Cleveland Museum of Art

photo: John Hazeltine

Cleveland, OH



Edward Weston and Modernism


This fall, the Cleveland Museum of Art presents Edward Weston and Modernism, bringing together 140 vintage prints by one of the pioneers of modern American photography. Many consider Weston (1886-1958) not just a gifted photographer, but one of the greatest artists this country has produced. The exhibition runs September 19 to November 28, 1999. Admission is free.

Edward Weston and Modernism is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from the collection of Mrs. William H. Lane. The Lane Collection, which is on long-term loan to the Boston museum, is perhaps the finest assemblage of vintage Weston prints, acquired directly from the photographer's heirs. The exhibition presents a dual opportunity--to experience firsthand these extraordinary photographs and to understand Weston's work in the context of the modernist movement that inspired many artists, architects, musicians, and writers in the early decades of this century. (left: Rubber Dummy, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1939, silver print, 7 5/8 x 9 5/8 inches, The Lane Collection, courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; right: Armco Steel, 1922, silver print, 9 3/8 x 6 7/8 inches, The Lane Collection, courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

"I feel that I have been more deeply moved by music, literature, sculpture, painting than I have by photography," wrote Weston, "[but] the painters have no copyright on modern art." Indeed, the defining qualities of modernism--structural clarity, simplicity, abstraction, and forthrightness--would become hallmarks of Weston's best-known work. This show examines how Weston's photography responded to the evolving artistic trends of the day. Curator of Contemporary Art and Photography Tom Hinson, who organized the exhibition's Cleveland showing, says: "This show from Boston's Lane Collection is one of the finest groups of Weston photographs that has ever traveled. I am delighted to be able to present these masterworks in Cleveland, and I welcome especially the chance to show Weston not just as a photographer, but as a major modern artist."


Going Modern

In 1911, Weston opened a portrait studio in what is now Glendale, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. There he worked in the popular soft-focus, romantic, pictorialist style, earning an international reputation. Despite his success in this conservative mode, he kept one eye on
the avant-garde, and before long he left behind financial security to partake in the emerging movement called modernism. The exhibition picks up in the early '20s with a series of close-cropped portraits and nudes, many incorporating geometric motifs akin to the Soviet constructivist painters.

Ruth Shaw-A Portrait, from 1922, places a woman's forehead and eye, in profile, against diagonal black and white block shapes. That same year, he photographed the Armco Steel building in Middletown, Ohio, finding futuristic geometry in an ascending row of smokestacks. From there, he went on to New York to meet the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz' s unblinking criticism and Weston's exposure to the work of other major artists associated with Stieglitz--among them Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, and Georgia O'Keeffe--pushed Weston to move decisively away from his old pictorial style.

Another new influence was the avant-garde actress Tina Modotti, who soon would become his romantic companion and model. The first photograph of Modotti in this show documents Weston's transition to modernism: the composition, something between a portrait and a figure study, is radically cropped and the space flat, but the image still retains the atmospheric soft focus of pictorialism.


Inspiration in Mexico

In 1923, Weston and Modotti went to Mexico, where Weston spent most of the next three years. While there, Modotti--who was becoming an accomplished and adventurous photographer herself--introduced him to members of the Mexican avant-garde; soon his circle of friends included such luminaries of the Mexican art world as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. This social and physical environment proved fertile for Weston, as he drew equally on the intellectual fervor of his peers and on the elemental force he found in the Mexican culture and landscape to form his own version of modernism-based-in-realism. One of the dearest expressions of his new vision is Excusado, an elegantly lit still life of a white porcelain toilet bowl--a plain, everyday object transformed into a thing of abstract beauty. In 1926 Weston left Mexico, never to return, but the modernist style he developed there would form the aesthetic basis for his work over the next decade and inspire the creation of some of the most important photographic images of this century.


High Modernism

From the late '20s to the mid '30s he made the quintessentially modern photographs for which he is most famous. Weston found purity of form in such subjects as a chambered nautilus shell, a gnarled green pepper, a cabbage leaf, or a close-cropped portion of a human body--images that perfectly embodied the modernist credo, "nothing but the essential." His richly toned prints, made from 4 x 5-inch negatives, rendered his vision in sumptuous detail. He met and photographed many important avant-garde and modernist figures of the time, including composers Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, poet e.e. cummings, and artist Isamu Noguchi. He especially admired the sculpture of Constantin Brancusi. Indeed, Weston and others noted the affinity between his own work of the 1930s to the sculptor's abstracted organic forms.

Karen E. Quinn of the Museum of Fine Arts,Boston, sums up the work of this period in her catalogue essay: "These archetypical modernist works balance sensuality with purity of form while being so impersonal that they become abstractions. A nude of [Charis] at once a traditional image and a carefully composed and lit modernist one. Weston's interest in form and pattern can be seen in the repetition of shapes: the ovals of head and arms, the sharp darks and lights, the angles of legs and doorway. It was the last great nude Weston made in his older, formalist style."


Constraints Removed

By the 1940s, his style had evolved to produce looser compositions. The roots of this approach date to the late '20s when he had begun to seek out fragments of sculptural form in nature. These photographs are about pattern, texture, and line--expressions of the underlying order in natural forms. While he explored these "found" compositions, he also experimented with juxtapositions of objects in overtly surreal images. As with his studio-made still lifes of shells and peppers, this work relates to contemporary trends in the visual arts. They respond deliberately to surrealism and even foreshadow abstract expressionism with loose, spatially indecipherable compositions incorporating all manner of strewn debris. Always one to shake off the shackles of expectation, Weston also offended many admirers with forays into purely satirical works during these years, contriving obvious set-ups and giving them allusive titles (virtually the opposite approach to straightforwardly photographing a green pepper and titling it "pepper").

Increasingly debilitated by Parkinson's Disease, Weston made his last photographs in 1948, ten years before his death. By then, photography had matured to a fine art in its own right. This exhibition demonstrates how Weston played a major part in that transformation, through his rare talent and by seeing himself not just as a photographer, but as a modern artist who happened to use a camera.

The Boston museum's 230-page exhibition catalogue is available at the Art Museum Stores. Promotional support is provided by the Free Times.

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See also Modotti and Weston: Mexicanidad (8/2/99) and 20th Century American Photography.

Read more about the Cleveland Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in1999 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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