Face in The Crowd - Essay in Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive, 2018
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.i
Ezra Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’, 1913
Alex Prager’s 2013 exhibition Face in the Crowd at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. was not only Prager’s first solo museum exhibition in the USA, but also marked a decisive step change in practice and ambition in her work. Featuring new photographic images and film work, this substantial exhibition drew upon familiar themes that had been developing in Prager’s practice, but it was also a striking and immersive exploration of the contemporary condition – that of the individual and the crowd.
This essay will offer a short consideration of how individual and collective identities have been played out in a variety of art-historical – and other – contexts within the modern period, which continues to make it such a rich, creative, ambiguous, and resonant subject today.
There is a well-trammelled pathway through art historical narratives that leads back to that great French ‘painter of modern life’, Édouard Manet (1832–1883). Considered to be one of the first artists to address a truly ‘modern’ subjectivity, Manet chose to turn his attention to the real world he witnessed around him. His paintings – which were roundly rejected by the establishment – absorbed a newly modernized Paris where public spaces, the streets, cafés, and theatres, of the city provided the platform for the urban masses to play out their leisure and working lives. Charles Baudelaire had already provided a positive spin on the perks of this new cosmopolitan culture, particularly for the artist who can watch ‘the flow of life move by, majestic and dazzling. He admires the eternal beauty and the astonishing harmony of life in capital cities, a harmony so providentially maintained in the tumult of human liberty’.ii Manet’s painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) depicted the bustling interior of the renowned (and notorious) Folies-Bergère music hall. The crowds are picked out in the background through suggestive spots of colour describing anonymous top-hatted gentlemen and women staring through opera glasses at, we imagine, a spectacle on stage. In the foreground, a barmaid stares directly at us out of the canvas with a benign indifference, while her oddly juxtaposed reflection in the mirror behind positions us – the viewer – in the same place as the man we see asking for service. Manet’s Paris not only luxuriates in Baudelaire’s city of spectacles, but also reminds us that nothing is for free, our view is an exchange, fiscal, gendered; it is both a hall of mirrors and a stage on which everyone is forced to play.
In his influential 1903 text The Metropolis and Mental Life, the German sociologist Georg Simmel (1858–1918) identified the ambiguity between the freedom afforded by the city and its impact, stating,‘The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of a purely objective life...the metropolis is the genuine arena of this culture which outgrows all personal life.’iii Many artists shared a reticence about the dehumanizing effects of the metropolitan landscape; this was exemplified in German Expressionist artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s (1880–1938) Street Scenes series (1913–1915). These paintings, created in the bustling environs of pre-war Berlin, depict elongated anonymous figures looming towards us. Defined by lurid colours and broad brushstrokes, women dressed in fashionable clothes with mask-like faces walk in groups towards the viewer, while the darkened figure of a man (we suspect, the artist) is often shown walking out of the frame – a figure of futile resistance against the march of progress.
The existential anxiety within these images is a far cry from the romance of the carefree flâneur, a figure who influenced the works of another great theoretician of the modern age, Walter Benjamin (1892–1940). It would be Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades
Project, 1927–1940) that would identify and critique the modern city and its assimilation of consumer culture: ‘For the first time, with Baudelaire, Paris becomes the subject of lyric poetry. This poetry is no hymn to the homeland; rather, the gaze of the
allegorist, as it falls on the city, is the gaze of the alienated man. It is the gaze of the flâneur, whose way of life still conceals behind a mitigating nimbus the coming desolation of the big-city dweller.’iv Benjamin also wrote about the effect new technologies, in particular photography and film, had on individual and collective subjectivities and on the work of art.
‘The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses’.v Benjamin considered photography to be both radical and totalitarian, rendering the ‘cult of the genius’, and with it some belief in individualism, obsolete, while offering a multiplicity of viewpoints and fractured identities. In the wake of the First World War,artists such as the Russian constructivist Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956) and German Dadaist Hannah Höch (1889–1978) would utilize mass-produced images from newspapers into collage works.These often featured images of crowds or ‘the masses’ as an unstoppable flowing force, using the new angles and aerial viewpoints afforded by the camera to create a sense of dynamism and revolutionary spirit. At the same time pioneering film works, both avant-garde and popular, appeared, including Fritz Lang’s epic Expressionist film Metropolis (1927) and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). Both films, despite their formal differences, stand as silent-era responses to the effects of industrial labour, political power, and the dehumanization of the urban working class.
It would be in other avant-garde practices that the concept of modern self-identity as a performance would arise. Marcel Duchamp’s (1887–1968) female alter ego Mademoiselle Rrose Sélavy (whose name is a pun on the French saying ‘Eros, c’est la vie’) and Claude Cahun’s (1894–1954) Surrealist self-portraits would continue to influence the later feminist practices of the 1960s and 1970s outside their native France.
While much artistic activity later on moved towards the more hermetic concerns of Abstract Expressionism, documentary photography played a central role in the picturing of modern urban life in the mid-20th century. As a medium, and through its various platforms, it allowed for the representation of infinitely more faces, more spectacles, more everyday life, than painting ever could. From the horrors of the Second World War to the Civil Rights movement, it offered the appearance and dissemination of collective experiences on a much wider stage. The street photographer took on the role of latter-day flâneur, a detached, predominantly male, observer. Walker Evans’ (1903–1975) early candid photographs, ‘Subway Portraits’ (1938–1941), were black-and-white images of a cross-section of anonymous commuters taken with a hidden camera in New York’s underground trains. The ostensible ‘ordinariness’ of these photographic subjects offered a new and intimate insight into urban experience,at once valourizing and fetishizing the life of the ‘everyman’. Evans writes, ‘As it happens, you don’t see among them the face of a judge or a senator or a bank president. What you do see is at once sobering, startling, and obvious: these are the ladies and gentlemen of the jury’.vi Post-war America, in particular, became a fertile subject for photographic narratives about urban life, individuality, and alienation as seen through the eyes of photographers such as Robert Frank (b. 1924) in The Americans (1955–1956) which, as Jack Kerouac stated, ‘sucked a sad poem right out of America and onto film’.vii As the Beats did through their poetry and writing, Frank’s images of crowded streets, mesmerized pedestrians, and isolated subjects spoke of an existential emptiness at the heart of the mass-consumer culture in the atomic age while also offering a stark portrayal of class, gender, and cultural undercurrents in a country at odds with its own self-image.
In the 1960s it would be Pop Art and its assimilation of Hollywood tropes, mass culture, and celebrity that could be said to signal the end of the modernist period. Contemporary preoccupations with individual and collective realities paved the way for other movements of the post-modern era, such as conceptual and feminist art practices where subjectivities were treated as multifarious, political, and contextual. Guy Debord’s (1931–1994) influential The Society of the Spectacle (1967) considered that all authentic contemporary experience had been replaced by its representation. Describing the image saturated, mediated world of mass consumerism and celebrity culture – so eloquently co-opted by Andy Warhol (1928–1987) – he stated that ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relationship among people, mediated by images.’viii Debord was highly critical of these new conditions: ‘The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender “lonely crowds”’.ix While it is these ‘lonely crowds’ that Alex Prager chooses as her subject matter, Face in the Crowd offers redemption to the ever-present sense of dislocation.
For the first time in Prager’s work, characters are offered a space to speak before plunging back into the street, the theatre, or the airport hall – back into the muted environs of the photographic space. They ruminate on existential anxieties, every- day fears and personal challenges. Speaking candidly to the camera, one young man recalls a dream: ‘I’m standing at the edge of something...and I’ll just fall and it always wakes me up and it’s always so frightening’; while the central character of the film, actor Elizabeth Banks, stares out at the crowded street through a window, then into the crowd, and reminisces, ‘I guess she [her mother] was working a lot so she just wanted me to have lots and lots of things to do with kids my own age – maybe she thought it would help me not notice how often I was actually alone.’
Ezra Pound, ‘In a Station of the Metro’, 1913, from Personae, 1926. Reprinted with the permission of the publishers: Faber and Faber Ltd (for UK edition);New Directions Publishing, New York (for US and other language editions).
ii Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life (Le Peintre de la vie moderne), 1863 in Baudelaire, Selected Writings on Art and Artists, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981, translation and introduction by P. E. Charvet, p. 400.
iii Georg Simmel, The Metropolis and Mental Life (Die Grosstädte und das Geistesleben), 1903 in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, adapted by D. Weinstein from the translation by Kurt Wolff, Free Press, New York, 1950, p. 422.
iv Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Das Passagen Werk), 1927–1940, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1999, prepared on the basis of the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedemann, translation by Kevin McLaughlin and Howard Eiland, p. 10.
v Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit), 1935 in Illuminations, Schocken Books, New York, 1969, edited by Hannah Arendt and translation by Harry Zohn, p. 237.
vi Walker Evans, ‘The Unposed Portrait’, Harper’s Bazaar, March 1962.
vii Jack Kerouac, introduction to Robert Frank’s seminal photo-book The Americans (1955–1956).
viii Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (La société du spectacle), 1967, Zone Books, 1995, translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith, p. 12.
ix Ibid, p. 22.