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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Edward Steichen, Paul Robeson (as Brutus Jones, in The Emperor Jones, for Vanity Fair), 1933. Gelatin silver print, mounted on board, 9 15/16 x 8 in. (25.2 x 20.3 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art; gift of Richard & Jackie Hollander in memory of Ellyn Hollander, 2012.240.
Continuing my tour of photography exhibitions this season, I next took in a show of work by Edward Steichen (1879-1973). Born the same year that Charles Marville died, Steichen practiced his peacetime calling in three phases, each phase directed toward progressively wider audiences.

Steichen was a native of the tiny European duchy of Luxembourg; he came to the U.S. with his family as a child, and became, in the early years of the 20th century, a Pictorialist photographer and member of the cozy avant-garde circle of Alfred Stieglitz.

After serving as an aerial photographer in World I, Steichen adopted a more “modern” style and turned increasingly to commercial photography and magazine work (he was employed by J. Walter Thompson, one of the biggest advertising agencies, and as chief photographer for Condé Nast, publishers of Vogue and Vanity Fair).

After more military service in World War II, he became director of photography for MoMA. He organized its landmark 1955 exhibition, “The Family of Man,” which toured the world for 8 years and was seen by 9 million people (with its profound optimism and all-embracing sense of humanity, this show has become a popular punching bag for dystopian pomonians. I liked it, having been taken to its opening by my mother, and seeing, among many other trenchant images, a childhood friend, Kaye Clark, playing the recorder in a photograph by Barbara Morgan).

This season's exhibition, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, captured Steichen in his intermediate phase. Entitled “Edward Steichen in the 1920s and 1930s: A Recent Acquisition,” it featured 45 photographs donated by Richard & Jackie Hollander in memory of Ellyn Hollander (closed February 23). Ellyn was Richard’s sister and a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology who died of cancer at the age of 19.

The Whitney show featured a few fruit and flower studies, “art” photography reminding me of the work of Paul Strand, but not as good. There were also a few advertisements and fashion photographs, most looking dated (though the advert for Cannon Towels, showing primarily a nude model’s back, wasn't bad, and the Gorham Silver ad was cute). The real treasures here, and the biggest part of the show, were the portraits. Most were done for Vanity Fair, a very classy magazine in those days, dedicated to chronicling the doings of not only the beautiful but also the brilliant with impeccable style and taste.

The photographs of famous actresses, including Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Cornell, were artfully—perhaps too artfully—staged, but those of the men, from Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill to Paul Robeson and Eugene O’Neill were classically straightforward and illuminating. None came across with as much rugged character as do the eminent Victorians of Julia Margaret Cameron, but they were all very elegant, very distinguished-looking, and their images allowed me to feel that I knew something of what these people were about.

To be honest, I should add that much of this show’s appeal for me was its nostalgia value. My father’s one published article, a hilarious look at Hollywood society from the perspective of an anthropologist, appeared in Vanity Fair in 1934, before I was born. And this show had a Steichen photograph of Ferenc Molnár, the Hungarian playwright who wrote “Liliom” and whose short stories my father translated for Vanity Fair.

Still, who the hell has heard of Molnár these days, or Lily Pons, or Beatrice Lillie, or for that matter, most of these other “big” names of the 20s and 30s who were included in this show? The Whitney had a rack with white plastic sheets on which appeared capsule biographies of the portrait subjects in this show—and this modest level of inclusion of printed material might well be justified, for younger people if not for me.

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