Machines turn out new view

Exhibit: Art that's been made ubiquitous by mechanical means of reproduction doesn't lose its ability to draw a crowd.

Fine Arts

January 15, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In the second half of the 19th century, Manet and the Impressionists enthusiastically took up the challenge issued by their friend, the poet Charles Baudelaire, to depict "the heroism of modern life." That happy band of bohemians responded to the call by adopting a new manner of depicting light and color.

Yet for the most part, the Impressionists continued to paint landscapes, still lifes and portraits. That was modern life for them. They did not paint airplanes and skyscrapers for the simple reason that those now ubiquitous emblems of modernity had not yet been invented.

Impressionist art reflected a new consciousness of the seemingly unlimited possibilities offered by the rapid pace of scientific and technical developments. But it was left to a later generation of artists to actually picture their era in terms of the machine.

This is the narrative related by a charming exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art titled Mechanical Form/Mechanical Vision, which runs through April 7. The 20th century glorified the machine in both peace and war, and during its first decades the image of the machine became, for a time at least, one of the characteristic motifs of its art.

Not only did the machine provide artists with new forms and processes to depict, but it also changed the way people saw the world around them. Photography and the motion picture camera introduced a new visual language that enabled artists to depict motion or stop it altogether in ways that revealed a reality previously invisible to the unaided eye.

The BMA show deftly touches on all of these momentous developments through well-chosen examples drawn from the museum's own collections of early 20th-century paintings, sculpture, prints and photographs.

Many of the works on view, like Paul Strand's famous photographs of industrial machinery, John Marin's modernist cityscapes and Francis Picabia and Fernand Leger's cryptic, machine-inspired canvases, will already be familiar to museum-goers as iconic images of the machine age.

Others, like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's exuberant constructivist compositions, Aleksandr Rodchenko's vertigo-inducing photo collages and Marcel Duchamp's quixotic "suitcase exhibition" - a portable, miniature showcase of such signature works as Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) and The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923) - suggest the range of imaginative approaches adopted by painters, sculptors and photographers to express the era's cult of machinery.

The exhibition and its title invariably call to mind one of the century's most influential works of art criticism, Walter Benjamin's 1931 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."

In that seminal work, Benjamin suggested that the mechanical vision of photography had radically changed our relationship to art because photographic reproductions of famous paintings and sculptures had made it possible for anyone to experience great artworks.

Benjamin applauded this development because he thought it made art more democratic. He also thought that the infinite reproducibility of artworks through photography had stripped art objects of what he called their "aura" of uniqueness, making images that were once revered as extraordinary, one-of-a-kind achievements universally available.

Benjamin's arguments remain persuasive to many contemporary artists, even though the evidence of history appears to have proven him wrong.

Millions of reproductions of Leonardo's Mona Lisa and Michelangelo's David have been created since Benjamin's day, yet they have detracted not one whit from the fascination exerted by the originals - as evidenced by the long lines of people who queue up in good weather and bad to see them every year in Paris and Florence.

If anything, the reproduction of famous artworks has only added to their aura by expanding their appeal to a mass audience. The tourist who snaps a picture of himself in front of the pyramids is only affirming the age-old fascination people have felt for these unique monuments.

Similarly, the works in the show BMA retain a stubborn aura of uniqueness, despite the fact that they celebrate, among other things, the mechanical vision Benjamin championed.

Even the museum's "suitcase exhibition" of Duchamp - one of 30 small-scale collections of reproductions the artist made so he wouldn't have to move the originals - has become a rare and precious object in its own right, to be treated with the same respect and reverence as that accorded any Old Master painting.

The Baltimore Museum of Art is at 10 Art Museum Drive. Hours are Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $7 adults, $5 seniors and students. Call 410-396-7100.

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