Pictures Fight – The Breakthrough of Modernity around 1930

27 October 2007 to 17 February 2008


The 1930s saw some long-lasting and far-reaching changes in photography: a new, clear and direct visual language asserted itself against traditional pictorial approaches. In Switzerland, this radical change was accompanied by a violent and polemic controversy. What were the arguments of the avant-gardists against the photographic "romantics" or "impressionists"? And on what was the success of the "new vision" based? The exhibition "Pictures Fight" takes us through 120 photographs directly to the heart of this controversy and asks questions about the "essence" of photography that are just as relevant in today's time of digitalisation as they ever were.

Stefan Jasienski
Express Train Bern - Thun, 1907
© Swiss Foundation of Photography

Hans Finsler
Marine Propeller, 1931
© Stiftung Moritzburg, Halle

In 1932, the Swiss Werkbund (SWB) organised a travelling exhibition of work by young Swiss photographers who propagated the "new photography" - a manifesto against the traditional approach of the "art photographers", or so-called pictorialists, who were still emulating 19th century painting. The exhibition which, after its opening in St. Gallen, was shown in Bern, Aarau, Lausanne, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Basel, Lucerne, Winterthur and Zurich, was a response to the "I. Internationale Ausstellung für künstlerische Photographie" in Lucerne, which was intended to help pictorialism to reach its - somewhat belated - peak in Switzerland.

These two oppositional exhibitions gave rise to an aesthetic debate, during which the SWB travelling exhibition was referred to by the pictorialists as a "chamber of horrors" with "terribly ugly" pictures. The spokesmen of the SWB put up a vehement defence against this defamation and described the Lucerne exhibition as an old fashioned salon of work by outdated "romantics" whose "sickly-sentimental-hypocritical" pictures were damaging to the eye. The "new photography", which concentrated on the genuine means of the medium - light, camera, paper - finally won through; and the "art photographers", the recipients of innumerable medals and diplomas, not only fell into disrepute with critics, collectors and historians but were also soon completely forgotten.

Whereas, with the exception of the reproductions and texts published at the time in the magazine Camera, hardly any of the original photographs shown in the Lucerne exhibition have survived, a large number of originals from the SWB travelling exhibition were recently rediscovered in their archives and permanently loaned to the Fotostiftung Schweiz by the Swiss Werkbund. With the help of Memoriav, the association for the preservation of the audiovisual heritage of Switzerland, the pictures were restored to very nearly their original condition.

This unique discovery gives us the opportunity of throwing new light on the fight, in words and pictures, that raged between the two camps at the beginning of the 1930s. The exhibition confronts high-calibre vintage prints by the avant-gardists (including Binia Bill, Hans Finsler, Herbert Matter, Ernst Mettler, Gotthard Schuh, Robert Spreng und Anton Stankowski) with pictorialist fine art prints with soft contours and romantic subjects on tinted paper such as were shown in the art-photographic exhibitions in Lucerne in 1932-35. The majority of these pictures also originate from the collection of the Fotostiftung Schweiz, for example from the "Master Collection" of the Schweizerische Photographenverband or the estates of Heinrich Bauer (Herisau), Stefan Jasienski (Biel), Emil Lüdin (Zurich) and Carl Schmid (Basel). This is the first time that original photographs from the two enemy camps are shown together and confronted with each other in one exhibition and one book.

Martin Gasser

In collaboration with the Swiss Werkbund SWB

With the support of Memoriav, the association for the preservation of the Swiss audiovisual heritage.

Publication: Bilderstreit. Durchbruch der Moderne um 1930. Ed. Martin Gasser / Fotostiftung Schweiz. With contributions by Irma Noseda and Martin Gasser, Limmat Verlag, Zurich 2007. 96 p., c. 60 ill., full colour.