Variétés: Photography and avant-garde
In the summer of 2023, Huis Marseille will present a unique collection of avant-garde and surrealist photographs from the 1920s. 30 years ago, vintage prints were rediscovered among over 150,000 press photos of the Flemish daily newspaper Vooruit. Miraculously, they had been preserved. The collection originates from the Belgian art magazine Variétés, which had only two years before going bankrupt. Variétés was a critical international stage for a young generation of photographers and their new, adventurous visual language. The magazine published many impressive photographs, photograms and photo montages by leading photographers such as Man Ray, Germaine Krull, Berenice Abbott, László Moholy-Nagy, Florence Henri and Eli Lotar. The monthly magazine also paid a lot of attention to avant-garde films. Huis Marseille uses vintage photos, spreads from the magazine and film fragments to show a stunning panorama of avant-garde photography and film from the interwar period. The exhibition is organised in close collaboration with Amsab-Institute for Social History in Ghent, which manages the Variétés collection.
Variétés magazine and the spirit of the new age
Variétés – Revue mensuelle illustrée de l'esprit contemporain (Illustrated monthly magazine about the contemporary zeitgeist) , as the monthly magazine was called in full, appeared from May 1928 to April 1930 and indeed breathed the spirit of a new age. The magazine was the brainchild of cultural jack-of-all-trades and art promoter Paul-Gustave van Hecke (1887-1967), who introduced abstract art, dada and surrealism to Belgium. An equally important role was played by the versatile ELT Mesens (1903-1971). He was a pianist, composed, wrote reviews, was an artist, photographer and exhibition maker himself, and he had an enormous network. The two were close friends and together ran the Brussels gallery L'Époque. For L'Époque and Variétés, Van Hecke provided the financing and Mesens provided the international network. The magazine's signature was unmistakably surreal. In 1929 there was even a special devoted to surrealism. The team that produced the magazine each month also included a screenwriter and a film critic. Dutch authors regularly contributed and among the special issues we also find one about 'Hollande'.
Photos presented in an innovative way
Photography was given an important place in Variétés and the magazine was innovative in the way in which the photographic images were used. Each issue contained about sixty photos, grouped in separate photo sections, printed on glossy paper. The picture sections, which are rhythmically distributed over the song, tell their own story. On the image pages, photos grow into an autonomous means of expression. They were usually presented in combinations of two or four, creating new connections and meanings, often reinforced by the captions.
The surrealist Mesens certainly had a decisive role in the photo selection and it is probably his hand that we see in the enigmatic, funny or subversive image combinations. Anonymous photos, postcards, film stills, anthropological shots and fashion and sports photos were indiscriminately combined with signed photos by avant-garde photographers. This resulted in photo pages with a poetic, ironic and enigmatic character that generate small shocks and transcend the traditional layout of the magazine. Variétés was there for the adventurous art lover who was open to new viewing experiences.
Photography of the twenties
The 1920s marked a turning point in the arts, and also in photography. The First World War had dealt with the last remnants of the nineteenth century. Post-revolutionary Russia meant a delirium of freedom for a generation of artists. Everything old could go overboard, everything was allowed. A new photographic language emerged with distinct camera angles, firm diagonals and extreme close-ups. Everything that could intensify viewing mattered, such as aerial photographs and scientific techniques such as X-rays and micro-images. Darkroom experiments with double printing and photograms expanded the photographer's vocabulary. Machines and inanimate objects sometimes seem animated by strange forces to the photographer's eye.
Image editor ELT Mesens was friends with the surrealist artist Man Ray in Paris and his influence on Variétés is undeniable. From the first songs, Mesen included Man Ray's work. He also devoted a photo section to the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927), who had been discovered by Man Ray and in whom the Surrealists recognized their predecessor.
From September 1928, Variétés regularly published work by Germaine Krull, Eli Lotar and André Kertész, all three immigrants in Paris and affiliated with the acclaimed illustrated weekly magazine VU . Assignments for magazines and advertising photos offered this generation a whole new field in which women were well represented for the first time. And that can also be seen in the photo selection for the Belgian magazine. The American Berenice Abbott was an assistant to Man Ray in Paris in the 1920s. She took care of the archives of Eugène Atget, who died in 1927. Back in New York she documented the modern high-rise from a frog's perspective and with strong contrasts between light and dark that give the architecture a dramatic expressiveness. Florence Henri and Aenne Biermann worked in their studios on precisely composed still lifes. They give everyday objects an enchanting quality, with Henri through the ingenious use of mirrors and with Biermann through the use of double printing. With 125 photos in total, Germaine Krull is best represented in Variétés and in the exhibition. She became famous for her photos of modern steel structures such as the Eiffel Tower and harbor installations. Variétés also devoted a great deal of attention to its reporting work on subjects as diverse as street markets in Paris and Amsterdam, the homeless, heavy industry and urban traffic in the modern metropolis.
Varieties and the film
For contemporaries, the title of the magazine clearly referred to a blockbuster of the German silent film: Varieté by EA Dupont (1925). Famous is the blood-curdling scene in which the camera was given a central, 'subjective' role and in the somersault gives the cinemagoer the feeling of being flung into space together with the trapeze artist. Film abounded in Variétés from the first issue, in the form of reviews, set photos, and portraits of movie stars. A film still of the trapeze scene from Variété is therefore only one of a long series that filled the photo pages of the magazine.
The mutual influence of film and photography in those years is undeniable. For the makers of Variétés , film and photography were equal to each other, and to the other visual arts. The eye of the camera opened up new worlds.
All the aforementioned developments in the language of film and photography are beautifully reflected in the halls of Keizersgracht 399, where a large selection of photographic work from the 24 issues of Variétés magazine is shown. With this exhibition, Huis Marseille is bringing an exceptional series of vintage prints to the Netherlands by the most important photographers from the interwar period, from Man Ray to Moholy-Nagy, from Atget to Eli Lotar and from female pioneers such as Germaine Krull, Berenice Abbott and Florence Henri. Themes and genres such as surrealism, still lifes, the modern city, the poetry of the street, the machine age and photographic experiments are discussed in the various rooms. At three moments in the course, films and film fragments can be seen that have a direct relationship with the photos shown, such as the trapeze scene from Variété . And the photo pages keep coming back with which Variétés distinguished itself as an important stage for the international avant-garde.
The exhibition Varieties. Photography and avant-garde is based on Variétés, Revue d'avant-garde – Berenice Abbott, Florence Henri, Germaine Krull… the Amsab collection revealed , a co-production of Amsab-Institute for Social History, Ghent, Tijdsbeeld, Ghent, and Les Recontres d'Arles. (Curator Sam Stourdzé in collaboration with Robby Gobyn and Damarice Amao.)
Dates and times
|Thursday 28 September||10:00 - 21:00|
|Friday 29 September||10:00 - 18:00|
|Saturday 30 September||10:00 - 18:00|
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