Relatively recent films and television shows like Pret á Porter, Ugly Betty, and The Devil Wears Prada offer extreme views of publishing in the fashion world. Fraught with danger, conflict, and misadventures, the stakes seem unnaturally high for each glossy issue. And yet, aspects of Edward Steichen’s influential take on modern fashion photography could be said to have originated in the very real, international conflict of World War I. Sharp, Clear Pictures: Edward Steichen’s World War I and Condé Nast Years, a fascinating show now open in the Art Institute's Galleries 1-4, maps the ways the artist's outlook on photography changed after becoming deeply involved in establishing an aerial photography program for the U.S. military during World War I.
Steichen started out the early twentieth century as an Alfred Stieglitz protégé, perhaps most memorably photographing Auguste Rodin in Paris in an evocatively lit haze, sitting in profile opposite his statue of The Thinker. This image is nonetheless a key opening to Sharp, Clear Pictures, as Rodin had a connection to the important album of aerial photographs Steichen assembled after the war, and which makes up about half of the exhibition. Indeed, Steichen inscribed this book of over 80 views of artillery-damaged European towns to a friend whose family included some of Rodin's major patrons.
The book has been disbound, so visitors can see all the album sheets with his handwritten captions in the order Steichen assembled them in 1919. This was just after he left his position as commander of the Photographic Section for the United States Army Expeditionary Forces Air Service. The approach varies, from comparisons between oblique and vertical shots of bombed-out locations with “practically not a roof left in the town,” to masked-out and collaged negatives honing in on specific enemy locations and airport installations. In several cases, the images have been juxtaposed and spliced together, often out of necessity to give the illusion that planes could fly high enough to take in larger expanses, with jagged edges rimmed with black borders. Although Steichen and his colleagues borrowed this technical approach from the French and British, he also seems to have utilized the same idea of image construction in publishing later on. In two intriguing instances in the show alone, he produced a double spread for a magazine by taking two separate pictures with a similar center, which allowed him to splice them together and crop the overall image to his liking. It also allowed him to reuse his favorite models on both sides of the page, or as in a fashion shoot from a biblical musical show, double the cast of singers by reorganizing them from the left to the right in the second half of the image. Interestingly, one of the few sheets in the album that is not aerial photography taken under his command is a fashion plate of sorts, involving a caricature of officers making fun of each others' uniforms. Its inclusion may have been arbitrary, or an attempt at comic relief, but it would be in fashion that Steichen found his next muse.
Similarly honing his skills, Steichen made several self-portraits over the years, including one from 1917 before heading to war-torn Europe. Although he probably did not in the end act as a photographer on live missions, here he posed himself with his camera in a self-assured and more matter-of-fact manner than an earlier one developed gradually in painterly strokes. The result is also more cinematic, even bearing a striking resemblance to a 1990s Aidan Quinn and so to modern eyes, suggestive of his future in celebrity portraiture.
Many of the actors and playwrights he would portray had enlisted in World War I, even if they had not necessarily seen live combat. Nöel Coward was one of those given an early honorable discharge. Steichen poses him here in gloriously modern attire and a feline grace within a sleekly abstract architectural interior in 1932 for Vanity Fair. Coward was by then the successful playwright, actor, and songwriter of the titillating Private Lives, which had already been turned into a Hollywood film. Oozing glamor with each puff of his cigarette, Steichen's evocation of Coward as the man of his age is absolutely seamless, just like his rethinking of photography.
6 min 22 sec ago The Art Institute of Chicago COMING SOON—Provoke: Photography in Japan between Protest and Performance, 1960–75
The short-lived Tokyo magazine Provoke is now recognized as a major achievement in world photography of the last 50 years. A major international traveling show—which has Chicago as its only North American venue—this exhibition is the first survey of postwar Japanese art to be organized at the Art Institute and draws heavily on the the museum’s collection—more than 60% of the over 200 items on display belong to the Art Institute.
OPENING JANUARY 28—http://bit.ly/2jMlnUx
3 hours 18 min ago The Art Institute of Chicago NOW ON VIEW—The Italian–born American artist Josef Stella revisited his native Italy in 1922, where he became fascinated by Renaissance painting. Drawing inspiration from Sandro Botticelli, Stella began to produce decorative, detailed, symbolic compositions, such as A Vision (seen here). Stella was enthralled by the tropical plants he observed at the Bronx Botanical Garden in New York, and he imagined an iconic woman growing out of the earth like the towering flowers on either side of her.
The French–born American artist Gaston Lachaise found his own iconic inspiration for the sculpture, Woman (Elevation), in Isabel Dutaud Nagle, whom he later married, telling her, “I want to create a miracle with it… as great as you.” This sculpture represents Lachaise’s first full-scale expression of the idealized female form that would come to dominate his art. Modernists like Lachaise believed preclassical art possessed a primitive vitality absent from later art forms.
See Josef Stella’s A Vision (1925/26) and Gaston Lachaise’s Woman (Elevation) (1912–15; cast 1927)—on view in Gallery 271.
23 hours 39 min ago The Art Institute of Chicago NOW OPEN—Rodney McMillian: a great society
Our latest exhibition in the Modern Wing represents the last decade of the artist’s work in video. Grappling with the complexities of class, race, and place in America, Rodney McMillian employs elements of performance, public speaking, oral history—and his interest in the science fiction genre—to expose the social and psychological consequences of economic inequality, endemic racism, and the failed promise of freedom and prosperity for all of its citizens. While McMillian's work engages the often stark realities of history and contemporary culture, it is motivated by the potential for alternative realities and future transformation.
See Rodney McMillian: a great society on view in the Modern Wing through March 26.