Modernity Amid Wars

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Foto' Surveys Imagery Produced in Central Europe from 1918 to 1945

A new National Gallery of Art exhibition celebrating the glories of Central European photography inspires many different thoughts—perhaps chief among them, “What if?”

Primarily, what if the region, which enjoyed steady, progressive growth between the end of World War I and the start of World War II, hadn’t been so thoroughly ransacked by Hitler’s armies?

The inspired exhibition “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945” helps to answer that question with 150-plus photographs and photomontages that reveal an optimistic, innovative and ambitious world, captured at a time when industrialism was in full swing.

Sponsored by the Central Bank of Hungary and drawn from several dozen U.S. and international collections, the exhibition is a tribute to the phenomenal growth of photography as art in the Central European countries of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary and Poland in a period of turbulence and tranquility, progress and destruction. The first survey to explore the topic, “Foto” documents the pace and progress of Central Europe between the two World Wars with photographs, books and illustrated magazines that explore such topics as gender identity, life and leisure in the modern metropolis, and the spread of surrealism.

Recognized masters such as László Moholy-Nagy and Hannah Höch are included along with about 100 lesser-known but historically important contemporaries, such as Karel Teige, Kazimierz Podsadecki, Károly Escher and Trude Fleischmann.

The exhibition is divided into eight thematic sections that start with “The Cut-and-Paste World,” a series of photomontages, and continue through “Modern Living,” depicting scenes of urban bustle and progress often shot from unusual angles, with a final return to photomontage as World War II winds to a close.

In one of the most iconic images in the collection, German photographer John Heartfield, who worked as a mail carrier during World War I, dissembled postcards and pieced them back together with a photo of himself. The image shows him passionately protesting—with his eyes closed, mouth open, head tilted back and fists clenched as if grabbing an unseen offender’s lapels—to voice a silent protest of the war. Images such as these were often sent through the mail without text, operating as a wordless, unidentifiable but undeniably powerful bit of war protest.

In another section, titled “New Women—New Men,” the exhibition dissects the phenomenon of the “New Woman,” a feminized ideal that was a close cousin to the American flapper. These images conveyed the enhanced economic and social independence of women who were pushed into more assertive roles as millions of men perished in both World Wars.

This section also sometimes portrays women as sleek, almost mechanized beings. A photo by Czech artist Frantisek Drtikol, for instance, captures a lithe woman’s angular features, her hair cropped into a severe bob, but the image is partially obscured by a shadow. In fact, the light and shadow dominate the photo, rendering the woman as little more than an automaton.

The “New Men” side of the section, meanwhile, reveals man as something less than masculine, especially in German photographs, which helped to usher in a wider cultural acceptance of androgyny and even homosexuality. This and countless other avant-garde, oddly sexualized photos no doubt inspired American superstar Madonna’s trendsetting “Vogue” music video from the early 1990s.

In the “Modern Living” section, photographs show how architecture, construction and urban planning were racing ahead of humanity, practically daring civilization to keep up. Nazi Germany was especially adept at defanging the newfangled inventions, viewed by some as a sinister encroachment by powers greater than humanity. A photo of the famed autobahn is all sleek sinew and curve, yet Paul Wolff’s “Imperial Highway” somehow manages to make the roadway’s speed and architectural efficiency appear restful, tranquil and non-threatening.

But the exhibit also documents the peasants who populated the rural areas, and demonstrates how they too contributed—mostly through backbreaking labor—to the modernization of Central Europe. These images, capturing the actual construction of the gargantuan steel, glass and concrete buildings that came to dominate the landscape, somehow make the intimidating structures less threatening.

The exhibit closes as it began, with a return to photomontage as a sort of commentary on—or journalism about—war. But unlike the World War I-era photomontages, these are more fully realized images clipped from newspapers and magazines. Some, such as German artist Marianne Brandt’s untitled photomontage, depict progress and destruction in all their counteractive power. A great city looms in the background, as clouds of dust and debris billow up. The face of a wistful young woman looks skyward as a smartly dressed man walks away, chains encircling his legs and torso.

Through images such as these, “Foto” captures the triumph and catastrophe of this richly historic and complex region—and its immeasurable contribution to the photographic arts—in a vivid and intellectually provocative way.

Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945 through Sept. 3 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets and Constitution Avenue, NW For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999