The surrealist elements of 4 Saints are studied on Dr Allmer’s undergraduate option course Breaking Frames: Women Artists and Surrealism, and exploring little-known artists and works, revisiting established narratives, and disseminating research across different audiences is also a strong emphasis in her PhD supervision.
Dr Patricia Allmer’s exhibition is curated with Dr John Sears (Independent Scholar) and Anna Dannemann (The Photographers’ Gallery). Hosted by London’s world-leading The Photographers’ Gallery, it is the first to focus on the photographic dimensions of the ground-breaking 1934 American modernist opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. The opera was a unique product of complex intersections of avant-garde, queer, literary, musical, and artistic, American and European, and African American cultures. The exhibition foregrounds and explores the roles played by photography (by key American artists and studios including Lee Miller, Carl Van Vechten, Thérèse Bonney, and The White Studio) in representing, promoting, and constructing contemporary audience responses to the opera. Dr Allmer describes this exhibition as “a unique opportunity to introduce a little-known but key avant-garde moment to a diverse public audience, and to explore more fully (and for the first time) the neglected but key roles played by the African American cast, and the implications for understanding the histories of US racial politics of their representation in portrait and performance photographs by white photographers.”
The exhibition, featuring many previously unseen photographs, was the subject of several artistic responses, such as Georgina Johnson’s photography-performance project The Empty Pose. It featured in Vogue and London’s Evening Standard, and in The Guardian’s ‘Ten of the Best…Exhibitions’ highlights (22 December, 2017) which noted: “A fascinating show of photo and sound recordings of an avant-garde opera that caused a sensation when it hit Broadway in 1934.”
The exhibition was reviewed in London Calling, who comment: “This fascinating exploration pays testament to the importance of 4 Saints in 3 Acts in both the queer and black avant-garde; by bringing to light otherwise unseen portraits and production photography, viewers can understand the experimental work for themselves. However, it also raises the importance of documenting new and experimental work to challenge the dominant narratives about artistic innovation.”
A blog review (16 January 2018) noted that “Through a carefully choreographed display and series of texts, [the curators] … shine a light on the less palatable credentials of the production and its racial implications both then and now.”
Clare Grafik, Head of Exhibitions at the Gallery, credited the exhibition with providing “a crucial platform in the Gallery’s programme for the interrogation of photography’s role in the historical avant-garde, but also in highlighting the complex hierarchies of cultural production and dissemination. The exhibition has attracted so far (January 2018) over 65,000 visitors.”
The public events programme includes a US Embassy/BAAS funded talk by Professor Emily Bernard (University of Vermont), and the exhibition’s research was supported by TERRA Foundation and BA/Leverhulme funding. The accompanying catalogue, co-published by Manchester University Press and The Photographers’ Gallery, includes essays by ECA colleagues Dr Lucy Weir and Professor Christopher Breward.
4 Saints in 3 Acts - A Snapshot of the American Avant-Garde is open at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, 20 Oct 2017 – 11 Feb 2018