In the summer of 2023 Huis Marseille will be presenting a special collection of avant-garde and surrealist photographs dating from the 1920s. These vintage prints were rediscovered thirty years ago amongst more than 150,000 press photos owned by the Flemish daily newspaper Vooruit, miraculously surviving the intervening years. The collection owes its existence to the Belgian art magazine Variétés, which ran for only two years. Variétés was an important international platform for a generation of young photographers and their new and adventurous imagery. The magazine published many startlingly original photographs, photograms and photomontages by trailblazing photographers such as Man Ray, Germaine Krull, Berenice Abbott, László Moholy-Nagy, Florence Henri and Eli Lotar. The monthly magazine also devoted close attention to avant-garde film. With vintage photographs, magazine spreads and film fragments Huis Marseille will be hosting an extraordinary panorama of avant-garde photography and film from the interwar years. The exhibition has been organised in close collaboration with the Amsab-Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis in Gent, which manages the Variétés collection.
The Variétés magazine and the spirit of a new age
Variétés – Revue mensuelle illustrée de l’esprit contemporain (Illustrated monthly revue of the modern spirit), as the magazine was called in full, appeared from May 1928 until April 1930 and did indeed reflect the spirit of a new age. The magazine was the brainchild of the cultural all-rounder and art promoter Paul-Gustave van Hecke (1887-1967), who introduced Belgium to abstract art, Dada, and Surrealism. The versatile E.L.T. Mesens (1903-1971) fulfilled an equally important role: a pianist and composer, critic, artist, photographer and exhibition curator, he had an enormous network of contacts. The two were close friends and ran the L’Époque gallery together in Brussels. Van Hecke provided the funding for L’Époque and Variétés and Mesens looked after its international network. The magazine had an unmistakeably surrealist signature; in 1929 it even devoted a special edition entirely to Surrealism. The team that put the magazine together every month included a screenwriter and a film critic. Dutch authors made regular contributions, and themed editions included one on Hollande.
Photographs presented in innovative ways
Photography had an important role in Variétés, and the magazine presented photographic images in some innovative ways. Every edition included about sixty photos, grouped into separate sections and printed on glossy paper. Each of these photo sections, which were distributed evenly across the magazine, told their own story, the photographs themselves thereby becoming an autonomous means of expression. They were usually presented in combinations of two or four, creating new links and interpretations, which were often underscored by the captions.
Mesens, a surrealist, certainly had a decisive role in the selection of photographs, and it is doubtless his hand we see in these enigmatic, humorous, or subversive combinations of images. Anonymous photos, postcards, film stills, anthropological documentation, and fashion or sports photos were combined with signed images by avant-garde photographers, creating photo pages whose poetic, ironic, and enigmatic character startled the reader and transcended conventional magazine layouts. Variétés was a magazine for adventurous art lovers who were open to new visual experiences.
Photography in the 1920s
The 1920s were a turning point in the arts, and also in photography. The First World War had brought an end to the last vestiges of the nineteenth century. For a new generation of artists, post-revolutionary Russia meant a delirious freedom. The old could be thrown away entirely, and anything was possible. A new photographic language arose that made use of unusual camera angles, strong diagonals, and extreme close-ups. Anything that intensified visual experience was relevant, including aerial photography and scientific techniques such as X-rays and microscopy. Darkroom experiments with double exposure and photograms expanded the photographer’s vocabulary. Through the photographer’s eyes, machines and lifeless objects sometimes seemed to be possessed by supernatural forces.
The magazine’s picture editor E.L.T. Mesens was a friend of the Parisian surrealist artist Man Ray, and Ray’s influence on Variétés is unmistakeable. Mesens included Ray’s work from the magazine’s very first issues. He also devoted a photo section to the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927), who had been discovered by Man Ray and who the surrealists acknowledged as a pioneer.
From September 1928 onwards Variétés regularly published work by Germaine Krull, Eli Lotar and André Kertész, three immigrants to Paris who were linked to the high-profile weekly magazine VU. Commissions by magazines and publicity photographs offered this generation an entirely new professional field in which women were, for the first time, well represented. This can also be seen in Variétés’ photo selections. In the 1920s the American photographer Berenice Abbott was an assistant to Man Ray in Paris, and when Eugène Atget died in 1927 it was Abbott who took care of his archive. Back in New York she documented modern high-rise building construction from a frog’s eye view, using strong tonal contrasts that imbued this architecture with a dramatic expressiveness. Florence Henri and Aenne Biermann worked in their studios to create extremely precisely composed still lives. They both transformed everyday objects into something beguiling, Henri with the ingenious use of mirrors and Biermann with using double exposures. With a total of 125 photos, however, Germaine Krull is the best represented female photographer in Variétés and in the exhibition. Krull made her name with photographs of modern steel constructions such as the Eiffel Tower and harbour machinery. Variétés also showcased her reportage work on a wide variety of subjects that included street markets in Paris and Amsterdam, homeless people, heavy industry, and traffic in the modern metropolis.
Variétés and film
For its contemporaries the magazine’s title was an obvious reference to a blockbuster of German silent film: Variété by E.A. Dupont (1925), with its famously breathtaking scene in which the camera is given a central, ‘subjective’ role and its salto mortale gives the cinemagoer the vertiginous sense of being thrown through the air along with the trapeze artist. From the magazine’s very first edition film was abundantly evident in Variétés in the form of reviews, set photos, and film star portraits. A film still of the trapeze scene in Variété is just one of a long series that filled the magazine’s photo pages.
The reciprocal influence of film and photography in these years is indisputable. For the makers of Variétés film and photography were of equal value, and clearly on a par with the other visual arts. The eye of the camera was opening new worlds.
All these developments in the language of film and photography are beautifully displayed in the galleries of Keizersgracht 399, with a large selection of photographic work taken from the 24 editions of the Variétés magazine. With this exhibition Huis Marseille is bringing an exceptional series of vintage prints to the Netherlands, showing work by the most important photographers of the interwar years – from Man Ray to Moholy-Nagy, from Atget to Eli Lotar, and work by female pioneers such as Germaine Krull, Berenice Abbott and Florence Henri. The various galleries focus on themes and genres such as Surrealism, still lives, the modern city, the poetry of the street, the machine age, and photographic experiments. Three locations along the museum route present films and film fragments having a direct relationship with the photographs on display, such as the trapeze scene from Variété. The photo pages with which the Variétés magazine distinguished itself as an important platform for the international avant-garde recur throughout.
The exhibition Variétés. Photography and the Avant-Garde is based on Variétés, Revue d’avant-garde – Berenice Abbott, Florence Henri, Germaine Krull… de Amsab-collectie onthuld, a co-production of Amsab-Institute of Social History, Ghent, Tijdsbeeld, Ghent, and Les Recontres d’Arles. (Curator Sam Stourdzé in collaboration with Ronny Gobyn and Damarice Amao.)