The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection

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“It’s not about how great the collection is. It’s about the photographers who took the photographs…how they changed the art form forever.”

While he still manages to rock over 100 gigs per year, the Rocket Man is also revered in most cultural circles as a tastemaker par excellence. He has always been an early champion of emerging talent, from Eminem in the 80s to Ed Sheeran in the 90s, and last April, he collaborated with Lady Gaga to launch a clothing line. Now, a major exhibition of international modernist photography at the Tate Modern proves that his private art collecting is as chameleonic as the public curation of his hairstyles and sunglasses.

Drawing from Sir Elton’s private photography collection—with over 8,000 works, it is one of the largest in the world—“The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection” surveys photography’s development in the early twentieth century, calumniating in a love letter to an art form. Beginning in the 1920s and ending in the 1950s, the exhibition is the first of its kind to focus on the period of major experimentations that followed the end of the First World War. Charting technological advancements and artistic movements alike, the curator Shoair Mavlian presents formal trials, avante-garde provocations, and pop spectacle that pioneered many of the medium’s movements, from Surrealism to the Bauhaus. Canonical figures such as Man Ray, Irving Penn, and Aexlandr Rodchenko headline the some 200 original prints, all created by the artists themselves. They are displayed in varying arrangements, from gallery-style straight lines, to small and large clusters that reflect the way photographers during this period hung their photographs in order to consider potential edits.

We are privileged to central biographical details behind the collection that shape the trajectory of the exhibition: Sir Elton began collecting photography in 1991, a year after he got sober; the photographs are maintained in the same frames as they are displayed in Sir Elton and David Furnish’s home. However, audiences will be disappointed if they expect any semblance of a tell-all fantasy fandom akin to 2013’s “David Bowie is” at the V&A. An unassuming aesthete, Sir Elton cheerfully demystifies his handiwork behind his possession in the audio guide’s introduction: “It’s not about how great the collection is. It’s about the photographers who took the photographs, what they were willing to experiment with, and how they changed the art form forever.” Indeed, the exhibition title is not a reference to the art buyer’s prescriptive gaze—it alludes to the camera’s altered way of seeing the world.

One of the great British artistic institutions was skillfully illustrated near the exhibition’s entrance—a complicit queue waited to individually inspect André Kertész’ “Underwater Swimmer” (1917). This tiny contact print, hardly bigger than a bag of tea, is all rippling refracted light and slicing musculature of a seemingly cadaverous swimmer—a beautiful male body, the model was Kertész’ brother. In an interview with the Telegraph, Sir Elton declared it to be the most important photograph from the twentieth century. But if Sir Elton had not provided special audio commentary to accompany this photograph, which is so engulfed by its oversized burnt-gold frame, would the general viewer have even noticed it? The exhibition’s double-rootedness in superstardom branding, and its spectacular survey of a visual art form, one that does not typically draw large museum crowds, anticipates polarised responses. But perhaps, for the groupie-cum-museum-goer, whether or not the exhibition delivers on the implied promise of its title is beside the point—it got you to look in the first place.

By M. René Bradshaw


The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection
Tate Modern
10 November 2016 – 7 May 2017
£16.50/£14.50