Cambridge, MA

“Wols Photographs”


All that glistens is not silver. All that shines in black-and-white is not machine-age steel, or industrial porcelain, or opalescent shell, or pearly flesh, or some other beautiful modern arrangement in light and space. And what else do the following have in common: Curbside effluent, glittering in the night; dank water in a tin bucket, with a slimy rag; the slick, uncooked flesh of a skinned rabbit that looks ripe for bacteria and the kitchen garbage; naked potatoes, clammy sausages, unnameable larva-like somethings; and, set against a stained, layered, darkly lustrous, unspecifiable surface, a can of sardines, opened to reveal its silvered contents, its lid-key stuck to a rip in the negative as if to peel back the surface of the print as well? All are photographs taken in Paris between 1932 and 1942 by the German expatriate Wolfgang Otto Schulze, alias Wols, better known as the founder of Informel painting.

Curated by Harvard doctoral candidate Christine Mehring, “Wols Photographs” isolates the artist’s photography from his painting. Since their rediscovery in the mid-’70s, the photographs have been regarded as harbingers of abstract things to come. Mehring, however, chooses to treat them as differing fundamentally from the paintings: not as predicters of a painterly sensibility à la Sartre (who would champion the artist’s abstractions), but as specifically photographic, and therefore significantly unlike painting in their existentialist materiality, in their making absence out of matter. This is all to the good.

A case may be made as well that Wols’s photographs take on the new-vision school of ’20s and ’30s photography, eviscerating and abjecting its beautiful-world aesthetic, interning it in the agoraphobic space of the kitchen. Wols made many kinds of photographs, commencing his brief photographic career in Paris as a portraitist, receiving an assignment in 1937 to photograph the Pavilion of Elegance at the World’s Fair, all the while exploring the streets and quays of his new urban home, photographing clochards, gutters, glimmers, shadows, and torn posters, often at night like Brassaï, whom he knew. But most interesting are the still-lifes, dating largely from 1938 and 1939. They are all studies in a kind of (un)form: Their overhead points of view are strangely indefinite, and their spaces are not uniformly sharp, so that their flatnesses are not as crisp and controlled as they might be. The surfaces on which objects are shown to rest are cheap and degraded, indexing the traces, as kitchen work surfaces do, of years of cutting, slicing, mashing, grinding, staining, and washing. It is in these surfaces that one might see a resemblance to the abraded, lugubriously overworked materiality of Wols’s later abstract oils, but they also diverge in their photographicness. The surfaces are indeterminate; it is often hard to tell whether they are wood or metal or stone. The kitchen photographs are unusually informative about their backgrounds; at the same time they posit the unknowability of substances from purely optical evidence.

Here and there traces of negative scratching, water staining, and light glancing are registered on the shiny surfaces of the prints, often barely distinguishable from the scratching, staining, and glimmering of the surfaces they represent. Yet the images are as formally striking as any by Moholy-Nagy (with whom Wols had wanted to study), as brilliantly black-and-white as any by Renger-Patzsch or Weston. But in place of optical purity or the celebratory identification of polished, streamlined object with the sublimated techno-gleam of the glossy photograph, the smooth, silvered paper of Wols’s kitchen photographs is imbricated in the glistening of viscera, the scintillations of stains and scratches, and the viscous luster of fetid fluids. And so the aesthetic pleasure of the modern photograph is complicated by disgust, at once undermined and furthered by culinary shudder and gustatory gag reflex.

There is a history in still-life painting for this sort of thing: hunt pieces with their dead animals and kitchen images with their stewpot ingredients and humble surfaces. One might think of Chardin’s Ray, with the oil-glazed sheen of its slippery entrails, and the push and pull of attraction and repulsion that it engages. Wols grafted that history onto the modernist visuality of photography. In one image, a flayed rabbit hangs from a photographic lamp, its flesh providing a translucent, organic white to complement the lamp’s glinting metallic black. It spells out the crossing of the still-life tradition with modern photography: dead meat and technophilia. In the exhibition it is part of a group of three photographs that includes the skinned rabbit, and beneath the rabbit are inscribed the words of Wols’s wife, “Nous le mangerons après”—“We will eat it after”—playing up the relation between the man’s photographing, the woman’s cooking, and the couple’s eating.

Another emblematic photograph shows a tiny doll and an open oyster on muddy cobblestones, shot at an overhead tilt. This is a rendezvous between Moholy-Nagy and nature morte. It also articulates the inverted arc of Wols’s photographic career, from the Paris-by-Night dérive to the shut-in’s world of small, close things. In a larger way too, Wols’s photographic trajectory resists its destiny in painterly abstraction. For Wols’s untriumphant story goes this way: Some three years after these photographs were taken, his photographic equipment was confiscated by German authorities, and then later, not altogether by choice, he turned to painting, because the materials were cheaper and more portable. And thus Informel was born, out of a cessation of photography.

Carol Armstrong is professor of art history at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York.