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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Installation view of Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography, 1946–1964, on view May 8, 2021 through September 26, 2021. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar


Borrowing a title from Ernest Hemingway, I want to call your attention to a most attractive show at the Museum of Modern Art.  As installed in one large, airy, clean, neat and well-lit gallery, it celebrates a group of talented amateurs in "Fotoclubismo: Brazilian Modernist Photography, 1946 – 1964" (through September 26).



It goes without saying that one can't have modernism these days without an equal dose of diversity, but okay, in this case it works. The exhibition of about 60 photographs is all taken from the museum's permanent collection, and the photographs on view were all or mostly all taken by men and women who pursued photography as a hobby, for the sheer pleasure of it, and supported themselves by other means.


All or most of them seem to have belonged to the same photography club,  São Paulo's Foto-Cine Clube Bandeirante,  and on their membership cards they listed their occupations as lawyers, businessmen, accountants, journalists, engineers, biologists and bankers.


The show is arranged with groups of photographs related in theme, such as "Abstractions from Nature," "Texture and Shape," "Experimental Processes," etc. Between these groupings are a series of solo mini-exhibitions, with short rows of photographs all by the same artist.


The overwhelming majority of the photographs in this show are what might be called "art photography," meaning that they focus on just a few beautiful "objects" taken from nature or man-made but without any people or action portrayed.  True, two groups are headlined "Solitude" and "Daily Life" and in these pictures of people are at least featured.


The nine photographs I liked best were: 1) "Filigree" (1953) by Gertrudes Altschul; 2) "Self-Portrait (Autoretrato)" (c. 1949) by Geraldo de Barros; 3) "Rushing Water No.1" (c. 1945) by Thomaz Farkas; 4) "Mud (Lama)" (c. 1957) by Marcel Giró; 5) "Everyday Scenes (Cenas quotidianas)" (1949) by German Lorca; 6) "Apartments (Apartamentos)"  (1950-51) by German Lorca; 7) "Congonhas Airport, São Paulo" (1961), by German Lorca; 8) "Study (Estudo)" (1956) by Palmira Puig Giró;  and 9) "Composition in Black and White (Composição em branco e preto)" (c. 1951), by Eduardo Salvatore.


I must apologize for putting so many photographs by German Lorca on my list.  One reason may be that they all include people and having seen so much art photography of leaves and mud and chairs and benches had me hungry for the sight of a human being.


But beyond that – I would argue -- is how Lorca was able to distill more life into his compositions, more energy and just plain excellence.  Not being an authority on photography, I can't say how he did it, but I later read in the literature accompanying the show that unlike everybody else in it, he was good enough at what he did to turn pro.


Reflecting on this show, and comparing it in my mind with the Alice Neel show (see below), I find it's not the presence of human beings alone that made Lorca's pictures of people so compelling for me. It was the sympathetic way he portrayed them, making them look a little better than they were, instead of a little worse.


I suspect that the good people who selected the images for this exhibition are younger people who have no personal knowledge of the modernist world -- other than as a serene, dry and (seemingly) dead pile of bones.


This to me explains why they related most strongly to modernist "art photography," and so much less strongly to modernist photographs of people.  Yet modernist photography could be and often was a rejoicing in the human condition.


Arguably the most successful photography show ever staged was "The Family of Man," organized by Edward Steichen for MoMA in 1955 and exploring the human condition from birth to death as it affected people from around the world.


This was all modernist photography, joyfully celebrating what it depicted, and it toured around the world for 8 years, being seen by 9 million people. I have been given to understand that it has been a favorite target of postmodernist critics, but also that you can buy the 60th anniversary edition of the book version of it, published in 2015, at the MoMA bookstore.  


In this show/book was/is a work of art depicting somebody I knew. This is a photograph taken by Barbara Morgan (1900 - 1992), a noted modernist photographer of the dance. The photograph shows a childhood friend of mine, Kaye Clark, sitting in a striped T-shirt and shorts on a rock and playing a recorder.


It would have been taken around 1945, at a summer camp in the Adirondacks that we both attended. Morgan had offspring of her own at the camp and took a whole bunch of pictures of it which were published in a book called "Summer's Children" (1951).


One last piece of advice: This show is installed in Gallery 516 on the fifth floor of MoMA, toward the end of those galleries devoted to art in the permanent collection from the 1880s to the 1940s.  If you don't want to go through every one of the 15 galleries preceding this show, I advise you to take one of two routes.


Route No. 1 is to try and enter the permanent collection from its exit, which is located right next to where the escalators let you on and off.   If there is a guard around, he will probably try to direct you to the entrance to the permanent collection, Gallery 501, so try to avoid the guard and enter the first small gallery at the exit, which is Gallery 523. 


From it you come out into Gallery 522 but if you keep going straight the next gallery in is Gallery 517.  This is a surrealist gallery, with Miró's great "Birth of the World" hanging on your left. 


If you keep on going straight, and exit Gallery 517 directly across from where you entered it, you will be within shouting distance of Gallery 516 -- with its distinctive bright green wall at the back of it (see illustration above).


Route No. 2 is to enter the collection at Gallery 501 (Cezanne, Van Gogh, etc.) and proceed through Picasso and German Expressionism until you get to Gallery 505, the one labeled "1913." It has Delaunay  and the Italian Futurists in it.


Then, instead of proceeding straight through it, make a 90-degree turn to the left, and exit to Gallery 506, which is devoted to Matisse (you know you wanted to take another look at "La Danse," anyway,  didn't  you?).


Then go straight through this gallery and exit on the other side of it. This will bring you to Gallery 517, which as I said above is a surrealist gallery and includes "Birth of the World."


However, instead of going toward that painting, you make a hard right immediately after you enter Gallery 517 and exit it altogether.  This again should bring you within shouting distance of "Fotoclubismo" and its green wall.

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