From September 23, 2022, to January 8, 2023, Fundación MAPFRE’s Sala Recoletos in Madrid will host the exhibition Ilse Bing, a journey through nearly 200 works from 1929 to the end of the 1950s, in which Bing addressed a wide range of fundamental issues in the language of photography.
TEXT: FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE CULTURE AREA
The photography of Ilse Bing (1899-1998) spans the central decades of the 20th century, bearing witness to the great cultural and artistic issues of those years through a very personal vision and understanding of photography, in which modernity and formal innovation go hand in hand with a humanist spirit and an energetic social conscience. Bing is also another outstanding example of a generation of great women photographers who, like Berenice Abbott, Nora Dumas and Gisèle Freund, among others, achieved a prominence and recognition hitherto unknown to women in the field of photography.
Ilse Bing (Frankfurt, 1899-New York, 1998) was born into a middle-class Jewish family. In 1929, after discovering her vocation while preparing illustrations for her thesis, she left university to devote herself entirely to photography. She would do so for the next thirty years, in a passionate artistic and vital career.
In 1930, she moved to Paris, where she combined her dedication to photojournalism with personal work, soon becoming one of the main representatives of the innovative trends in photography that emerged in the cultural effervescence of Paris in those years. Faced with the advance of Nazism, in 1941 she went into exile in New York along with her husband, the pianist Konrad Wolff. Two decades later, at the age of sixty, she abandoned her work as a photographer and turned her creativity to the plastic arts and poetry, in which she worked until her death in 1998.
Bing’s work cannot be ascribed to any of the movements or trends from which the artist drew her inspiration. She covered almost all genres, from architectural photography, portraiture, self-portraiture and everyday objects to landscape. The diversity of styles with which she did so reflects her valuable and personal interpretation of the different cultural movements with which she interacted, from Bauhaus and the German-inspired New Objectivity to Parisian surrealism and the incessant dynamism of the New York metropolis.
Scattered among numerous European and North American collections, Ilse Bing’s work is being presented for the first time in Spain through this exhibition, which traces her entire career.
Discovering the world through a camera: the beginnings
Accompanied by her Leica, Ilse Bing began to work on commissions for various publications during the years of the Weimar Republic. During this period she tackled a variety of subjects, such as the efforts of workers, the spatial simplicity of a gallery, the organic lines of a roof, the movement of the arms and legs of dancers, and modern architecture, which she would get to know thanks to her friend, the Dutch architect Mart Stam. Her gaze searched for unexpected angles, turned upwards or downwards, sometimes encountering elements that went unnoticed, lacking in value and that were randomly joined together, as in the case of Dead Leaf and Tramway Ticket On Sidewalk, Frankfurt (1929).
The life of still lifes
Ilse Bing felt a great fascination for inanimate objects, still lifes, chairs, newspapers, common motifs in the art of the first three decades of the 20th century from very early on. Surrealism was a revolution in terms of this type of object, as its compositions were imbued with a certain magical air and indissoluble mystery. Bing’s everyday objects, especially those of her Parisian period, are infused with a melancholic air, being almost dreamlike. On the other hand, during her period of exile in the United States, a degree of coldness as well as formal and symbolic features emerge, such as the confinement or delimitation of the captured scene.
The dancing body and its context
While living in Germany, the artist had already become interested in the movement of the dancers at the school of Rudolf von Laban, considered the founding father of expressionist dance. Upon her arrival in Paris, she was commissioned to photograph the Moulin Rouge wax museum. While working on this project, the author photographed everyday life both on and off the stage, but in particular the dancers in full movement. She captured the vibration of the dance, the circular turns, the opening of the dancers’ legs in profile. Gestures and poses that caught the attention of photographer and critic Emmanuel Sougez, who included her work in the magazine L’Art Vivant.
In addition to the series of images she shot of the dancer Gerard Willem van Loon, son of the writer Hendrik Willem van Loon —an outstanding patron of the arts who introduced Bing’s photography into gallery circles and New York collections—, some of the most outstanding images of movement were those she took of the ballet L’Errante, by choreographer George Balanchine, with a set and libretto by Russian painter Pavel Chelishchev for the company Les Ballets. A show that took place at the prestigious Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris in June 1933, and later in London.
Lights and shadows of modern architecture
Alongside photographs of facades and somewhat dilapidated buildings of Parisian architecture, Ilse Bing focused on one of the capital’s most iconic structures, built for the Universal Exposition of 1889. The Eiffel Tower had been photographed in 1925 by László Moholy-Nagy, who strongly influenced Bing, but the artist not only focused on the beauty of the forms and the abstract geometry of the construction, but also captured its surroundings by photographing it at different heights from within.
The same happened with the tall buildings of New York, which she photographed with a detached and critical eye, as there is no lack of low and humble buildings alongside the vertical architecture, as shown in New York (1936), where the Empire State Building contrasts with the advertisement on a nearby building that reads display frames, in a family business on Fulton Street, in southern Manhattan.
The bustle of the street: the French years
Upon her arrival in Paris at the end of 1930, and despite being an unknown in the world of photography, Ilse Bing managed to break through thanks to commissions from various German magazines and the attention she received from certain critics, including Emmanuel Sougez. Gradually, Bing was integrated into the capital’s artistic circles and became acquainted with the work of Brassaï, Germaine Krull, Florence Henri, Laure Albin-Guillot, Eli Lotar, Berenice Abbott, Madame d’Ora, Dora Maar and Man Ray, among others. She received commissions from some of the most popular French publications of the time, such as Vu, Voilà, Marianne, Regards, L’Art Vivant, Arts et Métiers Graphiques and Urbanisme. Among these collaborations, her research into soup kitchens stands out, where she was documenting an important social issue. Shortly afterwards, in 1932, she held her first solo exhibition in Frankfurt and took one of her most important photographs: Greta Garbo Poster, Paris.
In this environment, and thanks to the invitation of the aforementioned Hendrik Willem van Loon, Bing had the opportunity to visit the Netherlands, touring places like Veere and Amsterdam, where she captured various moments of everyday life.
The seduction of fashion
In November 1933, Ilse Bing began collaborating with Harper’s Bazaar thanks to her friend Daisy Fellowes, educated in the world of fashion and editor of the French version of the magazine. Bing’s cropped framing of hats and gloves brings out their textures, almost fetish-like, in connection with surrealist taste, and gives them a sensual touch that makes them seem, if anything, even more covetable. During this period, Bing also became acquainted with the designer Elsa Schiaparelli, photographing some of her perfumes in 1934.
The United States in two stages
The United States was another important destination in Ilse Bing’s career. She first visited in 1936. She landed in a New York full of contrasts, between the enormous dimensions of the architecture and the living conditions of the most uprooted. There she met Alfred Stieglitz and exhibited at the June Rhodes Gallery, but she found the city cold and somewhat inhospitable. As she herself pointed out: “The streets I walk on do not make me feel at home like those of Paris; the architecture, with its inhuman proportions, makes me feel isolated, so to speak, living in a vacuum. Here I see the wonders of the world from inside a space capsule.”
Her second stay in the city was completely different. She arrived in 1942, fleeing Nazi-occupied France with her husband, Konrad Wolff, after spending nearly a year in various detention camps. A sense of statelessness, economic instability and suffering in the aftermath of certain events took their toll on her work, resulting in images that reflect isolation, dark backgrounds, bare, leafless tree branches and soulless, snowy landscapes. In New York, Bing’s style was considered old-fashioned and the illustrated magazines turned their backs on her. She then had to take on a variety different of jobs, from commissioned portraits to dog grooming.
Throughout her career, Ilse Bing continued to take self-portraits, usually indoors, with the intention of leaving a record of specific moments in her life. Through these images, the first taken at the age of fourteen in 1913, the artist was forging an identity as an emancipated and independent woman at a time when this was not the norm. But it was not only her; other female artists and photographers were showing themselves to the world through their professional tools. One of her most popular images in this sense is Self-Portrait with Leica, from 1931, in which, by means of two mirrors, her face acquires a double dimension as she looks through the viewfinder, revealing her penetrating and inquisitive gaze.
Portrait of time
In addition to her own self-portraits, in her quest to understand and delve into the human psyche, very early on Ilse Bing began to portray different individuals, mostly children, almost always for commissions. In these portraits the children are typically engaged in a playful or studio activity, and they are sometimes accompanied by adults. They are delicate portraits, but they reflect the character and personality of the subject, probably alluding to Bing’s conviction that children were complete creatures on the same level as adults, with their own beliefs and concerns.
Along with her interest in architecture, Ilse Bing was always attracted to nature, both in its wildest form and that designed and organized by the hand of man, such as the gardens of Versailles. The photographs taken outdoors generally express an air of calm and balance, with the exception of those in which she focuses on more rugged, wilder places, such as the mountains of Colorado.
In 1959, Bing definitively gave up photography in favor of poetry and collage, after three decades dedicated to the medium and long before her work gained the international recognition it would later acquire.