Bauhaus by Frank Whitford (1984)

It is perhaps details of the more trivial aspects of life which help us more clearly to imagine the atmosphere of the Bauhaus. (p.162)

This is a wonderful book. I’ve read plenty of accounts of the Bauhaus which emphasise its seismic importance to later design and architecture, but this is the only one which really brings it alive and makes it human. It is almost as gripping, and certainly filled with as many vivid characters and funny anecdotes, as a good novel.

Whitford’s book really emphasises that the Bauhaus was not some mythical source of everything wonderful in 20th century design, but a college of art and design, in essence like many others of the day, staffed by a pretty eccentric bunch of teachers and the usual scruffy, lazy and sometimes brilliant students. During its very chequered fifteen year history it faced all the usual, mundane problems of funding, staffing, organisation and morale with often chaotic and sometimes comic results.

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Part of the Bauhaus building at Dessau, Germany

Two things really stand out from this account:

One is Whitford’s attitude, which is refreshingly honest and accessible. He tells jokes. Usually the names of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky (who both taught the college’s innovative Introductory course) are mentioned with reverend awe. It is extremely refreshing, then, to read accounts left by students who didn’t understand their teachings at all, and even more so for Whitford himself to admit that, even to their most devoted fans, the writings of both Klee and Kandinsky are often incomprehensible.

The practical problems of resources and staffing loom large in Whitford’s down-to-earth account. While Klee and Kandinsky were trying to teach their esoteric theories of line and picture construction to uncomprehending neophytes, the director Walter Gropius was doing deals with local grocers and merchants to get enough food for the students to eat, and wangling supplies of coal to keep the draughty old buildings heated.

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

Walter Gropius, founding director of the Staatliches Bauhaus

The second key element is that the book is very rich in quotes, memories, diaries, letters, memoirs, later accounts from the successive directors, the teaching staff and – crucially – from the students. Kandinsky is an enormous Legend in art history: it makes him come alive to learn that although he dressed impeccably, in a sober suit with a wing collar and bow tie, he also loved cycling round the campus on a racing bike.

Whitford quotes a student, Lothar Schreyer, who decided to take the mickey out of the Great Man. Believing that abstract painting was nonsense he solemnly presented Kandinsky with a canvas painted white. Kandinsky went along with the plan by taking it intensely seriously and discussing his motivation, his choice of white, the symbolism of white and so on. But then he went on to say that God himself created the universe out of nothing, so ‘let us create a little world ourselves’, and he proceeded to carefully paint in a red, a yellow and a blue spot, with a shadow of green down the side. To the surprise of Schreyer and the students watching, the result was astonishingly powerful and ‘right’, in the way of the best abstract art. He was converted on the spot.

God, to have such teachers today!

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

Composition VIII by Wassily Kandinsky (1923)

The power of Whitford’s account is that he doesn’t stop at generalisations about teaching methods or philosophies; he gives vivid examples. Here’s an actual homework Kandinsky set:

For next Friday please do the following: take a piece of black paper and place squares of different colours on it. Then place these squares of the same colours on a white sheet of paper. Then take the coloured squares and place on them in turn a white and then a black square. This is your task for next class. (quoted page 100)

The aim wasn’t to produce works of art or learn to paint. It was to conduct really thorough systematic experiments with the impacts of countless combinations of colours and shapes. After a year of doing this (plus other things) in the introductory course, students would then move on in the second year to specialise in metalwork, ceramics, glasswork, industrial design, household products and so on – but with a year’s worth of experimenting with lines and shapes and colour combinations behind them.

The equally legendary Hungarian polymath László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, taking over from the eccentric spiritualist Johannes Itten as teacher of the Bauhaus preliminary course, also replacing Itten as Head of the Metal Workshop.

Moholy-Nagy wore worker’s overalls to emphasise his communist Constructivist views, sweeping away the soft arts and crafts approach which had dominated the school for its first four years and implementing an entirely new approach, focused on designing and producing goods which could be mass produced for the working classes.

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

László Moholy-Nagy, the stern constructivist man of the people

So far, so legendary. But it’s typical of Whitford’s account that he tells us that about the only thing Moholy-Nagy didn’t do well was speak German, with the result that the students took the mickey out of his appalling accent and nicknamed him ‘Holy Mahogany’. Now that sounds like a proper art school.

Even details like exactly how many people were on the teaching staff (12) and how many students there were (initially about 100, rising to 150) gives you a sense of the scale of the operation. Tiny, by modern standards.

I laughed out loud when Whitford tells us that Gropius very optimistically held an exhibition of students work in 1919 that was so disastrous – the exhibits were so poor and the reaction of the press was so scathing – that he swore never to hold another one (p.136).

For it was a college like any other and had to justify its costs to the local authorities. The government of Weimar (one of Germany’s many Länder, or mini-states) funded it for six years before withdrawing their funding. The director, Walter Gropius, had to advertise to the other states in Germany, asking if any others would be willing to fund the school. From the first it aimed to become self-supporting by selling its products (ceramics, rugs, fixtures and fittings, metal work, the occasional full-scale architectural commission) but it never did.

Herbert Bayer's cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

Herbert Bayer’s cover for the 1923 book Staatliches Bauhaus

So the school’s reliance on state funding put it at the mercy of the extremely volatile politics and even more unstable economics of Germany during the 20s. László Moholy-Nagy didn’t just join the Bauhaus, he joined a school of art and design which was struggling to survive, whose teaching staff were in disarray, which had failed to deliver on many of its initial aims and promises, and at the time of Germany’s ridiculous hyper-inflation which looked as if it might see the overthrow not only of the government but of the entire economic system.

Thus the sweeping changes to the syllabus he and his colleague Albers introduced weren’t just a personal whim, they were absolutely vital of the school was to stand a hope of breaking even and surviving. For the first four years Johannes Itten had included meditation, breathing exercises and the cultivation of the inner spirit in the Induction Course. Moholy-Nagy scrapped all of it.

Typically, Whitford finds a humorous way of conveying this through the words of a student eye witness. According to this student, they had previously been encouraged to make ‘spiritual samovars and intellectual doorknobs’; Moholy-Nagy instructed them to start experimenting with a wide range of modern materials in order to design practical household objects, tea sets, light fittings. Using glass and metal, they made what are probably the first globe lamps made anywhere.

It’s Whitford’s ability to combine a full understanding of the historical background, with the local government politics of Weimar or Dessau, with the fluctuating morale at the school and the characters of individual teachers, and his eye for the telling anecdote, which contribute to a deeply satisfying narrative.

Even if you’re not remotely interested in art, it would still be an interesting book to read purely as social history. Again Whitford made me laugh out loud when he pointed out that, although Germany’s hyperinflation of 1923 was catastrophic for most people, it was, of course, boom times for the printers of bank notes! Verily, every cloud has a silver lining.

Bauhaus student Herbert Bayer was commissioned to design 1 million, two million and one billion Mark banknotes. They were issued on 1 September 1923, by which time much higher denominations were needed.

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Emergency bank notes designed by Herbert Bayer (1923)

Against his better judgement Gropius was persuaded to hold another exhibition, in 1923. This one, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, was a commercial and critical success. It ran from 15 August to 30 September. When it opened one dollar was worth two million Marks; by the time it ended a dollar bought 160 million Marks (p.147). What a catastrophe.

Brief timeline

The Bauhaus school of art, architecture and design lived precisely as long as the Weimar Republic. It was founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, who was invited by the government of Weimar to take over a merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art. Gropius wanted to integrate art and design with traditions of craft and hand manufacture, following the beliefs of the English critic John Ruskin and artist-entrepreneur and activist William Morris and the atmosphere of the early school was intensely spiritual and arty. The teachers were divided into ‘Masters of Form’ – responsible for theory of design – and ‘Workshop Masters’ – experts at rug-making, ceramics, metalwork and so on. The idea was that the two would work in tandem though in practice the relationship was often problematic.

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

Johannes Itten, follower of the fire cult Mazdaznan, deeply spiritual and the main influence on the first period of the Bauhaus to 1923

As mentioned above, the hyper-inflation and the political crisis of 1923 helped to change the culture. Gropius managed to sack the spiritual Ittens and bring in the no-nonsense Moholy-Nagy and Albers. This inaugurated the Second Phase, from 1923 to 1925, when Romantic ideas of self-expression were replaced by rational, quasi-scientific ideas. Whitford points out that this shift was part of a wider cultural shift across Germany. The tradition of Expressionism which lingered on from before the Great War was decisively dropped in a whole range of arts to be replaced by a harder, more practical approach which soon came to be called the New Objectivity.

In 1925 a nationalist government took power in Weimar and withdrew funding from the school, which they portrayed (not inaccurately) as a hotbed of communists and subversives. The Bauhaus quit Weimar and moved to purpose-built buildings in Dessau. 1925-28 are probably its glory years, the new building inspiring a wave of innovations as well as – as Whitford emphasises – the themed parties which soon became legendary.

A new younger cohort of teachers, the so-called Young Masters, most of whom had actually been students at the school, were now given teaching places and generated a wave of innovations. Herbert Bayer pioneered the use of simple elegant typefaces without serif or even capital letters. Marcel Breuer designed the first ever chair made from tubular steel with leather pads stretched across it, a design which was still going strong when I started work in media land in the late 1980s, 60 years later. Breuer named it the Wassily chair in honour of his older colleague.

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

The Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer (1925)

In 1928 Gropius quit and handed over the directorship to Hannes Meyer, an avowed Marxist who saw art and architecture solely in terms of social benefit. The merit of Whitford’s account is that for 150 pages or so, he has made us share Gropius’s triumphs and disasters, made us feel for him as he fought the local governments for funding, tried to stage exhibitions to raise the school’s profile and to sell things, battled against critics and enemies of both the right and the left.

Whitford quotes from the letters which Gropius sent out to his colleagues in which he explained that, after ten years of fighting, he is exhausted. More than that, Gropius realised that it was make or break time for him as a professional architect: either he was going to spend the rest of his life as a higher education administrator or get back to the profession he loved.

Similarly, Whitford deals sympathetically with the directorship of Meyer, which lasted for two short years from 1928 to 1930. Usually this seen as a period of retrenchment when the last dregs of the school’s utopianism were squeezed out of it. But Whitford is sympathetic to Meyer’s efforts to keep it afloat in darkening times. Students complained that all the other specialities were now subjugated to Meyer’s focus on architecture, for example explorations of how to use prefabricated components to quickly build well-designed but cheap housing for the masses.

But it was during Meyer’s time that the school had its biggest-ever commercial success. Whitford tells the story of how the school received a commission to design wallpaper, a challenge which was handed over to the mural-painting department. Staff and students developed a range of ‘textured and quietly patterned’ designs which were unlike anything else then on the market. To everyone’s surprise they turned out to be wildly popular and became the most profitable items the school ever produced. In fact they are still available today from the firm which commissioned them, Emil Rasche of Bramsche.

Meyer really was a devoted communist. He instituted classes in political theory and helped set up a Communist Party cell among the students. Opposition from powerful factions in the government of Thuringia (of which the city of Dessau was capital) lobbied continuously for Meyer to be replaced or the entire school closed down. The older generation of teachers were just as disgruntled as the last dregs of Expressionist feeling were squashed beneath revolutionary rhetoric.

The mayor of Dessau fired Meyer on 1 August 1930. Meyer promptly went to Russia to work for the Soviet government, taking several Bauhaus students with him.

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Radical Bauhaus designs for household appliances

Meyer was replaced by the internationally renowned architect Mies van der Rohe, who Gropius had sounded out about replacing him back in 1928.

Mies was more open to ideas of beauty and design than the functionalist Meyer, but he was forced by the Thuringian authorities (who, after all, owned and funded the school) to cut down severely on political activity at the college. This backfired as the politicised students demanded to know by what right Mies was implementing his policies and organised meetings, several of which descended into near riots.

The police were called and the school was closed. Not for the last time, ‘radical’ students were playing into the hands of their political enemies. Mies re-opened the school and insisted on a one-to-one interview with all the returning students, each of which had to make a personal promise, and sign a contract, to avoid political activity and trouble-making.

Of all the teachers who’d been at the college when it opened, only Kandinsky and Klee remained and Klee resigned soon after Mies’s arrival.

Of course, looming behind all this was the Great Depression, which had begun with the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. America had been the main backer of the German economy via the Dawes Plan of 1924 (which is what had brought the hyper-inflation under control). Now American banks, under extreme pressure, demanded all their loans back, and there was no-one to replace them.

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Nesting tables designed by Josef Albers (1927)

Companies throughout Germany went bankrupt and millions of workers were laid off. In September 1928 Germany had 650,000 unemployed, By September 1931 there were 4,350,000 unemployed (and the number continued to rise, reaching a staggering 6,100,000 unemployed by January 1933, the year Hitler came to power promising jobs and work for all Germans.)

In 1931 the growing Nazi Party achieved control of the Dessau city council. After a campaign of criticism of its foreign-influenced and un-German designs, the school was closed on 30 September 1932. Nazi officials moved in, smashing windows and throwing paperwork and equipment out into the street.

It stuttered on. Heroically, Mies rented space in a disused telephone factory in Berlin and turned the school into a private institution, requiring private fees. They set about constructing workshops and teaching areas. Amazingly, Kandinsky was still on the faculty, though whether he was still cycling round on his racing bike isn’t recorded. Even this private incarnation was targeted by the Nazis and Whitford quotes a student’s vivid eye-witness account of truckloads of Nazi police rolling up outside the building on 11 April 1933.

Whitford reports the fascinating coda when, for a few months, letters were exchanged and discussion had with the new authorities about whether a school of modern design could find a place in the new Reich – after all the Nazi leadership had a keen sense of the arts and had utopian plans of their own to rebuild Berlin as the capital of Europe. But the discussions petered out and on 10 August 1933 Mies sent a leaflet to the remaining students telling them the school had been wound up.

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923

Bauhaus chess set designed by Josef Hartwig in 1923 (the shape of the pieces indicates the moves they can take)

Impact

After being closed down by the Nazis many of the teaching staff went abroad to found similar schools, colleges and institutes in other countries. In particular Germany’s loss was America’s gain. Moholy-Nagy founded the ‘New Bauhaus’ in Chicago in 1937. Gropius taught at Harvard. Albers taught at the hugely influential Black Mountain College. After the war a Hochschule für Gestaltung was set up in Ulm, which continued the school’s investigations into industrial design.

As to the Bauhaus’s general influence, Whitford opened the book with a summary. The Bauhaus influenced the practice and curriculums of post-war art schools around the world:

  • Every student who does a ‘foundation course’ at art school has the Bauhaus to thank for this idea.
  • Every art school which offers studies of materials, colour theory and three dimensional design is indebted to the experiments Bauhaus carried out.
  • Everyone sitting in a chair made with a tubular steel frame, or using an adjustable reading lamp, or is in a building made from pre-fabricated elements is benefiting from Bauhaus inventions.

I was particularly struck by the section about the model house, the Haus am Horn designed by Georg Muche, which Bauhaus architects and designers built as a showcase for the 1923 exhibition. It was the first building constructed based on Bauhaus designs, and its simplicity and pure lines were to prove very influential in international modern architecture.

Whitford, as ever, goes into fascinating detail, quoting a student who remarked of the interior designs by Marcel Breuer (then still himself a student) that it included: the first kitchen in Germany with separated lower cupboards, suspended upper cupboards attached to the walls, a continuous work surface running round the wall, and a main workspace in front of the kitchen window. (p.144)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

The revolutionary kitchen of the Haus am Horn (1923)

Whitworth also points out that the Bauhaus legacy isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed. From the mid-20s journalists began to associate the name with everything modern and streamlined in contemporary design, everything functional and in modern materials. But this was misleading; it certainly hadn’t been Gropius’s intention. He never wanted there to be a ‘Bauhaus style’; the whole idea was to encourage new thinking, questioning and variety.

The Bauhaus style which sneaked its way into the design of women’s underwear, the Bauhaus style as ‘modern decor’, as rejection of yesterday’s styles, as determination to be ‘up-to-the-minute’ at all costs – this style can be found everywhere but at the Bauhaus. (Oskar Schlemmer, quoted page 198)

Summary

By treating each period of the school’s evolution so thoroughly, beginning with a fascinating account of the pre-war sources of much of its thinking in the arts and crafts of Morris or the Expressionism of Kandinsky and Marc, Whitworth restores to the story its complexity, its twists and turns, showing that at different moments, and to different teachers and students, Bauhaus meant completely different things. The full fifteen year story has to be taken and understood as a whole to give a proper sense of the exciting experimentalism, diversity, challenges and achievements of this extraordinary institution.

This is a really good book, authoritative, sensible, funny – deeply enjoyable on multiple levels.


Related links

Related reviews

The Radical Eye @ Tate Modern

In 1990 Sir Elton John went into rehab and completely dried out, abandoning all intoxicants and stimulants. He began to look for a new hobby or activity to focus his, now completely sober, energies on. He’d always liked fashion photographs and had himself been snapped by some of the most famous fashion and music photographers of the 60s and 70s – but a chance encounter with a collector of older works opened his eyes to the dazzling world of classic Modernist photos from earlier in the twentieth century.

He bought some examples, read up on the subject, and soon he was hooked. Over the past 27 years, Elton has built up one of the greatest collections of modern photographs anywhere in the world, which stretches from the start of the twentieth century right up to the present day, including colour and digital photography.

Elton’s collection now exceeds 8,000 prints. He and the curator of what is now known as the Sir Elton John Photography Collection – Newell Harbin – and his photography consultant and first director of the collection – Jane Jackson – worked with Tate to select some 170 images for this show. They are all from the heyday of ‘Modernist’ photography, around 1920 to 1945.

The result is this wonderfully enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition.

Themes

The exhibition is pure delight. It is divided into seven themed sections – portraits, bodies, experiments, objects, perspectives, abstractions, documents.

The sudden burst of creativity at the end of the Great War partly reflected the collapse of old traditional values in every sphere of life, but especially in art, which abandoned 19th century realism for an explosive diversity of new ways of seeing. It also reflected new technologies, such as the arrival of the Leica camera in 1927 which could contain a whole roll of film and so allowed a sequence of shots of the same object, thus allowing the taking of much more documentary or narrative photographs. At the same time many of the blurrings or odd effects created by photography which had been rejected by the Victorian forebears as aberrations from decorous realism now became actively sought after as striking visual experiments.

Above all, 20th century photography pioneered a revolution in seeing, an entirely new way of valuing the visual impact of all sorts of objects previously overlooked. If shot properly the stamens of a flower or a cluster of pots can look like objects from outer space. If made-up and shot crisply, the human face can have the other worldly clarity of a god.

Portraits On the one hand improved cameras enabled portraits to be created with a dazzling crispness and focus; on the other, modern art had liberated artists to find new ways to crop, angle and compose the human face, bringing out the geometry of lines and shapes buried in it, or creating new and challenging moods.

There’s a wall devoted to a sequence the photographer Irving Penn made in his studio in 1948 when he stumbled across the idea of pushing two background flats together to make a very acute angle for the sitters to pose in. To his surprise, instead of feeling cramped and stressed, many of the sitters felt comfortable and secure and visibly relaxed.

Bodies Unconventional composition and framing, experiments with lighting and focus are just some of the novel techniques used to show the human body in a completely new light, part machine, part god, part zoomorphic architecture.

  • Movement study by Rudolf Koppitz A shot like this demonstrates the way almost all the modernist affects are based on the notion of bringing out the geometric substructure in objects or people (although, as in Art Deco generally, background women here form a kind of curved geometry. The stylisation of their hair and eyes made me think of Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s willowy women – e.g. The Golden Stairs (1880) – but the differences highlight the way the interest has shifted from feminine ‘delicacy’ in the Victorian image, to an entirely new aesthetic which emphasises lithe muscularity. The naked woman is sensual, yes – but like a panther!)
  • Nude by Edward Weston (1936) The tendency of the age, of the Art deco 1920s and 30s to seek out the geometric in the organic is particularly obvious in this stunning photo. 1) The female body is turned into an almost abstract shape. Compare and contrast Matisse’s blue nude cutouts from 20 years later. 2) As with so many of these images, the closer you look, the more you see, including the hair on her leg, the sharpness of the toenails, loose threads from the rug.

Experiments shows various photographers playing with collage, distortion, montage, colouring some but not all of the image. The standout is probably –

Objects includes stunning still lifes, converting everyday objects into vibrantly sharp and vivid images.

Documents A million miles away from the Hollywood glamour of Gloria Swanson, the New York stylishness of Duke Ellington or the fashion magazine styling of Norman Parkinson, is the section devoted to the socially conscious photos of the 1930s Depression in America. The most famous photographers form this era are:

  • Migrant mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange Super famous image of the 1930s Depression, but in the flesh it has much more immediacy than any reproduction can convey.
  • Floyd Burroughs by Walker Evans (1936) Ditto. Both Evans and Lange were employed by the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration which was set up in 1935 to combat rural poverty. The administrator, Roy Stryker, in a much-quoted phrase, aimed to ‘show America to Americans.’ A laudable aim but these images are now 80 years old, from the year when Nazi Germany reoccupied the Rhineland. Are they documentary resources, liberal propaganda, publicity stills, historical records, works of art? Apparently, some 200,000 photos were taking during the existence of the Administration: are they all works of art?
  • New York by Helen Levitt (1940) She took many snaps of street life in her native New York City.

Abstraction and perspective I found some of the documentary photos a little sentimental and a little patronising. A bit uncomfortable about the image of a homeless, impoverished, desperate migrant mother being converted into an object to be owned by a multi-millionaire, displayed in London’s most popular tourist attraction, for a paying audience of well-heeled visitors, to swoon and feel sorry about.

I preferred the anonymous power of many of the abstractions, and especially the place where the human and the abstract meet – in photos of amazing works of architecture and engineering converted, by characteristically modernist perspective and the use of highly focused black-and-white, into works of stunning abstract beauty.

I grew up in a gas station amid the smell of petrol and tyres. I’ve always loved industrial art. I’ve always preferred the rainbow sheen of oil on dirty puddles to vases of flowers in nice front rooms.

The Ullberg was hanging next to a street scene by English photographer, Norman Parkinson.

This is good, but I much preferred the Ullberg. Although it has the components of a modernist photo, Parkinson’s shot lacks the precision and intensity. The puddles are a bit blurry. Fine. But compare and contrast with the super-clarity of the Ullberg, which is sharp enough to cut you, and also presents a far richer depth of information for the eye and mind.

Both reminded me that, at the wonderful 2011 Royal Academy exhibition of Hungarian photography I learned that to make a classic Modernist street photo you need to do just three things: it must be in black and white – take it from above – and have diagonals in it – lines of paving, tramlines, people marching, or just one person at an angle. Voila!

The curator commentary

The audioguide is worth buying as much for its occasional descent into art bollocks as for its information and insights. How the heart sinks when you see some photos depicting models with masks – you know the curator will be unable to resist talking about the usual antonyms of ‘appearance and reality’, ‘art and artifice’, ‘identity and anonymity’, and so on. Photos of the naked human body will trigger a torrent of verbiage about artists exploring ‘issues’ of sexuality. Worst of all, any female photographer will prompt the usual vapourings about ‘subverting’ gender stereotypes and the pain of being a pioneer in a male-dominated blah blah.

It’s not that these thoughts are particularly wrong, it’s just that they’re so bleeding obvious, and so thumpingly predictable. Almost every exhibition I’ve ever been to sooner or later reveals that the artist was ‘exploring issues of sexuality’ or ‘subverting gender stereotypes’.

It’s a constant source of wry humour that the very art critics and curators who are so keen to talk about art being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’ and ‘subverting’, ‘transgressing’, ‘confronting’ and ‘interrogating’ this, that or the other social convention, are themselves so staggeringly limited in the way they think about art, so repetitive and predictable, are such tame conformists to the narrow and well-trodden themes of ‘radical theory’.

Elton John as critic

All of which highlights the biggest single revelation of the exhibition, which is: What an extraordinarily sensitive, insightful, thoughtful and articulate man Sir Elton John is! Every photo singled out for an audioguide commentary by the curators also features some words from Sir Elton -and Elton’s thoughts are consistently more informative, insightful and memorable than the scholarly version.

This, you can’t help feeling, is because they are born out of love. Elton’s deep and genuine passion for modern photography shows in everything he says about it. Sometimes it’s just putting into words an impression which was hovering in the viewer’s mind, such as when he points out that the more you look at Edward Weston’s White door the more pregnant with meaning it becomes, the more ominous and mysterious, the more you want to know what’s through the door. It could be the start of a novel or a movie.

For me his most insightful comment was how classic photographs bear looking at again and again and again, each time noticing something new. These works are hung all around his Atlanta apartment so that he passes by them all day long. And each time he looks and pays attention to one of his photographs, he sees something new in it.

I know this could also be said of painting, drawings, a lot of other forms – but, being here, you can see what he’s driving at because photography, almost by definition, contains more information than any other art form. In a photograph nothing is left blank: the entire visual field is capturing whatever was there in front of the camera. Even the white spaces are recording a reality which often, when you look closer, has something in it. Whereas the white space in a painting might just be white.

Having visited the enormous David Hockney exhibition last week led me naturally to compare these classic photos with the painter’s works.

For a start almost all Hockney’s paintings are ginormous, wall-size, whereas all the works here are small, most are the size of an A4 sheet of paper or smaller.

But to return to Elton’s point, whereas the closer you looked at many of, say, Hockney’s later paintings of the Yorkshire landscape, the less detail there is to see in these enormous broad-brush swathes of paint -here, in these small and exquisite classic photographs, the closer you look, the more there is to see.

Take Man Ray’s photo of an ostrich an egg. Seen at the distance of a few yards, it looks round and smooth with a nice reflected shine on the surface to give a sense of depth and curvature. But the closer you get, the more you can see the fine pores pitting the surface of the egg, which are brought out by the little patch of reflected light; until only a foot from the image, you realise the surface is completely pocked with holes, almost like a miniature moonscape. And then there’s the detail of the wooden surface it’s on: the closer you get, the more you can see the grain of the wood and the straightness of those lines plays off against the curvature of the egg. And so on.

A lot of this detail doesn’t really come over in any reproductions you see, even in the catalogue of the exhibition itself, which is printed on matt paper and nowhere nearly as attractive as the originals.

None of the reproductions are as grippingly dynamic as the real prints. Only in the flesh can you look closer and closer and closer and see more and more detail. Only in the flesh do you start to get really hooked and really start to see what Elton is on about.

Another example is Dorothea Lange’s famous image of the Migrant woman. It was only looking at the print really close up that I realised that she is holding an infant child whose white corpse-like face is almost hidden by the tree or vertical line on the right hand side of the photo. I thought I knew this image inside out, but seeing a print this close up made me realise I was wrong.

Lots of the photos are like this, revealing depths and then further depths.

This also makes sense of another of Elton’s comments – that photographs tell the truth, whereas paintings lie. There are all kind of political and aesthetic objections to that statement and yet, like everything else the man says, it is persuasive because it carries the conviction of his obvious love and care for these marvellous images.

After all, there is an extraordinary power and depth and truthfulness to these photos. Maybe it’s something to do with their brightly-lit clarity – and that this crisp clarity of image results in a greater density of information per square inch. There is just more going on in a good photo than in most paintings of a comparable size. Subconsciously the mind is registering a whole host of detail, the kind of extraneous detail which most painters consciously leave out, but which are often here to distract and illuminate and shed new perspective. I keep thinking about the woman’s toenails in Edward Weston’s fabulous nude. Or Duke Ellington’s shirt cuffs.

It’s the sheer amount of visual information which a camera captures which both explains why they really do repay repeated viewings, and why so many of them give the impression of flooding and gratifying the eye and the viewing mind.

What great photographs! What a great exhibition! What a great guy!

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: