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Review: The Modernist eye

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'If any period can be said to have encompassed the full potential of photography, it would have to be the era between the two world wars. Photography was not only enriched by expanded roles in journalism, advertising, and publicity, but it was nourished also by acceptance within avant-garde movements in the graphic arts.' Naomi Rosenblum's introduction to this period, from her epic study A World History of Photography (Abbeville Press), would provide an excellent accompaniment to this show in a gallery well-known for promoting the pioneers of the Modern Movement - particularly the Russian Constructivists, De Stijl, and the Bauhaus designers.

This, however, is its first photographic exhibition, which is assembled around some three dozen classic prints by Andre Kertesz. There are also Margaret Bourke-White's Precisionist machine-age images, El Lissitzky's vintage print of his own Proun billboard outside the Vitebsk factory (a little less precise in 1919), Moholy-Nagy's passenger-eye view of that favourite of Modernist historians, the Pont Transbordeur in Marseilles, and Brancusi's evocative view of his studio - plus, not surprisingly, two female images from Man Ray.

Not surprising, given that Man Ray's Noir et Blanche, a 1926 print of his mistress Kiki holding an African mask, sold for £357,353 at Christie's in New York last year. According to Richard Liston in the Observer (7.3.99), 'the smart money is snapping up stills instead of still life', with the prints that fetch the highest price being those from the 1920s and 30s.

At least we lesser mortals get the chance to see some early gelatin-silver prints, and can take home the excellent reproductions in the catalogue. Its cover photograph by Kertesz in 1917 - a swimmer framed diagonally in a rectangle of water, distorted by reflection - is a brilliant combination of realism and surrealism, superior to the contrived distortons of the 1930s nudes - surely a wrong move after the superb angular composition of Satiric Dancer (1926).

The same period sees the three brilliant images of Mondrian and his studio: the painter himself, the studio doorway with the white-painted tulip, and the pipe and glasses. (Short-sighted radicals: the role of the ocularly disadvantaged in European Modernism - there's a thesis for someone.) These studies, and his frequent use of the aerial view - that Modernist concept - suggest that Kertesz has a cooler eye than Cartier-Bresson; the shot from above of two African sculptures on a patterned carpet (Paris, 1927) is an uncomfortable premonition of Le Corbusier's Obus Plan for Algiers, where the new city for the settlers literally overlooked the Casbah below.

The Precisionism of American photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White reflected the aspirations of the first machine age, and yet, when used in close-up - as with Edward Weston here - offers a surreal vision of nature. The Dutch 'Typotekt' Piet Zwart shared this enthusiasm for the machine age, taken to the edge of abstraction. In Untitled (Timberyard) (1930s) his photograph has been further abstracted by outlining the forms in white paint; the result bears an uncanny resemblance to Carlo Scarpa's Brion Tomb.

David Wild is an architect in London

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