BERENICE ABBOTT: THE VISUAL STORY OF A TIME OF CHANGE

In the 20s of the last century, Paris continued to have an undeniable power of attraction for the cultural movements of the time. And this was true although the United States, and especially New York, was beginning to emerge as a reference country in full artistic effervescence. The ravages of the successive wars tipped the balance of art in favour of North America, an extensive land, far from direct conflict, not yet worn down by the weight of history and with a promising future of multitudinous shows and film industry ahead.

Berenice Abbott, Aerial view of New York at Night, March 20th, 1936, International Center of Photography, Gift of Daniel, Richard, and Jonathan Logan, 1984 (786.1984) © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott

But let’s get back to the 20s. Back then, the Art Nouveau was last shining in Europe while in New York, the Art Decó appeared, by urban design and stylish skyscrapers, to make this city an emblem. The connection between both metropolis based on an exchange of free thought shown in the arts and architecture. Perhaps few were aware at the time that the builders of the Rockefeller Center or the Chrysler Building were making history. The Gilger Age echoed still, a time between the end of s. XIX and early S. XX where the great family monopolies of the North American industry were born around important innovations such as the railroad, the exploitation of steel, the vast corn harvests, the livestock production and other significant advances in the hands of a few. The empowered families became great art collectors and unconscionable builders who wanted to demonstrate their power by raising taller and more iconic buildings. They succeeded.

Berenice Abbott, West Street, 1932, International Center of Photography, Purchase, with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lois and Bruce Zenkel Purchase Fund, 1983 (388.1983) © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott

The beginning of the century was a breeding ground suitable for artists. The stimuli multiplied, and the options seemed endless. Despite this, old Europe still represented the bohemian refuge, the place where the environment of creation was appropriated to restless minds because there were tradition, history and shared story, away from the sudden boiling of New York built overnight and based on galloping capitalism, the prelude to the Crack of 29. That's why many American creators laid vital bridges between Paris and the American city. This was the case of Berenice Abbott, a photographer born in Ohio in 1898 who let her talent flow to both sides of the Ocean.

Berenice Abbott, Canyon: Broadway and Exchange Place, 1936, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott

Abbott worked on the portrait of celebrities, but for the documentary, not for dedication to entertainment and social reporting. She was interested in the representation of reality, without artifice, and was part of the movement of "direct photography" that claimed the artistic nature of this discipline without needing to intervene or compose the images. Her shots of New York and Paris are today invaluable documents that testify the vertiginous changes that both cities experienced. As thematic reports, her work allows us to know today a historical context full of misery, hope and ambition, in which the foundations of modern society were built. Although Abbott's artistic beginnings focused on sculpture, her connection with other artists of the moment and her interest in the representation of reality led her to try out photography, a discipline that she never left ever again.

Berenice Abbott, Rockefeller Center, ca. 1932, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery © Getty Images/Berenice Abbott

The Mapfre Foundation dedicates to this artist its next exhibition "Berenice Abbott. Portraits of modernity ", which will open on June 1. The show brings together about 200 pieces of this indefatigable creator who made Paris and New York her spiritual homeland.

 

Among the specialised professional profiles that we find in the cultural sector, and more specifically, in the field of visual arts, one of the most recent occupations is that of the curator. The ‘80s put attention on the role of the artist, with its innovative character and the enhancement of its figure as an essential articulator of creative proposals, while the end of the century moved the interest towards the exhibition centres themselves and their work as custodians of current production and as spaces to accommodate all proposals. The change of millennium strongly introduced in this panorama the role of the curator. Perhaps together with a social identity crisis, perhaps with the complexity that contemporary projects are currently acquiring, the need for building, articulating and delving into artistic discourses became evident.

Although the functions entrusted to this profession are not entirely new, since previously they belonged to conservatives, critics or experts according to the themes, the role has gained solidity because it combines all these purposes while allowing the specialisation of other professionals in their fields of competence. Now, as some curators themselves point out, the genuine spirit of this figure, who was born to facilitate the understanding of the discourse, create narratives within a sometimes chaotic and scattered context, mediate between the works and the spectator and create bridges between contemporary art and society.

The art of our day raises a multitude of unknowns for the visitor who must face proposals many times away from the aesthetic standards, which gives way to uncertainty and confusion; but, in turn, these works employ a closer language, materials and even compositions detached from the sophistication and the technical display of yesteryear, something that, far from favouring proximity to the message, generates some distancing. What we have just described is part of the very essence of current art. The questioning of the formalist guidelines and the recourse to tangible elements that are more utilitarian than embellishing are the new criteria of creation, where, above all, the message to be conveyed stands out.

Likewise, another inherent characteristic of the work of our time is the artists' concern for more immediate themes, for social, political and economic issues that seek to create a narrative and conceptual revulsion, leaving behind the aesthetic priority or, rather, making of the message its own aesthetic. In this context, strange as it may seem, contemporary creation encounters a linguistic barrier hindering the viewer's understanding. And to this circumstance, the abundant current production is added, covering a wide range of themes that are nothing more than a transcript of our diverse and globalised society.

The curator helps to facilitate this understanding by articulating a coherent discourse that allows the grouping of related ideas to set up the message. This requires to have an in-depth knowledge of the current state of the art, the lines of work of the creators, the most recent aesthetic proposals and the real demands of society to bridge the dialogue and allow the approach to art. If art deals with the same issues that concern us all, how can we not share its postulates? Cultural mediation requires the work of the curators to open a small window for reflection and to enable a space for exchange and idea generation. We share the thought that José Guirao expressed in a recent interview: "The curator is someone who reveals something new, and it would be a mistake for curators to become managers."

Understood this way curator’s role, many institutions have joined the trend of creating specific calls for new professionals to give light to their proposals. Let us remember, as an example, the call "Unpublished" of La Casa Encendida, or "Curator wanted", of the Community of Madrid or the call of Curating of La Caixa.