THE Alfred Stieglitz retrospective is less peaceful than it seems. Beyond the stillness of its images one hears the sounds of battle. It has been 100 years since Stieglitz, in Berlin, purchased his first camera and thereby began his passionate and lifelong fight to change the history of art. He died, at 82, in 1946. And he's fighting still.
For the present exhibition in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, Stieglitz has been exceptionally well armed. The exhibit, and its catalogue, could not be much better. There are 170 prints on view, all owned by the gallery, and among them are a number of his finest photographs. The catalogue, a volume of great beauty designed by Eleanor Caponigro and written by Sarah Greenough, replicates his pictures with remarkable fidelity.
And yet, despite these efforts, Stieglitz the photographer is not entirely victorious. Here, as in the past, he is once again diminished, and partially defeated, by the other Stieglitz--the publisher, the prophet, the gallery director, the astonishing promoter of other artists' art.
Stieglitz was a fighter. For more than 20 years, from 1887 to 1911, he fought to have photography accepted as fine art. He battled for abstraction, too, and for the paramount importance of what he liked to call "individual expression." These fights have been won. The gallery's exhibit focuses, instead, on one fight he lost.
"When finally I am to be judged," he wrote, "I think I'll have to be judged by my own photographic work." The stated "purpose" of this show is "to demystify Alfred Stieglitz: to strip away the label of prophet so frequently and uncritically applied to him . . . and to present him first and foremost as a photographer."
But Stieglitz the photographer remains less compelling than Stieglitz the art prophet. His pictures here are lovely. His photography is lyrical, personal and subtle. His integrity is high.
But he allied himself with giants. And his art, beside theirs, will always appear small.
He introduced America to Ce'zanne, Rodin, and Matisse. The list goes on and on. Picasso, Rousseau, Braque, Brancusi, Picabia, Grosz and Severini were given their first one-man exhibitions in Stieglitz's little gallery at 291 Fifth Ave., New York. He showed American painters, too--John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove and his wife-to-be, Georgia O'Keeffe. As a gallery director, Stieglitz was also generous to such photographers as Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertrude Ka sebier, Baron Adolph de Meyer, Heinrich Kuehn, Clarence White, Eliot Porter and his friend and rival, Edward Steichen. Pictures by these artists regularly appeared in "Camera Notes" and "Camera Work," the hugely influential magazines he published. Stieglitz introduced us to great and less great masters, and it is in such grand company that his own art must be judged.
The other Alfred Stieglitz, the champion of the avant-garde, the seer of the new, is well portrayed in a second exhibition currently on view at Harry Lunn's, 406 Seventh St. NW. Because it focuses attention on the 20 years between the first issue of "Camera Notes" in 1897 and the last of "Camera Work" in 1917, it conjures up the artist in historic context. The Lunn show lets use see Stieglitz and his art alongside that produced by Picabia, Picasso, Steichen, Adams and Paul Strand. He seems a stronger figure here than he does when viewed alone.
He was, by all accounts, a spectacular talker. "About him one could behold the extraordinary spectacle," writes Harold Clurman, "of such men as Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford . . . Sherwood Anderson, William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane . . . Duncan Phillips and Lionel Venturi listening to Stieglitz as he talked and talked and talked." But the photography he left us is reticent.
Its modesty is great. It never struts or yells. In fact it often whispers. And because it is so quiet, it seems to be directed toward a sensitive elite. "My aim," he wrote in 1923, "is increasingly to make my photographs look so much like photographs that unless one has eyes and sees, they won't be seen." Much of the art he championed still overwhelms the viewer with its operatic impact. That which he made himself is of the chamber music kind.
It is not all alike. Stieglitz, at first, while still studying in Europe, made technically superb but rather arty photographs--of pretty peasant boys and girls, of farmers in the fields, of fisherfolk beside the sea--that try to look like paintings. One early photograph displayed, "At Biarritz" (1890), a horizontal beachscape of sand and massed umbrellas, seems indebted to Boudin. Other early pictures here, of thatched huts and the like, call to mind the popular Barbizon School paintings of the Brown Decades. The photographer himself called such images as these not photographs, but "pictures."
New York changed his art. He returned in 1890 and took to wandering the streets, at night and in all weathers. The pictures he produced there before World War I are among the most impressive in the show.
Some are justly famous. "Winter, Fifth Avenue" (1893), an atmospheric picture of a street sweeper at work, in mist, behind a slender tree, is as moody and as subtle, in an Oriental fashion, as a Whistler "Nocturne." "The Hand of Man" (1902), another atmospheric shot of a locomotive chugging toward the viewer on curving, gleaming rails, could not be improved. The subjects of these photographs are somehow less compelling than the forms that rhyme so beautifully within them. In "The Subway Entrance" (1896?), the angles of the kiosk's mullions repeat the sloping shoulders of the passersby. In "The Ferry Boat" (1910?), the curve of the ferry's stern is echoed with precision by the round straw hats of the passengers on their way to work.
Although they show the poor, rag-pickers and street pavers, these photographs never burn with anger as do the socially conscious pictures by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Though Stieglitz is honored for the courage of his radical esthetics, his art was then, as always, wholly apolitical.
Long before we pity the horses in the cold of "The Terminal" (1893), we find ourselves admiring the shape-concealing steam rising from their backs. "The Steerage" (1907), perhaps his best-known photograph, is another picture that has no ax to grind. It was taken on the S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II while the photographer was promenading on the first-class deck. He noticed "a round straw hat, the funnel leaning left, the stairway leaning right, the white drawbridge with its railings made of circular chains, white suspenders crossing on the the man in the steerage below . . ."
This is not a picture of hungry immigrants. The passengers below decks are not the wretched refuse of Europe's teeming shore bound for New York's freedom. The ship was bound for Europe; it was going the other way.
As his career progressed, his intentions altered greatly. His work, at first pictorial, would eventually become increasingly abstract. His portraits of his artist friends, and those of the hands and face and body of his wife, are psychologically acute, while his last shots of New York are grid-cool and austere. But one quality persists throughout this exhibition. These photographs are private, and deeply introspective. Stieglitz made no public art.
Stieglitz used the camera as a kind of mirror. "My photographs," he wrote in 1925, "are ever born of an inner need--an Experience of Spirit. I do not make 'pictures . . .' I have a vision of life and I try to find equivalents for it sometimes in the form of photographs." Often he would write of "true seeing" and of "inness." As O'Keeffe noted rightly, the man she knew so well was "always photographing himself."
The Stieglitz exhibition was funded by a grant from Springs Industries Inc., and will go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to the Art Institute of Chicago after closing here May 8. Because he cared so deeply, various poignant ironies haunt his retrospective. The battle he fought for abstraction and for "inness" and for personal expression no longer seems as crucial as it did while he still lived. The triumph of abstract expressionism, not the art of Stieglitz, seems its great achievement. Though he "almost killed" himself in fighting for photography, the National Gallery of Art, to which his widow donated the "key" set of his prints in 1949, has never bothered since to collect the photographs of others.
With this exhibit, O'Keeffe is repaying an old debt. She contributed $25,000 to the cost of the catalogue, and her assistant helped produce it. She did her best for Stieglitz. But he seems a greater, more influential man when one enters his exhibit than he does when one leaves