Speed thrills

The surface seductions of Martin Munkácsi

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Whither beauty? Withered on the prickly postmodern vine. Sour grapes, you say? Just look around: A chemical haze obscures formerly fragrant, now fallow fields of flowers across which long-legged lovelies strolled arm in arm under pin-striped parasols; poisonous waste washes up on the shores of previously pristine beaches where carefree bathers whiled away their weekends; and corporate conglomerates co-opt every available surface of soccer field and skating rink, once the open-air arenas of athletes for whom sport was merely child's play dressed up in soft cotton jerseys and sensible shoes. Autumn afternoons no longer linger for a sun-dappled eternity, elegance is a disease of conceit, and Fred Astaire is long gone. With a tip of the woefully unfashionable top hat to Simone Signoret, nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

But what good is sitting alone in your room? Slink over to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and spend many a restorative hour among the unknown pleasures of "Martin Munkácsi: Think While You Shoot!," a joyous retrospective that traces the rise and fall of beauty as a panacea, placebo, moral absolute, and vicious myth. The myriad surprises here refute rumors of beauty's untimely demise, or at least temporarily revive those long-lost days of languorous lounging when everyone was gorgeous and speed meant velocity. Munkácsi's photographs depict a world — not quite ours, but layered with remnants and reminders of what was and what again could be, when everything's gone green — ceaselessly in motion. Neither the artist nor his subjects ever slowed down, hence the simultaneity demanded by the exhibition title. (For a guide on how best to experience the show on the first of the many visits it merits, check out the trio of would-be crooks racing through the Louvre in Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders.)

Born in Hungary in 1896 and restlessly embarking on peripatetic journeys around the world, camera in tow, until his 1963 passing, Munkácsi was a modernist master of photography whose remarkable yet often overlooked achievements encompassed the prewar innocence of Budapest and the privileged leisure of Weimar-era Berlin. He shot mining disasters in Alsdorf and the landing of the Graf Zeppelin in Brazil, the pastoral villages of the Lengua tribe and the fabulous glamour of old Hollywood. He was everywhere and always in good company, swimming with the in-too-deep denizens of Copacabana, hobnobbing with the Hearsts at San Simeon, and marching with military troops in Liberia.

Beauty — in form and function, as hallowed intention and blessed happenstance — suited Munkácsi's joie de vivre. His exuberant images of motorcyclists careening through the countryside, operetta starlets kicking up their heels, naked boys running into the surf at Lake Tanganyika, and Louis Armstrong letting loose with an endless smile seem the very essence of life lived fully, without worry, and with a keen appreciation for surface perfection and the complex mélange of conviviality and yearning beneath. An unapologetic aesthete, Munkácsi — Jewish and in the wrong place at the wrong time — might even have been temporarily blinded by beauty to the ugly truths that eventually sent him packing for the States. How else to explain the eerily graceful compositions of army ranks lined up like statues at the opening of the Reichstag in Potsdam, the portraits of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels tainted with a veneer of Nazi chic, or the startling shots of Triumph of the Will director Leni Riefenstahl expertly traversing tricky ski slopes?

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