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Chilling, Illuminating '36 Olympic Images

February 23, 2001|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

"Olympia," the masterful propaganda film by Leni Riefenstahl, used Berlin's 1936 Olympic Games as an opportunity to manufacture a mesmerizing image of Aryan superiority. The film is one of many examples throughout history of exceptional artistic skill being put to heinous ends. For grotesque purposes, Riefenstahl's movie celebrates physical power and beauty in a physically powerful, beautiful way.

So do the 47 independent but related Olympic photographs by Riefenstahl at Fahey/Klein Gallery. These pictures are modern prints, made last year from a set of vintage prints whose existence was not widely known. Shown last year in Berlin, they are having their American debut here in what the gallery says is Riefenstahl's first solo exhibition in the United States.

It is an illuminating show. As a videotape of "Olympia" plays on a monitor in the corner, the still photographs offer an opportunity to examine Riefenstahl's remarkable technique. One element is obvious: Men outnumber women by more than 2 to 1 in her pictures. Masculine sensuality and eroticism are italicized in ways that remain surprising.

Typically, Riefenstahl's athletes are portrayed as disengaged from the ordinary world, cavorting instead like deities in a Tiepolo ceiling. Shot in extreme close-up or from below, so that an infinite expanse of sky removes them from earthly bonds, the figures occupy an abstract universe of time and space.

Riefenstahl dispenses with old pictorialist conventions of photography in favor of a starkly modern, industrially precise style. Dynamic, streamlined geometry is emphasized. An athlete flies over a pommel horse like a figurative version of today's Nike swoosh logo. Another does a handstand on the parallel bars, rising up in the composition as a visual extension of the mechanical apparatus.

This accentuation of modernity coincides with tropes from classical antiquity, which are often made explicit. An Olympic torchbearer is shown at Delphi, suggesting an idealized oracle for Nazi ideology. Ruins at the Greek Acropolis appear. A figure is shown descending from the pedestal of a broken Doric column. A discus thrower's jagged pose quotes Myron's famous Roman "Discobolus," while also recalling the broken contour of a swastika.

Even Jesse Owens, the great African American track star who made hash of Hitler's fantasies of racial hierarchy, is shown with all the heroic, chiseled presence of an antique statue.

Riefenstahl's Modernist abstraction allows for a seamless linkage between the industrial present and a mythologized past. In an aerial view of 16 diagonal rows of hundreds of male athletes, stripped to the waist and stretched out doing push-ups on a contrasting diagonal, she creates a neatly crosshatched composition. A tightly woven fabric of humanity covers the earth, spreading out in all directions behind a fluttering Olympic flag. This picture, like others in the show, is a visual embodiment of the German Reich that is as seductive as it is chilling.

* Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 934-2250, through March 24. Closed Sunday and Monday.

*

Visual Flips: In the back hallway at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, a large color photograph (almost 4 feet high and 6 feet wide) focuses in tight on a small clearing in the woods. Dappled sunlight plays off leaves and tangled plants that cluster around the periphery of the scene, while the center remains dark, shadowy and visually obscure. Peering in, you can't quite make out what is there.

This recent photograph by Kelly Nipper performs a conceptual reversal of something like Durer's famous monumental drawing of a clump of dirt, in which the entire universe and all the stars seem to bristle within a few densely concentrated square inches of lowly grass and weeds. An unfathomable black hole lurks instead at the center of Nipper's landscape space, while light and life dance around the edges.

Nipper's photograph is one of 10 in an enigmatic group collectively titled "shotgun and figure 8." Neither a weapon nor a double loop-the-loop is anywhere to be seen, but the random dispersal of energy (shotgun) and the tightly controlled infinity formation (figure 8) create opposing poles by which her work is organized.

Four photographs depict Bosc pears standing on end on a wood-grained tabletop, placed before a white background. Three pears, one pear, four pears, two pears--the sequence of groupings seems random, until you notice that one of the pears is exactly repeated in three pictures. In the fourth, it might be shown from a different side. Your eye and mind scan back and forth among the images, turning the objects around in your head and shifting them in mental space, much the way an image of virtual reality can be manipulated on a computer screen.

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