Happy and porcine, the bank director takes a dip, memorialised by the self-taught Hungarian photo-reporter Karoly Escher. Nothing in the world can disturb the tranquil scene. Should we envy or despise him? Is he contented or complacent – does he deserve a break? It is 1938. Click.
Presentiments and echoes of war and revolution, images of emancipation and nationalism, of modernity and melancholy hang side by side in Foto: Modernity in Central Europe 1918-45, currently at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. This is a marvellous show, full of great, terrible and fascinating images. Imri Kinszki, another Hungarian, photographed a bridge in fog, in 1930. Pedestrians walk into emptiness and the unknown, steel and iron disappearing into the gloom. It could be a metaphor, or just another foggy day. Looking back, we know what was to come and add a context all of our own.
This exhibition began its tour in Washington DC last year; Edinburgh is its only European venue. This is surprising. Like the Barbican’s 2006 show In the Face of History, this is an exhibition whose theme is Europe itself, as well as the European history and photographic culture that has depicted it, and had a role in its creation. Our self images invent us.
While the Barbican show attempted the impossible, covering an entire century of European photography, Foto focuses on photography in central Europe between 1918 and 1945. It revisits the Bauhaus, constructivism, dadaism, surrealism, expressionism, documentary and propaganda photography, and portraiture. It also introduces us to many lesser-known artists, and to a radical photographic culture that spread right across central Europe. There were art schools and clubs, movements and artists’ collectives – in Vienna, Berlin and Warsaw, as well as in little out-of-the-way places in Moravia and Poland. This exhibition struggles with conflicting views of modernity, of a world escaping old empires and about to be carved up anew.
The images come crashing in, one after another. Workers give clenched fist salutes, emancipated and androgynous modern women smoke and smile and pose and look back at us, unguarded and unafraid. Women in impeccable folkloric costume dig a railway with hoes and shovels, and a gold miner at the rock face stands in nothing but a loincloth, holding his drill. A montaged, cubistic modern world of skyscrapers jumps with advertising slogans, while shadows walk through the ghetto in Kazimierz in a sodden fall of snow, caught on a hidden camera by Roman Vishniac in 1937.
There are fewer than 200 photographs in this show, and almost all of them count, adding to our sense of cultures in consort and collision. Best of all, the exhibition makes you think, not least about the ways in which avant-garde ideas have become assimilated by mainstream culture (and are sometimes complicit with it). And it makes you think about the nature of modernity itself, and how it persists in the 24-hour onslaught of electronic, digitised imagery that surrounds us.
I was confronted with how little I know about the confused political geography of central Europe in the 20th century. The complications continue to this day. Although the exhibition largely focuses on the 1920s and 30s, it begins with a pair of maps: one describing the dominance of the German and Russian empires, and Austria-Hungary in 1890; the second revisiting the situation in 1930, where the three major powers had been replaced by Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary. Europe is a palimpsest of overwritten borders and states, countries whose names are constantly changing.
What one comes away with, as well as many indelible images, is a sense of paradox and extreme contrast. In 1933, the Czech photographer Eugen Wiskovsky was busy fetishising the sexy, sleek and shiny look of a ceramic industrial insulator, in a sort of Bauhaus hymn to technological progress and formal elegance, and to the taming of natural forces. In Max Burchartz’s Worker Before Machines, meanwhile, a semi-seated man toils at his machine, as though he were exercising on a fiendish contraption in a gym; this bizarre industrial interior appears both futuristic and weirdly antediluvian.
At the same time, Rudolf Koppitz was taking romantic shots of a Tyrolean farmer struggling up to the summer pasture with a load of hay on his back, while Francis Haar was capturing the peasantry, in their picturesque and timeless costumes, on the Hungarian plain. These nationalistic images of mythical homelands coexist with near-abstract celebrations of the autobahn and the electricity pylon. Past and present are in constant collision.
So we find surrealist erotica alongside images of horrific working conditions, liberated women next to a National Socialist magazine covergirl in a sporty Alpine pose – Ski Heil! reads the coverline. There is a suspicion that the world being hurtled towards might lead to Armageddon. In his 1933 photomontage 20th-Century Idyll No 7, from a series called A Robot Is Born, Polish artist Janusz Brzeski foresaw a devastated America, with New York covered in clouds of gas, from which a gas-masked horseman rides away, presumably into the sunset. The dynamic medium of the photograph, as extolled by László Moholy-Nagy in the 1920s, might be part of the problem of the modern world: in a sense, Brzeski turns photography against itself, using found printed source material in his images.
But there is also a wonderful optimism about the future, a kind of frankness and humour, and inevitably a kind of innocence – though not, of course, one that could withstand the second world war, the destruction and reconstruction of Europe. Modernity went into hiding, and all those camera clubs, those amateur photographers and their idealistic experiments, disappeared. We are still dealing with their legacy. How various this show is, how fresh and faded.
In Peter Demetz’s introduction to the catalogue that accompanies this show, the Prague-born writer takes us on a whirlwind tour of central Europe – Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest – throwing out facts centrifugally. At the end, he tells us how American movies were regularly shown in Berlin, right up until Pearl Harbor; second world war German air-crews listened to British and American swing music in their cockpits.
It sounds like the world depicted in Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon, in which borders of time and space – as well as culture – are constantly crossed and recrossed. This exhibition reminds us that this is exactly what the past was like – strange and conflicted. Our culture seems so homogeneous by comparison. Even the word “experiment” feels hollow now. What a killer show.
· Foto: Modernity in Central Europe 1918-1945 is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until August 31 nationalgalleries.org