Memories and Monuments

Two inspiring photography exhibitions in London recently: Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at The Photographers’ Gallery, and Guido Guidi: Per Strada at Large Glass.

Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. This exhibition features iconic works from his career spanning the 1920s to the late 1970s. Vishniac’s work reflects the influence of European modernism using sharp angles and dramatic use of light and shade to inform his subject matter. Raised in Moscow, he immigrated to Berlin in 1920 following the Bolshevik Revolution.

Many of his images document Berlin changing from an open, intellectual society to one where militarism and fascism were closing in. In 1935, he was commissioned to photograph impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe to support relief efforts.

The accompanying briefs help to put the work in context, and this exhibition is endlessly thought-provoking and poignant.

In 1955, Edward Steichen described the importance of Vishniac’s work. ”[He]…gives a last- minute look at the human beings he photographed just before the fury of Nazi brutality exterminated them. The resulting photographs are among photography’s finest documents of a time and place.”

For Guido Guidi, contemplating begins with avoiding clichés, rather than composing. After various early experiments with black-and-white photography at the end of the 1960s, he began using colour negatives in a large-format camera. The exhibition at Large Glass Gallery features 27 prints to coincide with the publication ‘Per Strada’.

The road runs from Milan to Rimini, via Bologna, through Guido Guidi’s home city Cesena. It is also the road that Guidi has travelled along since he was fifteen and is the thread that joins the 285 photographs, taken between 1980 and 1994, illustrated in the three-volume book.

Guidi closely observes ordinary things and in between, liminal spaces on and around the via Emilia.

“It is a way of bowing down before things. And that is the religious aspect, a respect for things, for the blade of grass and wanting to give back by means of a precise photograph, where the execution of the detail is perfect, absolute, with no grain. The photograph must be absolute, transparent and cannot be corrected and reviewed later. As Didi-Huberman says, for the ancient painters of the 1400s, the act of imitagere or copying nature was in itself an act of devotion. Not necessarily mastery or technical virtuosity but an act of devotion towards things, the “things which are nothing” as Pasolini says.” – Guido Guidi

This still life of a bowl of cherries sitting on a copy of the newspaper La Repubblica was particularly striking: the cherries have long ago rotted away; the events in the paper are long out of date.

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Ronta, 1984, by Guido Guidi. 

There is something zen-like and refreshing in the way each shot is carefully set up and unedited. It brings to mind John Cage’s ‘Silence 4.33’, that reduces music to nothing in order to focus on the surrounding noises.

Sometimes, you will catch a glimpse of the photographer himself in the shot, or the edge of the lens itself. For him, this is part of the process, drawing attention to the fact that a photograph is a frame, not the whole world.

Guidi is opposed to the  the idea of the “decisive moment” made popular by Henri Cartier-Bresson.  According to Guidi: “All moments are decisive – and none.” His work is not about the decisive moment but the “provisional moment” – the idea that this moment is one of a procession of many.

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Teatro Bonci, Cesena, 1984, by Guido Guidi.

 

“All photographs are monuments. If you photograph this cup on the table, for example, it gives it importance. And over time, photographs become more and more like monuments.”

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Awkward Objects: The Work of Alina Szapocznikow

This weekend, I travelled to Wakefield to see Human Landscapes the first UK retrospective of the work of the much-overlooked Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow (1926–1973). Powerful, innovative, disturbing, these pieces have dark undertones, which isn’t surprising when you discover that Szapocznikow survived several of the Nazi camps as a teenager, and bouts of severe illness. Her sculptures were born out of trauma, expressing it obliquely for those who could not, while at the same time being an extraordinary affirmation and expression of life and female experience.

Image result for alina szapocznikow        Image result for Alina Szapocznikow in 1968, photo Roger Gain

She emerged as an artist from the Soviet sanctioning in 1950s Prague, educated originally as a classical sculptor in Paris, rapidly moving into semi-abstract, amorphous forms: huge, organic sculptures,  such as ‘Bird’ and ‘Maria Magdalena’. Later, she began using her own body, and that of friends to make casts of body parts, including a particularly poignant full body cast of Pietr, her son. Long haired and naked he lies at a diagonal, suspended in space, recalling the dead Christ in Mary’s arms.

Semi-abstract sculptures from bronze, concrete and iron.

Through casts of the human body, I attempt to preserve in translucent polystyrene the ephemeral moments of life, its paradoxes and its absurdity. (…) I am convinced that among all manifestations of impermanence, the human body is the most fragile. It is the sole source of all joy, all pain and all truth, and this thanks to its ontological poverty, which is as inevitable as it is (at the conscious level) absolutely unacceptable.

 

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Photographs set in polyester resin

Her work centres around the fragmented body; like many post-war artists, she has an acute awareness of the fragility of the body. Bowls of breasts recall Lee Miller’s critique of female objectification in Severed Breast from Radical Mastectomy, the 1930 photograph she composed after observing a friend’s mastectomy. I was also reminded of the work of Eva Hesse, known for her pioneering work in materials such as latex, fiberglass, and plastics. Dynamic but mysterious erotic themes are an element shared with Louise Bourgeois for example in her Unconscious Landscape, 1967-68.

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“Dessert III”, 1971, dyed polyester, porcelain vase.

 

 

Drawings and monotypes.

Sculptures using polyester resin and polyurethane.

The essence of Szapoczikow’s work seemed to lie in the search for completeness that she could only express through fragmentation and abstract juxtapositions. Her feeling that: “The fleeting moment, the trivial moment – these are the only symbols of our earthly existence”.

In the final room of the show, we see at close quarters Szapocznikow’s sculptural manifestations of her body’s invasion by cancerous tumours. Even in her final months, she continued to find innovative ways to express the reality of her experiences. “Recalling the broken statuary of fallen civilisations, Tumours Personified (1971) is the artist’s attempt to own the illness, with a scattering of head-size lumps, bearing her own face.” – Skye Sherwin

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I produce awkward objects. This absurd and compulsive mania proves the existence of an unknown, secret gland, necessary for life. Yes, this mania can be reduced to a single gesture within reach of us all. But this gesture is sufficient unto itself , it is the confirmation of our human presence.

My work is difficult as sensation that is felt in a very immediate and diffuse way is often resistant to identification. Often everything is all mixed up, the situation is ambiguous, and sensory limits are erased.

Nothing is definitive in my work. If not the immediate pleasure of feeling the material, of touching and palpating the distinct material of the mud as children do on a riverbank.

_ Alina Szapocnikow, 1972