Her photomontages capture a time and place
Brandt exhibit offers glimpses of Weimar Germany
CAMBRIDGE -- ''Tempo, Tempo!"?
The title would seem to make little sense. Tempo is a musical term, not visual. Music exists in time, the visual arts in space. Yet time is doubly crucial in the great success of ''Tempo, Tempo! The Bauhaus Photomontages of Marianne Brandt," which runs at Harvard's Busch-Reisinger Museum through May 21.
The 36 items on display very much belong to a particular time, Weimar Germany, one of the most fertile, if also unsettling, periods in 20th-century culture. And Brandt imbued them with attributes of time: speed, urgency, pulse. The tempo of her photomontages is molto presto, and looking at them one faintly hears the harsh yet exhilarating strains of Weill and Hindemith.
Brandt was born in 1893. Trained as a painter, she burned all her canvases after seeing a Bauhaus exhibition in 1923. She apprenticed in the school's metal workshop, entranced with the new, eventually becoming its head.
The lamps, fixtures, and other housewares Brandt designed remain models of sleek, functional elegance. Her silver-and-ebony teapot, of 1924, is Bauhaus design at its formal height. Or there's the samovar she did a year later, an example of which sits in a nearby Busch-Reisinger gallery. It looks like a metallic version of the strange, squat creatures that crop up in Max Ernst's paintings.
An affinity with Ernst makes sense. Intimations of Surrealism are very much present in Brandt's photomontages, not to mention Cubism and, especially, Constructivism. Above all, there's Dada. Photomontage, with its capacity for radical incongruity, was the supreme Dada form -- unless nonsense counts as a form, too. And the masters of photomontage were Dadaists: Kurt Schwitters, that wondrous magpie; and John Heartfield, with his hilarious, magisterial, agitprop.
Those few years at the Bauhaus must have seemed all the more precious during the rest of Brandt's very long life (she died in 1983). She briefly moved to Berlin to work in the architectural firm of Walter Gropius, the former Bauhaus chief; then, with the rise of the Nazis, settled in the small east German city of Chemnitz. It wasn't much of a move greographically, but it took her from the absolute center of the artistic avant-garde to its periphery. Living under Hitler, then Communism, Brandt effectively disappeared from art history.
It could have been worse, of course. She might have ended up in a concentration camp or the gulag. But looking at her photomontages, with their giddy energy and inebriate immersion in mass culture, one wonders if she didn't have some premonition of what was to come. Were these an attempt somehow to balance the grim, deadening decades that lay ahead?
There's a marvelous sense in these works of someone trying most anything that comes to hand, experimenting like crazy, propelled as much by the acceleration of her times as by the momentum of her talent. Photographs, images torn from newspapers and magazines, newsprint, celluloid, type, pencil, ink, glass, metal, even a cardboard figure eight: Brandt employed them all. What makes them cohere is the tremendous assurance with which she used space. It's easy to see how Brandt's metalwork experience working in three dimensions gave her a rare control of volume working here in two dimensions.
The presence of (literal) celluloid is only fitting since the movies are all over Brandt's work. This should come as no surprise. The preeminent German studio UFA was at its height during these years, and Berlin rivaled Hollywood for leadership in filmmaking. More than that, film retained a cultural charge and innovativeness not unlike that of, say, the Web today. The medium was barely a quarter-century old, and in content as well as form (the startling juxtapositions, the sense of motion and surprise) Brandt's photomontages give a sense of how revolutionary film must still have seemed. They could be posters set alongside the Odessa Steps.
With movies came the emergence of celebrity as a societal phenomenon. And famous faces pop up throughout the show: Josephine Baker, Adolphe Menjou, Charlie Chaplin, Anna May Wong, the swimmer Gertrude Ederle, Emil Jannings, Jackie Coogan, Elisabeth Bergner, Conrad Veidt, Douglas Fairbanks.
Yet even as we recognize at least some of these names, we do so only from a great distance. The absolute contemporaneity of Brandt's pieces arrests them in time. What must have seemed so up to the minute then looks like a time-machine portal now, a direct two-dimensional entry to a now 80-year-old Weimar. Thanks to patination and changes in typeface styles, Brandt's work seems almost quaintly antique as well as bracingly modern. Brandt couldn't have intended this, of course (or could she?), but that's the most radical incongruity of all.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.