• Abbott’s portraits of contemporary artists and intellectuals and her vision of the transformations of New York City are an exceptional portrayal of the modernity of the first half of the 20th century.
• The exhibition also features the Berenice Abbott: A View of the 20th Century (1992) documentary.
• Until 25 August at Fundación MAPFRE’s Recoletos Exhibition Hall.
Fundación MAPFRE has presented the Berenice Abbott. Portraits of Modernity exhibition today on 30 May, in Madrid. This exhibition takes us on an exhaustive journey of this American photographer’s career. Her body of work, some of the most captivating North American photography of the first half of the 20th century, acted as a bridge between the avant-garde of the old continent and the burgeoning artistic scene of the East Coast of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.
Berenice Abbott (Springfield, Ohio, 1898-Monson, Maine, 1991) began her university education with the intention of becoming a journalist. In 1918 she moves to New York and settles in Greenwich Village, an influential meeting point for artists and intellectuals which leads to her first contact with creators such as Marcel Duchamp. At this point she begins to work with sculpture.
Three years later she travels to Europe and moves to Paris, where she starts working as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio and discovers her true vocation: photography. Around the mid-1920s, Abbott meets Eugène Atget and is struck by his work; from the very beginning Abbott profoundly admires the French Photographer for the qualities she perceives in his work and which also provide her with an important frame of reference as an aspiring photographer. Following the death of the photographer, Abbott purchases his entire personal archive.
Her work is the subject of a retrospective exhibition in 1970 in The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and in 1983 she becomes the first photographer to be admitted to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1988 the French government names her an Officier des Arts et des Lettres and she also receives a Master of Photography award from the International Center of Photography in New York.
The idea of modernity suffuses all of Abbott’s work, ranging from her portraits of avant-garde artists and intellectuals of the era to her photographs involving scientific themes (in which she captures the results of several phenomena and experiments) as well as to her dazzling images of New York City. This concept is also a reflection of the modernity of the artist herself and of her avant-garde and bold nature, which allowed her to freely live out her sexuality together with her partner, the art critic Elizabeth McCausland, with whom she lived for thirty years.
THE EXHIBITION The exhibition is arranged into three thematic sections and covers her career by means of almost two hundred photographs of that era. A dialog is also established between her work and the eleven photographs of Eugène Atget on display, developed by Abbott herself at the end of the 1950s.
The exhibition begins with the section entitled Portraits, which features images of some of the most groundbreaking figures of that era. She mainly depicts the life goals of a group of which she forms a part: the “new women”, who were willing to live outside the social norms in order to safeguard their freedoms. An example of these portraits is that of Janet Flanner in Paris.
Cities, the second group of photographs, features the dazzling depictions of New York that Abbott takes during the 1930s. Through her lens, New York comes alive, an extraordinary character unveiled to its visitors through its stunning skyscrapers, its hustle and bustle and its many store windows. She develops this project independently until she secures government funding in 1935 from the Federal Art Project. These pictures were published in 1939 under the title Changing New York, and garnered critical acclaim and sales success.
The final part of the exhibition brings together her photographs of scientific experiments and phenomena. Abbott begins to work on these towards the end of the 1950s when she forms part of the Physical Science Study Committee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These photographs demonstrate, once again, the duality of Abbott’s work: images which record physical phenomena but in turn reveal the photographer’s exquisite imagination and creativity.
BERENICE ABBOTT: A VIEW OF THE 20TH CENTURY, (1992)
Fundación MAPFRE is screening the documentary entitled Berenice Abbott: A View of the 20th Century, produced by Kay Weaver and Martha Wheelock in 1992. Filmed with Berenice Abbott when she was over 90 years old, the documentary takes us on a guided tour of the 20th century from the perspective of the photographer’s life and artistic career.
The unveiling of the exhibition was attended by the exhibition’s curator, Estrella de Diego, a professor of Contemporary Art at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid and a member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts), and Nadia Arroyo, Fundación MAPFRE Cultural director.