The Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme is organising the first French retrospective of the photographer and designer Nathan Lerner, whose career was closely linked to the New Bauhaus school in Chicago.
The son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Lerner was born in Chicago in 1913 and while studying painting at the Art Institute began photographing the poor Maxwell Street district of the city from 1935. His photographs show us the America of the Depression years and the misery of the population of this immigrant district, many of whom were Jews from Eastern Europe. Lerner photographed these people with great empathy but not with the eye of a reporter. His concerns were primarily formal, particularly composition and framing. These social photographs are contemporary to those of Walker Evans, Helen Levitt and Dorothea Lange.
On Archipenko’s advice, Lerner enrolled at the New Bauhaus as soon as the school was opened by László Moholy-Nagy in 1937. He met Arthur Siegel and Harry Callahan there, and immediately began experimenting with abstract photography, using a light box to created compositions of everyday objects, ‘light drawings’ and photogrammes. He assisted György Kepes in the Light workshop from 1939 until he took over from him in 1941. In late 1945, Moholy-Nagy asked him to direct the teaching of technical drawing at the school (which had been renamed the School of Design). In 1946, he became the school’s dean then director of studies. In 1949, he left the school, distanced himself from photography and set up a design studio, Lerner Design Associates, specialised in consumer items: packages and bottles, toys and ‘assemble-yourself’ furniture. He also designed a modular house, which he built himself in 48 hours in 1951, and the familiar plastic “Honeybear” jar, one of American marketing’s most emblematic objects.
In 1968, he married the pianist Kiyoko Asai, who introduced him to Japan, and from 1973, there were several exhibitions of his work in the United States, Berlin and Japan. Nathan Lerner died in 1997.
This exhibition was made possible by the generosity of his wife, Kiyoko Lerner, who donated a major collection of his photographs to the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme.
This event has also been an opportunity to recall that Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner protected and revealed the unique and unclassifiable work of Henry Darger, one of the major figures of American Art Brut.
Exhibition curators: Laurence Sigal and Nicolas Feuillie
© Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme