Until March 2014, the entirety of FOAM is dedicated to an exhibition of William Klein. The exhibition includes his photography, fashion work at Vogue, films, painted panels and also painted contacts. Despite being born and raised in America, it is evident even in early works that Klein was opposed to the consumerism and capitalism of his country. This is a recurring theme. From his late teens onwards, he lived and worked in France.
The exhibition is designed in a somewhat chronological order.
The first room on the ground covers the photography of ‘Life is Good & Good for You in New York – Trance Witness Revels’. Published in 1956, this collection of street photography was considered controversial because it showed a side of America that was radically different to the perceived American dream. It was considered so controversial that no American company would publish it, and was only published by a French company. Throughout these photographs is a clear contrast between the perfection in the advertising, opposed to the reality of the people on the streets. It seems he tries to capture their charm and energy, but they are not the typical image of beauty perpetuated by the advertisements in the background. There is a range of personalities; some are friendly and happy towards the lens, others are aggressive and find it an intrusion. Through the lens of Klein the city seems dark and oppressive, and there is something alienating about the corrupting culture of consumerism. This photography excellently contrasts light and dark elements, especially in capturing neon lights in black and white. Despite his anti consumerist views, Klein argued his fascination with neon and advertising was rooted in his love of typography.
The next room displays photography from Moscow around 1956. There is still an element of oppressiveness; the Coca Cola logo is replaced by propaganda with Lenin’s face. It feels his work compares the Russian propaganda to the consumerist neon. It seems Moscow was his next major work after New York, which could be seen as a comparison between capitalist and communist cultures.
Next is photography of Rome and Tokyo. The works from 1961 Tokyo are arguably most interesting of the two. You are immediately struck by the clash of traditional Japanese culture with emerging consumerist culture introduced post war by American influences. Japanese dress and wooden houses are contrasted with the chaos in the Tokyo stock market. I found this was captured perfectly in a photo taken inside a Tokyo apartment; people eating sitting on the floor in the traditional Japanese way, while at the same time the room has the latest gadgets like a television. These photographs also emphasise Japanese characters, again showing Klein’s fascination with typography.
This floor also contains abstract work from 1952-54, and painted panels from 1963-64. Both collections exhibit the same use of light and dark elements.
Progressing through the gallery, you find yourself asking what motivates the man. It seems he is motivated to capture the oppressive and monolithic presence of consumerism in cities, and to show how alienating and dark the cities of the ‘American dream’ look in reality. The bright colours of the neon lights are designed to get the attention of people and encourage consumerism. When captured in black and white, they seem like an invasive element.
As you ascend the stairs, you consider the contradiction of Klein. While being opposed to consumerism, at the same time he spent ten years work for Vogue, one of the flagships for consumerist culture. The Vogue section covers his work with the magazine from 1955 to 1965. I personally found these photos to be very beautiful; I felt Klein contrasted the immaculate models with the chaotic surroundings of city streets. The impeccable models walking through the city seem almost out of place. The photograph that stands out the most is the image of two women in designer clothes encountering each other as they cross the street.
Next is a collection of photos taken in Paris from 1980 to 2000. There is one photograph that really stands out. Taken in 1980, the photo looks into a Paris café through a window, with subjects staring back and reflections of the street in the glass.
The last room on the level shows his recent Painted Contacts works. These are a collection of earlier shots from the 50s and 60s, that are painted over. The most striking is a work called Smoke + Veil, Paris. It combines three shots of a woman wearing a black veil who is smoking, looking away from the lens and back. The original shots were taken in 1958, and the painted print was produced in 2001.
The last section is on the top floor showing short segments of Klein’s filmography. It is quite interesting, and in a short space of time gives a good idea of what his films were about.
Upon finishing the exhibition, you are left with several key impressions of Klein. Most interesting to me was his anti consumerist views, and how he captured the contrast between the ‘American dream’ sold in advertising and the reality in street photography. He is considered one of the fathers of street photography, and these seem his most powerful works. I found his Vogue work remarkable and beautiful. However I imagine the man of anti consumerism beliefs would have been conflicted using his artwork for a magazine selling the consumer lifestyle. His fascination with typography is interesting, and a recurrent theme throughout. Overall, it is an excellent exhibition and definitely worth a look. It is a rare opportunity to see so much of Klein’s work, especially in the Netherlands as his last exhibition was back in 1967. It is great of FOAM to dedicate their entire space to his work, and was one of the most interesting exhibitions I have seen.
The exhibition runs until 12th March 2014. Tickets are €10 (including the €1,25 surcharge for the exhibition, with a museumkaart it costs only €1,25 for admission).