Nature of Modernity

The great 1927 film 'Metropolis' inspires UAMA's latest exhibition

A mad scientist in the movie Metropolis, complete with frizzled white hair and a demonic look, plans to change the course of humankind.

"I have created a machine in the image of man that never tires or makes a mistake!" he shouts soundlessly. (His words are written on the screen during the silent movie.)

The perfect worker—indefatigable and error-free—is the dream of bosses everywhere, but the scientist's robot, not surprisingly, subverts the social order in Metropolis, Fritz Lang's dark and futuristic 1927 film.

The gleaming city of Metropolis is an Art Deco beauty, but its humble laborers toil below ground, and members of the moneyed leisure class disport themselves above in the bright sunshine. Sure, it's unfair, but it's the arrangement everyone knows and is comfortable with—and a robotic worker that can labor around the clock throws everything into chaos.

The movie is the centerpiece of an innovative summer show at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Not only does Metropolis play more or less continuously in one dark gallery (the 90-minute version, not the recently re-discovered two-hour-plus version). Every artwork in the adjoining room treats one or another of the movie's themes, which curator Lauren Rabb describes as "labor issues, class division, industrialization, mechanization, architecture and the nature of modernity."

Pulled out of UAMA's own archives, the 56 works are mostly prints and paintings, along with some photos borrowed from the Center for Creative Photography across the way. Nearly all of them are black and white, reflecting the movie's tones. And just a few of them are optimistic, offering up cheerful views of the joys of labor.

William Wolfson pays homage to heroic "Asphalt Workers" and "Rock Drillers" in two wonderful lithographs, from 1928 and 1932. The men in these black-and-white prints are proud of what they do—work that requires skill and brawn. They lean over their tasks in deep concentration, their backs forming beautiful curves. The rock-drillers are even posed like conquerors, laboring high on an elegant cliff sculpted into Art Deco lines.

But many of the pieces betray the era's anxiety about mass production and the isolation of the modern, anonymous city.

Edward Hopper's 1927 painting "The City" is a bleak vision of New York from on high. A block of red rowhouses forms a barrier at one side; there's also a high-rise mansard-style apartment building. Only a few people walk in the public square below; most of them are alone. Beyond, on the horizon, is an endless cascade of buildings under a chilly winter sky.

Richard Aberle Florsheim's "Tests the Cities" is another view of an intimidating city, made several decades later, in 1951. In his black-and-white lithograph, one man stands front and center, his back toward the viewer. Before him is a scary city, with two lines of forbidding skyscrapers sloping downward to the vanishing point in the distant horizon. Inside the shadows cast by these monoliths are small, blurry figures. They could be the poor, the homeless and the ignored—or they could be soldiers defending the status quo, armed and ready to shoot.

Following Lang's lead, many of the artists concentrate on the manifold downsides of mechanized labor, vividly pictured in Metropolis. "In the film," Rabb writes, "workers do endless repetitive motions that run the city above them."

At the time, Henry Ford's assembly lines were already cranking out cars, and other industries had readily embraced his model, reducing each worker's task to a simple, often-mindless task. Mechanization may have made more goods accessible to the masses; Ford's Model T is but one example. But it dehumanized the workers and turned their workday into a purgatory of unspeakable boredom.

A dramatic 1923 woodcut by noted German artist Käthe Kollwitz encapsulates the agony of workers who've become cogs in the machine. Ironically titled "Die Freiwilligen"—German for "the volunteers"—it's full of curves and bold shapes, printed in vivid black and white. Its workers are bound together in a row, their heads thrown back, their mouths open. They're screaming as they march forward, relentlessly, toward the end of the workday, toward their own death: The laborer at the head of the line has already turned into a skeleton. Even so, he keeps on keeping on, his bony hand held aloft.

The Swiss-American Herman Volz pictured what happened too often to laborers who tried to better their lot. In 1936, in the depths of the Great Depression, he made "Lockout," a black-and-white lithograph of workers shut out of their jobs. A crowd of them gaze at the factory behind the wall, where a giant machine rises up, operating without them. Sketched in simple, rounded forms, the workers have lost their jobs because they tried to organize against The Man.

The Volz piece, and a number of other 1930s images in the show, last made their way out of UAMA storage when former chief curator Dr. Lisa Fischman, now director of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, organized an excellent exhibition of Works Progress Administration art. The New Deal program paid artists like Volz to make art, and he and his fellow WPA artists made high-quality prints that offered up a critique of capitalism and its failures at a period when a quarter of the nation's workers were unemployed.

Working after the Depression, and after World War II, Florsheim hit on another theme hinted at in Metropolis: fascism. (Hitler is said to have been so taken with the movie that he invited the director to make Nazi propaganda films. Lang declined.) "In Quest of Prophets," a black-and-white lithograph from 1951, has all the elements of a dangerous slide into demagoguery and fascism, which are familiar to anyone who lived through the '30s and World War II or has seen the hate-filled political rallies of today. A faceless mob is gathered below a great tower. High above them, on a roof, a single figure stands, shouting and waving his arms wildly. Flags wave, and a soldier-like figure looms large.

As dark as its themes were, Metropolis' architectural designs were much admired. Its Art Moderne style, now called Art Deco, came to America the next year, when construction began on the famous Art Deco Chrysler Building in New York City.

One whole wall of photos and prints in the show celebrates the beauty of the modern big city, and the sheer miracle of the Big Apple in particular. Berenice Abbott's 1933 photo "Exchange Place, New York" is an exuberant view of one of the city's "slot canyons," a narrow band of light and air between granite monoliths.

Several of the artists celebrate the architecture of industry. Charles Sheeler's "Architectural Cadences" is a lovely silkscreen in grays and blues from 1934. Its lively assemblage of rectangles and triangles adds up to a factory building, seen as a grand contributor to the nation's well-being.

The French painter Fernand Léger celebrated not only architecture but labor in his 1950 "Les Constructeurs" (the construction workers). Two heroic workers are on the I-beams of a skyscraper under construction in this beautiful painting, a gouache on paper. Léger abandons the black and white of his pessimistic colleagues in the show, and moves into optimistic color. The beams, lightly colored in yellow, turquoise and pink, bounded in deep gray, dart across the paper in diagonals and verticals.

The two workers are perched high above the earth. A far cry from Lang's robot slave and underground workers, they're masters of their craft, masters of the city below. One sits astride the metal, while the other, lightly tethered to the beam by one hand, leans fearlessly out into the air.


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