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Documenting Modernity

Photos Help Capture a Changing Central Europe

The dadaist artist John Heartfield’s tattered, black-and-white photo of himself in profile, head tilted, mouth agape, fists clenched as he lets out what one can only imagine is a hell of a howl provides a fitting introduction to the major new photographic survey “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945” opening Sunday at the National Gallery of Art.

The scream, after all, can represent a spectrum of emotions — from excitement to fear to anger to horror. It can be a means of asserting one’s existence, one’s rights, one’s opinion. It is an amplified “here I am.” As such, it is the perfect emblem of modernity’s manifold contradictions.

Likewise, photography — a slick, mechanized, reproducible art form — was the ideal medium to capture the alternately fractured, hopeful, urbanized, inventive, isolated, mass-marketed,

exploitative aspects of life and illusion in the Central European nations of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland and Hungary that emerged from the rubble of World War I.

Until World War II and much of the region’s subsequent occupation by Soviet totalitarians, photography and the modern spirit flourished in these nations, nurtured in schools such as the famous Bauhaus in Germany (which the Nazis shuttered in 1933) or in art collectives like the Czech group Devetsil. There were photographic prophets like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who championed eye-bending experimental techniques and the relationship between art, photography and film, and Karel Teige, who created compelling photomontage. But there also were plenty of superb unknowns, enthusiasts who operated in local camera clubs. All in all, some 100 photographers and more than 150 works, including prints, magazines and books, are featured in the show. The composite view that emerges teems with cross- pollination, fresh angles, surrealistic touches, dadaist protest and ideological assumptions.

Photomontage, which was first pioneered as a technique for the avant-garde in Central Europe, was a useful means of conveying both the poetry and indictments of the age.

Umbo’s simultaneously hilarious and worrisome photomontage “Raging Reporter,” made to publicize a film, features the head of Czech-German columnist E.E. Kisch atop a body comprised all the modern mechanisms for the transmission of people and ideas — including the typewriter, the phonograph, the camera, an automobile and an airplane. It is a rather jarring commentary on the encroachment of the mechanical over the human, on man as automaton.

There’s enough unorthodoxies in many of these pictures to leave you feeling slightly off-kilter — much like modernity itself.

Take these artists’ gender-bending experimentations. The “New Woman” prototype, at least as depicted in media, was slim and sporty with short hair like a boy — as seen in Frantisek Drtikol’s splendid image of a slim-hipped, bobbed nude who’s nearly camouflaged by cubist shadows and posed as if ready to punch. Or, the modern frau might masquerade as a man. You have to get up close to August Sander’s “Wife of Cologne Painter Peter Abelen” to realize the figure in question, sporting a cigarette, a necktie and the menacing posture of a circling boxer, is indeed female, and even then only the narrow shoulders and feminine lips give it away.

In an age of competing ideologies, the camera also was a useful tool to manipulate public opinion. Some of the most attractive, tantalizing photos on display were produced in support of Hitler’s Third Reich or its aims. The pristine lines of the Reichsautobahn, better known as “Hitler’s Highway,” come hurtling at you in Paul Wolff’s gelatin silver print. However, there are no cars on this otherwise sleek driving playground. Another photo by Lothar Rubelt that was used for the cover of a Nazi magazine shows a healthy Aryan girl on the slopes, her ski poles jauntily crossed behind her back. She’s practically glowing with vim and vigor.

In contrast, America comes across as a rather scary place in this exhibit. It can be simultaneously menacing and seductive, as in a photomontage by Kazimierz Podsadecki that interspersed a mash of skyscrapers with images of murder, cinematic horror, leaping athletes, airplanes and speeding motorcycles. Or, it could be downright oppressive, as the shackled black hands reaching out of a kaleidoscope of skyscrapers and toward the Statue of Liberty in Mieczyslaw Choynowski’s “America” avers. These are pictures you might expect to be made today, amid the United States’ unpopular war in Iraq, but hardly some eight decades ago.

Other, socialist-inspired images, such as those by Kata Kalman, give the worker a sense of individuality and identity. You won’t soon forget, the haunted, sensitive eyes of “Erno Weisz, 23-Year-Old Factory Worker, Budapest.”

There’s also plenty of photos that, irrespective of their underpinning ideological aims, are downright splendid compositions.

Albert Renger-Patzsch’s skeletally bare “Little Tree,” produced as part of a photographic movement that celebrated the homeland, gleams with the polished sheen of something made in a factory as it looms large across the foreground of a bucolic landscape. Meanwhile, Imre Kinszki’s diminutive print of a suspension bridge in Budapest evanescing into the foggy ether works on both a visual and metaphysical level. Are the pedestrians passing into a heaven or hell? It’s enticingly unclear.

The show, which is divided into eight themes, seeks to come full circle, beginning and ending with sections exploring photomontage as representative of the “cut-and-paste world” left in the wake of WWI and then reinstituted by the onslaught of WWII. Among the links it points to is Heartfield’s 1924 photomontage “Fathers and Sons,” which contrasts a row of adult skeletons led by German WWI Gen. Paul von Hindenburg with young boys dressed as soldiers. The picture is included in both sections, having later appeared on the cover of a communist journal in 1934 not long after Hitler assumed power.

Particularly heartbreaking are two of the final images in the exhibit — a pair of hybrid photo-drawings from Wladyslaw Strzeminski’s 1945 series, “To My Friends the Jews,” which draw creepy parallels between the mutilated bodies of the Holocaust’s victims as seen in his photos and the abstract forms the artist has drawn in on the paper beside them. Here, the human has been reduced to the level of the inanimate, to the completely objectified. Ultimately only the camera could capture that.

“Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945” is on view from June 10 through Sept. 3 at the National Gallery of Art’s West Building. For more information, visit

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