Photo Eye: Avant-Garde Photography in Europe

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Josef Sudek, Labyrinths. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The years between the two World Wars produced major experimental transformations in politics and in art. Surrealists sought to alter consciousness by viewing common sights askance and bringing the unconscious up for inspection.  Photographers proposed to change the nature of vision: László Moholy-Nagy coined the term “the new vision” for his belief that photography could revolutionize perception by seeing the world in a way that eyes could not.

Photo Eye: Avant-Garde Photography in Europe at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through July 6 is a relatively small show – 45 images, mostly from the museum’s holdings – that touches on a large topic.  The show strays beyond the dates occasionally and includes a few images that don’t seem to fit, but there are many pleasures and some revelations, including several by little-known photographers – a clever photomontage by the German Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart; two Czech amateurs, Jan Lauschmann and Eugen Wiskovsky; and Ivan Shagin’s stunning image, part photojournalism, part propaganda, of a scientific experiment to send an enormous balloon into the stratosphere, powered by advanced Soviet science. 

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Man Ray, Untitled (The Primacy of Matter over Thought). Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Experimental approaches were immensely varied and included the photogram, bird’s-eye angles, photo-montage, and a bit of Surrealism, including Herbert List’s deadpan image of half an ancient stone leg and a lonesome stone foot in a museum garden. Light, shadow, and reflection often outweighed the nominal subject, and common objects were made strange or combined with abstract forms. Extreme close-ups, color, and solarization were other techniques — Man Ray’s lovely The Primacy of Matter over Thought straightforwardly depicts a woman’s face, but a gray cloud, perhaps her mind, springs from her forehead.

A few photographers acknowledged current events, glorifying industry, machines, and technology, and both Brassaï and Kertész photographed homeless men beside posters touting the good life.

The dominance of experiment sets European modernism apart from American photography of the period.  Americans like Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams at times, were modernists, but the preeminent American mode during the Depression was documentary – from the FSA and WPA to the Photo League.  Experiment here was marginal, as had long been true of American arts and its conservative audience.  When European artists and photographers immigrated in force, packing contagious experimentation in their bags, American art was primed to catch the fever.