Born in Berlin in 1910, [Alexandre] Vitkine was the product of an era defined by scientific and technological progress. Having forged a career in industry as an electromechanical engineer, he himself is the representation and raw material for his works. But the century Vitkine has been witness to also included the failings and perversities brought about by science and technical advances. In its way, his photography acknowledges this schizophrenia and fluctuates between a celebration of the tool and angst over the inhumanity hinted at by industrial machinery. In this abstract world where extremely taut lines define geometric spaces reminiscent as much of Mondrian as railway tracks with sinister connotations, man, a tiny, fragile silhouette adjusting a neon light, or on the point of being squashed by a concrete block and forever immobilised by his objective, always seems to represent this slippery balance, a metaphor for the paradoxes of contemporary ergonomics. Therein lies the philosophical reasoning behind Vitkine’s works. For beyond their purely aesthetic quality, they prompt reflection on the rapport between man and machine.
If the artist’s photographs, entitled ‘industrial silhouettes’ are a visual representation of our mechanised environment, it is the technique and its scientific mode of operation that produces, with the artist calling the shots, the dehumanised perfection of shapes and lines.
If Vitkine appears at first sight to be the amalgamation of all artistic reflection of the 20th Century, seeming in turn to nod to Mondrian, Léger, Giacometti or Vasarely, his work is none the less unique and utterly original. A testimony to modern art, Vitkine is also a precursor. Since the onset of the 60s, an industrial installation’s jumble of metal, and the eye’s fascination with the tangle of pipes and chimney stacks, anticipates in its clichés the architectural constructions of one Renzo Piano, the designer of the Pompidou Centre.
But beyond these grand references, Alexandre Vitkine stands out with a style purely his own. An unexpected poetry always rises modestly and subtly to the surface, the beauty of art in its most transparent simplicity.
© Michaël Prazan