The Electric Light at the Intersection of Modern Art and Industrial Production

MOMA has an exhibition closing at the end of September of visual art organized around the theme of advertising the new mass availability of electricity. The exhibition “Electric Currents 1900-1940” is a group of poster art, two short films, and one painting made in the US and Europe.

Though there are other subjects in this small exhibit, the iconic emblem of that change here is the light bulb. The light bulb was easily represented, obvious in purpose, and often the first “appliance” adopted, following the reach of electrical infrastructure. I imagine it would be a tougher task to represent radio or refrigeration or the work of a motor, especially in two dimensions. Indeed, in the examples of those attempts the artists had to refer to text explanations to augment the graphics.

The posters are the most arresting aspect of the show. I am particularly taken with the dark, brooding Jupp Wiertz ad for the AEG draht lampe (wire lamp).

The basic innovation in electric light was the shift from arc light to metal filament lights. The filaments were variously platinum, iridium, or other metals before settling on tungsten. You will notice a number of the works incorporating reference to this innovation or to the metal’s name. My other favorite is Lucian Bernhard’s ad for Osram Azo. Both of them are examples of dense, saturated color and a painterly handling of edges.

Having recently been hooked (not literally) on scythes and their peculiar sharpening requirements, I was happy to see this otherwise humdrum offering.

Lastly, my heart went pitter-patter when I saw The United States Fuel Administration’s poster urging energy conservation. Turn off that light!

 -David Calligeros

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