Masterpieces of Avant-Garde Photography. Das Neue Sehen 1920–1950. Siegert Collection

November 15, 2014 – April 6, 2015



Is a photo­graph a true-to-life repro­duc­tion of reality, or is it merely a staged image? This year − the 175th anniver­sary of the invention of photo­graphy − the Kunst­mu­seum Wolfsburg responds to this question with a compre­hen­sive survey of avant-garde photo­graphy between 1920 and 1950. The exhibi­tion “RealSur­real” will present around 200 master­pieces from the eminent Siegert Collec­tion in Munich. This collec­tion, which has never been shown in its entirety, contains photo­graphs from the Neues Sehen (New Vision) movement, covering everything from New Objec­ti­vity to Surrea­lism in Germany, France, and Czechoslovakia.

The Artists

Eugène Atget – Herbert Bayer – Hans Bellmer – Aenne Biermann – Brassaï – František Dr­tikol – Jaromír Funke – Florence Henri – André Kertész – Germaine Krull – Herbert List – Man Ray – László Moholy-Nagy – Albert Renger-Patzsch – August Sander – Josef Sudek – Maurice Tabard – Raoul Ubac – Umbo – Wols and others

Das Neue Sehen (New Vision)

Notions about photography’s visual veracity are as old as the art itself. As early as the nineteenth century there were arguments as to whether or not photo­graphy – with its mecha­nical ability to record ‘reality’ – was better suited to portray life more compre­hen­si­vely and truth­fully than other visual arts of the period. An inevi­table reaction to what were consi­dered photography’s short­co­mings was Picto­ria­lism, which approa­ched photo­graphy according to the conven­tions of painting, in an attempt to lend it more artistic credi­bi­lity. But around 1920 a new genera­tion of inter­na­tional photo­graphers began recon­si­de­ring the specific charac­te­ris­tics of photo­graphy as tools for develo­ping it into a more modern method of appro­pria­ting reality. Rapid progress in techno­lo­gi­sing modern society affected the adoption of and attitudes toward photo­graphy: conve­nient cameras that used rolls of film came onto the market in greater numbers, making it easy for even the greenest of amateurs to take photo­graphs. Photo­graphs were incre­a­singly used as illus­tra­tions in mass media, and in adver­ti­sing, leading to a rising demand for accom­plished images and profes­sional image makers. These develo­p­ments also changed the public’s visual habits, so that the New Vision arose as an expres­sion of the percep­tion of this new media-fabri­cated reality. Positions ranged from the precise record­ings of what was seen in portrait and indus­trial photo­graphy, via the use of new framings and perspec­tives at the Bauhaus, all the way to the photo­mon­tage and technical experi­ments such as the photogram and solari­sa­tion, as well as Surrealism’s staged images.

The Mechanical Eye

Photo­graphers of the Neue Sachlich­keit (New Objec­ti­vity) movement wanted to show the world as it was. For Albert Renger-Patzsch, photo­graphy was the “most depen­dable tool” for objec­tively repro­du­cing the visible things of this world, especially the results of modern techno­logy, and in this respect, it was superior to the subjec­tive percep­tion of the human eye. László Moholy-Nagy went a step further, with his famous verdict that “the illite­rate of the future will be the person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.” To the camera he attri­buted the crucial function of techni­cally expanding human percep­tion. Whilst adequa­tely depicting machines, mass society, and modern metro­po­litan life: “the photo­gra­phic apparatus can perfect or supple­ment our optical instru­ment, the eye.” Unusual aspects and viewpoints led to striking images.

From a bird’s‑eye perspec­tive, buildings and streets became compo­si­tions made up of lines and planes, while a low-angle shot could create an unfore­seen dynamic and greatly enlarging an object resulted in magical dissociations.

The Real and the Surreal

Ultimately, the Surrea­lists identi­fied in the “realistic” recording tool of photo­graphy yet another artistic means of “écriture automa­tique,” which André Breton also described as “thought photo­graphy.” Beneath the surface of visible things the irrational, the magical, and the contra­dic­tory could be disco­vered and explored. Documen­tary photo­graphers such as Eugène Atget and Karl Bloss­feldt became inspi­ra­tional figures in this movement. Their work was printed in the Surrea­list magazines, because a plant, staged and isolated in a photo­graph, could trigger all kinds of magical associa­tions beyond its botanical context. Meanwhile manipu­lated and staged photo­graphs benefitted from the truth­ful­ness of “this is the way it was,” since they could only reinforce their myste­rious state­ments. One of Surrealism’s most important artistic means – the combi­na­tory creation (including, of course, the photo­mon­tage) – was parti­cu­larly effective because hetero­ge­neous visual elements were joined to form new, surpri­sing contexts of meaning. Like Brassaï’s photo­graphs of a nocturnal Paris, Karel Teige’s collages have a surreal quality which can also be found in a different form in Man Ray’s dreamlike photo­grams. Both staged photo­graphy and – with many experi­ments with photo­gra­phic techni­ques, such as multiple exposures, negative printing, and solari­sa­tion – strove to achieve the melding of dream and reality, a goal postu­lated by Breton in his first Surrea­list manifesto. In New Vision photo­graphy this could generally result in images that could “go either way,” depending on the viewpoint of the real/surreal photo­gra­pher and observer; they could be seen as sober, objective repro­duc­tions of the visible world, or as imaginary, subjec­tive reflec­tions of reality.

The exhibi­tion “RealSur­real” leads the visitor through Neues Sehen in Germany, Surrea­lism in Paris, and the avant-garde in Prague, alongside themes such as portraits, nudes, objects, archi­tec­ture, and experi­mental. Opening with a prologue of exemplary nineteenth-century photo­graphs which are compared and contrasted with Neues Sehen, one can literally experi­ence the Neues Sehen in the Kunst­mu­seum Wolfsburg via rare original prints by notable photo­graphers, while redis­co­vering the broad spectrum and comple­xity of photo­graphs from real to surreal. Besides appro­xi­mately 200 photo­graphs, the exhibi­tion contains histo­rical photo­graphy books and magazines, as well as rare artists’ books and examples of avant-garde cover design, making it possible to experi­ence this new view of the world.

“RealSur­real” also features several famous clips from key films by Luis Buñuel, László Moholy-Nagy, Hans Richter, and others, shown conti­nuously in a 45-minute loop, which highlight the fruitful interplay between avant-garde photo­graphy and the-then contem­porary cinema. Important photo­graphs and photo instal­la­tions by Nobuyoshi Araki, Gilbert & George, Paul Graham, Andreas Gursky, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, and James Welling, from the Kunst­mu­seum Wolfsburg’s collec­tion, will also demons­trate that the artistic questions posed by Neues Sehen are still relevant today.

In coope­ra­tion with the Inter­na­tio­nales Filmfes­tival Braun­schweig the Kunst­mu­seum Wolfsburg shows the four-part film program “The Magic Eye”. An extensive program, inspired by the exhibi­tion “RealSur­real” will be screened as part of the festival (WWW.FILMFEST-BRAUNSCHWEIG.DE).

The exhibi­tion catalogue, contai­ning essays by Antonín Dufek, Björn Egging, Ivo Kranz­felder, Ulrich Pohlmann, and Bernd Stiegler, will be published by the Wienand Verlag. Available for 28 € in the Museum Shop.