sat 13/07/2024

The Radical Eye, Tate Modern | reviews, news & interviews

The Radical Eye, Tate Modern

The Radical Eye, Tate Modern

The passion of Elton John: a first-class collection in private hands

Hauntingly beautiful: Man Ray's 'Glass Tears', 1932© Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, PARIS and DACS, London

“For me photography is a journey of discovery”, says Elton John. “I buy what I like and if it's not fashionable I don’t care. The more you collect, the more sophisticated your eye becomes.” He realised he had become a serious collector when, in 1993, he paid a record price at auction for Glass Tears, 1932 by Man Ray (main picture).

This hauntingly beautiful close-up of a woman’s face is paradoxical because the droplets on her cheeks are obviously glass, yet one still tends to see it as an expression of sadness. 

“That image stayed with me from the time I first saw it,” recalls John. “I thought I had gone stark raving mad but I had to have it.” Collecting had become an obsession; he was hooked. The Radical Eye, a selection of 200 photographs from his collection, attests to the quality of the pictures he has acquired over the last 25 years.

It all began in 1990 when, having conquered his dependence on alcohol, John emerged from rehab and needed something on which to focus his attention. He went to France to stay with friends who were organising a photography festival in Cahors, where he met the photographer Herb Ritts and dealer David Fahey and bought his first photographs. 

Soon he discovered there was more to photography than pictures of beautiful or famous people and began seeking advice from dealers like Jane Jackson, who later became Director of his collection. The timing was right. Because the medium was still considered a minor art form by many and collectors were few on the ground, he was able to acquire vintage prints by artists such as Man Ray, Herbert Bayer and André Kertész and amass a collection reflecting the history of 20th century photography that features many of the experimental images that changed our perceptions of the world. 

This matters to us because, having ignored the medium until 2009, the Tate owns no photographs by these modernist pioneers (fortunately the V&A was not so myopic), so we are incredibly lucky that John has agreed to share his collection with us. And what a treat! 

The show opens with a portrait of John taken by Irving Penn in 1997, whose distortions make him look like a deranged Alan Bennett. Several other portraits by Penn show famous sitters tucked into a tight corner in his studio. Slumped low in a chair, boxer Joe Louis (1948) seems like a deflated bag of bones; Salvador Dali (1947), on the other hand, (pictured above right) looks ready to take on the world as he poses in a dapper black suit, elbows out and legs spread assertively apart. 

Masks were an ongoing source of fascination for the Surrealists and they feature large in the exhibition. In Man Ray’s portrait of her from 1921, Berenice Abbott cups her head in her hands as though it were a delicate mask detached from her body. In Noire et Blanche, 1926, he juxtaposes a model’s head with a black ebony mask; the image is paired with a negative print, which turns the model’s face black and the mask white to create a complex visual dialogue about tonal variations, the beauty of monochrome and the difference between an inanimate object and a living being. 

In Norman Parkinson’s 1938 portrait, Edward James poses, eyes closed, beside an item from his collection of surrealist art – a death mask of Napoleon painted with clouds by René Magritte. Lit dramatically from below, the two heads – one plaster, the other living flesh – look equally pallid and sepulchral. 

Actress Gloria Swanson, in 1924, looks like a panther trapped behind the black lace thrown across her face by Edward Steichen. The Parisian fireman encountered by Josef Breitenbach in 1935 needed no additional props to make him appear strange: encased in a heavy breathing apparatus, he looks like a robot impersonating a human. 

Herbert Bayer portrays himself, in 1932, (pictured above left) as a mannequin with a slice cut out of his left arm; the optical trickery is further complicated by the fact that we are looking over his shoulder at his reflection in a mirror. 

If portraits were the perfect vehicle for an exploration of the truth of the photographic image, nudes like Edward Weston’s 1936 Nude provided an opportunity to portray the body as a sculptural object, a beautiful collection of interlocking solids, or as in Ilse Bing’s Dancer, Willem van Loon, 1932 (pictured above right), a dynamic force overcoming gravity. 

The still-life provided an opportunity to explore positive and negative space, texture, pattern, light and dark contrast, and scale; this may sound dryly academic, but in the hands of artists like Herbert Bayer, Paul Strand, Imogen Cunningham and André Kertész, led to some exquisite visual poetry. In her Bandolier, Corn and Sickle, 1927 (pictured above left), Mexican photographer Tina Modotti transforms the objects into symbols of revolutionary struggle. Photographing buildings provided Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White and Alexander Rodchenko with a chance to explore unusual vantage points and extreme perspectives.

John’s collection includes examples of all these initiatives, but is weighted in favour of American photography and so has some striking omissions. Norman Parkinson is the only Brit in the exhibition; Alvin Langdon Coburn, Bill Brandt and Angus McBean being obvious candidates for inclusion. The Russians, Germans and French are also under-represented; El Lissitzky is missing and Alexander Rodchenko appears only twice. August Sander, Lyonel Feininger, Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann and John Heartfield are absent, while László Moholy-Nagy appears with only a single work. Florence Henri, Claude Cahun and Brassaï are also missing.

Elton John can buy whatever he likes, of course, but while his collection gives a splendid overview of the photographic experiments begun 100 years ago, it is worth remembering that the view of history it presents is skewed. It would be fun to curate a European-weighted show of work from the same period.

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