Roman Vishniac Retrospective Opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in September
Nearly 250 objects on view reposition Vishniac as one of the great modernists and social documentary photographers of the 20th century
HOUSTON—September 2, 2015—This month, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presents Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, a survey of five decades of work by the photographer Roman Vishniac (1897–1990). Over the course of his lengthy career, Vishniac witnessed the sweeping artistic innovation of the Weimar era in Berlin, the Nazi Party’s ominous rise to power in Germany, the final years of traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe, and immigrant life in America during and after World War II. His photographs provide a compelling record of this human drama.
Drawn from the extensive Roman Vishniac Archive at the International Center of Photography (ICP), Roman Vishniac Rediscovered presents newly discovered vintage prints, film footage, personal correspondence, and exhibition prints made from recently digitized negatives for a comprehensive reappraisal of the photographer’s output. Nearly 250 objects, including photographs, negatives, books, journals, and ephemera—many of them never seen before this exhibition premiered at the ICP—reveal a compositional acuity, inventiveness, and surprising stylistic range that solidifies Vishniac’s place among the 20th century’s most accomplished photographers. The exhibition is on view in Houston from September 24, 2015, to January 3, 2016.
“For more than 70 years, Roman Vishniac has been known for his iconic images of Jewish life in prewar Eastern Europe,” said Gary Tinterow, Museum director. “This exhibition traces Vishniac’s development from prewar Berlin to postwar America, demonstrating that he was a talented formalist in addition to his documentary work.”
“Roman Vishniac Rediscovered presents, for the first time, five decades of work by a photographer who was previously known for only four years of work,” said Maya Benton, exhibition curator, from the ICP. “The vast holdings of the Roman Vishniac Archive, which includes 10,000 negatives, have allowed us to reposition Vishniac as one of the great photographers of the 20th century.”
Born in Russia in 1897 to an affluent Jewish family, Vishniac grew up in Moscow. After pursuing graduate degrees in biology and zoology, he immigrated to Berlin in 1920 in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. As an amateur photographer he took to the streets, offering witty visual commentary on day-to-day life in his adopted city. This prodigious body of early work reflects the influence of European modernism and an avant-garde approach to framing and composition.
Vishniac’s development as a professional photographer coincided with the Nazi rise to power, and he tenaciously documented the ominous changes he encountered: Images of campaign posters, swastika banners, and marching soldiers dominate work from this era. As restrictions on Jewish photographers increased, he was commissioned to document the work of several Jewish community and social-service organizations in Berlin. In 1935, he was hired by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee—the world’s largest Jewish relief organization—to photograph impoverished Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe as part of the organization’s effort to raise funds and support. Vishniac’s four years of work on the project yielded the celebrated images that have largely defined his photographic legacy.
Following a brief period of internment in France, Vishniac arrived in New York in 1941 and opened a portrait studio to support his family. Throughout the 1940s, Vishniac continued to chronicle the impact of World War II while working to establish himself in the fields of science and photomicroscopy, or photography through the microscope. He photographed the war-relief efforts of Chinese-Americans in New York; he documented the arrival of Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors; and he followed American Jewish life throughout the 1940s and 50s. In 1947, he returned to Europe to document relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps and the ruins of his former hometown, Berlin. Photomicroscopy became Vishniac’s primary focus for the last 45 years of his life. By the mid-1950s, Vishniac had established himself as a pioneer in the field; his scientific photography appeared in hundreds of magazine and journal articles and on dozens of covers.
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered debuted at the International Center of Photography in New York, where it was on view from January 18 to May 5, 2013. The Houston presentation will be complemented by an installation at the Holocaust Museum Houston of 10 later prints from Eastern Europe, which were recently gifted to the HMH by the photographer’s daughter.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 384-page retrospective monograph, the first comprehensive text ever written about Roman Vishniac’s career that spans five decades. Published by the International Center of Photography and DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel, the publication features 475 images and essays by 23 contributors.
Organization and Funding
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered is organized by the International Center of Photography. It is made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In New York, the exhibition was made possible with support from Mara Vishniac Kohn, whose generosity founded the Roman Vishniac Archive at ICP, and by the Andrew and Marina Lewin Family Foundation, Estanne and Martin Fawer, the David Berg Foundation, the Righteous Persons Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Olitsky Family Foundation, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, and numerous additional donors.
Generous funding is provided by:
The David Berg Foundation
Barbara and Gerry Hines
Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff
Additional generous funding is provided by Bruce Stein Family/Triple S Steel; Rolaine and Morrie Abramson; Joan and Stanford Alexander; Nancy Beren and Larry Jefferson; Jerry and Nanette Finger Family; Barbara and Michael Gamson; Joyce Z. Greenberg; Barbara and Charles Hurwitz; Joan and Marvin Kaplan; Ann and Stephen Kaufman; Helaine and David Lane; Susan and Jack Lapin; Rochelle and Max Levit; Mrs. Joan Schnitzer Levy; Barbara and Barry Lewis; Suzanne Miller; Ms. Joan Morgenstern; Paula and Irving Pozmantier; Herman Proler; Minnette Robinson; Leslie and Russ Robinson; Regina Rogers in honor of Stefi Altman; The Lester and Sue Smith Foundation; Sugar Land Skeeters; Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Weil, Jr.; Erla and Harry Zuber; and additional supporters of the exhibition.
About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Established in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums in the United States, with an encyclopedic collection of more than 65,000 works dating from antiquity to the present. The main campus comprises the Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Rafael Moneo and opened in 2000; the Caroline Wiess Law Building, originally designed by William Ward Watkin in 1924, with extensions by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe completed in 1958 and 1974; and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi and opened in 1986. Additional spaces include a repertory cinema, two libraries, public archives, and facilities for conservation and storage. Nearby, two house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and Rienzi—present American and European decorative arts. The MFAH is also home to the Glassell School of Art and its acclaimed Core Residency Program and Junior and Studio Schools; and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art.
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Laine Lieberman, publicist
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