exhibition | erich lessing

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Work and Workers after the War. From the MAST Foundation Collection in Bologna

curated by Harry Kalha | in partnership with The Finnish Museum of Photography and Laura Serani

After World War II, Europe lay in ruins: bombed, burnt, destroyed, and demoralised. An unimaginable surge of violence, murder and destruction had very recently swept across Europe and other parts of the world, killing more than 50 million people. Given the extent of the devastation, the speed of Europe’s rebirth, its defiant rise from the ravages of war and the furies of Nazism and Fascism is more than just surprising, it is truly extraordinary. For the second time in the course of a single century it rose from the ashes like a veritable phoenix.

Erich Lessing, who was born and raised in Vienna, fled from the Nazis to Israel, then the British Mandate of Palestine, shortly before the war started. His mother stayed behind in Vienna and was killed in Auschwitz. After the war, Lessing returned to Austria and began to photograph the European reconstruction, first for the Associated Press agency and from 1951, for the Magnum agency. Like many of his contemporaries (Werner Bischof, René Burri, Henri Cartier-Bresson et al) he made it his mission to document the resilience that enabled the people of Europe to rebuild their continent and transform it into a prospering, even thriving economy within a short few years – despite the fact that it would remain divided into East and West for decades. The emphasis Erich Lessing placed on the industrial sector in both Western and Eastern Europe is a unique feature of his work.

The photographs by Erich Lessing included in this exhibition are part of the Fondazione MAST collection of industrial photography. The present selection in Reggio Emilia recalls the Human Capital in Industries exhibition, which opens on April 23rd at the Fondazione MAST in Bologna, at the same time as Fotografia Europea. The aim of Human Capital is to show the degree to which industrialisation has transformed human life and to demonstrate that, on the other hand, industrial production would be impossible without human input – without workers, managers and executives. At least until a very short time ago, until the most recent push of automation, the move towards technological production control, man and machine, industry and human labour formed a considerable tight-knit unit. The Human Capital exhibition showcases 258 photographic images (commissioned work, artistic statements and documentary representations) in an attempt to address the various issues relating to the past and present of industries and labour, the Human Capital.

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