Sunday, March 21, 2010

Object as Subject: Photographs of the Czech Avant-Garde at the Phillips Collection

During the 1920s and 1930s, the time of the Czech avant-garde photographers, few people had access to cameras, lenses, special paper, and the dark rooms necessary to process photos. That is not the case today; technology has improved dramatically since the early twentieth century. Nearly everyone has a digital camera that fits into their pocket and a computer printer to produce their own digital photos. We are beyond going to a darkroom, and we are even beyond venturing to the local CVS to have our film developed and printed for us. Today, our satisfaction is instant.

Our instant satisfaction is tied to our instantly available entertainment options. With the proliferation of online media such as Hulu and YouTube, we have instant access to watch whatever we choose on our home computer whenever we want it. We listen to iPods on our metro ride, and we are excited to try the newest restaurant in our neighborhood that just opened. Our “free” time is a commodity to be spent on entertainment. The Phillips Collection’s exhibition, Object as Subject: Photographs of the Czech Avant-Garde, highlights exactly that: our need for entertainment and our reaction when it is not immediate.

The Phillips Collection positioned the purpose of this exhibit to “examine the important role of objects in the Czech avant-garde's exploration of the formal concerns of abstraction.” It presents thirty photographs by ten Czech photographers, including Funke, Rössler, Schneeberger and Vobecký.

As I observe other viewers wandering through the exhibit, few are taking the time to closely engage with the photographs. Most take a quick walk through to get to the Picasso in the next room. In this exhibition, the Phillips Collection fails to entertain us. They do not connect the exhibition to an easily understood, accessible subject. Therefore, we dub the Object as Subject: Photographs of the Czech Avant-Garde “boring.” Without an immediate connection to contemporary society, the photographs are not enough to hold our attention. This exhibition feels dead.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the medium was still new and being developed. Abstract photography was a novel idea. Even though we are bored now, it doesn’t diminish the incredible accomplishments of these photographers in their time. It doesn’t diminish the importance of these photographers now. The dullness we feel emanating from the exhibit only emphasizes the issue of how we consume art as a form of entertainment in our society.

We are removed from the difficulties these photographers faced. We have forgotten the past. The Czech avant-garde photographers were creating new, fresh photographs in their time between the two world wars. The Czechs and Slovaks had been liberated from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, formed Czechoslovakia, and lived in the cultural hotbed of Prague. Because of their different origins, the Czechs and Slovaks were two very different groups of people. Ethnic tension and problems with religious and social traditions grew until the beginning of World War II. Some of the artists, including Jaromír Funke, Jaroslav Rössler, and Josef Sudek, were fueled by the exchange of culture, whether tension existed or not.

In the art world, Pablo Picasso and George Braque were experimenting with Cubism. These ideas pushed the Czech avant-garde photographers to look at line, form, light and shadow instead of simply capturing formal subjects. In Jaroslav Rössler photograph, Untitled (Abstraction with Shadows), the influence of Picasso and Braque’s use of the flat canvas comes to light.

The Phillips Collection could have shown us the Picasso and Braque paintings in its permanent collection. They could have displayed them right next to a Rössler photograph. Had they done that, a viewer would have been able to see the history of Cubism play out next to the history of Czech avant-garde photography, giving the viewer instant, easy access to understand the significance at play. But the Phillips Collection didn’t do this. They didn’t give the audience the easy visual connection. Why not? Did they trust that their audience would be able to make the connections by themselves? In doing so, they chose not to entertain. They chose to make us think.

The Phillips Collection also could have opened a door through the Man Ray exhibition. The Czech avant-garde exhibition feels like an afterthought in comparison. Man Ray was the star. The Czech avant-garde photographers were inspired by Man Ray’s use of unconventional modes of photography. Man Ray created photograms, which are prints made without using a camera. Man Ray’s experimental style inspired the Czech photographers to push their own art by experimenting with different techniques and more abstract subjects.

I do wish the Phillips Collection had physically linked these exhibitions. Instead, Object as Subject: Photographs of the Czech Avant-Garde is placed on a different floor in a small side room. It is next to the Rothko room, and paintings by Cezanne are just a step away. It feels disjointed in its own space.

While the Phillips Collection may have fulfilled their statement of purpose “to examine the important role of objects in the Czech avant-garde's exploration of the formal concerns of abstraction,” they did so without reaching their audience. The failed at entertaining us, and I keep asking myself, “should they have to?”

I struggle with this question. I want to believe that this art can stand on its own, but is it possible for abstract photographs from the 1920s to do this in contemporary culture? With the abundance of digital cameras and instant access to the picture we took seconds ago, we are disconnected from the struggles of 1920s photography. We know exactly what our picture looks like immediately, and we do not have to develop film. We don’t think that taking an extreme close-up of an everyday object is avant-garde. It has become accepted, the norm, even mundane.

If art can’t stand up on its own, does the museum need to give the artwork new legs? Is it their responsibility to impart the significance of group of artists to a broad audience? I certainly think so, especially for an exhibition like this where we no longer relate. We are out of context. While the museum may not be responsible for “entertaining” us, they are responsible to show the artwork in its best light. They are also responsible for setting our expectations. As a society, we need to give this art a chance. If the Phillips Collection fails to give us easy access, we cannot simply call it “boring” and walk away. As an audience, we need to look more closely and find the relevance for ourselves.

While I appreciate the art of the Czech avant-garde photographers, I had to look closely to find the significance for myself. For me, that was the exposure of my own expectations when I walk into a museum. I now understand why I found this exhibit so tiresome. It was not the photographs; it was my expectations. When I walked into that room, I mistakenly expected to be entertained and was sadly disappointed.

No comments: