed portraits, so keen to project a self, and yet they don’t.
It’s easy to imagine that in art it’s the paint that leads the mind to compare forms, by transforming everything that it depicts into some variant of pigment. Yet with Frantisek Drtikol’s ’Untitled (Nude With Wave Construction)’ (1925, above) we quite readily compare the woman’s body to the wave-shaped block. This may be partly because it’s in black and white, reducing both to the same tones.
And this segues neatly into the photos of movement. Faster shutter speeds meant the camera could now beat the eye in capturing movement, a development readily taken advantage of. In Ferenc Csik’s ‘Diver’ (1936, above) the act of diving angles the figure away from us, half-obscuring it. The movement itself is the subject, the diver just instrumental to the dive.
The Object as Subject
If a painting wants to suggest a wider frame, it has to go out of it’s way to convey it, starting to depict elements in order to danglingly not finish them. Whereas cropping is inherent to photography. And a photograph which ruthlessly crops the image out of its context will dispel scale and replace it with composition. The show smartly makes use of this by hanging works adjacently that use completely different scales.
And this can make photography essentially abstract. What initially makes the notion seem counter-intuitive is what makes it so compelling. You soon realise that all those art history books lied to you, that abstraction was never a genre in art but a way of looking. The composition is all that counts, and so it doesn’t matter much what it’s composed of.
Yet for all that abstract photography has it’s own spin. Abstract painters often begin with a real scene, but when they turn this into pigment it is soon left behind. In photography it’s ghost remains. In ‘Ice Cube Tray With Marbles and Rice’ (1939, above) by Margaret De Patta she even cheerily gives away it’s components in the title. But it still looks like a cosmic Malevich or Miro. Miro, in particular, had a similar penchant for lattice structures.
While Gordon Coster’s ‘The Spigot and the Shadows’ (1927, above) works differently. This time we can see straight away what this photo is composed of, but the central thing remains the framing and composition. We look at, for example, the shadow of the colander in it’s own right, without thinking of the thing which cast it.
Whereas with Edward Weston’s ‘Church Door, Hornitos’ (1946, above) the camera is aimed quite pointedly at a piece of the world. The image is sharp and, once you stop to consider it, the composition strong – yet all is naturalised. You cannot but wonder what’s outside the composition, what’s behind that firmly closed door. Painting might evoke this feeling too. But with a photo you know instinctively there has to be something.
Weston was a member of the f/64 group, named after the smallest camera aperture, one used for the most close-up work. Unlike de Patta’s abstracts, they were hostile to influences from other media, insisting in their manifesto “pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.”
The portrait of the Hollywood star is perhaps most associated with the soft focus. To see the stars themselves would be almost an irrelevance, the point is to see the image of them through the distancing camera lens. Sharp focus was the linear and aesthetic opposite to this, not evocative but flatly descriptive, the difference between stage lighting and bare bulbs.
Rodchenko’s ‘Shukov Tower’ (1927, above) exemplifies his photography based on “points of view impossible to achieve in drawing and painting.” Moholy-Nagy’s ‘View From the Berlin Radio Tower’ (1928), looking down on the ground from a tower, makes a kind of companion piece. That these are physical scenes, yet which could not have been taken in times before, is central to them.
As I said another time: “Rodchenko’s photos see the world as a ceaseless succession of new angles and viewpoints, never flat or neutral, never something self-evidently ‘real’ which merely required recording.” As part of the New Vision movement, he intended to create literal new perspectives to match new social perspectives.
Conversely, Ilse Bing’s ’Greta Garbo Poster, Paris’ (1932) sharply explodes the distinction between real space and constructed image. The image of Garbo the glamorous icon is placed up in the weatherbeaten world, then photographed again. It runs counter to every received image we have of both Garbo and Paris.
Facing The Strange
Yet isn’t there something odd here? Check out the date of the works above, almost all are inter-war. A time when the dominant Modernist movement was Surrealism. And photography, surely that was singularly useless in depicting Surrealist dreamscapes? In fact it’s quite the opposite.
For Surrealism had never been a movement for daydreamers, seeking an escape into fantasy from the daily grind. Its name meant ‘above realism’, not ‘away from’. And so photography felt very much a Surrealist medium, it’s flashbulb exposing the inherent strangeness of supposedly familiar things. Like ectoplasm captured on gelatin, photography proved their point. As Dali insisted “nothing has proved the rightness of Surrealism more than photography.”
André Kertész’s ‘Underwater Swimmer’ (1917, above) is an untreated shot by an artist only tangentially connected with Surrealism taken before the movement emerged. The distortions come from the lapping water, something we are all familiar with from daily life. Yet that doesn’t prevent his focus upon them having a Surrealist dimension.
And distortions were to recur in his work. In ‘Clock Distortion’ (1938, above), this time he does manipulate the shot. While we see this is the case the result is still more arresting than when Dali paints the same image, because we more closely associate the photograph with an actual clock bent out of shape.
Herbert Bayer’s ’Humanly Impossible (Self Portrait)’ (1932, above) echoes the ‘body parts’ images of earlier. But rather than obscuring and emphasising parts through the composition, Bayer chops a section from his own arm. The artist himself looks astonished, like he can’t take in himself the implications of this new medium that upends our physical integrity and turns us into sections.
More widely, Surrealism lurks in the majority of these images. It’s there in the glamour. Man Ray’s’Glass Tears’ looks odd as a Dada work because it’s already part-way to the seductiveness of Surrealism. Surrealism’s sexuality was paradoxical, often charging inanimate objects with libidinous allure, yet also treating the body as a combination of discreet objects and the sex act as purely mechanical. With photography it can collide both.
The show quotes Mohoy-Nagy: “the enemy of photography is convention… the salvation of photography comes from the experiment”. But alas, photography’s most experimental frontier, photomontage, does seem to be the biggest blind spot in John’s collection. John seems more interested in photographers than photography, and those who turned existing works into collages show up less often on his walls. So while Surrealism may be present it’s at Dada’s expense. Man Ray is here but Heartfield and Hoch, the great practitioners of photomontage, are absent. This is something of a shame, but let’s focus on the few which do make it in.
Frederick Sommer’s ‘Max Ernst’ (1946, above) places a mud-flaked image of the artist (who himself bridged Dada and Surrealism) before a rough-textured wall. Only his eyes, enhanced by being placed within a ridge on the wall, are enhanced. It looks like one of Ernst’s own frottage and grattage works, which similarly suggested at half-seen images, an artist turned into one of his own works.
To return to Bayer, his ‘Lonely Metropolitan’ (1932, above) is based on a conceptual comparison between hands and windows – both can be either open or closed. But the irises in the palms, when placed before those depeopled windows, suggest surreptitious spying eyes. And the centrality of the eyes suggest an image which peers back at you. The effect is sinister in extreme.
As with any show based on a single collection, John’s personal tastes inevitably determine everything. And he does seem to have a penchant for celebrity portrait photography of one kind or another. But, beyond that and the somewhat glitzy framing, whatever interest you have in his music his taste in photography is good enough to make this a show to see. It’s focused enough on an era not to be scattershot, while not so narrow as to be too exclusive.