In the seven months that the Elton John Collection of Modern photography will be exhibited at Tate Modern, under the title The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection, the visitors will be able to see some of the seminal works of this art medium that marked the 20th century. Rarely is a private collection so rich not just in the sheer number of works - Elton John possesses over 8,000 photographs - but also in a variety and quality of the artworks that would put to shame many museums and national institutions. The curators of the show selected several hundreds of the most representative ones, but even so, this display of modern photography is still among the most significant ones in recent years. Tate only started strategically collecting photography from 2009, and would hardly be able to pull the show of such significance and proportion without the collaboration with Elton John and David Furnish.
Some of the names at the exhibition are linked to avant-garde movements while others come from the fields of experimental and documentary photography. They include Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Harry Callaghan, Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, André Kertész, Tina Modotti, and Aleksandr Rodchenko, among others. The topics are also impressive, and range from 1930s social documentary, Bauhaus abstraction, studio portraits both staged and casual, street photography, surrealism and still life. Observed from the historical perspective, the show is invaluable source for anyone interested in exploring the first half of the 20th century in photography, as most of the photos come from 1920s to 1950s period. Artistically, it also takes us through the development of artistic styles in this period, when Surrealism, Abstraction, but also art schools such as Bauhaus, charted a new direction in development of art.
Starting with an Irving Penn’s 1997 portrait of Elton John where the singer in his own words looks like an “insane Alan Bennett” that greets the visitors in the first room, photographs are arranged in a fairly clear order in Tate. The spatial ordering of the show is adjusted as to reflect the origin of the photos - a private collection. Instead in rows, the photos are arranged as to evoke the ordering expected in a living room. Sometimes densely packed on the walls, they are nonetheless organized by topics and styles, such as documentary photography, Surrealism, or portraits. Some photos that stand out are surely André Kertész’s 1917 Underwater Swimmer, Esztergom, which is the oldest in the collection, Man Ray’s 1932 Larmes or Glass Tears, Edward Steichen’s portrait of Gloria Swanson, and Imogen Cunningham’s 1927 Gas Tanks.
The Radical Eye exhibition truly enlivens the imagination, as Elton John asserts in the short video that accompanies the show. It is a combination of historical and expressive elements that make a lasting effect - visitors are presented with what could be a crash course in the historical use of the medium and different stages it went through in the designated period, but also with a visual landscape where the eye is constantly provoked and enthralled with motifs, textures and angles.
The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection opened on 10 November 2016 at Tate Modern in London, and will be on view until 7 May 2017.
Featured images: A Forgotten Model c. 1937 by George Platt Lynes. Image via theguardian.com;Shukov Tower, 1920 by Alexandr Rodchenko. Image via theguardian.com; Self-Portrait, 1932 by Herbert Bayer. Image via theguardian.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.
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