Exile in a Strange Country: The Photography of JOHN GUTMANN

By Ross, Iain | USA TODAY, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Exile in a Strange Country: The Photography of JOHN GUTMANN


Ross, Iain, USA TODAY


JOHN GUTMANN was born in Breslau (now Wroclaw), Poland, in 1905 to a middle-class Jewish businessman and his wife. They were typical of their time in that they identified more strongly with German culture than with their Jewish heritage. In the years after World War I, artistic activity flourished in Germany alongside a strong and lively populist culture that promoted, through magazines and popular novels, an image of America as a land of skyscrapers, painted Indians, gangsters, and Negro jazz. During that period, Gutmann pursued a career in art, studying under the renowned Expressionist artist Otto Muller, a romantic primitivist who stimulated his interest in the exotic.

In 1927, Gutmann left Breslau to continue his studies in the wild, decadent Berlin of the interwar years. He became a connoisseur of the city's internationally acclaimed nightlife, as well as the many new artistic movements that collided there: Expressionism, Constructivism, Dadaism, and New Realism. His own paintings of the time bear comparison with the work of Otto Dix, taking the vibrant, cosmopolitan social life of Berlin as their subject matter and imbuing it with a sense of emotional isolation and social disharmony.

The freedom the city offered was short-lived. In 1933, the Nazis forbade the Jewish Gutmann to teach or exhibit. Given the increasingly hostile political climate, he realized that he would have to leave Germany, and perhaps get out of Europe altogether. The editor of Die Neue Revue (whose mother was American) told him: "There is only one country, that is the United States, the only state is California, the only city, San Francisco."

Photojournalism struck Gutmann as a useful means of supporting himself. He had no training as a photographer and no interest in the medium as a pure art form, but he had always been fascinated by the popular culture of photography in magazines. A month before he sailed for California, he purchased a Rolleiflex--a new camera that had appeared on the market the previous year--read the instructions, made three rolls of test shots that are precursors of his later work, and obtained a contract with an agency, Presse-Foto, to send pictures back to Germany for the many magazines that circulated there.

No other European artist of Gutmann's background emigrated to California. In the 1930s, San Francisco still had the edgy spirit it had earned during the Gold Rush. Both geographically and culturally, it was more aligned with Asia than Europe, and, in the days before commonplace passenger flights and television, it seemed alluringly remote and exotic to a refugee from Nazi Germany. The city's temperate climate and racial diversity also recommended it to Gutmann, who said, "I was in Paradise."

San Francisco was home to several artists who consciously used the camera as an aesthetic tool, but their interests--their connoisseur's attitude towards the print and the spirituality of their art--were opposed to Gutmann's, who never had considered that the photos he produced were art. Instead, with his outsider's eye for the oddities and curiosities of the city, he recorded the sheer strangeness of the American experience, with an emphasis on the morbid and the darkly sexual that was entirely absent from both German popular magazine culture and German art photography, which was usually utopian in spirit. …

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