The Ironical Chronicle

March 25, 2005

German and Austrian History Packaged As Nostalgia

The NY Times did a review of a current exhibition of the work of German and Austrian photographers done between 1900 and 1938 at a gallery in New York City. To go along with the review, the reviewer created a slide show from five pictures, all portraits, from the exhibition that she liked. They are all interesting, but none of them gives the slightest clue to the tremendous political crises that wracked those two countries in the same period.

I am currently reading books by two authors from that period: Kurt Tucholsky and Karl Kraus, a German and an Austrian, respectively. Tucholsky published a book, Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles, in 1929. This book is a satire on German militarism and capitalism and it earned him the hatred of the Nazis, who deprived him of his citizenship and drove him into exile in Sweden, where he ultimately took his own life in 1935.

To add some balance to the Times' slide show, which you can look at by clicking the thumbnails, I've added three selections from Tucholsky's book.

The New York Times

March 25, 2005

German and Austrian Glamour Before It Dissolved in World War II


"Portraits of an Age: Photography in Germany and Austria, 1900-1938" will remain on view at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street, Manhattan, (212) 628-6200, through June 6.
Picture a glamorous gala attended by beauties, uglies, writers, thinkers, artists, loners, actors, dancers, politicos, social swans and maybe a dash of royalty, from the eventful years in Austria and Germany between the turn of the last century and the Anschluss that preceded World War II.

The feast of guests might include the very people depicted in "Portraits of an Age: Photography in Germany and Austria, 1900-1938" at the Neue Galerie. The first show there to be devoted exclusively to photography, this ambitious venture - organized by Monika Faber, curator of photography at the Albertina Museum in Vienna - presents more than 100 faces, from the poet Stefan George, idolized by the Nazis, to the actress Elizabeth Bergner and the dancer Anna Pavlova.

The portraits were shot by 35 photographers active in the two countries, among them Lotte Jacobi, Josef Albers, Gisèle Freund, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and August Sander. Sander is famous for his anthology of 540 portraits, classified by social and professional, rather than racial, type. (Two from that series are in this show.)

The exhibition uses their images not only to give a sense of the rich cultural life in Austria and Germany - and the personalities who helped create it - but also to trace the history of photography during the period.

The changes in the medium were effected not only by progress in methods - the use of the glacial turn-of-the-20th-century portrait camera vs. the snapshot-style "candid" devices of later years, for example - but also by the ways that people perceived and presented themselves as subjects during an era of rapidly changing social values.

In the early part of the century, few, even among the cognoscenti, would dream of having a professional photographer capture revelatory poses or expressions. Tradition prevailed, resulting in stuffy drawing room studies with subjects in stylized poses, keeping a reserved distance from the photographer and the viewer.

One of the most striking of these portraits is the photographer Alfred Stieglitz as recorded by the impressionistic lens of Heinrich Kühn (1904): a three-quarter profile with Stieglitz partly turned away from the viewer as he regards a small painting, his full bushy hair touching his collar. The photograph has a romantic "pictorial" tone, thanks in part to the gum bichromate method of printing, which allowed for a kind of painterly fuzziness. The persona is there, but you don't get a real sense of Stieglitz as a person.

The ultimate in mannered fin de siècle style, however, is Nicola Perscheid's seated portrait of a Fräulein Sakur (1905), wearing a huge picture hat and an all-enveloping Victorian gown. She gazes soulfully into space, her left arm dangling as she holds a book with a finger placed in it, maybe to mark a swoon-y romantic passage. Perscheid was Berlin's court and celebrity photographer par excellence, the show's catalog reports, and this picture suggests why.

But by World War I, the social order was in turmoil, and photographers and their subjects seemed willing to try new, even experimental approaches. One result is seen in an emotive portrait by the Czech Antios (Anton Josef Trcka) of the Expressionist master Egon Schiele (1914). This dissonant painter, noted for the agitated lines of his often erotic work, is shown in an intense close-up, his forehead furrowed, concern on his face, his fingers in front of him nervously clasped in a viselike grip.

Schiele's mentor, Gustav Klimt, also photographed by Antios that same year, appears calmer in a captivating djellaba-like smock, bearded and mustached with tufts of wiry hair sticking out from either side of his balding head. His broad, sensual face has a staged off-camera gaze.

As silent films gained in popularity, the big close-up became more and more a feature of still photography, too. The shape and modeling of the face could almost be designed by the photographer through lighting and other effects. An extreme example is a picture made by David Feist, a one-time Bauhaus student noted for his stagey distortions and tight cropping.

His photograph of one Kurt Stolp (1929) is a stubbly fleshscape, taken at an angle so you look right up the Stolp nostrils. A pipe projects from his mouth, its bowl pushing at the picture's very forefront, with the shadow of the stem streaking diagonally up his face. Dated now, the photograph must have been a shocker then.

The avant-garde artistic theories advanced by the Bauhaus had their effect, of course, on photography. The influential Moholy-Nagy, a teacher at the school in Dessau, experimented with all kinds of photographic technologies and effects, and his 1926 paired portraits of his wife, Lucia, exemplify another "extreme" work. A homed-in close-up of part of her face touched by dramatic shadows, conventionally printed, is twinned with a silver negative print that exactly reverses the lighting effects.

Other startling lighting effects were achieved in Jacobi's below-eye-level view of the actor Franz Lederer wearing a bowler hat (1930); Marianne Breslauer's angled shot (1930) of the photographer Paul Citroen's face, with sausagelike shadows cast on it by the fingers of his spread hand; and the eerie "Grete's Eyes" (1928) by Max Burchartz, an almost abstract shot in which the shadowed eyes of a woman are glimpsed through the veil of her hat.

(It's worth noting that Burchartz, a well-known progressive teacher and theorist of photography in Berlin, was an illustrator of Fascist propaganda books and joined the Nazi Party after 1937).

Women, as photographers as well as subjects, play an important role in this show, and rightly so. By the 1920's their social roles had changed dramatically. A new self-regard was manifest, in behavior and attitudes as well as in clothing. Compare the languid 1905 view of Fräulein Sakur with Breslauer's snappy 1934 take on the baroness Maud Thyssen, a race car driver whose scalp-tight helmet imparts a glamorous dash.

Women now felt free to explore many roles, and to present themselves as something other than flawless: healthily unkempt, as sensual beings with erotic overtones, even in disguises (as some men did, too). Photographs might be of unspoiled youth, like the Bauhaus artist Ettel Mittag-Fodor's 1929 snapshot of a Bauhaus student, Ricarda Schwerin, blond hair blowing breezily over her fresh young face; or be of worldly exoticism, like the dancer photographed by Atelier d'Ora in 1922, head thrown back in a wild nest of hair, breasts partially revealed by her boldly printed gown.

In between these extremes are Marta Astfalck-Vietz's "disguised" "Self-Portrait" (about 1930), wearing a lace tablecloth that artfully stops slightly short of her crotch; and a portrait by Yva (Else Neuländer-Simon) of the back of the head of the silent film star Asta Nielsen (about 1930), in the kind of close-cropped haircut that signaled women's emancipation.

An ultrasophisticated 1930 photograph by the Bauhaus graduate Gertrude Arndt of herself in a veiled mask, saucily regarding the viewer over her shoulder, is one of the more than 40 playful self-portraits taken by Arndt, an early Cindy Sherman, of herself in various roles over a period of a few days.

By way of contrast, the show includes a small group of photographs of what the Nazis regarded as true German folk, taken from various books designed to propagandize for the Third Reich's Aryan racial policies. They include a poet, a blast furnace worker from the Saar, the jolly young daughter of a fisherman from the Baltic Sea area, and a peasant woman from East Tyrol, among other types.

But the main difference between them and the other faces here - aside from their nonaesthetic intent - is the distorted purpose they served. It puts them at an opposite pole from the dynamic beings that give this show its edge.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company