Art academic and practising photographer dr. Nick Haeffner shares his personal point of view on Tate Modern’s latest blockbuster exhibition “The Radical Eye: Modernist Photography from the Sir Elton John Collection”.
Venue Tate Modern
“Have you seen the Modernist photography exhibition at the Tate?”, asked my colleague. “Yes”, I replied, “what about those frames though, horrendous, weren’t they?” My colleague talks with a thick Polish accent but with some precision, weighing each word carefully: “Very interesting. Some people like the frames. Some people hate the frames.” Her equivocal response left me with the uneasy feeling that I was too quickly assuming a consensus and a set of norms. My confident professional judgement had just been relativized.
I got back-up from my partner, a creative professional, who found the frames such an abomination he talked of little else for the next three days. For him, a fine collection of modernist photography had been ruined by the heavy and ornate picture frames chosen by a shallow celebrity. Delicate compositions, reticent and full of the poetry of the unsaid, laboured under the weight of art deco extravagance. However, the seeds of doubt had been sown in my mind.
Of course, the modern day bling added to these hallowed archival prints could be recuperated as a postmodern re-presentation of these sober modernist classics. However, I don’t think that this is what Sir Elton intended. Perhaps then, they need also to be seen as part of the current populist revolt against an elite. Elton’s taste in frames should make this exhibition a sobering and thought provoking experience for professionals. It is also a perfect embodiment of the idea that the frame is always constitutive of the work and text is so tangled up with context that neither can easily be extricated from the other. The art going public has been expanding and evolving in recent years. Many people apparently like the frames, certainly Sir Elton has achieved his aim of widening the audience for modernist photography. Experts and professionals may find themselves Trumped if they fail to recognize that the cultural avant-garde is now the new populism.