Beauty in the all-seeing eye of the talented beholder

By Juliet Steyn, January 20, 2014
Natalia Pasco New York, 1942, by Erwin Blumenfeld

Natalia Pasco New York, 1942, by Erwin Blumenfeld

Erwin Blumenfeld
Ute Eskildsen (Ed)
Yale University Press, £30

No Place Like Home
Judah Passow,
Bloomsbury, £25

Diversity of art practices responsive to the events and pressures of the world around him is the stuff of the current Jeu de Paume exhibition of photography, drawings and montage by Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969). The works date from his early years in Berlin, then Amsterdam, followed by Paris and finally New York, where he lived from 1941 until his death. With serendipity on his side, he survived the traumas of two world wars and managed to escape from the Nazis to the USA.

It was in Paris that his advertising career began and in New York his fashion photography. There, he produced the now iconic works for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue for which he is perhaps best known. His vision imbibes influences from the Bauhaus to Dada and Surrealism. This is an artist who does not impose a homogeneous image on the world but is always outward-looking. Each location seems to produce a discrete body of work - from which, importantly, he can make a living.

The book published to coincide with the exhibition is a well-researched compendium of essays, with 150 images, that touch on the many aspects of Blumenfeld's oeuvre. His personal history is also a history of Europe, European and American modernism, of modernist art and design; the universal co-exists with the particular. And in his work, and its representation in this book, diversity does not congeal into identity.

The idea for Judah Passow's collection of photographs arose in 2008 after the death of his father, a rabbi and historian who was keenly interested in questions of Jewish identity. "More than anything else," Passow writes, "my father loved the fact that Judaism was at its core essentially an idea, and that everything that flowed from that big idea is just someone's interpretation". To honour his father's vision, Passow decided to record the diversity of Jewish life in Britain by documenting communities in London, Belfast, Glasgow, Manchester and other, smaller British cities and towns.

The collection is seductively reassuring. Passow affirms: "This new century marks the point at which the emotional baggage of the immigrant generation has finally been left behind". Accordingly, Passow embraces Jewish identity in its diverse guises - from obdurate difference to universalist assimilation.

Difference is configured through the visual marks of traditional Jewish customs: an Orthodox man wrapped in a tallit; yeshiva boys dancing in the street to celebrate Purim; a rabbi examining an etrog. Assimilation is represented in such images as an officer cadet at the Royal Military Academy; retirement by the seaside; a police officer in Liverpool questioning a youth offender; and a woman holding her head in her hands in a London domestic violence shelter.

Yet the celebratory tone masks a creeping disquiet denoted by a photograph of a Jewish demonstrator from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign cloaked in a keffiyeh protesting against the launch of a new air route to Tel Aviv and writing, "Boycott Israel", in stones on the sand.

Passow's photographs, all black-and-white, provide historical continuity over and above what is depicted. The pictures cannot be read outside the traditions, history and connotative power of photography itself. The images resonate. They hark back to Roman Vishniac's A Vanished World, which in the 1930s catalogued what were to become the last utterances of the shtetls and villages of Eastern Europe. Such cataloguing is of great value, though of course its effect can be to homogenise diversity. And we all know what happens when the idea of the Jew becomes the subject of a catalogue.

The Erwin Blumenfeld exhibition continues at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, until January 26. The film, 'The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women', about Blumenfeld, will be shown at Jewish Book Week 2014 on February 25 at 3pm and, also on February 25 at Jewish Book Week, at 8.30pm, Erwin Blumenfeld's son Yorick Blumenfeld will speak on 'Art and Fashion: The Legacy of Erwin Blumenfeld'. Juliet Steyn is a cultural historian who writes primarily about visual art. Her anthology (co-edited with Nadja Stamselberg), 'Breaching Borders: art, migrants and waste' will be published in the spring by I B Taurus

Last updated: 11:27am, January 20 2014