Transforming ExperiencesEdward Steichen's "The Family of Man"
Scarcely beyond the entrance and I’m already hooked. A swirl of stars in the black universe, then the belly of a pregnant woman, half in shadow, half in light. The nucleus of life. In black and white. The colours, though, are there, in your head and your heart. As are the emotions. There’s something big going on here. “The Family of Man” –
a personal experience.
The people in the room with me seem to be far away. What are they thinking about? Where do they see themselves in this exhibition? Each of us began as a speck of stardust and will be so again. Each of us was a pulsating bundle of cells in our mother’s belly, before developing and being catapulted into the world as a human. Into a life that is colourful and monotone, noisy and silent, beautiful and dreadful. Welcome to “The Family of Man”. I have to turn away from the other visitors at the exhibition briefly, because I have tears in my eyes.
A visit to “The Family of Man” exhibition is a highly intense experience. Perfectly staged, skilfully lit, it is an understated total artwork that appears to have grown naturally. Every visit reveals something new.
What should a portrait of humanity look like? What are the key themes? Each picture in the exhibition seems to hang exactly where it belongs, giving the impression of an organic entity. Accompanying the pictures are passages from Shakespeare, James Joyce, Thomas Paine and Lillian Smith. They’re just there, alongside, with no explanatory captions. “Deep inside, in a silent place where a child’s fears crouch.” This quote from the writer Lillian Smith, printed in white on black, appears alongside pictures of children, girls and boys, who are obviously poor, who look at the camera in resignation or despair, standing behind barbed wire, in front of a bleak landscape, sometimes with their mothers, in whose eyes you can also see that life is hard. Three little girls stand in front of a small, isolated house surrounded by an overgrown meadow. They grip the fence and stare at me gravely, the older two dark-haired, the youngest blonde. It makes me think of my own girls. Two tall brunettes, one small blonde. They are about the same age as the girls in the photo, about whom I know nothing. Neither what became of them nor how long they lived. And yet I feel a connection with them. Simply because I have seen them.
And so it goes on – through the exhibition and through the cycle of life. Childhood with or without schooling, hard work, but also parties and friendship, love and sexuality, faith, struggles and wars – every aspect of what it is to be human is shown here. Steichen brought these people together, regardless of their race, gender or class. Through the photographs, he wanted to find a common language.
Some of the photographs were taken by well-known photographers of their time, others by amateurs. Steichen’s friend Dorothea helped him to find the right ones. Out of millions of pictures, they and their assistants selected just over 500 photographs from 68 countries, and civil rights activist Dorothy Norman compiled the accompanying quotations from world literature and contemporary documents.
The pictures were first displayed at MoMA in New York and the exhibition then toured the whole world. Steichen’s work was successful, but he was also criticised, perhaps precisely because the general public liked the exhibition and elitist critics couldn’t handle that. Following its years on tour as from 1966, the exhibition has been in Clervaux since 1994, and will probably stay there forever. Steichen, who was born in Bivange, wanted the pictures to remain in Luxembourg, his home country, and be on display here.
The second exhibition that Steichen curated, “The Bitter Years”, is also in Luxembourg but at the other end of the country, in a former water tower in Dudelange. It was put together in 1962, also for MoMA in New York, and is an important complement to “The Family of Man”, even though it was not so successful. “The Bitter Years” shows rural America during the Great Depression of the 1930s and is considered to be an homage to documentary photography. Due to shortage of space, only half the pictures can ever be displayed at one time in the water tower. But even this arrangement works, because of the interaction with visitors. The dark, round rooms create a concentrated atmosphere. “The Bitter Years” is manifestly more political than “The Family of Man”, more accusatory, highlighting social wrongs.
And yet, when I’m here, my thoughts go back to the pictures in Clervaux. To the old couple on a swing, flying high together and laughing. And to the baby snuggling up to its mother. Because it could be any baby. Including mine.
Birgit Pfaus-Ravida is a writer at Visit Luxembourg and mother of three.
Edward Steichen‘s legacy in Luxembourg:
“The Family of Man” exhibition Clervaux Castle
“The Bitter Years” exhibition Waassertuerm + Pomhouse, Dudelange
Various works on display at the Luxembourg Musée national d’histoire et d’art (MNHA)
Group show at Mudam: A key highlight within the 2020 programme at Mudam Luxembourg, “Me, Family” is an extensive, international group survey of contemporary art. Devised by the renowned curator Francesco Bonami, it offers a portrait of humanity at the beginning of the 21st century. Inspired by the landmark exhibition “The Family of Man” (1955), “Me, Family” focuses on the great questions of our age. Presented on three levels of the museum, it is one of the most ambitious exhibitions organised by the Mudam to date. It features works by more than 30 artists from 16 countries and includes a selection of works from the Mudam collection.
Leaf through Luci Online: