Starting from Helmar Lerski’s outstanding photo series Metamorphosis through Light (1935/36), the exhibition Faces presents portraits from the period of the Weimar Republic.
The 1920s and ’30s saw photographers radically renew the conventional understanding of the classic portrait: their aim was no longer to represent an individual’s personality; instead, they conceived of the face as material to be staged according to their own ideas. In this, the photographed face became a locus for dealing with avant-garde aesthetic ideas as well as interwar-period social developments. And it was thus that modernist experiments, the relationship between individual and general type, feminist roll-playing, and political ideologies collided in—and thereby expanded—the general understanding of portrait photography.
Faces. Die Macht des Gesichts (2021)
Die Ausstellung Faces in der ALBERTINA präsentiert Porträts der deutschen Zwischenkriegszeit. Ausgangspunkt dafür ist Helmar Lerskis herausragende Fotoserie Verwandlungen durch Licht (1935/36).
In den 1920er- und 30er-Jahren erneuern Fotografinnen und Fotografen das Verständnis des klassischen Porträts radikal: Ihre Aufnahmen dienen nicht mehr der Darstellung der Persönlichkeit eines Menschen, sondern fassen das Gesicht als nach ihren Vorstellungen inszenierbares Material auf.
Über das fotografierte Gesicht werden sowohl ästhetische Überlegungen der Avantgarde als auch gesellschaftliche Entwicklungen der Zwischenkriegszeit dargestellt. Experimente mit neuer Formensprache, das Verhältnis zwischen Individuum und Typ, feministische Rollenspiele und politische Ideologien treffen aufeinander und erweitern damit das Verständnis der Porträtfotografie.
Charlotte Perriand’s ball-bearings necklace was exhibited in 2009 at the exhibition “Bijoux Art Deco et Avant Garde” at the Musee Des Arts Decoratifs in Paris and, in 2011, in the show “Charlotte Perriand 1903-99: From Photography to Interior Design” at the Petit Palais. The necklace became, for a short period, synonymous with Perriand and with her championing of the machine aesthetic in the late 1920s and has subsequently attained the status of a mythical object and symbol of the machine age. This essay considers the necklace as an object and symbol in the context of modernist aesthetics. It also discusses its role in the formation of Perriand’s identity in the late 1920s, when she was working with Le Corbusier, and aspects of gender and politics in the context of the wider modern movement. [more on Semantic Scholar]
“I had a street urchin’s haircut and wore a necklace I made out of cheap chromed copper balls. I called it my ball-bearings necklace, a symbol of my adherence to the twentieth-century machine age. I was proud that my jewelry didn’t rival that of the Queen of England.”
Perriand had asked an artisan with a workshop in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine to make the piece out of lightweight chrome steel balls strung together on a cord. The piece was inspired by Fernand Léger’s still life “Le Mouvement à billes” (1926).
The necklace became a symbol of Perriand’s passion for the mechanical age […] (see also: Charlotte Perriand’s “Ball Bearings” Necklace on Irenebrination)
“Art is in everything,” insisted Charlotte Perriand. […] When you see Charlotte’s chaise longue, chair, and tables in front of that immense Léger, you cannot imagine the design without the art—it is a global vision.
On an adjacent wall, Collier roulement à billes chromées (1927)—a silver choker made from automotive ball bearings that Perriand not only designed but wore—is placed next to a Léger painting, Nature morte (Le mouvement à billes) (Still life [Movement of ball bearings], 1926). [quoted from William Middleton review of the exhibition Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World, on Gagosian]
Helmar Lerski photographed the face of the construction engineer Leo Uschatz in a series of 140 closeups. Working in the blazing sun on a roof terrace in Tel Aviv, he achieved his dramaturgical lighting effects with up to sixteen mirrors and flags that helped him vary the intensity of the shadows. Having fled the National Socialists, the photographer and cameraman thus continued the studies in portrait photography he had begun in Berlin. He had already published his photo book Everyday Heads, containing closeup shots of anonymous persons, in 1931. Presented as impenetrable surfaces of mask-like rigidity, their faces speak of the conflict between emotionality and ideality. | Städel Museum
Über das Werk
Das Gesicht des Bautechnikers Leo Uschatz fotografierte Helmar Lerski in einer Serie von 140 Großaufnahmen. Die dramaturgische Lichtwirkung erzielte er mithilfe von bis zu 16 Spiegeln und Blenden, mit denen er in der prallen Sonne auf einer Dachterrasse in Tel Aviv unterschiedlich starke Schlagschatten erzeugen konnte. Damit setzte der vor den Nationalsozialisten geflüchtete Fotograf und Kameramann seine in Berlin begonnenen Studien zur Porträtfotografie fort. Bereits 1931 veröffentlichte er den Bildband Köpfe des Alltags, in dem er in nahsichtigen Aufnahmen unbekannte Menschen fotografierte. Ihre Gesichter werden maskenhaft-starr als undurchsichtige Oberfläche präsentiert und zeigen einen Konflikt zwischen Emotionalität und Idealität. | Städel Museum
At the beginning of 1936, Helmar Lerski started a new portraiture series. His model was a Jewish worker, who Lerski called ‘Uschatz’. In the next three months he produced 175 images of the man remembered as a jack of all trades in Lerski’s office.
Lerski had conceived his metamorphosis project as early as 1930. When asked about further plans, he responded to the film critic, Hans Feld, that he later wanted to “create a book of portraits of somebody. Fifty images of one and the same person”.
Working on the rooftop terrace of Lerski’s flat in Tel Aviv in the bright, morning sun, Lerski continually directed the light towards his model’s face, using a great number of mirrors. Designated by Lerski as his magnum opus, ‘Metamorphosis through Light’ was to “furnish proof, that a photographer can create freely, following his mind’s eye, like a painter, or sculpture.”
Lerski managed to reverse our traditional notion of portrait art without applying any of supernatural technical devices. It was all about the concept, the approach of an artist to the portrait execution. He neither followed the well-trodden way of attaining meticulous likeness of a portrait and a model nor he tried to render the individual features of a face. With the help of numerous mirrors and specific filters he managed to achieve such a forceful light-and- shade effects that the surface of a man’s face began o look like a sculptural landscape, abstract relief.
“Light is a proof, that a photographer can create freely, following his mind’s eye, like a painter, designer, or sculptor”.
The Palestine portraits became one of Lerski’s most important work series as a photographer. After several trips to Palestine since 1931 Lerski introduced to the world the portrait series of such an expressiveness and formal innovation that its appearance crossed the limits of simply an art event and called the ideological, nationalistic and religious discussions. While creating his famous Judaic portraits, the artist was obsessed by the idea of the official documentation of Jewish nation characters in all its importance and grandeur.
“I want to show only the prototype in all its off-shoots, and, what is more, I want to show him so intensely that the prototype is recognizable in all later branches”.
Later this series was enhanced by the Arab characters and hands portraits exhibited thereafter in the Tel-Aviv Museum (1945).
An intellectual, a person of multimedia consciousness having been for not less than half a century ahead of his time. Nowadays Helmar Lerski together with Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, is acknowledged in the professional environment as one of the classics and main innovators of the 20 century photography.