The Steerage

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In June 1907, photographer Alfred Stieglitz sailed to Europe on the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II, one of the largest and fastest ships in the world at that time. He had a stateroom on the upper decks, but Stieglitz noticed the lower class passengers area, known on most ships as the steerage. While the ship was anchored at Plymouth, England, Stiegliz took the picture that would become his most famous–The Steerage, a cold, documentary criticism of class divisions in a democratic society. (At that time, Stieglitz had only one glass plate prepared and he captured the one and only picture of the scene).

Stieglitz later said he immediately recognized this image as “another milestone in photography…a step in my own evolution, a spontaneous discovery”. However, this claim is doubtful as he didn’t publish the photo until 1911. In October 1911, it appeared in Camera Work, and the next year on the cover of the magazine section of the Saturday Evening Mail, a New York weekly. “This photographer is working in the same spirit as I am,” remarked Pablo Picasso on seeing The Steerage. Now, the photo is hailed as one of the greatest photographs of all time because it captures in a single image both a formative document of its time and one of the first works of artistic modernism–it records the rare image of immigrants turned away by U.S. Immigration officials and were forced to go back home.

Picasso and Guernica

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The Spanish Republican government had wanted a heroic piece to showcase the modern Spain at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. Pablo Picasso turned his commission into anything but. Under his brush, the tragic bombing of Gernika, Basque Country, by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces, on April 26, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, into a nerve-wrecking elegy of individual suffering and an embodiment of peace.

Fully of hidden images, allegorical figures and meaningful gravitas, Guernica depicted suffering people, animals, and buildings wrenched by violence and chaos. At its unveiling at the World’s Fair, David Seymour (Chim) was on hand to photograph the artist in front of his work as it received its first public showing (above). Chim proved more amenable to the piece than his contemporaries who was widely criticized the painting. The German fair guide called it “a hodgepodge of body parts that any four-year old could have painted.” The Soviets, who favored realistic imagery, didn’t like it either. Leftists and communists, the very people who it championed, attacked the painting as devoid of any politics and that it expressed suffering rather than optimism. In Spain, it was declared to be “antisocial and entirely foreign to a healthy proletarian outlook.”

Picasso’s artist friends however realized the importance of the painting very early on. His muse Dora Maar frequented the studio in the Rue des Grands-Augustins to make a photographic record of the entire creative process. Along side the painting, the Museo Reina Sofía holds Marr’s twenty-eight photos showing Picasso at work. A tapestry copy, less monochromatic than the original with strong several shades of brown, was donated to the United Nations by the Rockefellers. On February 5, 2003 a large blue curtain was placed to cover this work as the Bush Administration objected to it being in the background while the American diplomats argued for war on Iraq.

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