A better class of exhibition

The French know how to present art. The Stieglitz show in Paris could teach us a thing or two, says Adrian Hamilton
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The Independent Online

In the world of politics, France and the US are barely on speaking terms. But where it matters most to the French - art - relations could hardly be better. The engaging and revelatory exhibition of Alfred Stieglitz's work now at the Musée d'Orsay, in Paris, is a testament not only to the French fascination with how art affects culture (and vice versa) but also their interest in how America has been shaped by European influence.

In the world of politics, France and the US are barely on speaking terms. But where it matters most to the French - art - relations could hardly be better. The engaging and revelatory exhibition of Alfred Stieglitz's work now at the Musée d'Orsay, in Paris, is a testament not only to the French fascination with how art affects culture (and vice versa) but also their interest in how America has been shaped by European influence.

For most of us, I suspect, Alfred Stieglitz is known as a photographer and as the lover and later husband of the great US artist Georgia O'Keeffe. But the Musée d'Orsay's exhibition, New York and Modern Art - Alfred Stieglitz and His Circle (1905-1930), sets out to show how important he also was in promoting Modernist art in New York. Through his work as a gallery-owner and magazine editor, Stieglitz introduced Picasso, Braque and Brancusi (among others) to the US before the First World War and encouraged and disseminated the work of young native artists after it.

The exhibition begins and ends, naturally enough, with Stieglitz's photography. He had gone to Berlin in his early twenties to study engineering, and returned to his native US for good in 1899 with a fully developed passion for photography (exercised in some remarkable photographs of New York taken during his return visits there). His time in Germany had also fostered in him a sense of art as a serious business that embraced all disciplines and was constantly challenged by the new. Impatient with the parochialism of the art establishment in New York and the commercialism of his country's attitude to photography - "You press the button. We do the rest," as one film company had it - he formed the Photo-Secession movement in 1902 and established a small gallery in 1903 to show off its work. He also promoted the movement's output in a quarterly magazine, Camera Work, which he edited until it folded in 1917.

The term Photo-Secession was a nod to the art movements of Germany and Austria; the group was consciously intellectual and openly affected by the ideas influencing European artists - symbolism, aestheticism, Japanese prints and post-Impressionism. The early work of Stieglitz and his friend Edward Steichen demonstrates how quickly and experimentally they exploited exposure and printing techniques to create the effects seen in pictures such as Clarence White's Spring, Steichen's The Flat Iron (set beside Stieglitz's own equally atmospheric portrait of the building in the mist) and Stieglitz's The City of Ambition. This was photography as Art, and Stieglitz was not going to let anyone think otherwise.

Just as he saw photography as high culture, so Stieglitz thought that photographers should take an interest in art and what was happening to it. Camera Work started to branch out into discussions of Cubism, post-Impressionism and other movements, much to the irritation of some readers, who had been looking for precise information about the mechanics of taking a fancy snap. Stieglitz's Gallery 291, named after its address, moved from exhibiting prints of the Photo-Secessionists to the work of a range of modern artists recommended to Stieglitz by friends or seen on his visits to Europe.

The Paris exhibition recreates Gallery 291 as part of the show, and the reconstruction says much about Stieglitz's aesthetic and his sense of the modern. With its white walls and central podium lit strongly from above, it could be a gallery today. Indeed the Musée d'Orsay uses the space to display a collection of Brancusi statues that were first shown in 1914, while alongside are other works that passed through the gallery, many bought by Stieglitz himself - early Cubist Picasso drawings exhibited in 1911; Braque watercolours; Matisse's work on paper; Rodin's preparatory drawings (the subject of an issue of Camera Notes that lost Stieglitz a sizeable proportion of his subscribers) and, not least, some devastating Cézanne watercolours. Years before the New York gallery establishment had caught on to what was happening in Paris, Stieglitz and his friends were displaying not only French artists but works by Max Weber, Kandinsky, Gino Severini and Diego Rivera. And years before the art establishment was ready for Duchamp (his urinal was rejected by the New York's Society of Independent Artists) Stieglitz displayed it at Gallery 291 and photographed it beneath a picture by Marsden Hartley.

When the First World War started, the interplay between Europe and America was interrupted and Stieglitz moved on. His photographs developed from the formal to spontaneous images of friends and scenes of New York ("straight photography", he called it). At the same time, he shifted his fine-art interests from the Europeans to the young American Modernists, not least Georgia O'Keeffe, who set up a studio in his apartment and a place in his bed. Camera Work went out with a bang, its final issue devoted to the young Cubist-influenced photographer Charles Sheeler. Gallery 291 shut down at about the same time.

To many European visitors, at least, it is the post-war section of this exhibition that holds the real revelations. O'Keeffe, Stieglitz's partner for three decades, is well known, and is represented here by half-a-dozen stunning abstracts. But much less celebrated on this side of the Atlantic are John Marin, whose watercolours of marine subjects are at once forceful and fleeting; Arthur Garfield Dove, whose collages pre-date Pop Art; and Charles Demuth, an American Cubist, whose 1928 work Love, Love, Love (Homage to Gertrude Stein) could be from a contemporary art show.

Stieglitz showed the same acuity in encouraging young photographers, a generosity of spirit not always shown by artists to newcomers. Paul Strand, profoundly influenced by Cubism, captured an angled and fractured New York, while Sheeler's precise architectural photos, here represented by an extraordinary series of images of Shaker-like rooms and the staircase of Daylestown House, force you to look at objects almost inside out.

But it is to Stieglitz's own work that this exhibition finally returns, and rightly so. His powerful photographs of O'Keeffe push the boundaries of both the photographic nude and portraiture almost to breaking-point. They are at once fond and ferocious, moving in from harsh and dreamy shots of her naked torso stretched like an athlete or tight like a Courbet picture, to details of her hands fondling her breasts or splayed in symbolist poise (not always successfully). There are pictures of her laughing with friends, posed against a car wheel, peeling vegetables and holding flowers. They are too statuesque to be intrusive and too formal to be truly affectionate, except in some of the pictures of her face. But they are compulsive to viewer and photographer alike.

To cap it all are the extraordinary sky and cloud photos entitled Music: A Sequence of Ten Clouds, and the studies of Lake George taken at a time when Stieglitz was clearly falling in love with the idea of nature and renewal but still framing and exposing it as if it were a painting.

This exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay is the first show in Europe to showcase Stieglitz as both patron and photographer. You can put it down, if you like, to a nationalist French interest in a man who did so much to promote French art and French Cubism in America. But, more important, it is an example of the didactic exhibitions that the French do so well and that London (with the exception of the Barbican and the Estorick) shies away from. Paris, as some commentators have rather sniffily pointed out, is missing out on a number of the big exhibitions - El Greco, Raphael and Titian, to name but three. But where London appears happy only if it can offer the blockbuster, Paris seems content to provide a constant flow of unashamedly intellectual shows and demonstrate how art fits in - as in, for instance, the recent exhibitions of Clowns and the Origins of Abstract Art.

Go to Paris now and you can enjoy exhibitions of Pharaonic art (at the Institut du Monde Arabe), the work of the Catalan Romanesques (Musée Cluny), Veronese Profane (Musée du Luxembourg) and the prints and pictures of the Japanese Floating World and the Whistler, Turner and Monet exhibition at the Grand Palais (the latter is coming to Tate Britain in February). It's an extraordinary array in a city that takes art as the centre of discourse and is quite happy to give New York its due as a centre of modern art in the early part of the 20th century, well before its dramatic flowering after the Second World War.

New York and Modern Art - Alfred Stieglitz and His Circle (1905-1930), Musée d'Orsay, Paris (00 33 1 40 49 48 14; www.musee-orsay.fr) to 16 January

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