Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a dazzling exhibition with a misleading title. In the 1920s, Berlin, not Paris, defined the metropolis, and German artists had a love-hate relationship with its oppressive streets, flashing lights, and surging crowds. Filmmakers followed their lead—in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, People on Sunday, and the dystopian vision of Metropolis.
Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture. Rowan Moore (HarperDesign, $30).
Rowan Moore is the outspoken architectural critic of The Observer, one of the last serious newspapers in Britain—a market increasingly dominated by tawdry tabloids. His commentaries on new buildings can be found on the Web site of The Guardian, a liberal daily owned by the same non-profit trust. In Why We Build, he has stepped back to reflect on a broad swathe of architecture and the forces that shape it.
In Focus: Architecture, a small, but exquisite exhibition at the Getty Museum, samples a favorite subject of photographers, from the invention of the medium in 1839 to the present. Architecture in Photographs is the title of a book by Gordon Baldwin, comprising 75 images from the Getty’s fabulous collection, and assistant photography curator Amanda Maddox has selected a third of these for her exhibition. Book and show offer a fascinating commentary on the evolution of the medium and the speed of its growth. Within a decade of the first images by Daguerre in France and Henry Fox Talbot in England, photographers had fanned out across the world, recording monuments, people and natural wonders. The cameras were cumbersome, the processing laborious, but these pioneers were undeterred, and they created a priceless record of a now-vanished world. Monumental buildings were favorite subjects, because they were static, could be pictured in constantly shifting light, and offered a ready-made composition for the photographer to interpret.
It’s Modern: The Eye and Visual Influence of Alexander Liberman. Charles Churchward. Rizzoli, $65.
There’s a fairy tale quality about the life and careers of Alexander Lieberman. An emigré from Kiev, he was briefly touched by the Russian avant garde, edited the first magazine of photo journalism in Paris in the 1930s, narrowly escaped to the US in 1941, was swiftly fired from his first two jobs but spent the next 50 years in art direction at Condé Nast. Even as he honed his reputation as an artist and social lion, he became editorial director of the entire publishing empire, from Vogue to Allure. He re-launched Vanity Fair and House & Garden and inaugurated new titles. Nobody will ever again exercise such authority and for so long. Adaptability was his greatest gift. An exacting stylist, he could reconceive magazines every decade and for every demographic, remaking layouts for hours at a time, before returning to his Connecticut studio to work on an abstract painting or sculpture.
It’s ironic that MoMA presented one of the finest architectural exhibitions in years just as Barry Bergdoll, its widely admired curator of architecture, was stepping down, and its director was threatening to demolish the American Folk Art Museum—an architectural gem. Clearly, the gulf between the suits and the creatives yawns wide. If you missed the exhibition (and who wants to suffer New York in summer) you can catch it in Barcelona and Madrid next year. However, this companion book may prove more rewarding. A major reappraisal of a 20th-century master demands patient study of pictures, drawings and text, rather than abbreviated glimpses in a crowded gallery. From the seductive images of Richard Pare to the many essays that chart Corbu’s travels and his response to landscapes, this is a compelling, beautifully produced study that far outshines most books on the architect.