From the 1830s onwards overpopulation, advancing urbanisation, fear of cholera and social unrest created intense public interest in the dark, hidden zones of metropolises. “Ganz unten” tells the story of the misery experienced in cities such as Vienna, Berlin, London, Paris and New York from 1830 to 1930, as it was seen and described, and as it was communicated by the mass media. These images and reports on slums, homelessness, exploitation and violence have retrospectively proved to be contradictory and ambiguous.
In the years between 1830 and 1930, big cities were home to contagious diseases, social deviance, immorality, alcoholism and delinquency – they were not places where one should live; this was where the scum and lowlifes infested the streets. In a discourse linking urban development and hygiene issues, striking contrasts were drawn to point out the stuffy air and dirty, narrow slum alleys, because the central idea of city planners in the late 19th century was to bring fresh air to the cities by widening the streets.
Many of the reporters, artists, social scientists and photographers whose work on the precarious lives of people on the fringes of society is presented in this exhibition acted as scouts who, on behalf of an audience eager for knowledge and sensation, ventured into the unknown. Their motives were contradictory: sympathy, religious belief, a genuine interest in the facts mixed with speculative sensationalism and social accusation. The urban explorers, clad in rags, advanced into the cities’ underworlds to gather material to allow them to report on the daily lives of the homeless as authentically and directly as possible. Featuring contributions by international authors, the catalogue for the exhibition “Ganz unten” for the first time shows the broad spectrum of representations of misery, ranging from sympathy and indignation to accusation, agitation and sensationalism.