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Optical Truths

Optical Parable (1931), the title work in the Getty‘s current exhibition of Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, is a simple and relatively straightforward image of an optician’s storefront that the artist printed in reverse. The manipulation is a small one -- hardly noticeable at a glance -- but it shifts the entire reality of the picture: The sign text becomes exotic, incomprehensible, and the painted eyes that decorate the shop‘s facade come to seem disjointed and surreal, less like icons than cognizant organs of observation, peering into our world from a peephole in another.

The photograph epitomizes the subtle brilliance that flows through all of Alvarez Bravo’s work and justifies his reputation as Mexico‘s greatest photographer. With an inspired attention to those fragments of strangeness that lodge in the cracks of the everyday world, Alvarez Bravo’s work explores the revelatory potential of the ordinary. A lock of long hair on the tiled floor of a beauty salon becomes the portrait of a woman, a Eurydice, who waits just beyond the veil of this world; a burnt tree trunk is a defeated man, stumbling through a state of Rodin-like despair; a piece of driftwood at the base of a fence post is a pilgrim crumpled in weariness at the foot of a cross.

Assembled in honor of Alvarez Bravo‘s 100th birthday in February (he still lives in his hometown, Mexico City), the Getty exhibition is a respectful survey of his work throughout the 1920s, ’30s and ‘40s, the period for which he is now best known. It was an exciting time to come of age as an artist in Mexico -- with local art flourishing in the wake of the revolution and a steady stream of avant-garde talent passing through from the U.S. and abroad -- and Alvarez Bravo came to embody its bold spirit. His approach, like those of Edward Weston, Tina Modotti and Paul Strand (whose paths he crossed early in his career), was distinctly Modernist and thus devoted to the exploration of form, light and texture with a rigor that occasionally seems naive to postmodern eyes but often manages to distill the visual world into a truly poetic essence. His subject was post-revolutionary Mexican life, in all its complicated and often contradictory manifestations. His oeuvre thus stands today as a cultural portrait told not through sweeping landscapes or depictions of important figures, but through an artful framing of life’s fragments and quotidian encounters: a stack of bricks behind a row of thin trees, a young girl daydreaming on a balcony, four candles on a fresh grave, or a baby sapling penned in by a bamboo trellis.

Describing the experience that led to his own 1907 photograph The Steerage, Alfred Stieglitz once said, “I saw a picture of shapes and, underlying that, the feeling I had about life.” It‘s a lovely line that may well explain all good photography but seems particularly fitted to that of Alvarez Bravo: The feeling he has “about life” echoes through every visual detail, bringing the cultural and the aesthetic into perfect balance. Nowhere does this seem truer than in a 1942 image called Que Chiquito Es el Mundo (What a Small World), in which a woman holding a bag of food and a man holding a newspaper pass each other briskly on a sidewalk beneath a tangle of white-sheeted clotheslines that are brilliantly illuminated by a single beam of sunlight that seems sent down specifically to celebrate the one common and miraculous moment of their passing.

If one looks at Alvarez Bravo’s work this way, the show‘s title -- “Optical Parables” -- seems particularly appropriate. These are indeed parables for seeing: simple images, told in a refined vocabulary of form, light and shadow, that point to deeper truths.

Also worth catching at the Getty is “Posing for Posterity: Portrait Drawings From the Collection,” a trim little exhibition that features 30 works on paper dating from the Renaissance through the 19th century. The majority of these are academically interesting but unremarkable: skilled renderings of people you will have never heard of, by artists you may or may not know, that demonstrate the variety of methods by which individuals of means have seen fit to publicly present themselves. Among these, however, are three or four works so exceptional -- even breathtaking -- in their technique, accuracy and intimacy that they more than justify the whole endeavor.

One is Anthony van Dyck’s Portrait of Hendrick van Balen (c. 1627--32), a black-chalk sketch of a man with the face of Shakespeare‘s Prospero: sharp, crafty and cruelly intelligent; intense with age; cold with nobility and righteousness; condemned to his own bitter wisdom. Van Dyck’s lines, though quick and loose, are astonishingly precise. It‘s difficult to grasp, in fact, how such a seemingly unruly assortment of marks should come together into such perfection of character.

In another, Portrait of a Man (c. 1530) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, the sitter is unnamed but not anonymous. Rendered in oil on an earthy, tan-colored paper, this young man has broad, chiseled features and smooth skin that appears warm beneath the glass, its tones modeled with exquisite subtlety off the tone of the paper. The man’s intense, intellectual brown eyes look upward -- perhaps to God, perhaps to a father or professor -- with the patient skepticism that underscores all true philosophical inquiry.

Formal portraiture can be a stiff, often uncommunicative genre, but these drawings bring you so close to the artist‘s hand that you can almost see the very workings of his mind.


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