Issue #160  4/17/2009
Photo Book Review: Catalogue Argues For a Reconsideration of Pictorialism

By Matt Damsker


Edited by George Kargl, Annette and Rudolph Kicken. Catalogue for the exhibition of the same name at Galerie Kicken Berlin, Linienstrasse 155 D -10115 Berlin, Germany, from January 17 through April 2009. Published by George Kargl Fine Arts, Vienna; and Galerie Kicken Berlin. 62 pages, approximately 40 color plates. Information: http://www.kicken-gallery.com ; email: kicken@kicken-gallery.com .

If there has been any confusion about Pictorialism's place in the canon of photographic movements, it may be blamed on the general perception that Pictorialism was something of a revanchist effort at placing photography along the continuum of fine-art painting, when it should have been establishing its own aesthetic parameters. This exhibition at Galerie Kicken Berlin, as documented in this beautifully printed limited-edition catalogue, makes the strong point that the Pictorialist masters of the early 20th century weren't merely imitating the painted canvas; they were pioneering photographic modernism, emphasizing a highly subjective standard of representation and making the most of printing techniques--such as autochrome, gum bichromate and bromoil--that allowed for great freedom in terms of varying their negatives and working in color.

Such appreciations were swept away, perhaps, by the more objective tide of fine-art photography that followed and dominates to this day, implicitly disparaging the soft-focus atmospherics of the Pictorialists. Nonetheless, the masterworks of Gertrude Kasebier, Heinrich Kuhn, Steichen, Steiglitz and the dozen or so others collected in this exhibition are powerful evidence that these artists had "hidden" their modernist breakthroughs in painterly expressions that encode more than meets the eye. That's the gist of catalogue essays by Monika Faber, Wilfrid Wiegand and Elizabeth Pollack, who contributes an historical appreciation of Heinrich Kuhn and his influential friendship with Steiglitz.

Indeed, Kuhn is represented here with 13 images, far more than any other photographer, (although this catalogue makes it a little difficult to identify each photo as we view them, since the information pertaining to each is listed at the back of the book), and he was clearly a master of his medium, making the most of brown, green or blue gum bichromate to deliver moody and mysterious images that avoid sentimentality. Consider his melancholy "Anna in Front of a Mirror" of 1902, his shadowed nudes that suggest Manet, his still lifes that evoke Cezanne, or the superb "Women in the Dunes," of 1904, whose white hats are the contrasting grace notes to the beige, sandy sprawl of the beach where they are parading away from us; one has to wonder if Andrew Wyeth ever saw this photograph in his youth.

Kuhl is certainly the star of this show, although Hans Watzke's 1899 color landscapes are muted, near-abstract visions that hold up very well, while Rudolph Koppitz's elongated, coffin-like figure study of a piously shawled woman in a richly embroidered dress suggests Gustav Klimt and Renaissance religious painting all at once. Many of the other examples in this catalogue are more prosaic, perhaps by comparison (especially with Kuhl's work), but all-in-all this exhibition makes a solid case for a serious reconsideration of Pictorialism's subtle strategies and lasting contributions.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)