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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Lotte Jacobi (American, b. Germany, 1896-1990), Klaus and Erika Mann, ca. 1930. Dietmar Siegert Collection.
Lotte Jacobi (American, b. Germany, 1896-1990), Klaus and Erika Mann, ca. 1930. Dietmar Siegert Collection.
Umbo (Otto Umbehr) (German, 1902-1980), Dreamers (Träumende), 1928-29. Kicken Gallery, Berlin. © Phyllis Umbehr/Gallery
Umbo (Otto Umbehr) (German, 1902-1980), Dreamers (Träumende), 1928-29. Kicken Gallery, Berlin. © Phyllis Umbehr/Gallery

"Foto" captures adventurous spirit of European photographers

We're used to seeing the big names in Milwaukee Art Museum's Calatrava expansion, but some of the lesser-known artists have fueled the most interesting shows.

Think, for example of Martin Ramirez's astonishing works on paper or the gallery's latest inhabitant, "Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945," which runs through May 4.

It's refreshing to see an exhibition -- nay, a fine exhibition -- of 20th century photography and see very few recognizable names and very few "landmark" images.

It's also a little disconcerting and encouraging. If you're a denizen of art museums, you might get a little cocky about what you've seen and what you know.

A show like this one will cut you down to size.

And cut is the appropriate word, too, because in some of the most engaging work in this large show, nothing is what it seems. There are photomontages, collage and other visual trickery to keep the viewer guessing and second-guessing.

But the post-war cut and paste and experimentalism of the likes of Evzen Markalous and Jaromir Funke gives way to more "traditional" images of "Modern Living" -- with its iconization of modernity (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's dizzying "Radio Tower Berlin, 1928" is a highlight of this section) -- and "New Women -- New Men" -- with its similarly iconic 1931 image of Leni Riefenstahl, all sweat and strength, by Hungarian-American photographer Martin Munkacsi, and Lotte Jacobi's "Klaus and Erika Mann," which captured Germany's stylish "androgyny chic."

The exhibition -- organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. -- also takes us through the surrealist movement, photography as propaganda, landscapes and it all comes full circle as photomontage returns with the return of war.

Regardless of their style or their use of photomontage, all of these 170 or so images capture the adventurous spirit of a century that was all about change and, sadly, all about war, too.

MAM, as usual, has a host of events related to "Foto" and you can see them all at the museum's Web site (there's a link below).

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