Art-Themed Exhibit at the Jewish Museum

The Steerage on view September 25, 2015 – February 14, 2016
By Debbie Wells

Attending the Press Preview

On September 21st, I was invited to a media/press preview of the latest exhibits at the Jewish Museum to report my observations on our Artful Circle on-publication, Artful Observer. I hadn’t been to the Jewish Museum iIMG_1502n a long while, but was quickly reminded of its beauty as I approached its stately home on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street directly across from Central Park. Housed in the elegant Warburg Mansion on Museum Mile since 1944, the building was designed in French Gothic chateau-style by architect Charles P.H. Gilbert in 1908.

2000-6,The Steerage,Artist: Stieglitz, Photographer:John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York
Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946), The Steerage, 1907, photogravure, 15 7/8 × 11 1/8 in. (40.4 × 28.1 cm). The Jewish Museum, NY, purchase: Mr. and Mrs. George Jaffin Fund, 2000-6

The Deputy Director Jans Hoffmann and the museum curatorial staff presented all its newest exhibits to the press and then encouraged us to explore the galleries for a few hours on our own before the museum opened to the public. I was immediately attracted to an exhibition that I thought would be of interest to our Artful Circle members. Many times, our groups have enjoyed the work of Alfred Steiglitz and his wife, famous artist Georgia O’Keefe at art galleries and museums. This exhibit at the Jewish Museum centers around a single photograuvre by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) entitled, The Steerage which the artist considered the greatest of his career. He even stated later in his life, “If all my photographs were lost, and I’d be represented by just one, The Steerage, I’d be satisfied.”

IMG_1464 Masterpieces & Curiosities  Series –
The Steerage

I met with Rebecca Shaykin, Leon Levy Assistant Curator, for a close-up look at the exhibit. First, she explained the concept behind their popular Masterpieces & Curiosities series, in which The Steerage is the fifth exhibit. The series showcases individual works in the Jewish Museum’s world-renowned collection.

She noted that the goal of the series was to focus on certain objects or art and solely dedicate an exhibit to give audiences a better understanding of its importance. In my opinion, being able to concentrate on one piece in the collection and celebrate it is an exciting premise for a long-term museum series. Previous art in this series include a rare lion-shaped bronze pitcher made in 12th century Germany, the Jewish Giant photograph taken of Eddie Carmel and his parents by Diane Arbus in 1970, a colorful story-telling Russian-American quilt created in the 19th century and a contemporary painting of an emotional and vibrant typical Jewish family seder by New York artist Nicole Eisenman.

Ms. Shaykin gave me a tour of the exhibit and described the items on the walls, saving the star of the show, The Steerage, on display in a large glass cabinet in the middle of the gallery space for last. The photogravure, produced in 1907, was a purchased by the museum in 2006 from the Mr. and Mrs. George Jaffin Fund.

To fully understand why this photograph is highly revered by its creator as well as in history is essential. Ironically, the much-re-produced image has become symbolic of the immigrant struggle as they arrived in America even though it was taken on a voyage from America to Europe. In actuality, these were not the immigrants one imagines – more likely they were forcibly being sent back to Europe by the US government for reasons of disease, old age, excessive poverty or disillusionment of the American dream. Based on research from maps and weather reports, it appears that this picture was not taken in the middle of the ocean, but when the ship was docked in either New Jersey or its where the Steiglitz family disembarked in Europe.

When conceived, it was never intended to be documentation of the poor conditions that immigrants were forced to endure. A Jew himself, Alfred Steiglitz was actually more concerned with aesthetics than social commentary. Despite the circumstances of its creation, The Steerage has become the quintessential image for immigrants en route to pursue the American dream.

The True Story behind The Steerage

In 1907, Alfred Steiglitz boarded a ship in his hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey with his wife and young daughter bound for Europe. They traveled first-class on the Kaiser Wilhelm II, one of the most opulent ocean liners of the day. Although he was the son of German-Jewish immigrants and his upbringing was decidedly middle-class, his wife Katherine was accustomed to a more extravagant lifestyle. While strolling on the ship, Steiglitz discovered that he related more to the lower-class passengers confined to steerage than to the perceived pretentiousness of his own family quarters. He was more comfortable watching the crowd of men, women and children and recognized himself as one of those poor travelers crowed in the steerage section. Toward the end of his career, he made clear that the bond he felt with his subjects was a by-product of his slumming expedition, yet an experience that led his reputation to soar.

The exhibit highlights Steiglitz’s personal account of the excitement he felt when he encountered the scene on the ship in the form of an audio recording that can be listened to through headphones attached to a vintage telephone. The recording, How The Steerage Happened was produced in 1942 and explains his thought process at the time, “How I hated the atmosphere of the first class on that ship…I had to get away from that company. As I came to the end of the [deck] I stood alone, looking down. The whole scene fascinated me. I longed to escape from my surroundings and join those people. I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life. Should I try to put down this seemingly new vision that helped me – people, the common people, the feeling of ship and ocean and sky and the feeling of release that I was away from the mob called the rich? Here would be a picture based on related shapes and on the deepest human feeling, a step in my own evolution, a spontaneous discovery.”

The Steerage as Art

One of Alfred Stieglitz’s professional goals was to advance photography as a true art form. Striving to demonstrate that photography could rival modern painting, he was pleased that even Pablo Picasso said, “This photographer is working in the same spirit as I am.”

Did he know that The Steerage would be so well-received by the public? He did not exhibit the picture for several years because he was uncertain that it would be taken seriously, let alone the masterpiece it is considered today. When it was debuted in his own gallery in 1913, Steiglitz was happy to see that avant-garde art was gaining acceptance in the art world.

steerage detail 1   steerage detail 2
Details from The Steerage

Instantly inspired that day, he knew he wanted to artfully capture the story of these passengers and use the ship’s architecture as the backdrop. Stieglitz was the master of composition when he arranged the elements of the scene he encountered. He claimed to have been spellbound when he first discovered the scene and raced back to his cabin, hoping that not much would change when he returned with his equipment. Luckily, it remained as he remembered and noted, “There was the man with the straw hat! He hadn’t moved. The man with the crossed white suspenders showing his back – he too, hadn’t moved. And the woman with the child on her lap, sitting on the floor, hadn’t moved. Seemingly, no one had changed position.” With his last plate holder and unexposed plate, he released the shutter to secure this brillant image.

steerage detail 3
Detail from The Steerage

The Steerage has an intriguing geometric structure. The gang plank divides the people in this two-dimensional composition. The people themselves are divided by class as well as logistically. The immigrants below remind one of “huddled masses” depicted in poetry of Emma Lazarus. These families appear downtrodden and cramped in the dark space under the planks. Oddly enough, the man in the front is draped in a striped blanket that looks mistakenly like a tallis prayer shawl. The passengers above are well-heeled and closer to the open air and look down at the downstairs scene. Both decks were crowded, but the human condition is sharply depicted as different worlds. Figures are not the only elements that define this image. The ladders and poles, and even the x-shaped white suspenders on one of the men, all form diagonal lines in the composition as well. In addition, the black and white coloring produce an urban and graphic atmosphere.

Accompanying Objects in the Gallery

Twin-Screw SS Kaiser Wilhelm II passing the Statue of Liberty Postcard
Postcard of the Kaiser Wilhelm II passing the Statue of Liberty.

To complement the story of The Steerage, the gallery contains other meaningful items on display. Most interesting is the model replica of the Kaiser Wilhem II ship. Obtained from the South Street Seaport Museum Foundation, the scale model gives a new perspective to how The Steerage scene had taken place. This ship was a marvel of the time – the vessel measured over 700 feet and could hold nearly 2,000 passengers. As seen by the postcards from the Stanley Lehrer Ocean Liner Collection of the South Street Seaport Museum Foundation, it is clear that they were meant to publicize its impressive size and grandeur offering first-class travelers interiors designed in a German Baroque Revival style. As much as the postcards showed the ship was to be comparable to luxury hotels on sea, Stieglitz considered its design to be overly extravagant and gaudy.

A 1944 Arnold Newman photographic portrait of Steiglitz with his second wife, artist Georgia O’Keefe, as well as various newspaper and magazine articles, give the audience a glimpse of Stieglitz’s life and career. He showcased his photography, as seen in an edition of Camera Work (No. 36/October 1911) in which he published The Steerage with other snapshots of New York City streetscapes. In 1924, it was re-published in Vanity Fair.

Vik Muniz (Brazilian, b. 1961), The Steerage (after Alfred Stieglitz), from Pictures of Chocolate, 2000, silver dye bleach print , 37 ¾ x 30 ¼ in. (95.9 x 76.8 cm). The Jewish Museum, New York, gift of Melva Bucksbaum, 2000-74. Artwork © Vik Muniz / Licensed by VAGA, NY

On a very innovative note, there is a mixed media appropriated art piece by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. Created in 2000 as homage to Steiglitz’s famous photograph, Muniz created a silver dye bleach print using Bosco chocolate sauce to mimic the iconic image. By utilizing an unexpected material, Muniz is a true pop artist and pokes at The Steerage with wit. Captions to come

IMG_1477Honoring Steiglitz
and The Steerage

After walking through the gallery with Ms. Shaykin (on left, posed in front of the ship model), I came to truly appreciate this intimate look at The Steerage and the coordinating objects. This installment of the museum’s Masterpieces & Curiosities series successfully presents the artwork as well as showing its place in history. I was able to appreciate how it fit into the popular culture of the time and was revolutionary in the world of art. It deserves recognition on all accounts and I’m sure that Mr. Steiglitz would have agreed.

The Jewish Museum is located at 1109 Fifth Ave at 92nd St, NYC. Masterpieces & Curiosities: Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage is curated by Rebecca Shaykin, Leon Levy Assistant Curator. The Masterpieces & Curiosities series was organized by Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs, and coordinated by Daniel S. Palmer, Leon Levy Assistant Curator.
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