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Stezaker subjects the image to a deep gaze until it betrays some locus of fascination

This is Tomorrow, John Stezaker, Whitechapel Gallery, London, and Philipp Otto Runge, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg

At its 1956 Whitechapel Gallery exhibition This Is Tomorrow, The Independent Group’s ambivalent fascination with mass culture was captured in Richard Hamilton’s pop icon Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?. Hamilton assembled slivers of ads, comics and porn into what is often called a ‘photomontage’, but may be more exactly termed a ‘photocollage’. For whereas montage intends to create a seamless continuity between story and image, as seen in films, collage leaves evident the fragmentation of parts.

This distinction underlies John Stezaker’s photocollages. They present apparitions that approach but never quite reach hallucination because they always display the indices of their construction - the cuts and sutures of manipulated photographs. They deploy collage in minimal terms, the better to concentrate on one original motif - often a single photograph, barely altered, or impinged upon by one other image. Like Hamilton, Stezaker began with found photographs, but rather than assemble cuttings, he isolated images from their captions and currency, altering them in a similar way to the Situationist détournement.

In architecture, Gordon Matta-Clark’s chainsaw cuts into buildings came closest to this practice of diversion. But whereas détournement hijacked ‘spectacle’ into political redirection, Stezaker subjects the image to a deep gaze until it betrays some discrete locus of fascination, which he then transfers to an ambit more open to reverie. The 3rd Person Archive, his file of tiny shots of isolated figures on unknown streets, arrests its subjects in an ‘otherwhere’ as enigmatic as the void above anonymous roofs in his series Stolen Sky, or the smoke clouds belching from truncated chimneys in Sublime.

Where a familiar icon, Big Ben, appears in The End, it but margins a gaze into a burning dusk beyond. This recurrence to some charged absence resembles certain passages in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni - think of Blow-Up, where David Hemmings obsessively dilates a photograph of a seemingly empty corner of a park to discern a hidden figure. Stezaker’s favourite isolating device is an outline: either a shadow doppelgänger, filled with uncanny vitality, or a silhouette. For Stezaker, the silhouette is that negative gestalt, which most conduces from familiar to strange, or as Stezaker puts it, ‘from stereotype to archetype’.

In the silhouette-as-symbol, Stezaker’s photocollages connect to his admiration for the work of Philipp Otto Runge, exponent of a Romantic idealism that saw in the close study of singular things a window to transcendence. Among Runge’s works at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, his Scherenschnitte (‘scissor cuts’) appear as inceptions for a vision that was still unfolding at his death, aged 33 in 1810. Infusing crystalline black-and-white silhouettes with sprite vitality, they delineate the pictorial equivalent of a musical motif -a cell that is both a structural unit and a seed of potential for expressive development.

This is what Gottfried Semper found in the primordial knot, and what Paul Klee was seeking when he wrote in his diary in 1903: ‘I want to find a tiny formal motif, one that I can hold on my pencil, and from this a host of examples will follow.’ Klee’s idea of an initiating motif may be sensed in the Old English word ‘Ord’, meaning both the point of a tool and a point of origin, as in metallic ‘ore’. Ord’s modern German cognates are ‘Ort’, which means ‘place’, and the prefix ‘Ur-‘, meaning ‘primordial’, and translatable as ‘ore-‘, widely used in the saying ‘ore-iron’.

Runge’s other founding motif was his Farbenkugel, or ‘Colour globe’, which was to compass all colours in a single sphere, intended to be both a map of chromatic relations and a symbol of the optic manifold of divine nature. This he depicted in watercolours of planetary beauty, rendered in precise architectural projection. He evolved too, his sequence of allegorical compositions Morning, Day, Evening, Night into proto-architectural visions that configured flowers, infants, sun, moon and stars into airy botanic gazebos midway between a Robert Adam pergola and a glass-and-iron conservatory.

Such a magical crystal palace was imagined in ETA Hoffmann’s tale The Golden Pot. Indeed, a fantasy of primordial/supernatural architecture ran from the Romantics through to the Moderns of the 20th century, so we may see the Farbenkugel’s truest architectural descendant as Bruno Taut’s Glass Pavilion at the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne.

As for Stezaker’s intuition of the uncanny cliché, we still await, despite the work of Walter Benjamin, an exponent of the architecture of the ‘cliché sublime’.

+ Windows to the soul
- Mazes of deconstruction

This Is Tomorrow, John Stezaker

Where: Whitechapel Gallery, London

When: Until 18 March

Philipp Otto Runge

Where: Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg

When: Until 13 March

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