Making it strange

Nov 142007
Authors: Ryan Nowell

Students have long had a tumultuous relationship with Modernism. Known for its arch-difficulty and high style, the movement has sent more than a few diligent readers running for their Sparknotes, and left many swaying for hours between painting and caption with eyebrows quirked and confusion running high.

But, as a new photography exhibit in the Hatton Gallery seeks to reveal, there’s more to Modernism than carefully crafted inscrutability. “Unconventional Visions: Photographs from the Bauhaus, Moscow and Tashkent,” which will run through today and tomorrow, captures the enthusiasm and sense of adventure behind much of Modernism’s experimentation.

“What . these portfolios show is this interest in a new point-of-view, in making it strange,” said Linny Frickman, head of Hatton Gallery. “They were literally taking things that were very common, like an egg, or looking down on a Moscow street, but because of the angle, or an adjustment in lighting, you get something that looks new, abstract and different.”

The exhibit is made up of two separate portfolios spanning the same era, the interim decades that bridged the World Wars. One half of the show is a recent addition to the gallery, the work of Uzbekistani photojournalist Georgi Zelma, who catalogued daily life in Stalinist Russia through an avant-garde lens. The other half is highlights from the Bauhaus portfolio, displaying a variety of moods and textures not usually attributed to the German art school.

The Bauhaus was opened in 1919 with a credo rooted in socialism, seeking to develop new art and architecture that found beauty in the functional and practical. This aesthetic approach was one of the first to truly embrace the concerns and dynamics of a modern industrial world. Considerations that traditionally were thought of as secondary, like the ease of duplication for mass-manufacturing, became as central to a work’s creation as craft and expression.

Because of this, much of the Bauhaus’ output was very sparse and efficient, and it has since become synonymous with angular, streamlined design.

One piece on display, Hajo Rose’s “Self-Portrait” (1931), speaks to this mechanization of modern life and how it was beginning to surface in the art world. A picture of the photographer is blended with an image of a building front, superimposing the severe grid of segmented apartments onto the contours of his face. One can make the case that the 20th century in a nutshell can be found in the photo’s blurring of human features with harsh angles and brick.

But the portfolio seeks to showcase other aspects of the Bauhaus usually lost in generalizations.

“You see that industrial, streamlined orientation [in some of the photos], but I think the Bauhaus is more complex than we realize. There were so many of the artists really engaged with a movement, but there were streams of modernism,” Frickman said. “. There’s a playfulness in this portfolio, and when you read about the Bauhaus, the students, the parties, and the community, that is what comes across in these photographs perhaps more than the emphasis we always get on the practical.”

And certainly that air of madcap variety is on display. Photos range from complicated tricks with lighting and reflective surfaces, to subtly skewed portraits, to extreme close-ups of everyday objects, and of course the aforementioned de-familiarized egg.

The other half of the exhibit by Zelma provides a contrast to the Germans’ wild experimentalism. While far from a traditionalist, Zelma had to make certain considerations that the Bauhaus students did not. The USSR viewed art strictly as a means for state propaganda, so Zelma had to stick to familiar soviet themes like industry, military and the worker. But unlike many artists whose craft suffered when given such a limited palette, Zelma managed to stay faithful to both the state and era’s spirit of innovation.

“To me it’s amazing that [Zelma] was able to do what he did, because while he gives you solid, social realist subject matter that tows the party line, he’s able to still twist his images so that you get this really modernist aesthetic that was happening throughout Europe.and that had happened early in the Soviet Union when avant-garde perspectives were really embraced. He’s just interesting because he’s able to continue doing something in a very difficult period,” Frickman said.

Indeed, Zelma’s depictions of soldiers on parade, Soviet bombers soaring over Moscow, the proletariat manning the steel mills, all approach the subject matter with a flair for the unusual. Odd angles, tight framing, and the use of negative space speak less of a reverent true believer than they do an artist out for a memorable image. To an extent, Zelma’s portrait of Stalin, sitting shadowed by another enormous portrait of himself in the background, almost seems a wry jab at the dictator’s arrogance.

But that’s not to portray Zelma as some rogue dissenter. The portfolio suggests a man very much of his time and place, a fact that should draw those who feel they’ve exhausted the modernist canon.

“I think the Soviet photographers are under-researched in this country. We really don’t know them, and we don’t know the complexity of Soviet art and photography because we didn’t have access to it,” Frickman said.

Students and die-hards of western Modernism should have something to get excited about, then, as the exhibit offers a glimpse at work that for decades had been obscured by the iron curtain. Aficionados of the period may find it a breath of fresh air to see material that could provide a new understanding of the aesthetic.

Staff writer Ryan Nowell can be reached at

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