The Modern Lens

This exhibition is said to showcase international photography between the 1920’s and the 1960’s which roughly corresponds to the Modernist era in photography; it seems the title of the exhibition “The Modern Lens” (taken from a quote by Bauhaus photographer Moholy-Nagy) has a meaning beyond the suggestion that photography is a modern art since it is quite specific in its scope. Themes such as Abstraction, Surrealism and Constructivism are dealt with while the influence of the Bauhaus School with it’s awareness of light, space and tone is also recognised.
The exhibition examines the drive of Modernism via photography in relation  to geographical places and considers important photographers. Tension is generated between universal language, making society better through art, personal Surrealist viewpoints and abstractionism.
One photographer in particular emerges, Harry Callahan, who was part of the New Bauhaus at the Chicago Institute of Design under Moholy-Nagy. Although I saw a display of his work earlier this year at the Tate Modern, it will be interesting to see such work in the context of this exhibition. The Tate Modern has a video of Callahan’s work on it’s website introduced by Simon Baker, the exhibition curator who I sometimes see in London both formally and informally. Callahan did a certain amount of nature photography adopting a style reminiscent of Karl Blossfeldt of the New Expressionism movement which emerged after the First World War.
This exhibition promises to be an interesting exploraion of photographic modernism as it is about the relevance of photography to the history of art in what is loosely known as the Modernist period when photographers focused on terms such as “composition and structure, light and shadow”; this “international tendency” rather than movement was not just a feature of the West but also occurred in Asia and Latin America.
In Latin America, photographers like Manuel Alvarez Bravo who met the French photographer Heenri Cartier-Bresson and Geraldo de Barros who met the artist max Bild emerged as ideas and influences arrived. Lilian’s Porter, an Argentinian, shows a group of 10 photo etchings which picture the sequential screwing up of a piece of paper, the symbolism of which bears a significant relationship to the fact that the photographic image was paper based; of course, it no longer is!
Bravo who lived to be 100, photographed his native Mexico, as a contemporary rather than looking back to traditional ways. It was not mere documentary though as his images had underlying artistic themes such as “Tools, 1931” a close up of a spanner and a couple of bolts strategically placed.
De Barros who also painted was from Brazil; he became an important international modernist photographer who was skilled in finding the Absract in ordinary forms. Other photographers included Gasparian, Makarius and Farkas who either found abstract designs or constructed them from the modern industrialised world around them.
A strong sense of geometrical design predominates in this first gallery where all the photographs are in black and white although there is some coloured artwork by Helio Oiticica (Gouache on cardboard)
The Second Gallery is a show of “Surrealist Encounters” from the 1920’s and are small contact prints made by three artists Charlotte Perriand (designer), Pierre Jeanneret (architect) and Ferdinand Leger (painter) from walks they made together near Paris and along the Normandy Coast. Found views and objects were photographed, both industrial and natural, sometimes being doused with water for further effect. Again there is a sense of geometry to the form within these images yet there is also a suggestion of something other, meaning beyond the design. The series is called “Objects reacting poetically” and the approach is Surrealist, tapping into the Unconscious.
The third gallery was meant to show the British response to Modernism via Unit One, the group set up by Paul Nash in 1933, but instead is given over to the work of Claude Cahun, a transsexual, who was often photographed by her partner Marcel Moore with the photographs being sent to a commercial laboratory for development. Many of these constructed images have an uncomfortable feel to them, in their suggestion of bondage for instance, yet do reveal a Surrealistic world of dreams.
Tha Apse is a small room but a significant one since it introduces the Bauhaus, “one of the most influential art and design schools in the twentieth century” that was eventually closed down by the Nazis in 1933. The idea was that art could be introduced to perform a more social end. Photography featured strongly with Walter Peterhans and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the latter asserting “the visual image has been expanded and even the modern lens is no longer tied to the narrow limit of our eye.” (The title of the exhibition  is taken from this quote from Moholy-Nagy). Peterhans encouraged students to experiment visually with an egg and a piece of twine!
There are examples of small Photobooks here such as Bauhaus and the Tea Ceremony by Michiko Yamawaki. There are also snapshots of Bauhaus people and buildings while a video of Moholy-Nagy’s is projected onto one wall; it shows a variety of metallic shapes slowly interacting with each other. Moholy-Nagy Was also a theorist who wrote books such as “Painting, Photography, Film” and envisioned a kind of Industrial Utopia.
The Bauhaus was an international school and it’s teaching spread around the globe. The next gallery shows the effect it had on Japan. Iwao Yamawaki came from Japan to study architecture but also became an accomplished photographer. The German exhibition Film and Photo travelled to Japan in 1931.
This exhibition shows works by Iwao Yamawaki who not only made thoughtful compositions of architecture, he also photographed other forms.
Komura made imaginative compositions of mundane forms such as the human body; she was also playing with wabi-sabi, a Japanese approach that emphasised the fleeting nature of beauty, an aesthetic characterised by simplicity, modesty and intimacy.  Shikanosuke Yagaki photographed ordinary everyday vignettes.
The penultimate gallery considers the Hungarian influence; Moholy-Nagy was Hungarian but there were others such as Gyorgy Kepes who tended to set up his own little scenes and used photographic techniques such as double exposures to emphasise their meanings. Gyula Holics had a similar approach yet relied more on the presence of light to make her point felt. Judith Karasz had gone to the Bauhaus to study photography and her images here show close ups of textured surfaces such as textiles; she was expelled from Germany because of Communist sympathies.
The final gallery shows the work of one artist Harry Callahan who was part of and taught at the Chicago New Bauhaus. There are both monochrome and colour works here. Of particular interest to me, are his nature photographs in which simple forms play an important part. A lot of his work seems abstract with Surrealist intentions such as use of marionettes as well as his wife and only model Eleanor; the photograph of her submerged in water with only her head and hair visible shows a typical range of tones.
I am not greatly impressed by this exhibition yet it is of interest in seeing the way photography emerged in the Modernist era and the manner it took it’s first steps into the art world. Does it belong there?!
In fact, this exhibition represents a part of the Tate collection and is therefore limited in scope. There is no photographic representation by British photographers since that work is concentrated in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection; this may be convenient for the gallery but for the visitor it might prove somewhat incomprehensible. What is this exhibition really about? The Tate collection it seems rather than a particular era of photography. However, over half the exhibition is devoted to a photographic exploration of the Bauhaus School and that is something quite unique which I have not seen in other exhibitions where photography is often portrayed as a lesser art within the context of the Bauhaus; here, we see more of the important role. For me, this part of the exhibition is what made it worthwhile.
The curators talk of making a publication available that might be available by Christmas time but possibly not until january. A significant number of people have asked for this perhaps because as the exhibition stands, it is rather meaningless.
I attended three tours in relation to this exhibition.
The first was about the role of technology in the art work since various processes were used such as Photo-Etching (not quite sure what this process involves) as well as making Photograms (I have done this in the darkroom and it involves shining a light onto a piece of photographic paper while inseting an object between the two) yet for many of the works one was left wondering exactly in which matter the effects were achieved such as in Gyorgy Kepes’ image of a spiral in which there was a smaller image of what looked like a spider’s web but might have been a geometrical construction inserted by the photographer (like many photographers of this time, Kepes had no formal education). There were however some insights in this talk such as a brief description of the diatype colour printing process used by Harry Callahan in some of his photographs although this was more fully explained in the Simon Barber video.  Of course, the speaker was not specifically trying to explain photographic processes since the influence of technology was an important influence as a subject in it’s own right; it was the job of the artist to assimilate these concepts and make the ordinary extraordinary.
I also attended two other curatorial tours both of which were interesting; notes from these have been incorporated into my text.
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