: Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980
2018. USA. Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. 97 min.
The belle époque, a French expression meaning “beautiful era,” refers to the interwar years between 1871 and 1914, when Paris was at the forefront of urban development and cultural innovation. During this time, Parisians witnessed the construction of the Eiffel Tower, the ascendancy of the Montmartre district as an epicenter for art and entertainment and the brightening of their metropolis under the glow of electric light. From the nostalgic perspective of the 20th century, this four-decade period of progress and prosperity was a golden age of spectacle and joie de vivre.
For artists living through the epoch, however, the less triumphant details of daily life were often the ones that inspired creative expression. Armand Guillaumin painted plumes of factory smoke as they mingled with pale, puffy clouds. Photographer Eugène Atget captured the eclectic assortment of lampshades peddled by a traveling salesman, as well as the quasi-comical uniformity of a crowd of strangers viewing a solar eclipse. Portraying the bustling metropolis encouraged informality and a new kind of attention to fleeting moments. In Women Ironing, Edgar Degas seeks to evoke a glimpse through the door of a steamy laundry (though the painting itself may have taken over 10 years to complete), while Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Cirque Fernando, Rider on a White Horse (1887–88) dramatizes the sensation of movement by depicting a bareback circus performer as she whips by on her mount. All of these images exploit the startling dichotomy between physical proximity and emotional distance that was closely associated with urban existence in fin-de-siècle France.
The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire (1400–1750)
Images of the human body can generate profound physical and emotional responses. For viewers in the 15th to 18th centuries, works of art were not simply aesthetic objects worthy of admiration: they activated memory, inspired devotion and fueled desire. According to medical and religious thought at the time, depictions of human figures acted on both mind and body, which were considered deeply interconnected. A portrait could “make the absent present,” as if the depicted person were still flesh and blood; a portrayal of a tortured martyr could cause the viewer to empathize with or even feel his or her torment; and representations of beautiful lovers could lead to the conception of handsome and healthy children. The Expressive Body displays 75 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures from the Museum’s collections, ranging from artists like Giambologna and Rembrandt who produced works for wealthy collectors, to devotional images for non-elite audiences in 15th-century Italy and colonial Mexico. Through these objects, this exhibition reveals the historically affective power of the human form to connect viewers to the richness of human experience.
The spring-tight line between reality and the photograph has been stretched relentlessly, but it has not been broken. These abstractions of nature have not left the world of appearances; for to do so is to break the camera’s strongest point—its authenticity. –Minor White, 1950
Photographer Minor White’s quote acknowledges a fundamental quandary faced by photographers in the 20th century. On the one hand, their medium was esteemed precisely for its ability to record what the eye saw. On the other hand, photographers, like painters and sculptors, sought new approaches and rationales to advance their picture making. Abstraction as a nonrepresentational, visual language played a significant role in bending the conventional expectations of a medium unquestionably suited to describe people, places and objects. Beyond the World We Know presents the work of 16 artists who embraced a new goal for their practice: to loosen the grip of realism and demonstrate photography’s ability to suggest something other than itself, to serve as a conduit for visual metaphor and personal expression.
This mission to emphasize photography’s subjectivity began early in the 20th century, coincident with the rise of abstraction and nonobjective art in other media. In 1951, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) presented Abstraction in Photography, an exhibition that invited the public to evaluate these strange bedfellows. Six of the artists represented in the Norton Simon exhibition were included in that groundbreaking exhibition: Barbara Morgan, Frederick Sommer, Arthur Siegel, Aaron Siskind and Brett and Edward Weston. Almost a decade later, in 1960, MoMA revisited the topic of abstract practices in The Sense of Abstraction, introducing the photographs of Walter Chappell and Edmund Teske, whose work also figures in the Museum’s installation.
Abstraction’s presence in the photographs featured in Beyond the World We Know is one of degrees. In some cases, it results from procedures with new equipment, such as enlargers, or darkroom manipulations involving duotone and solarization. Chance is a strong element in the resulting prints. Sommer produced small oil paintings on cellophane paper, which he then placed between sheets of glass. By means of an enlarger, he printed the images onto sensitized paper. His camera-less photographs are known as cliché-verres. Teske employed the Sabbatier technique—a process of chemical toning and solarization, in which the print is exposed to bright light during its development, introducing painterly elements and unusual spatial juxtapositions.
Paul Gauguin's 'The Swineherd,' 1888, on loan from LACMA
On special loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Paul Gauguin’s The Swineherd (1888) is on view in the Museum’s 19th-century art wing.
Between 1886 and 1890 Gauguin abandoned Paris for a series of sojourns in Brittany, a province in western France. Owing to its Celtic origins, Brittany attracted artists seeking an “exotic” culture seemingly untouched by bourgeois society. Immersing himself in the local community, Gauguin developed a visual language that simplified the natural environment to make it more expressive and dreamlike. The year that he painted this scene of a peasant tending pigs in the picturesque village of Pont-Aven, Gauguin wrote to a friend: “I like Brittany. Here I find a savage, primitive quality. When my wooden shoes echo on this granite ground, I hear the dull, muted, powerful sound I am looking for in painting.”
When Norton Simon purchased The Swineherd in 1955, it was the seventh—and most significant—work of art to enter his collection. Thanks to the generosity of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which received the painting as a gift from Lucille Ellis Simon, we are delighted to reunite this masterpiece with related pictures from Simon’s holdings of post-impressionist art. The Swineherd is on view at the Museum until November 2020.
Another Way of Telling: Women Photographers from the Collection
First Major Art Museum Exhibition Dedicated to World-Renowned Photographer Michael Nichols