REVIEWED: Geraldo de Barros: What Remains

By Michelle Combs

What Remains is the first retrospective in the UK of the photographic work of Brazilian artist Geraldo de Barros (1923-1998) on display at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. The show focuses on two bodies of work, Fotoformas, executed very early in de Barros’ career, and Sobras, his last photographic work produced over forty years later. The photographs are accompanied by a panoply of archival material, including contact prints and family albums. De Barros is best known for his paintings and was a pioneer of the Concrete Art movement in Brazil.

© Geraldo de Barros, The Birds, 1950. Courtesy of the artist and The Photographers' Gallery

The exhibition begins with de Barros’ photographic experiments before Fotoformas, and the emphasis on geometry and abstraction from the Concrete Art movement is readily apparent. These early works are built up from several exposures, emphasising formal qualities of line and shape. Multiple exposures also obfuscate the sense of space and the passage of time. The Birds (1950) conveys a sense of confusion and entrapment, heightened by the variations in tone caused by the multiple exposure process. The subject isn’t so much the birds as their cage. These very Modernist works are clearly influenced by the earlier Constructivist and De Stijl movements in Europe.

Fotoformas builds upon de Barros’ earlier experiments in terms of composition, although the series is interspersed with images much more grounded in a realist aesthetic, such as Untitled, Tyrol, Austria (1951). In addition, de Barros pushed his experimentation even further: drawing on and scratching the negatives, as well as cutting them and rearranging the composition before printing. The lack of tell-tale signs of this manipulation on the final prints speaks of his mastery of these techniques. His interventions appear as if they were always part of the original composition: present, but fluid and logical, as in Homage to Stravinsky (1949). What this exhibition misses out on, however, is de Barros’ very particular arrangement of the series when it was first shown at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in 1950. The more clinical display of The Photographers’ Gallery overly emphasises the variation in size of the prints within this series, but the photographs themselves are strong enough to maintain their presence.

© Geraldo de Barros, from Sobras, 1996 - 1998, Fragments of negatives, cut out and mounted on glass plate using black masking tape. Courtesy of the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery.

De Barros takes a different approach to his manipulations in the Sobras series. Begun when his daughter unearthed an archive of family photographs, de Barros makes the presence of his manipulations more dramatic, using black tape to frame the image, in a style one would have expected from Piet Mondrian had he been a photographer. This series, begun just two years before de Barros’ death, reads like a puzzle, like the artist piecing the “remains” of his life together in a search for meaning or clarity. This fascinating series is simultaneously deeply personal and experimental, and these images are the strongest of the retrospective. There are no individual titles for the works that make up Sobras, and indeed the images have a certain logic as a whole that breaks down when considered individually.

© Laura Letinsky, Untitled 29, 2011.
What Remains is presented in conjunction with two other considerations of the wider theme of collage at The Photographers’ Gallery: Ill Form and Void Full and Perspectives on Collage. Compared with the detailed scope and high quality of What Remains, both Ill Form and Void Full (a solo show of photographs by Laura Letinsky) and the group showing of Perspectives on Collage seem sparse. Letinsky takes a more formal approach to collage, drawing from seventeenth-century painting and Minimalist aesthetics. Although conceptually strong, the room feels visually empty and the photographs appear repetitive coming from the dense and weighty de Barros retrospective. 

© Batia Suter, Wave, floor version #1, 2012

Perspectives on Collage produces a feeling of overall neutrality; the work is not exceptional, for better or worse. If one has seen the previous exhibition of Deutsche-Börse Prize 2012 winner John Stezaker at The Photographers’ Gallery, What Remains downstairs, or the concurrent exhibition of Schwitters at Tate Britain, then one has seen much stronger versions of all this work before. The only exception to this critique is Batia Suter’s Wave (2012), consisting of overlapping books opened to pictures of waves arranged on the floor, which is a sculpture rather than photographic collage. The inclusion of a sculpture, although arguably the strongest piece of the group, confuses the remit of the show and weakens the unity of the rest of the work.

What Remains is the strongest of the three shows at The Photographers’ Gallery, which will all be on until 7 April 2013.

London, UK  18 Jan - 7 Apr 2013