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‘Dancing in Peckham’, Gillian Wearing, 1994

Faces in the Crowd sets out to uncover one of the repressed themes of modernism, allegedly eclipsed by its tendency to privilege abstraction. The show opens with Manet’s ‘Masked Ball at the Opera’ (1873)—a neat rendering of the bourgeoisiecrowd at play—followed by Umberto Boccioni’s ‘The City Rises’ (1910) in which the crowd’s pace and presence begins to affect the way it is rendered by the artist—all blurs and brushstrokes. Turn the corner and the theme develops and expands, as the exhilarating psychological fate of the individual in the crowd becomes the focus in works such as James Ensor’s ‘Death and the Masks’ (1897). Ensor’s painting takes the subject matter of Manet’s—the masked character relishing the anonymity of the crowd—and transforms it into one of terror. This theme is echoed later in archetypal works from the 1950s by Francis Bacon. In these, the subject is completely unmasked and isolated. Between these two themes, the crowd as a revolutionary force takes centre stage in the propaganda poster and magazine works of Aleksandr Rodchenko and John Heartfield. In Rodchenko’s ‘Five Year Plan’ (1932) the crowd is uplifted and brought into unison by its communist leader. Heartfield’s ‘Dr Goebbels, the Future Healer’ (1934) on the other hand, pictures the crowd forced to its knees by a Nazi dictator.

The every-day-crowd as epic continues in photographs by Americans Robert Capa and the individual within a capitalist economy. Evans’ ‘Subway Portraits’ (1938-41) isolates each subject from his immediate environment. He is lost.

Upstairs, the gallery layout is more open. Works can be cross-referenced more easily. The cabinet picture of the turn of the 19th century makes way for the late 20th century installation. The result is a fluid space, easily slipped through, full of work which echoes earlier themes, such as the way gender holds up against a variety of metropolitan backdrops and scenery. So, the startled women in Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’ (1980) play off against their male counterparts in Richard Prince’s ‘Untitled, the Same Man Looking in Different Directions’, (1978) while also evoking Claude Cahun’s self-portraits hanging downstairs and anticipating Nan Goldin’s ‘Joey on the Balcony, Hotel Ritz, Paris’ (2001) further on.

The exhibition’s premise that figurative representation is crucial to the representation of modern life is misleading, as modernist abstraction too was concerned with representing the individual and society, albeit through the use of a complex set of codes and indexical signs. Broad historical and theoretical disagreements about abstract versus figurative aside, this is a strong exhibition and a considerable feat in the art of gathering work together for a small institution like the Whitechapel. Perhaps Prince’s work best sums up the exhibition’s central theme. An unusual choice, but consider how Prince’s photographs show a unique response to the city and yet are borrowed representations being photographs taken from advertisements. And here lies the fulcrum of Faces in the Crowd : where the modern subject of the individual in the city becomes a postmodern representation of itself—a cipher, a sort of abstraction. Prince’s photographs clarify how postmodernism established multiple points of continuity with modernism and in so doing brought forward previously neglected trends from within it—the representation of the figure in the crowd being chief amongst them.

Alex Coles is the author of DesignArt forthcoming from Tate Publishing