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On Exhibit: antiquity meets photography

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Photography may have roots much older than its 155-year history, a clever exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art suggests. "An Eye for Antiquity," on loan from the Tampa Museum of Art, is 80 photographs from the eclectic collection of nearly 3,000 amassed by Mr. and Mrs. William Zewadski, who, after acquiring classical Greek and southern Italian vases, turned their passion for collecting to photographs on Greco-Roman themes. And perhaps the Zewadskis' shift from acquiring antiquities to acquiring the photographic record of antiquity is not so odd: it does reflect a trend in the technology of collecting. With a camera, everyone can collect, immaterially. Nineteenth-century travelers collected "views," or "perspectives," made at first by professionals, then increasingly by amateurs. The thrill of being there and bagging a monument with your very own lens soon ranked in authenticity with any collectible.

The Smart Museum opens and closes this exhibit with fragments from its own collection of antiquities, cleverly bracketing the photographs with reminders of the obsession with piecing together the past shared by collectors, curators, and photographers. Worn stone heads, a hoof, and a finger point us to the galleries that catalog this encounter between the oldest of collectibles and the newest collector: antiquity meets photography.

This exhibit spans the history of photography, juxtaposing 19th-century images celebrating excavations of classical sites with 20th-century works reinterpreting classical aesthetics. It opens with an image by one of the first photographers, William Henry Fox Talbot. In the mid-1840s Talbot published serially The Pencil of Nature, the first photographically illustrated book, to show the variety of uses for this invention. A scientist, he emphasized photography's potential for documentation, and his elegant 1843 Bust of Patroclus from the British Museum eloquently predicts photography's role in reproducing works of art. Though Talbot made picturesque studies of his country house, he avoided the question that would dog photography for the next century: whether photographs might themselves be works of art. He even conceded that for him the impulse to fix the image cast by the camera (without film, it had been used as a tool for sketching since the 17th century) arose from his inability to draw.

No pretensions to art status are made by an anonymous 19th-century photographer whose four snapshots record a tour of Italy. The final shot is captioned in the even, sexless hand it seems everyone once learned to write, Forbidden Snapshot at Latest Excavation. Could this be a clue to the photographer's demise?

The pace the exhibit sets is brisk: moving through the 19th century is like flipping the pages of an old picture book that is still strangely current. The show's most memorable moments come from a 19th-century volume containing German-Italian Giorgio Sommer's haunting photographs of excavated corpses petrified by volcanic lava at Pompeii. These images rewrite the history of atrocity photography, to which 20th-century viewers are painfully accustomed. There is nothing bloody about these plaster bodies lying on wood stretchers or on the ground; they seem more likely to await sculptors than paramedics. But their positions are frightful, forecasts of the torments we could all face at our end. These casts were formed from emptiness, from abscesses within the Pompeian rock. Archaeologists packed plaster into the pockets so that these "survivors" might be rescued--no doubt to reside in the suspended animation of museums. In their bare, almost abstract humanity, these are the ancestors of the figures worked by modern sculptors from Giacometti to Abakanowitz. To the perfect marble bodies dreamed by sculptors of Greece's Golden Age, these are the nightmare. What curious things to collect.

The 20th-century portion of the Zewadski collection adds a welcome note of irony. In the context of this exhibit Eadweard Muybridge's 1887 motion studies of "Greco-Roman wrestlers" take on a fresh significance, as does Brassai's 1931 study of a nude model being sculpted by students at L'Academie Julian in Paris. Both seem variations on Pygmalion's story--sculptures brought alive only to return to stone--as photography brings classicism temporarily back to life.

Apt conclusions to a collection on collecting are provided by Herbert List and Rudy Burckhardt, whose images coincidentally form a pair. In List's elegiac Plaster Casts of Classical Sculptures in the Ruins of the Destroyed Academy of Arts, Munich, Winter 1945-46, the debris of an art school in another fallen Rome lies neglected beneath a dusting of snow. The toys await a better child, and Burckhardt's coy snapshot provides one. The scene is another hodgepodge of statuary, this time a garden in spring. A small child sits center stage, an arm raised as if in benediction. The prince is obviously of good lineage: the photo is titled Rome: Forum With Figure of Jakob Burckhardt's Grandson, 1951. With his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Burckhardt tried to reinvent Western civilization. Is the boy next in this noble line, or a comic footnote to an overbearing tradition?

In the end, this collection's greatest coherence lies in the Zewadskis' idiosyncratic taste--a poignant lesson in light of the collector's aspirations to encompass such grand traditions as antiquity, memory, photography. The craving to reconstruct whole worlds ultimately reflects the consoling image of two people, emissaries of culture laden with their treasures.

This Saturday, from 10 AM to 2 PM, John Larson, archivist of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, will offer a minicourse on the fascination photographers and their audiences have had with the Near East, Greece, and Rome, and on the use of photography to record deteriorating ancient monuments and classical sites. The cost is $21; for reservations call 702-9507. "An Eye for Antiquity" continues at the Smart Museum, 5550 S. Greenwood, through Sunday. Admission is free, and a free gallery talk will be offered Sunday at 1:30. Call 702-0200 for information.

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