Faces in the Crowd – Picturing Modern Life from Manet to Today

06 june 2005 - 10 july 2005

curated by Iwona Blazwick and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev   Works by Acconci, Akerman, Alÿs, Arnold, Atget, Bacon, Balkenhol, Beckmann, Bellows, Beuys, Boltanski, Bomberg, Brassaï, Broodthaers, Buckingham, R. Burri, Cahun, Calle, Capa, Cardiff & Bures-Miller, Carrà, Cartier-Bresson, Deacon & Fraser, Deller, DiCorcia, Dittborn, Doherty, Dubuffet, Duchamp, Durant, Export, Evans, Fast, Giacomelli, Giacometti, Gilbert & George, Goldblatt, Goldin, Gordon, Grosz, Gupta, Gursky, Guston, Guzmán, Hamilton, Heartfield, Hopper, Huyghe, Jonas, Katz, Keïta, Kentridge, Klucis, Kollwitz, Leckey, Léger, Levitt, Magritte, Manet, Man Ray, McCarthy, McQueen, Modotti, Munch, Muñoz, Nauman, Ofili, Paolozzi, Pfeiffer, Picasso, Piper, Pistoletto, Prince, Richter, Rodchenko, Sala, Sander, Schad, Schneeman, Schütte, Segal, Sherman, Sickert, Sidibé, Singh, Song Dong, Strand & Sheeler, Vertov, Wall, Warhol, Wearing, Weegee, Wikström, Winogrand, Yeats.     “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough.” This ‘haiku’ poem written by Ezra Pound in 1913 after a trip on the Paris Metro, provides a concise and powerful image of the modern condition, characterized above all by the emergence of a new subjectivity.   With the rise of the big city during the nineteenth century, the individual was confronted with the crowd of the modern metropolis – a place of fleeting and anonymous encounters in streets, cafés and urban parks.   Modern people are pervaded with a profound sense of solitude or, on the contrary, they are enthusiastic about the possibilities offered for the creation of a new identity.   A specifically modern art developed out of this condition, where the viewer becomes a participant within pictorial space and the pectator’s field of vision becomes one with the artist’s (or with an ideal camera eye.) The spectator is part of the scene, like the city-dweller in modern society.   The great revolutions in twentieth century art tend to be associated with abstraction. Along this route, abstraction, the monochrome and, finally, the dematerialized conceptual artwork -thought itself as art – developed. It has also been argued that in the age of photography and film, art needed to reach beyond figuration. But the persistent use of illusionary space and the represented figure throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first in the practices of artists working across a broad range of media from painting, collage and sculpture, to printmaking, photography, film and video, suggests a different parallel history which is equally radical.   Taking Édouard Manet’s Le Bal masqué à l’Opéra (The Masked Ball at the Opera, 1873) as its starting point, Faces in the Crowd traces a history of avant-garde figuration.   Manet’s vividly realist scenarios not only introduced the flat picture plane and ushered in Modernist abstraction, but offer a compelling snapshot of the modern, of instantaneity, fluidity and change which have been the most evident traits of modernity since its inception.   By contrast, parallel to this optimistic viewpoint, another thread has run through modern and contemporary art: an acute expression of self-doubt, the questioning of whether it might ever be possible truly to connect with others, or to survive the alienation of anonymity and the overwhelming energy of the crowd that surrounds us. This has led Edvard Munch, Alberto Giacometti or Francis Bacon to present a tortured or exhilarated inner life, or artists such as William Kentridge and Willie Doherty to explore the responsibilities of the individual within the collective and the personal in contrast with the stereotypical. For Alexandr Rodchenko or Joseph Beuys the figure can be an agent of social change, revolutionary, transgressive or symbolic that represents a dramatic rupture with the past, and this aspect becomes evident in the work of photographers such as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Tina Modotti, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Mario Giacomelli and David Goldblatt. If some artists represent a dramatic rupture with the past proposing radical new forms, other ones picture the impact of modern life on our inner selves, breaking down our autonomous subjectivity as in the following pieces’ by Vito Acconci and Sophie Calle, in Cindy Sherman’s Untitled (Film Stills) or in the subliminal and ambiguous narrations by some artists from the latest generation such as Janet Cardiff and George Bures-Miller, Paul Pfeiffer, Omer Fast and Destiny Deacon.   Not only for the artists, but for writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe, philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Giorgio Agamben, historians and sociologists such as Georg Simmel and Hannah Arendt, the question of how to understand the individual in terms of the collective and the collective in terms of the individual has been at stake throughout modern and postmodern times, and is still a highly topical issue in today’s globalized world of interconnected groups and “multitudes” of singularities. Today, it is precisely the transitory and the temporary nature of the modern crowd that seems more real than any early modern notion of “class” or “mass”. And it is the crowd which challenges our consciousness, our political imaginations, as well as our universe of illusions in art.   Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev