Central Europe in Focus; Photographic Nationalism, Populism in '20S, '30S

Article excerpt


Just when you thought museums had squeezed every last interpretative drop out of modernism, another exhibit appears to draw more juice. Through photography from Central Europe, mostly taken in the 1920s and '30s by little-known artists, a small but meaty show at the National Gallery reveals a populist and nationalistic side of modernism rarely covered in other surveys.

"Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945" does not concentrate solely on the work of a few outsiders experimenting with surrealism and abstraction. It shows how photography, an easily reproducible and thoroughly modern medium, became the ideal vehicle for conveying a new vision in this part of Europe. The camera became a tool for celebrating urban life as well as venerating rural customs, promoting industry as well as protesting war. Spreading enthusiasm for the latest photographic techniques were commercial studios, art schools, illustrated publications, amateur clubs and state-run bureaucracies.

That such restless pursuit of modern imagery would occur in Central Europe seems both logical and extraordinary, considering the political upheavals that disrupted the region in the first decades of the 1900s. After World War I, three major empires - Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia - were divided into smaller nation-states, only to be reconfigured again after World War II. Between the wars, modernity was seen as a means to symbolize the aspirations of societies devastated by conflict, unemployment and inflation.

The main achievement of "Foto" is to remind us of Central Europe's commitment to artistic advancement before Nazi and communist regimesseized power and isolated the region from the rest of the world. Much of this pioneering work from the 1920s and 1930s influenced later art photography and photojournalism in Western Europe and the United States.

Organized by theme rather than country or technique, the exhibit's eight sections emphasize the interchange among artists within Central Europe and with groups in Paris, Zurich and Berlin. It starts by treading territory familiar from last year's Dada show with photomontages by German artists John Heartfield, Max Ernst and Hannah Hoch, then reveals how the Polish group Blok and Czech collective Devetsil transformed this instrument of political and social critique into playful picture poems of images and words. Some of these cut-and-paste collages attempt to capture a cinematic quality - as in Kazimierz Podsadecki's humorous cityscape (which, unfortunately, is hung too high in the gallery).

Surrealism, long associated with France, also was taken up by Austrians, Czechs and Poles, even those working in small towns. It was applied to the design of magazines, dime novels and advertising to reach vast audiences, anticipating Salvador Dali's work on the films of Alfred Hitchcock by a couple of decades. Artistic developments beyond surrealism are also presaged by several 1930s works by Czech artists, including Miroslav Hak's chemical-spattered, abstract expressionistic print and Vaclav Zykmund's provocative, string-bound self-portrait, which hints at contemporary performance art.

Jaunty angles and superimposed images also were favored by Central Europeans in capturing the bustling crowds and new architecture of their cities. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's "Berlin Radio Tower" well represents the style; his treatise on photography argued that the camera could revolutionize human perception by surpassing the limitations of our eyes with special lenses and visual effects. In our current age of digitally altered photographs, it may be hard for some viewers to appreciate how inventive his and other pictures in this exhibit really were.

The exhibit includes a sidebar on Czech photographer Lucia Schulz, who married Mr. Moholy-Nagy in 1921 and played a key role in shaping his ideas. The couple joined the Bauhaus, where Lucia Moholy documented colleagues and friends. …