Since the history of photography is a relatively young discipline, it is still capable of beaming new light into deep dark corners of art history. A surprisingly rich lode of little-known material has just came under the spotlight here in the form of "German Photographs of the '20s and '30s" at Sander Gallery, 2600 Connecticut Ave. NW. it has been organized to accompany a major survey on the same subject, now on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, "Avant-Garde Photography in Germany, 1919-1939."
The Sander show offers a fresh look at the extraordinary creative period that followed Germany's defeat in World War I, and which subsequently brought forth not only the Bauhaus and its revolutions in modern architecture and design, but also a revolution in photography.During the '20s and early '30s in Germany, photography seems to have been totally transformed from a "pretty" pictorial medium that still leaned heavily on painting for inspiration into a wholly modern art form that had its own new, seemingly endless esthetic possibilities. What is most surprising about this show is how little has happened since then that is really new -- or that did not at least have its roots in the avant-garde photography of that time.
A central factor in this transformation was the Bauhaus, which encouraged students all over Germany to shrug off the limits of the old esthetic and explore the "new." Experiments produced everything from images made without a camera on photosensitive paper (photograms), to photomontages, solarizations and negative prints. There were dramatic new camera angels made possible in part by the revolutionary new handheld cameras, such as the Leica, and fast film: crowds seen as patterms from above and people dramatically viewed from below. There were double exposures with surrealist overtones and extreme close-ups that gave a new psycological intensity and drama to increasing numbers of theatrical subjects. There were also highly magnified close-up images of natural forms, such as the flower studies of Karl Blossfeldt. The beauty inherent in the new machine-made objects -- as well as in the machines themselves -- was the frequent subject of Albert Renger-Patsch. The newly liberated medium took off in every direction, invading every realm of visual enterprise from advertising to graphic design, and ultimately leading to photojournalism as we now know it.
Though some of the greats, like Moholy-Nagy and Erich Salomon are missing from the Sander show, it includes representative works in almost every category, all of them vintage (meaning they were printed shortly after they were taken). Many of the names will be unfamiliar, but others will not, such as August Sander (represented by a startlingly modern (landscape) and Walter Peterhans, who started the photography department at the Bauhaus and made abstract still lifes of magnificent clarity. Lux Feininger (brother of Andreas and son of Lionel), now a painter living in Cambridge, Mass., made some of the liveliest images on view, including a striking Bauhaus stage design by Prof. Oskar Schlemmer. There are also charming images from "Studio Ringl & Pit," the Berlin studio of two woman photographers -- Grete Stern (who now works in Argentina) and Ellen Auerbach (who currently teaches children with learning disabilities in New York).
The Baltimore Museum Show continues through Oct. 24, before moving on to Chicago and New York; the Sander show through Oct. 30. Since German photography of the 20th century is the specialty at Sander, there is always work from this period on view, and always more to see than what is hanging on the walls. Woodblocks by Hale Woodruff
Hale Woodruff was a renowned black artist and New York University professor who died last year at 80. Starting out as a political cartoonist, he entered art school in Indianapolis, and by age 27 had won a small prize at the Art Institute of Chicago that helped finance what turned out to be a four-year trip to Paris.
Upon his return to the United States in 1931, Woodruff was asked to set up an art department at the University of Atlanta, and it was there during the following decade that he produced the powerful woodblock prints now being shown at Nyangoma's Gallery, 2335 18th St. NW. Done in the regionalist-realist style favored by Thomas Harty Benton and others during the Depression, these images deal boldly -- and always unsentimentally -- with his observations of everyday black life in the South: a man on his skinny mule, a Sunday promenade undaunted by the backdrop of drab shanties. The viewer is suddenly brought up short, however, with the realization that in a print innocuously titled "Giddap," a lynching is actually in progress.
Potential buyers of the prints should be aware that these are posthumous restrikes from the original blocks. Also on view are several abstract drawings by Woodruff, which lack the power of the prints. The show closes Oct. 20.