Lucia Moholy, Florence Henri, silver gelatin print, 1927

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Unlike the bloated survey of modernism the Corcoran offered earlier this year, the National Gallery’s “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918n1945” hits all the right notes. The Corcoran mega-show fizzled because it tried to do too much and ended up blurring important stylistic and political distinctions. By contrast, “Foto” works precisely because it examines its subject through a fairly narrow window. Through his selections and scholarship, NGA assistant curator Matthew Witkovsky illustrates how work in just one medium—photography (and its provocative offspring, photomontage)—exploded across five European countries between the two world wars. The resulting exhibition is cleanly designed and full of surprising juxtapositions that take the viewer across the boundaries of high art, propaganda, and tabloid journalism. It also makes a compelling case for the importance of some previously undervalued artists—particularly in Czechoslovakia—and demonstrates the role that a few key decades in the first half of the 20th century played in radically reconfiguring our shared visual culture.

Like the National Gallery’s blockbuster dada show in 2006, “Foto” doesn’t try to fit the past into an orderly progression of ideas and styles. So the period it describes ends up looking surprisingly like the present: Rich, multivalent, and messy. Witkovsky argues that though they shared similar stylistic trappings, the dominant strains of modern photography—surrealism, New Vision (formal experiments), and New Objectivity (unsentimental reportage)—often served radically divergent ideologies. In “Foto,” images that look the same invariably turn out to reflect substantially different intentions—the same treatment of the same subject might either be glorifying the machine age or maligning it.

John Heartfield, Fathers and Sons, silver gelatin print of
photomontage, 1924

Photomontage—fragmenting and reassembling various photographic images—proved to be a perfect metaphor for a continent whose culture was torn to shreds and for the scrimping, salvaging, and improvising so many Europeans depended on in the wake of World War I for their very survival. It was also a chilling metaphor for the destruction of human bodies on battlefields and for attempts at reconstruction in military hospitals. Last year’s “Dada” featured photomontages, collages, and paintings by German artists Otto Dix and George Grosz depicting veterans doomed to live as grotesque cyborgs, their amputated limbs replaced by clunky mechanical surrogates. It’s almost shocking, then, to see in “Foto” how German photographer Umbo (Otto Umbehr) used a nearly identical transformation not to show the way that war deforms human flesh but simply to revel in the excitement and speed of a nascent information age. His much-reproduced 1926 photomontage, The Raging Reporter, shows tabloid journalist Egon Erwin Kisch transformed into a giant robot, looming over diminished mountains and buildings. His arms are made of segmented fountain pens; his rib cage is a typewriter. A camera stands in for his right eye, a gramophone is his right ear, and he appears to stand on a car and a small single-engine plane in flight simultaneously. Whatever misgivings about the fate of modern man Umbo might or might not have had, his portrayal of Kisch turns horror into whimsy.

That was 1926, and there were worse horrors to come. Wladyslaw Strzeminski’s 1945 photomontage series, To My Friends the Jews, pairs clipped photos of concentration-camp victims with loose, organic contour drawings in ink on paper. In 1945’s Legs Stretched Into Wire, a cropped photo of a disembodied pair of legs—skeletonized by starvation—is set in the lower left of a nearly blank sheet of paper. The legs are perversely echoed by abstract biomorphic shapes in black ink that dangle down into the right-hand side of the page. Strzeminski’s prewar work employed a more polite formalist aesthetic—it comprised entirely abstract compositions related to the clean shapes of industrial production. But the Holocaust apparently made an art disconnected from morality impossible for Strzeminski. Umbo’s mechanized man of the future had been transformed into a few wasted, wrecked pounds of flesh.

Photomontage clearly could deliver radical political statements. German-born artist John Heartfield’s harrowing 1924 image Fathers and Sons depicts World War I General Paul von Hindenburg inspecting a platoon of skeletons standing at attention. Marching in the bottom of the image is an army of children in uniform—the next generation readying for yet another dehumanizing war. But photomontage was also window dressing for popular magazines, as was the case with Kazimierz Podsadecki’s City the Mill of Life (1929), which appeared on the cover of a Polish entertainment rag, Out in the World. In it, amid the buildings of a cobbled-together skyline, athletes leap, planes and motorcycles roar, and scenes from crime melodramas are acted out. In the middle of all this, a woman presses her hands to her face, awe-struck by the overheated spectacle surrounding her. It appears as if the visual tools of the avant-garde were co-opted by the mass media.

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Karel Teige, Collage No. 129, photomontage, 1940

Or perhaps, as in today’s art world, distinctions between high and low art were simply fuzzy. In the ’20s, avant-garde photographers in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland, and Austria happily borrowed formal ideas from both Hollywood and the Bauhaus. One of the most influential artists in the show, Hungarian Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy, helped shape the belief in photography as a total, boundary-crashing art form. As Witkovsky writes in the exhibition catalog, “this new theory declared photographs of all kinds and uses…to be part of an ever-modern and inherently experimental field of imagery.” According to this view, it made little difference if the artist was shooting images of the starving poor for leftist propaganda or of ladies’ handbags for an advertisement: The result could still be vanguard stuff, at least on some level.

For Moholy-Nagy, the camera was changing the way that humans saw and understood the world—and the change was good. “We have—through a hundred years of photography and two decades of film—been enormously enriched,” he wrote in 1925. “We may say that we see the world with entirely different eyes.” In his 1928 photo Radio Tower Berlin, the artist pairs eagle-eyed clarity with a disorienting, surreal fragmentation of pictorial space. The image is a view of the ground taken from the top of the Berlin tower—a structure similar to the Eiffel Tower, albeit narrower at its base, allowing for a thrilling, vertiginous look straight down. Crisscrossing steel beams move the eye diagonally from the extreme foreground in the upper right-hand corner to the distant earth at the center of the image. A web of cast shadows cuts a landscape dotted with clumps of tables, chairs, and umbrellas. It’s a dynamic, nearly abstract composition, a bleak, dreamlike cityscape devoid of human presence. One can almost recapture how disorienting this sort of image must have been when it was first shown.

Convincing the public that simple abstract shapes, huge steel armatures, or boxy housing developments weren’t necessarily stark and dehumanizing—that they were, in fact, beautiful—was quite a feat, one that the avant-garde and heads of state and industry pursued. In his 1936 photograph Imperial Highway, German photographer Paul Wolff created a powerful abstract design out of Hitler’s then newly completed Reichsautobahn, which was meant to move troops and create jobs. In truth, the highway didn’t really do either, but photographers like Wolff transformed it into an effective emblem of the Nazis’ vision. Wolff’s composition is dominated by the median strip, a large, dark triangular shape rimmed by white lines. The median runs from bottom to top, curving dramatically off to the right as it joins the horizon line near the very top of the picture—only a slender stripe of sky is visible. One lone car roars down this empty asphalt conduit; its fender is married to the left-hand margin, and it appears ready to rush out of the picture entirely. The car seems to denote not only the speed of the age but also individual empowerment and limitless personal freedom—another pair of empty promises from the Third Reich.

Photography that ignored such abstractions and instead sought to report on social conditions could also be bent to reflect competing views. An image of peasants hard at work in the countryside? Well, if the artist responsible was Polish photographer Edward Hartwig, it might be a celebration of timeless agrarian virtues and distinct national identity. But if the artist turns out to be, say, Slovak photographer Karol Aufricht, then that same image is actually an attempt to connect the plight of the individual peasant to the international struggle of the proletariat. Distinctions like these begin to make the very idea of objective photography seem slippery, if not useless.

Perhaps the most fascinating conundrum in the show is the room devoted to images of the “New Woman”—which, of course, was mostly an invention of advertising and American fashion in the ’20s. In the catalog, Witkovsky concedes that the ’20s were mostly a time of lost momentum for women’s causes—but that in Berlin, at least, opportunities existed for women photographers. Hannah Höch’s darkly humorous collages are a welcome presence in the show; less familiar are the subdued, almost reverent portraits of various Bauhaus figures by Lucia Moholy, László Moholy-Nagy’s wife. Her 1927 portrait of Florence Henri shows a woman with tightly closed, dark lipstick-tinted lips, barely smiling. Her pale makeup, severely plucked and drawn eyebrows, and short bowl-like hairdo might suggest someone putting on a show, concealing herself behind an overstated androgynous front—but her eyes stare flatly, dispassionately. It’s a complex, ambiguous image of modern womanhood.

And then there’s Martin Munkacsi’s 1931 photo of Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl—glistening, covered in sweat, also barely smiling, looking as if she had just hiked up a mountain or something similarly healthful. Witkovsky suggests that the heroic, athletic European woman is a compensation for all of those destroyed young men, shambling along, nursing their phantom limbs: “Machine-age models of womanly beauty disguised like a prosthesis, the maiming brought by devices of industrial technology…‘manly’ fashions for women also masked the anxiety at dismembered masculinity within the defeated counties of Central Europe in particular.”

No wonder, then, that many surrealist depictions of eviscerated and reconfigured women are included in the show, too—such as the four-legged headless woman in Karel Teige’s 1940 photomontage Collage no. 129. This figure’s abdomen appears to have been cut open, exposing a huge set of jaws and some sort of industrial armature. The modern woman, it seems, would either have to compensate for the many lost men of Central Europe—or she would have to become a bride of Frankenstein, undergoing some equivalent metaphorical transmogrification.

There’s something of a revival of modernism going on right now—hence the glut of recent museum shows treating various aspects of the movement. It’s easy to attribute this to a simple love of the trappings of modern art and design—spare, reductive forms based on slightly daffy universalist ideas. But “Foto” reminds us that modern art was about much more than pseudo-scientific visual experimentation or disinterested play with forms. For a while, before the emergence of totalitarian states, before the Stalinist purges, before the loss of any plausible belief in Utopia, modern art got its hands dirty, pushing around all sorts of real-world muck. Modern photographers worked for entertainment or revolution; they exposed real horrors or erotic dreams; they reunited people with traditions or helped them discard their identities altogether. In the present, both the left and right muddy the ideological waters, a costly, unpopular war chews up the bodies of young men, and accelerating technology offers to either connect us or turn us into drones. This show suggests that maybe modernism is big again because we’re only just now beginning to really see it—and relate to it.