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WESTON RETURNS TO THAT `IMPOSSIBLE VILLAGE'.

Byline: Reed Johnson Daily News Staff Writer

In the early 1920s, while the Lost Generation was gleefully being seduced by Paris, the mecca of Modernism, Edward Weston went searching for his artistic future in Mexico.

It was the kind of intuitively contrarian choice that would define Weston's career, as can be seen from the taut, skillfully arrayed mini-retrospective on view through May 3 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Fed up with culturally staid Los Angeles, which he called ``that impossible village,'' Weston left his wife and three of his four sons in Tropico (now Glendale) in 1923, and headed south to the only country besides the United States that he would ever know first-hand.

While his Parisian contemporaries were steeping themselves in the promiscuous experiments of jazz, dadaist art and cafe society, Weston was photographing geometric ruins, playing with space and perspective in compacted images of skies and tree trunks, and shooting children's toys with a reverence befitting a Renaissance cathedral.

Weston also discovered in Mexico the intellectual camaraderie he'd found lacking in his homeland. (His relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, the ``prophet'' of modern photography, was famously strained.)

It's customary to romanticize Weston as a rugged spiritual loner - the artist as Trappist monk - combing the Carmel coastline for suggestive rock formations, Guggenheim grant in hand.

There's some truth to that. But for large swatches of his life, including his two extended Mexican sojourns between 1923 and 1926, Weston was a social creature, incorrigibly curious about new developments in photography, painting, sculpture, music and writing.

Born in Highland Park, Ill., in 1886, he began shooting pictures when photography was struggling to map out a purpose apart from the other visual arts. He spent his early years constructing static, sentimental scenes in the soft-focus, self-consciously painterly style of the Pictorialists.

But by 1920, he'd begun to find an alternative focus in geometric light patterns and the interplay of architectural spaces. In his 1920 portrait of Johan Hagemeyer, for instance, the subject is framed and subdivided by a slanting parallelogram of light, which strays into a blackened doorway, flattening the human figure into a kind of cubist still life.

In Los Angeles, where he operated a portrait studio, Weston was greatly inspired by a 1919 show at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (LACMA's predecessor), featuring works by such modern artists as Arthur Dove, Man Ray and Marsden Hartley. He also learned from photographers Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, whose works incorporated the geometric compositional strategies pioneered by the paintings of Picasso and George Braque.

But it wasn't until he settled in Mexico with the Italian actress Tina Modotti, who variously served as his muse, lover, student and manager, that Weston began paring down his photographs to the ``high modernist'' abstractions that history will remember him by.

Ignited by the Revolution of 1910-17, Mexico's creative fires were still burning brightly in the 1920s. Led by the great painter-muralists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the poet Luis Quintanilla and others, the Mexican avant-garde of the 1920s and '30s was as lively a cluster as London's Bloomsbury Group or Paris' expatriate American colony.

Rivera and his colleagues had elevated simplicity and folk art to the level of an aesthetic religion. Their idealized visions of the Mexican proletariat and the country's indigenous peoples were concentrated in an art that was nationalistic, expressionistic and highly iconographic.

Weston began to see possibilities for a photographic art in which modernism and primitivism could be synthesized in expressive patterns and monumental icons, in which mundane objects could be transformed into tantalizing abstractions and individual parts could stand in for a greater whole.

In a 1924 portrait of Rivera, he boiled down the Mexican artist's iconic bulk into a moody cross-hatch of light and shadow. The resulting image looks like an outtake from an Eisenstein epic.

A favorable notice from Siqueiros prompted Weston to spend two weeks photographing a toilet from multiple angles, with a nod to Duchamp and the swelling sensuality that Ingres might have lavished on a woman's naked torso. In all, Weston made more than 750 images during his Mexican years.

While Weston was away, Los Angeles grew up, attracting flocks of new artists and important collectors. An assured Weston now turned to ``merging the erotic and the abstract,'' as a catalog essay puts it.

His photographs were tactile, immediate. He photographed a lowly cabbage, sliced in half to reveal a Rorschach blot of multiple forms. His sinuous female nudes, seen from odd angles in sharply focused light, suggested vegetables or sea shells. His close-ups of peppers, squashes and rocks looked like Brancusi sculptures. In one of LACMA's galleries, a white radish, its roots coitally intertwined, uncannily mimics the next-door photo of human limbs.

Later, Weston trained his lens on Hollywood backlots, Mojave Desert diners and ruined antebellum mansions in the Deep South, ripping these familiar images out of stale, journalistic contexts.

Skeptical of theory and pretension, Weston never put much stock in manifestoes. Perhaps that's what makes some of his late works seem crudely dogmatic. The satirical point of ``Civilian Defense'' (1942), featuring a female model posing nude except for a gas mask, is embarrassingly blunt.

By the late 1940s, when Parkinson's disease had largely confined him to the studio, Weston was as much a California artist as John Steinbeck. His influence still can be felt here in the surreal contrasts of Richard Misrach's desertscapes, or in painter Ed Ruscha's photo-realistic treatment of light.

Weston found his voice in Mexico, his mature self in and around that ``impossible villageI.'' It's nice to have him back home for a while.

THE FACTS

What: ``Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism,'' through May 3; ``Edward Weston: A Personal Focus,'' through June 28.

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

Hours: Noon to 8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays; noon to 9 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; closed Wednesdays.

Admission: $7 adults; $5 students 18 and older with ID and seniors 62 and older; $1 children/younger students; children 5 and under are admitted free. The second Tuesday of every month is free to all.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: The 1927 silver print ``Chambered Nautilus'' is part of the exhibit ``Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism,'' on view at LACMA.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 9, 1999
Words:1055
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