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A landscape-oriented black-and-white photograph show a room with gridded walls and ceiling. Some black organic forms hang from the ceiling. The silhouette of two people, one sitting and one standing, are seen on the left. A landscape-oriented black-and-white photograph show a room with gridded walls and ceiling. Some black organic forms hang from the ceiling. The silhouette of two people, one sitting and one standing, are seen on the left.

Foreign Exchange: Photography between Chicago, Japan, and Germany, 1920–1960

May 3–Sep 9, 2024

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After World War I, a striking visual language came to prominence in photography, characterized by the use of multiple exposures, unusual vantages, and sharp focus.

While this style is often associated with the Bauhaus, an influential German art school of the 1920s and early ‘30s, this exhibition—of nearly 100 works across four decades—explores this modernist aesthetic as it developed through exchanges among a broader set of artists from Germany, Japan, and the United States.

In 1920s Germany, the Bauhaus professors Walter Gropius and Johannes Itten claimed Japanese traditional architecture and ink painting as precursors to their work, especially the Edo period’s clean lines and stark contrasts between black and white. In the 1930s, certain Japanese artists, such as Ei-Q and Osamu Shiihara, in turn pursued and helped popularize experimental photography from the Bauhaus, including cameraless abstractions and photocollages. This dialogue soon expanded to the United States, where photographers like Nathan Lerner and Yasuhiro Ishimoto, alumni of Chicago’s New Bauhaus (later the Institute of Design), highlighted bold lines and decisive forms in the city’s architecture. Back in Japan, this visual language resurfaced after World War II, as seen in the abstract sculptural constructions and experimental stage sets photographed jointly by Shozo Kitadai and Kiyoji Otsuji.

This exhibition brings together exemplary objects from our collections of Photography and Media, Arts of Asia, Modern and Contemporary, and Prints and Drawings to trace this conversation that transcended national boundaries and identities and that, for many artists, offered refuge from racist and nationalist hostilities fomented in wartime. Their shared visual language was, and is, stateless.


Foreign Exchange: Photography between Chicago, Japan, and Germany, 1920–1960 is curated by Yechen Zhao, assistant curator, Photography and Media, with assistance from Stephanie Lee, Dangler Intern, Photography and Media.

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