photography

Meet the Collected Past: “The Keeper” at the New Museum

by Erin Schreiner

Whose stories are told in museums?  And how are they told? “The Keeper,” an ongoing show at the New Museum that is a tonic to the eye and the soul, addresses these questions and raises even more with brilliance, economy, and creativity not only through the choice of materials on display, but also in their presentation. It is essential viewing for all of us in the business of keeping  – collecting and preserving stuff – and (hi)storytelling.

Devoting an exhibition to keepers provided the museum with a reason to show Ydessa Hendeles’ Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), a 2002 installation of over 3,000 photographs of people and their teddy bears. To those of you who are thinking, “Really? Teddy bears?” I confess that I didn’t have high expectations for this part of the show. I was excited about Hilma af Klint’s paintings, Ye Jinglu’s portraits, and Shinro Ohtake’s scrapbooks, the things that I thought would be the heavy hitters. These images, these objects, would make me think; so I thought. They did, but not as much as Partners.

In Partners, the teddy bear functions as an organizing principle: Helendes collected and preserved twentieth-century photographs of people and teddy bears, and because everybody loves to pose with a teddy bear, Partners presents astonishingly broad and intimate portrait of humanity. The photographs, which Hendeles collected on eBay, came from 25 countries, and show people of every age, race and ethnicity, creed, and class. There are, of course, tons of pictures of kids, but children do not dominate the collection. Elvis posed with teddy bears to promote his hit single “Teddy Bear”, and Ringo Starr talked to reporters clutching a teddy that someone gave him as he emerged from an airplane. There are teddy bears in band photographs (Tony’s Jazz Madcaps and the Stella Orchestre of Riga propped teddies on the bass drum before saying cheese), teddy bears in family greeting cards, teddies in snapshots exchanged between lovers or between parents and their grown children, teddies in class photos, teddy bears of all sizes on the beach and at parties, and there are even teddy bears in pornography. Adults often laugh or look silly with teddy bears, but they can also look painfully sincere.  Many portraits of children show tremendous pride, especially candid photos like one of a young black girl on a porch with all her entire toy collection laid out on a blanket. They also show great disappointment: one memorable shot shows two young south-Asian children in formal dress looking rather depressed and put-upon in front of the Christmas tree. There are real teddy bears on display, too, with stories and photographs of their original owners.  (The labels accompanying the real bears are the only text in the installation.) Sneezy, a tiny bear with a scrunched up face and a perky yellow vest belonged to Ted Able, an English Soldier in World War II. Able’s mother gave him the bear when he shipped off to serve. He survived, and Sneezy remained on his bedside table until the day he died in 1991, at 81 years old.

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“Sneezy”, Ted Able’s teddy bear on display in “The Keeper”.

In her dissertation, Hendeles says that “the teddy bear was chosen for what it reveals about the complex partnership of culture and commerce.” (26) While one might pursue that thread to fascinating ends, I found that the teddy bear enriched these images because it emphasized the humanity of the people in the pictures. As Hendeles points out, the teddy bear is an object that comforts the many children and adults who own (and cuddle) their bears, (25) but the pictures show that human beings lived a tremendous range of emotions and experiences with their teddies. They inspire people to be silly, to play, to express their affection for loved ones, or to stand before a camera with confidence. As a result, the teddy bear shows us the vulnerability of the people that pose with it, and this is what makes this the collection so emotionally and intellectually stirring.

In 2012, the novelist Orhan Pamuk published “A Modest Manifesto for Museums” in The Innocence of Objects, a printed catalog for his Museum of Innocence, which he curated and opened in Istanbul as a museum of his novel of the same name. In his manifesto, he urges museums to prioritize the stories human lives over those of “society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company, or species.”  Partners, conceived a full decade before Pamuk’s museum and manifesto, is an example of just how this can work.  Its success as a collection – and as a work of art – can be measured exactly as Pamuk suggests in point five:

The measure of a museum’s success should not be its ability to represent a state, a nation, or company, or a particular history. It should be its capacity to reveal the humanity of individuals.

Viewers looking into the faces of more than 3,000 people with their teddy bears are witnesses to the tenderest exposition of the humanity of individuals.  For viewers, witnessing this is an intense experience. One of the first vitrines of photographs in the installation contains images of Nazi men and women with teddy bears.  The stuffed animals in these pictures transform images of uniformed Nazis into gut-wrenching portraits of the human faces of fascism. (I’m still trying to figure out what these images can or should mean.) These are followed by more pictures of soldiers, like Ted Able, whose story is a bit more straight forward: a mother loves her son and sends him off to battle with conduit for that love.  In other ways, however, Able and Sneezy challenge the normative view of the soldier ready for combat. In the back of the second room of the installation, photographs of child survivors of the Holocaust appear together in long vitrines, and the accompanying labels document the story of each individual’s survival. In this case, photographs of these children with their teddy bears gives Hendeles a context in which to share and preserve their personal histories alongside their photographs.

Partners exhibits the photographs and teddy bears in a display system borrowed from national museums  and private galleries that Pamuk deemphasizes in his manifesto.  Pictures cover the walls from floor to ceiling. A mezzanine gallery provides access to a second viewing level, and dark wooden vitrines display the original bears, sometimes with related ephemera like photographs, letters, or (in one case) a teddy bear genealogy. This lends the photographs and objects an air of seriousness and grandeur, and it’s a clever way to engage viewers who might dismiss the images because of their playful, innocent subject matter. This antiquated mode of display also emphasizes the historic nature of the photographs, which appear to cover the twentieth century only up to the mid-sixties.  Most of the images date to the interwar period or the period of the second World War, which provides some critical distance between the viewer and the human subjects of these photographs. These images show us moments in the lives of people we will never know, but whose worlds we study and interpret as historians.

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Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeles, installed at the New Museum.

The traditional style display seen in Partners – which, walls, vitrines, and all were brought in as a whole from Canada – is in stark contrast to the rest of the show, which features photographs, model buildings, scrapbooks, paintings, sketches, and other works of art shown in the white-box style settings that one would expect in the New Museum. And perhaps as a result, the impact of Partners far exceeds that of the other works on display. Nevertheless, the rest of the show presents an enormous range of materials, from Joseph Cornell-like assemblages to collections of rare stones that play with and challenge ideas about the purpose of collecting and the meanings that collections take on in their afterlives. And while I commend the New Museum for showing admirable restraint in providing succinct, well edited, wall text, I found that some of the labels lacked information about collectors, focusing instead on critical analyses of the images or objects on display.  For example, Tong Bingxue discovered the delightful series of photographs of Ye Jinglu, taken annually throughout his life. Tong Bingxue is a journalist and young collector of antique Chinese photographs, but I discovered this through a Google search rather than in the gallery. Given the show’s focus on collectors and collecting, the series would have been enriched by more information about Bingxue’s collecting and the discovery of this particular set of images.

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There is a lot to see in “The Keeper.” Orhan Pamuk might say that there are a lot of people to meet. I believe that as people and as historians must meet them, and study their stories (and their teddy bears) in all of their silly, tender, tragic glory.  Oliver Sacks explains why better than I ever could:

In 1992, I went with [Gerald Edelman] to a conference on consciousness at Jesus College in Cambridge.  While Gerry’s books were often difficult to read, hearing him speak gave a feeling of revelation to many in the audience.
At the same meeting… Gerry said to me, “You’re no theoretician.”
“I know,” I said, “but I am a field-worker, and you need the sort of fieldwork I do for the sort of theory making you do.”
Gerry agreed.

(from On the Move, page 366)

Visit “The Keeper,” and see for yourself what’s been collected in the field.

 


The Keeper is open through September 25 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York City.

 

 

 

Images of history

by John Raimo

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.

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Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.

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Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

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Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©FredStein.com)

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.

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Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?

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Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).

Prague ’68 and the End of Time

by John Raimo

Prague’s famous Wenceslas Square fell silent on August 22nd and 23rd, 1968. Warsaw Pact troops invaded what was then Czechoslovakia the day prior in order to repress what had come to known as the Prague Spring. Under Alexander Dubček’s leadership, the country’s communist party had earlier initiated reforms aiming towards ‘socialism with a human face.’ The crisis this provoked and its violent repression only gradually subsided into ‘normalization’ and an uneasy status quo held until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Increasing tension saw curfews and peaceful confrontations lead to outright military force exercised upon Czechoslovakian citizens and blanket censorship of news. Images lived on, however.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact troops invade Prague.

Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact troops invade Prague.” © Magnum Photos

Many western thinkers took the Prague Spring for the end of time. That is, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia was understood to mark the end of communism as a viable historical possibility. In the pages of Le Figaro, Raymond Aron systematically reduced the Prague Spring to an “impossible conversion” rendering the future itself moot. Hannah Arendt anticipated a simple, grim waiting game. “The head-on clash between Russian tanks and the entirely nonviolent resistance of the Czechoslovak people is a textbook case of a confrontation between violence and power,” she wrote in 1970. “To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.” From the left, Costa-Gavras’s L’Aveu (co-written by the former Czech deputy minister of foreign affairs Artur London and Jorge Semprún; 1970) ended with a “new era” dawning on communist Czechoslovakia. A montage of still photography and movie footage of the invasion concluded the film, much of it was taken on the scene by Chris Marker. He revisited the episode in On vous parle de Prague : Le deuxième procès d’Artur London (1971) and Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) in structuring a larger argument that social revolution had passed from Soviet-sponsored communism to radical, Third World socialist movements.

The military invasion and occupation of Prague yielded many iconic pictures, not least the recurrent image of civilians facing tanks in a recognizably European cityscape. Nevertheless, the most celebrated representation of the Prague Spring may be the one above taken by Josef Koudelka, a young photographer who took over five thousand photos of Prague in the week beginning on August 21st. Something ambiguous occurred here. As the Večerni Praha (Prague Evening News) reported, “Yesterday’s appeal to clear Wenceslas Square, where a huge demonstration against the occupiers was supposed to take place and could have become a welcome pretext to declare marshal law, was an example of the outstanding qualities of the people of Prague in these eventful days.” After the square’s clearance, “[a]lmost no civilians remained there. Absolute silence spread over the square, which only a few minutes earlier had been full of noise” and the daily bustle. Heavy shooting nearby had been reported on the 21st. Yet the photo’s stark formal composition and resonant symbolism makes a non-event of sorts into an event. Time appeared to literally stop at roughly half-past noon on August 23, 1968.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops in front of the Radio headquarters."

Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops in front of the Radio headquarters.” © Magnum Photos

The Western notion of what occurred in Prague came at a greater distance, with Marker proving a notable exception. First-hand accounts and photography in particular only slowly breached the Iron Curtain. This opened up in turn a curious story of chronology and reception. For many, Koudelka’s photography of crowds, tanks, graffiti, and buildings pockmarked by bullets determined what had happened. Not many other images traveled outside of the country; indeed, only ten of Koudelka’s photos were smuggled out to the Magnum Photo agency and seen before the exhibit Invasion 68: Prague some forty years later. Excepting a handful of photos taken by fellow Magnum photographer Ian Berry, Koudelka’s award-winning photography became the first visual record of the Prague Spring’s repression. They immediately proved without a doubt the lie of “fraternal help” distributed by Soviet propagandists. Moreover, Koudelka’s work also became the canonical historical record in the west’s imagination. The images wrote a certain history.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague."

Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague.” © Magnum Photos

Koudelka’s photos lent themselves to greater historiographical and intellectual divides. Westerners were not wrong to read a universal, Cold War history into those same ten images. As the photographer later conceded, their juxtaposition of violence and a historical record carried a “universal value” and “significance beyond Czechoslovakia.” An inherent abstraction emerged. “In [the photos] it is not so important who is Russian and who is Czech,” Koudelka claimed in 2008. “It is more important that one man has a gun and one man has not.” The initial ten photographs accord with the Prague Spring’s evident historical finality: peaceful, middle-class protestors encounter only armed soldiers, and revolutionary gestures recycled from romantic thought and Communist iconography go on to meet gunfire.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops. Near the Radio headquarters."

Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Invasion by Warsaw Pact troops. Near the Radio headquarters.” © Magnum Photos

At the same time, the full range of Koudelka’s photography documented a much more open historical narrative. Five thousand photographs capture a range of personal experiences. Families, bored onlookers, young soldiers, and daily life held their weight beside the tanks. An elderly worker with a suitcase heaves a brick at the occupiers before continuing on to work. The photographs captured a fast-moving “complexity” immediately effaced by both the Soviets and, paradoxically, Westerners in the Prague Spring’s aftermath. As Koudelka later made clear, the Prague Spring had been experienced serially and individually by Czechs and Slovaks: experience itself and the imperative to remember undercut any larger eastern or western narrative.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968."

Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968.” © Magnum Photos

All the same, the sheer aesthetic power and immediacy of Koudelka’s photography cannot be denied on its own terms. Historians encounter here a subtle tangle of methodological issues. There is a question of orientation: recovered contexts might limit formal or aesthetic interpretation, and vice-versa. Josef Koudelka’s photography obviously calls for both movements. It’s not quite the difference between history and art history because the chosen starting point and means of crossing over will change the reading. What we find nevertheless is that firsthand experience and later receptions (moments or decades later) do not easily share the same focus. That gap or disjunction may then prove the final subject for historians of all stripes—intellectual or otherwise—looking to Koudelka’s great record of one end to several times in 1968.

Josef Koudelka, "CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. 21 August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague."

Josef Koudelka, “CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. 21 August 1968. Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague.” © Magnum Photos

The pleasures and challenges of studying twentieth century history include working with living memory. It would be wonderful to hear from readers who experienced the Prague Spring at first-hand or from a distance; I’m particularly keen to hear what images first made their way to the west and later made their way back to then-Czechoslovakia. The author also thanks S.G. and R.J. for key references.

Medardo Rosso’s Casts, Copies and Prints: Illuminating the Artist’s Process

By guest contributor Jeremy Bleeke

Rosso in his studio in Milan, 1883. From Margaret Scolari Barr, Medardo Rosso, Museum of Modern Art, (1963), 18.

Rosso in his studio in Milan, 1883. From Margaret Scolari Barr, Medardo Rosso, Museum of Modern Art, (1963), 18.

The life and work of Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) has traditionally been divided by scholars into two phases: an initial period of creative fecundity, and a late period characterized by processes of reproduction, repetition, and copying, generally seen as a failure of imagination and vitality. From the final two decades of the nineteenth century until 1906, the sculptor created around 50 subjects in various media (characters such as the Procuress, the Sacristan, the Laughing Woman, and the Jewish Boy); Rosso then ceased to make “new” sculpture, and until his death he was mostly involved in recasting and promoting existing work. Recently, however, art historians have begun to challenge this schema, demonstrating ways in which serial production spanned Rosso’s oeuvre and challenging the dichotomy between phases of authentic originals and derivative copies.

In 2003, an exhibition titled Medardo Rosso: Second Impressions focused exclusively on Rosso’s work after the so-called end of his creative period in 1906. The show assembled series cast in different materials and uncovered the methods by which Rosso produced them. The curators found, for example, that Rosso cast with wax in the same way that he cast in bronze: working from a plaster mold that had been created from a clay model. Rosso’s fascination with “the range of possibilities inherent in the nature of the casting process” became clear.

Several years later, Francesca Bacci published a portion of her exhaustive study of Rosso’s photography (the subject of her doctoral dissertation), illuminating a facet of his production that had been largely ignored or misunderstood (Bacci, “Sculpting the immaterial, modelling the light: presenting Medardo Rosso’s photographic oeuvre”). Bacci argues that in the two decades before his death, Rosso was in fact highly productive, using photography to explore certain cherished methodologies and techniques that he had developed in his sculptural practice. For example, Rosso was famous for insisting that his sculptures must be viewed from one angle, as if they were paintings. As Bacci notes: “This viewing modality is the visual equivalent of observing a flat object. Because a photograph is an exact two-dimensional representation of an image perceived from a unique point of view, the best visual translation of Rosso’s aesthetic theory lies in the photographs of his own sculpture” (Bacci, 223). Bacci argues that the photographs are not means to an end (studio aids or documentary evidence) but stand-alone works of art.

As this new wave of scholarship suggests, Rosso (like his contemporary Rodin) was fundamentally concerned with a discourse that would become one of the main strands of twentieth-century art history and theory: the relationship between an original and its copies. So far in advance of the later conceptual games of Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, or Sherrie Levine, Rosso’s play with casts, copies and photographs has a freshness and innocence (born partially out of the relative youth of photography in his day) that is at once surprising and challenging. Far from seeing serial production as a repetitive exercise of duplication, Rosso opened a dialogue in his final decades between the sculptural and the photographic, using each medium to enrich one’s experience of the other.

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Now, at the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York, an elegant exhibition of Rosso’s work explores the long-overlooked photographic dimension of the sculptor’s research and its relationship to his sculpture (a sister show, also drawn from the holdings of the Rosso museum in Barzio, Italy, is being staged concurrently in Milan). The CIMA show brings together 11 sculptures, dozens of drawings, and over 50 original photographs taken by the artist. While we wait for CIMA to publish its research on the photographs and sculptures, a visit to the exhibition immerses the visitor in the physical evidence of the sculptor’s highly singular creative process.

Rosso's photographs on display at CIMA.

Rosso’s photographs on display at CIMA.

CIMA, which opened in SoHo in 2013, occupies an airy, uncluttered suite of rooms; filled with light and beautifully renovated, it is a rare, uplifting space for viewing art. Stepping off the elevator, visitors are met with Rosso’s photograph Impression of an Omnibus (1884-89) taken of a plaster sculpture, now destroyed, depicting five people arrayed side by side. In a vitrine below this image are series of photographs made from it: individual fragments in which one of the characters is subjected to an array of different treatments. In one series Rosso focuses on the young woman second from the left, photographing and re-photographing existing prints of the sculpture. The result is a subtle process of abstraction, in which the figure is pared down to its essential form. From one image to the next, the woman transitions from solidly present – part of the plaster mass that is visible around her – to suggestively dematerialized. Rosso crops her more closely, and the act of re-photographing washes out the picture, so that the shadows around her face and head are all that distinguish her from the white background. In her focused, straight-forward gaze, we are reminded of the description of Clarissa’s daughter in Mrs. Dalloway, whose ride on the roof of a London omnibus might read as an ekphrasis of this image: “the breeze slightly disarrayed her; the heat gave her cheeks the pallor of white painted wood; and her fine eyes, having no eyes to meet, gazed ahead, blank, bright, with the staring incredible innocence of sculpture.”

Moving into the main exhibition space, we see serial production take familiar form in Rosso’s sculpture, most notably in three iterations of the Madame Noblet, executed between 1897 and 1914 in plaster, bronze, and wax over plaster. Playing with imitations of materiality, Rosso gives the lightweight substances of plaster and wax heft and solidity, as if they are rock from which Madame Noblet has been hewn. Two versions of the Sick Child, in wax and plaster, provide a foil to the roughly handled heads. Here, the amber wax that covers the child’s face seems as delicate as skin itself. The nearby series of photographs open a provocative dialogue with these sculptures. Just as the photographic images were formed through a temporal process of exposure onto a negative, so the sculpture seems to act as a kind of receptacle of the light, becoming sharper or more diffuse depending on the ambient conditions. In the rooms of CIMA, flooded with natural light, Rosso’s play of materials can be appreciated to best effect. As the cold light of morning transitions to the golden light of early evening, these sculptures, which seem to absorb and radiate the light, must transform in fascinating ways.

"Sick Child" in wax and plaster.

“Sick Child” in wax and plaster.

 

"Sick Child" in wax and plaster.

“Sick Child” in wax and plaster.

For visitors relatively unfamiliar with Rosso the exhibition is filled with revelations, from near-abstract graphic works to an early experiment in photomontage. There is the shock of Conversation (1903), a plaster that just barely suggests human forms, while achieving an almost Rococo effect in its play of whispers and glances. Its baroque modeling, in which the figures rise out of a writhing bed of plaster, anticipates Lucio Fontana’s plasters and ceramics by decades. In the kitchen, a new series of prints from old negatives show Rosso exhibiting at the 1900 Exposition Universelle and the 1904 Salon d’Automne in the company of such modern masters as Cezanne. Richly detailed images of his Paris atelier round out the collection.

It is rare to see a show whose content and presentation – so thrilling yet so humble – complement each other as well as they do here. A broad passageway, in which many of the photographs are displayed, links the main exhibition space with two smaller galleries. The photographs invigorate our experience of the sculptures and drawings and unite the space by showing us the work through Rosso’s eyes. The rooms are not subdivided by genre, medium or date, and thus display a body of work that feels holistic while never becoming predictable. Without bombastic wall text and overblown claims, CIMA allows the work to speak for itself. Its insights unfold quietly, deliberately, as gradual as sunlight that slowly shades from afternoon to evening.

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Medardo Rosso, at the Center for Italian Modern Art in New York City, can be viewed by appointment on Fridays and Saturdays. It runs through June 27.

Jeremy Bleeke studies twentieth-century art with a particular focus on European modernism and post-modernism. He received his MPhil in History of Art from the University of Cambridge in 2014.