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Saturday, Feb. 23, 2008

Modern Eye

Art Review

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When Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal and submitted it to an exhibit in 1917, it was more than just a brazen gesture. It sounded the knell of art as it was previously known. After bringing it down to the lowest common denominator, what else remained? It’s a question that continues to plague artists today, and was especially pressing immediately after World War I, when the avant-garde sought an art form fitted to the brave and savage new world emerging around them. The urgency was even greater following the calculated cruelty of World War II. A new exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum, “Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945,” allows you to gauge the frenetic activity, individualism and energy of the interwar period through the eyes of photographers from all over Central Europe.

It’s a beautiful but overwhelming exhibit, scarcely offering a moment’s pause between one piece and the next. It seeks to provide an overview of the output of Central European photography rather than honing in on regional variations, partly to its detriment. It would be interesting to focus in more detail on how photographers in Russia were embracing the fledgling Communist regime, or how Czechoslovakians were celebrating their newfound independence. Yet in some ways the arrangement is fitting, allowing you to discern universal values that occupied photographers at this time.

Even the visual overload is somehow appropriate, comparable to the discordant melee of images characterizing avant-garde films like Ballet Mcanique. Rampant industrialization, sexual and social emancipation: Each is met in turn with ecstatic approval or reticence. Compare Paul Citroen’s Metropolis with Kazimierz Podsadecki’s City the Mill of Life.

While the former betrays excitement for the teeming metropolis, the latter shows it as a trap. American capitalism often bore the brunt of this antipathy. See Mieczyslaw Choynowski’s America, where a pair of shackled hands rises up in supplication to a remote idol of liberty. Images of Charlie Chaplin balancing on beams, or rendered into a spooky and mocking mask, are especially significant. In many ways he came to be regarded in Europe as the archetypal sellout, chewed up and spat out by the American public.

An area that isn’t covered sufficiently in the exhibit is the confluence between modern photography and architecture. Both disciplines were in search of a universal language that turned its back on historicism, and it might be worth looking at how photographers in these years rendered the stark architecture of the International Style; whether they embraced its unifying principles and its machine-aesthetic or expressed dissatisfaction in its lack of national identity.

Surrealism also seems to be somewhat marginalized here, presented as largely introspective with little relation to the public sphere. There’s little here to represent the curiosity of the flaneur who seeks adventure in the bustling human traffic of the teeming metropolis. Yet it’s an image from the surrealist repertoire that captures the essence of the exhibit: In Miroslav Hak’s End of the Line in Dejvice, the open door of a train compartment reveals a town reduced to rubble—a fitting depiction of the ruins of Europe seen through the unblinking aperture of modernity.