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The MoMA Legend: "Seen at MoMA" in the Galerie Kicken in Berlin


Since the mid-nineteen-thirties, the Museum of Modern Art's exhibitions and publications have played a crucial role in incorporating photography into the general art discourse. Even if the MoMA in Berlin has dedicated itself purely to painting and sculpture, exhibition visitors can discover the history of the most important photographic collection of the world elsewhere in Berlin. Brigitte Werneburg has visited the exhibition Seen at MoMA at the Kicken Gallery for Photography and has traced the various stages of the museum's spectacular collection.



Man Ray: Noire et Blanche, 1926
©The Man Ray Trust / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2004,

Courtesy: Kicken Gallery Berlin

To be precise, the MoMA in Berlin has only arrived in town with one part of its baggage. The selection of 200 undoubtedly exceptional paintings and sculptures in the New National Gallery by no means constitutes MoMA's complete arrival. The museum's unique position is, after all, grounded in the fact that it has regarded modern industrial design, contemporary architecture, film, and photography as integral components of its collection along with painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts. Happily, Berlin doesn't have to make do without an insight into the rest of the museum's collection. In May, in the framework of the "American Season," the Friends of the German Cinemathek at the Arsenal Theater on Potsdamer Platz have begun the program East Side - West Side. Treasures of MoMA's Film Archive. And at the end of the month, the photo gallery Kicken in Linienstrasse will be opening the second part of their excellent exhibition Seen at MoMA, which presents a small but choice selection from the museum's photographic collection.

Erwin Blumenfeld: Legs à la Seurat (Maria Motherwell), New York, 1942, © Estate of the artist, Courtesy: Kicken Gallery Berlin
The mixture of icons of photographic history such as Man Ray's Noire et Blanche from 1926 and less-known works by famous photographers such as Erwin Blumenfeld's Legs à Seurat (Maria Motherwell), New York from 1942, already made the first part of the show into an unexpected experience. The images, partly arranged chronologically, partly thematically and by association, were hung next to one another at eye level as well as in groups filling the entire wall. Images by August Sander, Weegee, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Helen Levitt offer a cross-section of street photography beginning in the nineteen-thirties. At the same time, the exhibition also staged several sharp breaks, such as Edward Steichen's softly filtered Self-Portrait, Milwaukee (1898), which was immediately followed by Paul Outerbridge's Piano of 1926, a work of the Neue Sachlichkeit.

Visitors were free to stand reverently before precious photographs such as William Henry Fox Talbot's The Ancient Vestry. Reverend Calvert Jones in the Cloisters at Lacock Abbey. September 9 1845, one of the first prints made on paper, or Charles Nègre's Untitled (Asile Impérial de Vincennes) of 1858. The selection made it clear that the new photographic technology had possessed an own independent aesthetics from the very beginning, one that cannot be reduced to the big names of photography. Its pictorial language was defined both by the occasions photographed and the experimentation and development of new procedures, as can be seen in the anonymous photograph from the First World War, the Radiographie médicale, Hôpital militaire Denon from 1918 as well as in Dr. Joseph Maria Eder's & Eduard Valenta's 15-part album titled Versuche über Photographie mittelst der Röntgen'schen Strahlen from 1896.

Estate of the artist, Courtesy: Kicken Gallery Berlin


With only 51 works, the Galerie Kicken succeeded in covering MoMA's most important exhibitions and publications, and with them the essential stages of the photographic discourse. Since the mid-nineteen-thirties, the Museum of Modern Art's exhibitions and publications have played a crucial role in incorporating photography into the general art discourse. The MoMA was not, however, the first museum that collected photography; it wasn't even the first museum to collect photography as art. Alfred Lichtwark, for instance, the director of Hamburg's Kunsthalle, had already established a photography collection in the first decade of the 20th century that featured important examples of pictorial photography, including works by Alfred Stieglitz. An entire series of major photography exhibitions in Germany between 1925 and the early thirties, among them film und foto in Stuttgart in 1927, had long since prepared photography's rise to a museum art form, well before Beaumont Newhall took on the recently created position as MoMA's curator of photography in 1940.


William Henry Fox Talbot: The Ancien Vestry. Reverend Calvert Jones in the Cloisters at Lacock Abbey. 9 September, 1845 Estate of the artist, Courtesy: Kicken Gallery Berlin

In the exhibition series Cubism and Abstract Art from 1936, Bauhaus. 1919-1928 from 1938, and Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism from 1939, initiated by MoMA's founding director Alfred H. Barr, photography was introduced for the first time in 1937 as a matter of course. Photography. 1839-1937, the exhibition with which Beaumont Newhall - who at the time was still active at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - prepared his move to the MoMA, is commonly considered to be a milestone in the recognition of photography as an art form. Yet, as the art historian Christopher Phillips demonstrates in his essay The Judgement Seat of Photography (in: The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, pp. 15-48; Richard Bolton, editor; MIT Press, Cambridge 1989), it was precisely this exhibition that showed that Newhall was not interested in the question of photography's place within the fine arts. His selection was conceived as an overview on the development and specialization of photographic technology. Critics were confused; Lewis Mumford, for instance, wrote in the New Yorker that he found it "unfair" that the evaluation of the photographs' "aesthetic merits" was left entirely up to the viewer.


Alfred Stieglitz: The Steerage, 1907
Georgia O`Keeffe Foundation,
Courtesy: Kicken Gallery Berlin

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