The exhibition, "Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909-1949" continues through April 19, 2015, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, New York, NY 10019; The Edward Steichen Photography Galleries, third floor; (212) 708-9400; http://www.MoMA.org.
Anyone looking for evidence that the trauma of the First World War sparked the modernist sensibility that prevails to this day (despite all the isms and refractions that attach to the very notion of the modern) need only read a poem or two by T.S. Eliot, the prose of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, or, easiest of all, visit New York's Museum of Modern Art, where photos from the Thomas Walther Collection are on display--in all their war-charged, experimental glory.
The war changed Europe, certainly, for the worse, but it liberated the creative impulses of the era's artists, who peered beyond the post-war waste land in search of a new expressiveness. To the world's rising photographers, Pictorialism seemed like a genteel vestige of a distant past, one that had been flattened by the machinery of conflict and poison-gassed to the point of abstraction. Make it new, indeed: if the world must be rebuilt, they would see it with fresh, unblinkered eyes.
And so this remarkable, unpretentious exhibit helps us see it as well, without a lot of editorializing or annotation. The photos, mainly, speak from the walls of the spacious sixth-floor Steichen galleries at MoMA, which acquired more than 300 photographs from Thomas Walther's private collection in 2001. It's an alphabetically impressive portfolio that begins, more or less, with Berenice Abbott, Karl Blossfeldt, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Claude Cahun, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Florence Henri, and moves quickly through André Kertész, Germaine Krull, El Lissitzky, Lucia Moholy, László Moholy-Nagy, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Maurice Tabard, Umbo, and Edward Weston, with any number of lesser known names.
The exhibition, which spans the years between the two world wars, marks the first time that Walther's great 20th-century holdings have been presented together, and it's a major part of the Thomas Walther Collection Project, a four-year collaboration between the Museum's curatorial and conservation staff that will yield a forthcoming website, OBJECT: PHOTO, focused on the development of photographic modernism in Europe and the United States. The project includes the participation of international photography scholars and conservators for what MoMA calls "the most extensive effort to integrate conservation and curatorial research efforts on photography to date."
For now, though, this exhibit–as organized by MoMA's chief photography curator Quentin Bajac, with Department of Photography curator Sarah Hermanson Meister--is more than up to the task of defining the modernist spirit in photography. The curators could have begun in many places, given the vastness of Walther's collection, but the choice of Paul Citroen's 1923 "Metropolis," with its topsy-turvy stacking of city images, followed by Laslo Moholo-Nagy's 1928 dark vision of a Berlin radio tower, seem like the right starting points for this overview of new-making. And as we glide along, the images float before us like magic-lantern projections: Alexander Rodchenko's crowds rushing along, from a tilted perspective; Florence Henri's gentle abstractions; Werner Mantz's ominous shadows raking across walls; and John Gutmann's quintessential icon of modernity: a slinky woman shrugging.
The images are presented more for visual than chronological continuity, so it matters less that Lisette Model's image of stockinged legs running along a street, or Weegee's lurid, through-the-jail-cell image of accused murderer Frank Pape after his arrest--both from the 1940s--precede images from the '30s, such as Manuel Alvarez Bravo's 1931view of a ladder, or Walker Evans's surreally cropped street photography, in which candles and mannequin arms dangle from a New York store sign. These classic shots have an accumulative force, as do the rigorously framed and expressionistically lit images of machinery and gears by the likes of Jiri Lehovec, Jaroslav Rossler and Charles Sheeler (his photography of a Ford Motor plant).
It's obvious enough that the exhibition is organized to suggest thematic networks between its artists, objects, and geographies, as well as highlight the photographers Walther collected in depth: Andre Kertesz, Germaine Krull, Franz Roh, Willi Ruge, Maurice Tabard, Umbo, and Edward Weston. The influence of Surrealism and Dadaism--so strongly affected by World War I--is potently glimpsed, for example, in Tabard's or Kertesz's distortions of the human figure and solarized images, or in Herbert Bayer's doubled self-portrait in a mirror, which also depicts his arm as if sliced from his torso.
Then there is the great series of images by Kertesz shot in the 1920s, when he was new to Paris and couldn't afford to buy photographic paper. Instead, he printed them on cheaper postcard stock, resulting in a sequence of miniatures that remind us, now, how close the early modernists were to the formal rule-breakings of pop art that would come decades later, even as they portray the intimacy of Kertesz's friendships and daily life, including iconic images of his eyeglasses, and the famously austere fork on a plate.
There are, inevitably, so many great and salient images in this display that it takes more than a single viewing, navigating the free-ticket crowds of a Friday night at MoMA, to grasp the breadth of Walther's collection and the countless moments it captures. There are examples of Steiglitz's cloud photos from 1922, alongside his stunning nude image of Georgia O'Keefe from 1918. These polarities of the abstract and the individual are matched with Paul Strand's 1916 image of a porch railing in Connecticut, and a delicate portrait of his wife, Rebecca, from 1922. Then there are a series of Edward Weston prints from 1921 that seem to encapsulate Weston's genius in a few strokes: an angled shot taken inside an attic, along with signature curled nudes, sea shells, clouds and boats in San Francisco.
Yet the political is never far from such purely aesthetic stirrings of the post-war period. On a wall adjacent to the Weston prints, there are strong examples of Leni Riefenstahl's photographs of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which the German ideal of Aryan athletic grace and power are fetishized for Nazi glorification. If anything, the Walther collection seems to elide any overtly political temper of its times not so much by intent as by the simple fact that the artists of the period, so marked by the chaos and dread of the war, were perhaps looking to cleanse their palate of an intolerable aftertaste, and chose formal experimentation, avant-garde technique, and pure visual immersion over dead, and deadening, debate.
Nothing seems to express this better than one of the highlights of the show, if not its most engaging selection: Joris Ivens's 1929 silent film, "Rain," a 15-minute Dutch treat in which the photographer wanders a cityscape on a poetically rainy day, filming the fall, drip, splash, eddy, swirl, and pool of water in any number of arresting ways, as umbrellas dip in unison along the streets, and as the rainfall makes its presence felt, inescapably, with all the force of memory and desire. No stills from Ivens' brief masterpiece can do it justice. It takes a visit to the museum to experience the simple, profound power of the past it conjures for us, and to which our imaginations timelessly attach.
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 and exhibits for both the E-Photo Newsletter and U.S.A. Today.