Modernist art arose in the 19th century as artists responded to sweeping changes in society: industrialization, mechanization, urbanization, and the advent of technologies such as the railroad, the telegraph and the telephone that closed distances and altered perceptions of the passage of time. With its Modern Series, the Art Institute of Chicago is exploring how artists overthrew conventions and forged new art forms befitting an exciting, anxiety-provoking age. The second exhibition in the series, “Go,” on view until June 4, features works of art devoted to a prevailing characteristic of modern life: Speed. The exhibition incorporates paintings, sculpture, collage and textiles, but thanks to its ability to freeze action, photography takes center stage.
A few images in the show, such as Harold Edgerton’s 1962 image of a bullet piercing Plexiglas and George Demeny’s 1906 long-exposure image of a leaping athlete, examine phenomena too fast for the eye alone to perceive. Others, such as Jacques Henri Lartigue’s iconic image of an accelerating race car and Ilse Bing’s shots of dancers, express an exhilarating delight in motion and the camera’s ability to arrest it. Photographer Germaine Krull’s 1930 series shows how landscapes blur when seen through a car window. It was a sight few could afford, but “Go” demonstrates how images such as these influenced contemporary painters, who often emulated the blur of motion in their own works.
In their euphoria over technology, some modernist artists went so far as to reject humanism, embracing either Fascism or Marxist collectivization. “Go” steers clear of modernism’s darker strains, but includes Edward Steichen’s 1918 image of aerial bombs being dropped onto a village in France, which hints at where technological progress can lead. “Go” features many views of the dizzying bustle of urban life, including Harry Callahan’s multiple exposure of a busy street in Detroit and Lisette Model’s “Running Legs,” made with her camera placed on the sidewalk to capture a crowd of feet and ankles.
There’s something quaint about the astonishment that surrounded inventions such as the airplane and the telephone. But as we wrestle with the pace of change in our own time, we can find some inspiration and perhaps consolation in the creativity with which 20th century artists made sense of the pressures and bewildering transformations they witnessed. —Holly Stuart Hughes