While still in his 20s, influential Czech modernist Karel Teige (1900-1951) turned from painting to book design, theoretical writing, and the editing of avant-garde journals. Influenced by cubism, expressionism, constructivism, and surrealism, he was a Marxist who believed everyone could be an artist–who wanted to end the idea of “art with a capital A.” But as the current retrospective at the Smart Museum demonstrates, it’s not easy to document his work: books in cases can’t really be examined, there are many labels to read, and an installation illustrating his architectural ideas, including a floor plan and furniture made for this exhibit, is more informative than affecting. But the photo collages he began to make in his mid-30s–of which there are 22 examples here, echoing work by Man Ray, Hannah Hoch, and others–have an aesthetic power that can be grasped without extensive explanation.

Teige’s early career was informed by a utopianism common among the first modernists. He thought of artists and poets as “builders of a new world” who should propose “a new organization for life,” as Karel Srp writes in one essay in the book Karel Teige: 1900-1951 (available at the museum bookstore). Technology was celebrated: for a 1923 exhibit, Teige and others displayed a life jacket and some ball bearings and machine parts alongside posters and books. Teige’s book designs are assertive and often abstract; one cover included here, for a book by Franz Carl Weiskopf called Transfer to the Twenty-First Century, includes bold geometric shapes in red, black, and white and a photograph of a railroad train chugging toward the viewer.

But by 1935, when Teige began making collages, Germany had fallen to fascism and Teige had grown disillusioned with the Soviet Union; a year later he condemned the notorious Moscow trials that began Stalin’s Great Terror. By 1939 Czechoslovakia was ruled by Hitler, and in Teige’s last years by Stalin, forcing the artist into public silence. These circumstances likely influenced the collages, which often have a strangely cramped, inward quality at once poetic and stultifying. Many include parts of women’s bodies, but any erotic effect is undermined by a dehumanizing fragmentation. Collage Number 358 (1948) includes legs that become breasts at the knee, placing them on a convex bricklike floor; behind the legs, the floor and ceiling–a concave brick surface–meet, creating the impression of a cavern whose curves are crushingly confining.

Vojtech Lahoda argues in an essay on Teige’s collages that they’re consistent with his earlier utopianism: Teige advocated placing abstract sculptures based on the human body in public parks, and many of his collages place sections of the female form in rustic settings. Collage Number 371 (1951) shows two giant breasts hovering over a lake or river. One of the breasts seems fused with what looks like a muscular leg plummeting into a little island; together the three elements suggest a penis and testicles. But it’s hard to see Teige’s almost surreal approach to androgyny in a cheerful light: these huge body parts overpower the landscape rather than enhancing it.

The strongest pieces here combine spatial constriction with a dizzying variety of discordant elements. An untitled collage from 1939 includes a nude woman whose torso is wrapped with rope, suggesting that her innards are being compressed. In place of her head there’s thick smoke, with thinner smoke to her left; whether it’s come from an explosion that’s decapitated her or is just part of the landscape, it suggests war. An eyeball sits on the pavement, and to the left of that an oversize baby’s head with empty eye sockets. The labyrinth of possibilities suggested has none of the evocative clarity of de Chirico or Magritte, producing a bewilderment that denies meaning rather than opening it up.

Compare the Czech modernist photographs in an exhibit a few rooms away, “Crossing Borders: Modern Photographs From Central Europe” (through December 16). In Frantisek Drtikol’s Untitled (Crouched Nude With Shapes) (c. 1927), not only do we see a whole figure but her back makes an arc echoed prominently in several nearby circles; this abstraction may not be exactly humanizing, but it does arguably ennoble the body by comparing it to idealized geometric forms. Teige’s fragmented female shapes, by contrast, don’t seem at all uplifting, though perhaps feminism has changed the way we see such images.

Breasts adorn a ceiling in Teige’s Collage Number 128 (1940), and nearby clouds give them a heavenly air. But the woman lying below them is once again headless, the sky terminates at the horizon in what seems to be a flat gray field, and a round hole in the ceiling leads not to paradise but to a confining officelike room. The composition seems to fold back on itself, denying the kind of imaginative travel that classic surrealist paintings encourage. The eye is trapped, and with it the mind; Teige’s befuddling labyrinth makes an eloquent statement about absurdity and meaninglessness.

The idea that the female body enhances almost any scene is also common in fashion photography, a notion that Michael Voltattorni–one of three photographers in “Connecting” at City–gives an original spin in eight untitled prints. Voltattorni is a Columbia College graduate who was born in Gary, Indiana, in 1964 and now lives and works in Chicago as a fashion photographer. He’s long been interested in fine-art photography, and taking off on the show’s concept, “decided to connect architecture and fashion.” Each print superimposes a model (shot against a white studio backdrop) on a prominent Chicago building. Toned with silver and mounted on stainless steel plates, these images have a metallic look that’s elegant, sleek, and icy cold. Voltattorni adds the toner before the fixing process, which causes it to “take over the whole image, eating into anything that’s black, giving it this bizarre and surreal effect”–an effect enhanced by his strange fusion of women and architecture.

A model in front of Helmut Jahn’s Xerox Center has her back to us, but her head is turned to look at the viewer. Placed at the center of the curve in the facade, she stands at about half the building’s height. Just as the reflections of other buildings in the glass panels to her left and right suggest columns, so she resembles a massive support beam, her darkness contrasting with the building’s airy, almost weightless look. We can see through the lighter areas of her body to the Xerox Center, and the fusion of animate and inanimate adds to the image’s coldness.

Other pieces are even more surreal. A woman superimposed on the Hancock Building looks at us with a faintly disdainful air; her spiky hair echoes the building’s soaring lines, and its vertical and diagonal supports, visible through her image, penetrate her face and body. In the strangest print here, a woman fills the tall, ornate entranceway of a ComEd building. Voltattorni says he whited out the door because it was distracting from the figure, but that choice together with the camera angle suggest looking into an open coffin–and the model’s pose is unnaturally stiff and straight.

Voltattorni does a better job than Teige of acknowledging his models’ humanity. But like Teige, he puts them in surroundings that challenge their autonomy. Are these full-fledged humans or enhancements of natural or man-made spaces? Like Teige, Voltattorni seems ambivalent about the female form, both evoking a person and using the figure as mere adornment.

At least we get faces in Voltattorni’s work, and his images’ stark look is appealing. But ultimately these prints are not as resonant as Teige’s photo collages. Like fashion photography and so much conceptually based art today, Voltattorni’s pieces lack the spatial complexity, the multiple elements and manipulation of space, that gives Teige’s work its aesthetic and emotional impact. A search for possible meanings–that buildings take over humans or that women are more potent than buildings–fails because ultimately it seems there’s more stylishness than articulation to his work. Of course, the majority of art on view today doesn’t even go so far as to evoke a mood.

Karel Teige: Dreams and Disillusion

at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, through December 30

Michael Voltattorni

at City Gallery, through December 30