When Central Europe Was Photography's Frontier

By Andy Grundberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 10, 2007

People who love photography know that Germans, Czechs and Hungarians took some of the greatest pictures of the 1920s and '30s.

While Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans and Edward Weston were perfecting a pure, no-nonsense style in the United States, and Henri Cartier-Bresson was developing his "decisive moment" brand of candid photography in France, Central Europe was abuzz with talents who opened up unexplored territories of photographic expression.

The news this weekend is that we get to see those underappreciated pictures, in all their vintage glory.

The works of several dozen photographers from between the world wars are gathered in the National Gallery's rich new exhibition, "Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945," which opens today and includes more than 150 prints, photomontages and magazine reproductions. Matthew S. Witkovsky, an assistant curator of photographs at the museum, organized the show, which is sponsored by the Hungarian National Bank.

Many of the names are already familiar. The roster of Hungarians includes Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who made his reputation while teaching at the German Bauhaus; Martin Munkacsi, whose knack for capturing action would help revolutionize fashion photography in the United States; and Andre Kertesz, a lyricist whose best work was done in Paris. German photographers such as photomontagist John Heartfield, portraitist August Sander and steely-eyed Albert Renger-Patzsch are well-known quantities for anyone who has been watching the art market for photography unfold over the last 25 years.

The photographers from Czechoslovakia (not to mention those from Austria and Poland, the other countries the show surveys) are perhaps less famous but no less important: Frantisek Drtikol, Josef Sudek, Jaromir Funke and Karl Teige should be at the top of anyone's list.

What all these photographers have in common, besides birthplaces in Central Europe during the years of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, is the fearless pursuit of new ways of taking and making photographs. This is most obvious in the show's many photomontages (pictures made from smaller, cut-up images, usually culled from magazines and newspapers) and photograms (shadow-play pictures made in the darkroom, without a camera), but it applies too to Munkacsi's freeze frame of a diving soccer goalie or Drtikol's beautiful nude in which the female figure is cloaked in shadow.

Experimentation, that is to say, was the order of the day. Many of these pictures were exhibited and published in collections with titles like "Here Comes the New Photographer" and "Foto Auge" ("Photo Eye"). Collectively, they embody the ideals of the New Vision, as announced by Moholy-Nagy. By bending the viewer's eye beyond conventional ways of seeing, the theory went, these images would liberate the mind from its self-oppression. A "Great Society" wasn't far behind.

In the show's fine catalogue, curator Witkovsky asks a central question: "Why would 'new photography' take hold especially strongly in Central Europe?" His provisional answer revolves around the presence of a strong amateur photography tradition and the creation of schools that nurtured photography as a radical new instrument of expression. One could also point to Central Europe as the meeting place of constructivist ideas from the Russian avant-garde and new art movements from France and Italy such as cubism and futurism.

But it might be more useful to pose the question another way: Why did Central European photographers virtually invent the varieties of this experimental mode? Part of the answer may be the social and economic disruption of an imperial region that lost World War I and was remade on a map drawn largely on an ethnic nation-state model. The combination of radical reformation and social experiment shaped many of these photographers. .

But wondering why this photography came into being is less satisfying than experiencing the results, which make American photography of the time seem rigid and self-conscious. Witkovsky has selected some obvious gems, like Austrian Herbert Bayer's 1932 photomontage "Lonely Metropolitan," in which a face appears out of two hands upraised in front of a drab apartment building, and Paul Citroen's chock-full "Metropolis" (1923), which is so multilayered and complex that it makes the city in the movie "Blade Runner" look like Cincinnati.

Then there are the unexpected and uncanny delights, like a Moholy-Nagy photogram with a gyroscope poised atop a miniature Eiffel Tower. The Silesian surrealist Hans Bellmer, infamous for his infatuation with female mannequins, poses as a spectral presence in "The Doll (Self-Portrait With the Doll)," about as creepy and wonderful a picture as any curator could hope for. None of these artists, of course, ever heard of Photoshop.

One nit: Short shrift is given to photojournalism and to the development of picture magazines in general. Where is Felix H. Man, who worked for the Berlin and Munich illustrated magazines and then helped establish their counterparts in England. On the face of it, Man's kind of photography had little to do with the New Vision, but its influence led to a much more widespread mass audience for photography than Moholy-Nagy's rarified photograms. If the subject at hand is modernity, as the title suggests, then Man (and Alfred Eisenstaedt, Robert Capa, etc.) deserves equal time.

In one sense, the show may be less groundbreaking than it is timely. We are in the midst of a modernist revival in architecture and design (Dwell magazine being Exhibit A) and yes, even in the art world. Why, after 30 years of believing that our lives and culture had become irreversibly postmodern, should we want to go back and take our cues from modernity, however one defines it?

Part of the answer may be that it looks so good.

There's a purity of line that goes along with modernism's purity of intention. Equally important, its experimental, reformist impulse, which is visible throughout the galleries of "Foto," results from a sense of optimism about the future that is in short supply today.

Yet it takes a certain naivete to see modernism between the world wars as unalloyed. The rise of Nazism occurs at exactly the same time as modern photography's heyday. All that artistic experiment and all that optimism couldn't override a culture hellbent on destruction.

One of the showstoppers here is the very last image, and by strict definition it shouldn't be there at all, since it dates from 1947. Taken by a Czech photographer named Jindrich Marco and titled "Souvenir," it shows two soldiers posing for a picture in front of a painted backdrop of a sylvan scene. Beyond them and the incongruous backdrop lies the bombed-out ruin of a large building, now uninhabitable. Part of a series the photographer called "Springtime in Poland," the image is a metaphor of modernity's demise not only as a style but also as an article of faith.

Andy Grundberg is an art critic and the administrative chair of photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company