In 2003, art historian Eva Forgács wrote critically of the scholarly categorization of an “East-European” modernist art, a descriptor that homogenised the broad diversity of artistic experimentation in countries such as Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.[1] During the early twentieth century, Forgács argued, artists did not subscribe to a regionalist consciousness and did not engage in regional discourse. Therefore, to universalise the artistic output of an entire region of Europe, ignoring the cultural differences and ethnic tensions between social groups in that area, was to treat the subject superficially from a hegemonic Western perspective.

Fourteen years have passed since Forgács’s article was published, and still the great wealth of modernist art from such countries remains critically unexplored by major Western European art institutions. Indeed, many exhibitions still seem to rely on a construct of modernism that privileges two poles of modernist exploration: Western (Cubism, Futurism, German Expressionism etc.) and Russian (Cubo-Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism). Over the past fifteen years or so, scholars in the field of Central and East European Modernism have sought to articulate alternative modernisms that replace a universal, totalising theory of modernism with a model that considers local social, political, and economic specificities across the entirety of Europe. However, this approach has not fully translated across academic lines to curatorial practices.

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection, currently on view at the Tate Modern, is therefore a delightfully fresh approach to the exhibition of European modernism. The collection on display emphasises shared artistic interests across national and cultural boundaries during the first half of the twentieth century, but also highlights the individualised manner in which artists have explored these critical themes. For this, one must give Sir Elton John, rather than the Tate Modern, full credit for his expansive and critical eye towards European modernist photography. John’s appreciation for, and understanding of, the diverse wealth of photographic exploration throughout Europe, including the so-called “Eastern” countries, is evidenced through the incredible diversity of his collection.

Across multiple thematically staged rooms one observes photographs by André Kertész, Ilse Bing, and Jaromír Funke installed alongside works by Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange. James Van der Zee’s portraits of Harlem Renaissance figures can be considered in the same space as Man Ray’s portraits, or alongside Paul Citroen’s Self Portrait with Camera Present (1930) to consider the meaning of portraiture and self-construction of identity. Photographs by František Drtikol, Dora Maar, Ferenc Csik, Herbert Bayer, Bernice Abbott, and Alfred Stieglitz underscore points of contact and divergence across themes of abstraction, portraiture, movement, documentation, and light. Regardless of aesthetic and technical similarities or differences, taken as a whole these works underscore the equal engagement in photographic experimentation of artists across national and cultural boundaries.

The Radical Eye demonstrates how fruitful taking a novel approach to European modernism can be. Reviews of the exhibition that refer to the surprising “lesser-known” Eastern European artists displayed alongside familiar canonical figures both reflect how much work is still needed to dismantle our art historical error, and also miss the point of the exhibition. Our understanding of Modernism is not complete, and the construction of the Modernist movement as a singular, universal concept is too narrow and uncomplicated a reading. Artists such as Aleksandr Rodchenko, László Moholy-Nagy, and Man Ray are not better-known simply because their work is universally superior; shifting social and political forces have led to a prioritisation of Western and Russian artists over those outside of the “centres”. The reality of this misinformation is displayed frankly in The Radical Eye, where the non-hierarchical display of artistic experimentation from Hungary, the United States, Paris, Romania, Germany, etc. reminds the viewer of the breadth of photographic production in the early twentieth century and the strong artistic dialogue between peoples of different cultures across the great expanse of Europe.

The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection is on view until 21 May, 2017. Details can be found here.

[1] See Eva Forgács, “How the New Left Invented East-European Art”, Centropa 3, no. 2 (May 2003).