What's going on here? An art show that says it isn't art?
The opposite situation happens too often to count, but a fine exhibition so self-effacing as "Bauhausfotografie" is a rare occurrence.
Installed at Cal State Long Beach's University Art Museum (through Sept. 12) and looking undeniably like art, the 124 photographs, photomontages and photocollages are the work of students and faculty of the fabled Bauhaus school in the 1920s and '30s. The works came from West Germany in a show organized by the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations in Stuttgart and circulated by the Goethe Institute.
Encompassing everything from inventive self-portraits and still lifes to straightforward pictures of Bauhaus buildings and advertising layouts, the images almost always contain an element of surprise. Even today, when diagonal compositions, odd viewpoints and technical manipulations are part of photography's familiar lexicon, we can see that the Bauhaus fostered an astonishing degree of experimentation. In their day, these concoctions must have been quite shocking.
"Bauhausfotografie" spotlights one of Germany's finest moments in modern art, yet the catalogue wastes no time in issuing a cautionary note: "We must stress right at the start that photography at the Bauhaus was never seen only as a means of artistic expression; the main focus was on the visual stimulus, the possibilities inherent in the medium," Wulf Herzogenrath writes.
What we have, then, is a body of work by inquiring artists who valued the process of exploration over finished products. They couldn't have foretold the effect of their experimentation or just how disciplined it would appear 50 years later. Nor could they have guessed that several generations of photographers would reinvent the same wheel that they put in motion.
The exhibition presents their work in a dozen thematic categories. Edmund Collein's small likeness of himself slouched within a larger shadow of his face distinguishes the "Self-Portrait" section. Josef Albers, one of the school's most eminent teachers, presents himself as a collage of overlapping spectacled faces. Other artists see themselves in mirrors, superimposed on buildings or as ghostly presences.
Throughout the show, the artists reveal the camera's ability to present a new reality rather than an ordinary record. "New Ways of Seeing" includes Georg Muche's view of a studio reflected in a shiny ball. Among objects in "Series" are a weird tray of glass eyes photographed by Herbert Bayer and Kattina Both's "Rows of Cigarettes" that resembles a tile roof.
In a section called "The World," artists point their cameras every which way but the obvious--sometimes looking straight down on carts and drivers that cast dramatic shadows. "Objects" takes a surreal twist when Umbo photographs a mannequin's disconnected legs stepping into a pair of fluffy slippers.
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, with wife Lucia, was the Bauhaus' leading experimenter in photography, encouraging students to work with such techniques as collage, montage and photograms; Walter Peterhans, the school's official teacher of photography, is remembered for his relatively conservative emphasis on precision and composition. With such other masters as Albers and Bayer, they promoted a spirit of inquiry that has seldom been equalled. One of the most important points made by "Bauhausfotografie" is that they inspired a great many lesser-known artists.
The Bauhaus--along with the Russian avant-garde and De Stijl in the Netherlands--marked the pinnacle of the modern era's idealism and infatuation with industrial technology. All three early 20th-Century movements were fundamentally utopian in their aspiration to bring artists together in an uplifting endeavor that recognized no boundaries.
It wasn't as simple as that, of course. While elevating architecture as the principal art that would unite all creative work, the Bauhaus was torn by conflicts between advocates of spiritual expressionism and reasoned practicality. Still, its collaborative spirit of synthesis and its ultimately cool, reductive style has had an enormous influence on modern art and design.
The same is true of photography, though the Bauhaus didn't establish a formal department of photography until 1929, 10 years after the school was founded in Weimar by Walter Gropius. The Nazis closed the school in 1933, but its "degenerate" influence could not be stifled.