A change in looking
Bauhaus photography, currently showcased at the Townhouse gallery, retains its startlingly modern edge seven decades on, writes Sonali Pahwa
Endeavouring to change the way we look at things the architects of the interwar German Bauhaus began to tease the eye with experimental photography. Quirky camera angles aimed at displacing frontal perspective and multiple-exposure printing techniques produced a new photographic genre that ended up becoming more art than craft. Originally conceived as technical accessories to the Bauhaus' central architectural mission the photographs have come to provide memorable icons of the visual revolution engineered by the movement. You can see where the splintered vision of contemporary photography gathered much of its early momentum by heading over to the Bauhaus Photography exhibit at the Townhouse gallery, co- curated by the Goethe Institute.
The photographs and collages look vaguely familiar. Some may evoke ghosts of old advertisements, avant- garde films and the ostensibly offbeat photographs of Cairo's urban madness that are produced all too regularly. But the cheerful insanity of the Bauhaus vision in the years before it became commodified is criss-crossed with surprises. A martini glass is suspended sideways in one photograph, with several tangential planes offering surfaces on which it may rest but does not. The object, freed of gravity and utility, shows off its design and plastic qualities. A series of still-life compositions display a conventional grouping of elements fragmented in order to redirect the gaze towards the shape and texture of individual objects. Often the still-life is photographed vertically, reducing it to two dimensions and defamiliarising the shapes of objects. Bauhaus photography's aesthetic of the mundane was intended to facilitate a marriage of art and technology by conceiving designs for mass production. But one wonders if the objects by themselves would be so satisfying to look at without the unique perspectives provided by the camera's framing. What the photographs seem to offer is a new way of looking at objects rather than designing them.
An image of rows upon rows of cigarettes in an apparently super-sized box foreshadows the use of Bauhaus-style photography in advertising, a handful of examples of which are presented near the end of this exhibit. The selection of still-lifes reveals how Bauhaus photography approached its objects with a particular intimacy, a sidelong glance and an attentive proximity to surfaces. They became objects of desire. Recognising a fit between this sensuous regard of things and the commercial advertisement requires the briefest leap of logic. In this exhibit, Ringl and Pit's advertisement for a soap lotion features a brunette whose immaculate curls and broderie anglaise collar are rendered in lush tones, like those of the gleaming bottle of soap in her hand and the textured wallpaper behind her. The careful surface detail of each element carries echoes of the photographers' less commercial still-lifes.
The main objective of the photographs was to innovate ideas for built spaces, as we are reminded by Lucia Moholy's snapshots of Bauhaus buildings. This sampling of pictures demonstrates, however, why the photography of ultra- modernist architecture is not particularly exciting. Its lines are simply too straight and solid to leave much room for play with perspectives. The more interesting photographs of space are those which treat it as metaphor. Hajo Rosi superimposes his self-portrait over the picture of a building, accentuating the similarities of their dour, straight lines. Paul Citroen's The State is a collage of photographs of buildings, including well-known ones in New York and Washington DC, crammed together without a gap. The effect is that of a continuous structure with minor variations in the size and style of its institutions.
Bauhaus pioneer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy considered photography to be the quintessential modern medium, though his own photographs contain residues of his experiments with other visual media. Several of the portraits in this exhibit -- mostly self-portraits by Bauhaus architects such as Umbo and Irene Hoffmann -- are indebted to avant-garde film and film noire. The deliberately incomplete snapshots gesture at a before and after, in the manner of a film still. And then they fragment the scene further by focusing on a detail, or constructing a montage of discontinuous moments. Every available visual trick and avant-garde art form was assimilated by these Bauhaus pioneers. It was plainly impossible for all of their photographic experiments to serve architectural practice.
This aspect of the future of Bauhaus photography becomes abundantly clear in collage work. Marianne Brandt's combinations of found images altogether abandon the idea of any perspective realisable in design. Her assemblages of objects, people and buildings in a gravity-free dimension owe much to the Bauhaus inclination to play with perspective. But they look like precursors of commercial advertising posters, not blueprints for design. Cut-out images of faces take their place among the objects in the collage, a quintessentially modern reflection of how photography makes the subjects of advertising much as it makes its objects. In another pointed comment on the making of visual icons -- this time in colonial photography -- Moholy-Nagy takes a photograph of mother and weeping child and pastes a depersonalising globe over the mother's head, inscribing the collage with the caption "Mother Europe and the colonies".
The text accompanying the exhibit notes that the Bauhaus was abruptly shut down in 1933, due to Nazi suspicion of the institution's activities. Walter Gropius -- who in the 1960s was commissioned to produce designs for a new Cairo Opera House, which sadly was not built -- and other leading figures such as Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe emigrated to the United States and proceeded to make their mark on the architecture of its big cities. Other routes of export of Bauhaus architecture led to the planned quarters of cities the world over. The Townhouse is fortuitously hosting a small exhibit on Egyptian architects next door to the Bauhaus exhibit, and one can peep in and find elements of Bauhaus style in the work of Charles Ayrout and Antoine Salim Nahas.
Also at the Townhouse, one flight of stairs up, is an exhibit combining video and photography whose themes of nostalgia and the sideways glance feed reflection on the legacy of the Bauhaus in contemporary photography. Wageh George's video Malek--Al-Nass documents a conversation with veteran photographer William Isaac Abdel- Malek, and his text rhapsodises about the photographer and his apartment as icons of old Cairo. Meanwhile, Daniel Stahli's photographs of Cairo, which are presented alongside, reveal a frankly stated interest in the surface of things and the patterns found in the juxtaposition of the city's surfaces.
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