The Jeu de Paume is showcasing the first exhibition in France devoted to the Thomas Walther Collection of photography, one of the pillars of MoMA’s modern collection. Covering 230 images, out of 350 total, “Masterworks of Modern Photography 1900–1940: The Thomas Walther Collection” spotlights the European and American art networks of the 1920s which invented photographic modernity.
Many of the images featured at the Jeu de Paume were shown in an exhibition organized in 2014 at MoMA, New York, by curators Sarah Meister and Quentin Bajac, in the wake of the acquisition of the collection in 2001. Now director of the Jeu de Paume in Paris, Quentin Bajac, along with his former MoMA collaborator — currently the executive director of Aperture — offer us a look at MoMA’s Thomas Walther collection, augmented by the New York institution’s latest, 2017 acquisition from Thomas Walther. Here’s a sneak peek!
In 1970, German Thomas Walther decided to leave his country and establish himself as a professional and commercial photographer in New York. The new life in America coincided with the start of his collecting activity, which he would pursue for nearly twenty years, until the late 1990s.
He built up his collection as he encountered photographers and rights holders and frequented galleries and art dealers, adhering only to the logic of his desires and impulses: Rodchenko, Berenice Abbott, Claude Cahun, Lissitzky, Edward Weston, André Kertész... Thomas Walther’s collection includes masterpieces by famous artists as well as images by more withdrawn artists.
What is striking about this exhibition is, first of all, the abundance of images. The diversity of this collection reflects not only the number of artists, but also of the genres and approaches represented: architecture, portraits, nudes, reportages, photomontages... These photographs bear witness to the spirit of freedom and the exuberance that characterized artistic circles during the interwar period. Photographers at the time, whether in Europe or the United States, were constantly experimenting, forging an avant-garde photographic grammar.
Urbanization and the soaring structures constituted objects of fascination and offered possibilities of new points of view (high and low angles). The bustling cities were perceived as living organisms. Photographers took snapshots of street scenes, an inexhaustible playground. Berenice Abbott documented the urban evolution by photographing New York buildings in black and white, in a style reminiscent of Hopper. Paul Citroën conveyed a sense of the packed, labyrinthine character of the city through a photomontage of 200 images swarming with tiny human figures. Bahaus artists immortalized the pure and austere volumes and geometric forms of buildings. One photo stands out: Hajo Rose’s self-portrait created through a superposition of negatives: the facade of a building overlaps with the face of a man gazing straight ahead. This is the face of humanity confronted with progress: the exhibition’s premise in a nutshell.
The photographers also foregrounded the photographic medium, posing with their cameras. Henri-Cartier Bresson by George Hoyningen-Huene, Maurice Tabard portraying Roger Parry or Edward Steichen: they celebrated the nomadic instrument that became an extension of their bodies and turned them into explorers and experimenters. The amazing “aerial” series by the German photojournalist Willi Ruge is a case in point: I Photograph Myself during a Parachute Jump. As the title of this series indicates, the man photographs himself in free fall, his camera attached to his waist. His face, half-hidden behind his skydiving goggles, is ecstatic, his mouth agape: the photographer has created a daring, ultra-avant-garde “selfie.” The imminent danger is clear in another shot, where the photographer’s feet hang in the air.
Artists of audacity and mobility, these avant-garde photographers abandoned art photography and launched themselves into photojournalism. They were interested in speed and movement captured by the snapshot. The weightless bodies of the swimmers leaping from the diving board into the void take our breath away. In John Gutmann’s photo, Olympic high diving champion Marjorie Gestring appears to float in the sky, her body almost perfectly parallel to the diving board. These shots of athletic feats are again an opportunity to experiment with framing, where the main subject is positioned off center. Take, for instance, this image of a diver developing his, which is only a round shape at the top right of the frame, to leave 3/4 of the photo to the sky and clouds.
These varied experiments bring two art currents into focus. One strand represents a quest for “high fidelity” photography, which closely reproduces reality. Karl Blossfeldt, who is German, with his closeups of plants that constitute a photographic herbarium, is an eminent representative of this trend. The other strand focuses on more abstract, surrealist photography, for example André Kertész and his “Distortions”, which show bodies as if in distorting mirrors. Or the play of light, reflections, and forms in the work of artists like the American-British Alvin Langdon Coburn who were representatives of “vorticism”. This British art movement, an offshoot of cubism, was launched by the poet Ezra Pound who named it after the “vortex,” or a “whirlpool of fluids, explosion of forms and ideas.”
What is certain is that this collection of photographs reflects the whirlwind of life, and the viewer walks away with the sensation of having spent a moment in a magical kaleidoscope.
By Marie d’Harcourt
Marie d'Harcourt is a writer at Blind Magazine and based in Paris.
Masterworks of Modern Photography 1900–1940: The Thomas Walther Collection. Exhibition curated by Sarah Meister and Quentin Bajac. Jeu de Paume, September 14, 2021 to February 13, 2022
The exhibition catalog. By Quentin Bajac, Michel Frizot and Sarah Hermanson Meister. Exhibition catalog. Jeu de Paume/Les éditions de la Martinière/MoMa. 352 pp. € 39.00.
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