The Thomas Walther collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, from 3 March to 26 June 2022 at the Camera-Centro Italiano per la Fotografia in Turin

What is art? Who can we truly consider an artist? Sir Ernst H. Gombrich writes in the introduction to his volume “The history of art” (Phaidon Edtion) that “there is actually no such thing as art, there are only artists”. Each work of art is not the result of a mysterious activity, but a man-made object for man. And who is the artist if not who gives to the world, no matter in what form and with what technique, images, restlessness, beauty. Who is the artist if not who is able to show realities not yet understood or seen, interpreted in that way, revealing the secrets of the world.

Photography and art

And when does photography become art? Photography has suffered from this dichotomy (to be or not to be art) for years, it is not something new. Since its inception, it has been looked down upon by the traditional figurative and plastic arts. After all, anyone can use a pen but not everyone will write novels or poems. However, if art is work, any work, which allows you to create what was not there before by expressing yourself, which is able to make visible what is so evident that it escapes most, then photography becomes art.

The great masters

With this in mind, Camera - Centro Italiano per la Fotografia presents for the first time in Italy the exhibition “Masterpieces of modern photography 1900-1940. The Thomas Walther collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York ”: a selection of over 230 photographic works from the first half of the 20th century made by the great masters of photographic art. Just as contemporaries (Matisse, Picasso and Duchamp) revolutionized the language of the plastic arts, so the authors on display, some famous and others less known, redefined the canons of photography, making them assume a central role in the development of the avant-gardes of the beginning of the century. A creative ferment that started in Europe and arrived in the United States where intellectuals fleeing the war were welcomed.

Americans, Europeans, men and women

Alongside iconic images by American photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Walker Evans or Edward Weston and Europeans such as Karl Blossfeldt, Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész and August Sander, the Walther collection enhances the role of women in first modern photograph, with works by Berenice Abbott, Marianne Breslauer, Claude Cahun, Lore Feininger, Florence Henri, Irene Hoffmann, Lotte Jocobi, Lee Miller, Tina Modotti, Germaine Krull, Lucia Moholy, Leni Riefenstahl.

Currents and experiments

In addition to the masterpieces of Bauhaus photography (László Moholy-Nagy, Iwao Yamawaki), of constructivism (El Lissitzky, Aleksandr Rodčenko, Gustav Klutsis), of surrealism (Man Ray, Maurice Tabard, Raoul Ubac), the futurist experiments of Anton Giulio Bragaglia and the abstract compositions by Luigi Veronesi, two of the Italians present in the exhibition together with Wanda Wulz and Tina Modotti.

The Thomas Walther collection

The collection includes photographs made thanks to the new possibilities offered by the technical developments of those years, but also linguistic experiments carried out through collages, double exposures, cameraless images, photomontages that tell of a new freedom to understand and use photography. It is the peculiarity of those decades that pushed the collector Thomas Walther to collect, between 1977 and 1997, the best photographic works produced in that period, bringing them together in a unique collection in the world, acquired by MoMA in 2001 and 2017.

The exhibition and the catalog

The exhibition stems from the collaboration between the Jeu de Paume in Paris, the MASI in Lugano and Camera, where it is possible to see these works for the last time in Europe before they return to the United States. The exhibition is accompanied by the catalog of Silvana Editoriale in association with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with a critical essay by Sarah Hermanson Meister, short introductions to the sections of the exhibition and reproductions of works presented.