Over forty photographs from the Smart’s own collection prove that a small exhibition can be a unique and wide-ranging survey. This show, related to the larger exhibition of Expressionism on display in other galleries, represents what is increasingly becoming known as a golden age of modernist European photography. Although these pictures are all recognizably twentieth century—cool, formal, mostly geometric—they actually represent a wide range of styles, from Impressionistic to Czech Cubism, from Worker Photography to New Vision. The subjects are also diverse: portraits, cityscapes, figure studies and purely abstract images. Artsy advertising photos make products look immaculate and crystalline. But this period wasn’t all commerce and Constructivism, as Grete Stern’s dreamy portrait of Ellen Auerbach demonstrates. And John Gutmann’s “The Artist Lives Dangerously” is flat-out funny.
The show features works by recognized masters—Peterhans, Funke, Rössler and Sudek—but also examples by younger, less well known photographers, including Václav Zykmund, Ernö Berda and Jan Lukas. Less familiar too is Kurt Kranz, whose “Bauhaus (Burzi),” made up of several rows of small, pasted portraits, looks forward to the Conceptual serial art of the 1970s. Overall, curator Kimberly Mims has done an admirable job celebrating this dynamic style-period while admirably expanding it as well.
The intimate size of the gallery is a plus here. Many of the photographs, including the most important ones, are small in scale and so require close examination. Hannah Höch’s Dada photomontage—she actually invented that medium—features one of her characteristic dancing figures. Also look for Iwao Yamawaki’s diminutive “Portrait of Man with Reflections of the Dresden Bauhaus in His Glasses.” Another surprise is the Czech František Drtikol who apparently didn’t just shoot athletic female nudes (although one of those is here). His “Mine in Príbam” is a socially conscious peek into the soul-killing industry of his region.
The silvery tones and machine-age subjects of these pictures feel right at home in Chicago, with our own modernist architecture, our links to the Bauhaus and our love of the experimental. And as the season outside becomes more monochrome, these black-and-white jewels provide some much needed light (Mark Pohlad).
Through January 10 at the Smart Museum of Art, 5550 South Greenwood
Elliot J. Reichert is a Chicago-based curator, critic, and editor. He is a currently a Hatch Projects Curatorial Resident at the Chicago Artist Coalition and Art Editor of Newcity. Formerly, he was Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. His writing has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of Visual Culture, and Newcity.