Deutschland: A Musings Abroad Special Edition
As a part of generous funding I received from the Joint Initiative for German and European Studies (the Munk School for Global Affairs & Public Policy) and the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies, I was able to travel all the way from Toronto to Germany to undertake archival research for my thesis — in addition to visiting some museums I’ve only ever daydreamed of up until now.
Here, as I sit on the train from Köln to my next destination, Berlin — I will talk about the amazing institutions I have been able to visit.
1. August Sander Archive at SK Stiftung Kultur — Köln, Germany
August Sander, the main subject of my MMSt thesis, was a massive pioneer in photography, notably social documentary photography, with his major projects aimed at capturing a cut of time and of German society, its various occupations, and social groups in the 1930s. An excerpt from SK Kultur Stiftung’s website states: “Comparative photography and direct observation are expressions that aptly describe Sander’s methodological approach. They also express his intention to produce representations that were realistic and free of preconceived ideas.” Not to give too much of my thesis away, but I am generally focusing on Sander’s Portraits of Persecuted Jews, from his magnum opus “Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts” (People of the Twentieth Century).
This sub-portfolio contains twelve Portraits of Persecuted Jews who were obliged to obtain photographs for their identity papers – and presumably approached or were approached by August Sander to do so. These portraits (in person even more so) are arresting and show ordinary people at a time when both photography's instrumental usage and Nazis were presenting grossly distorted and dehumanizing images of Jews. The twelve portraits were taken in Köln and in nearby towns around 1938, at the height of Hitler’s power and during the “Fateful Year.”
Courtesy of SK Kultur Stiftung. Photo taken by the Author for research purposes.
This was perhaps the most surreal experience of my time in Köln — seeing the prints, negatives, and Sander’s handwriting up close and personal. I was able to see not just the twelve portraits included in the official iteration of “Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts,” but some I had never even seen before. I have found Sander’s work pertaining to his Jewish subjects to be notoriously hard to find online, so this was an extra special opportunity. The digitized portraits do not even come remotely close to seeing the physical prints and glass plate negatives in person. Every detail — each wrinkle, stray hair, mole, and not to mention the palpable anxiety that can be read directly from the face — appears larger than life. It was a truly sobering experience that I will never forget. The Archive also boasts a massive library, with almost every material pertaining to August Sander, his family, and his practice — along with other photographic practitioners like Gerhard Richter.
2. NS-Dokumentationszentrum (NS-Dok/EL-DE Haus) — Köln, Germany
The National Socialist Documentation Centre is the largest regional memorial site in all of Germany for the victims of the Nazis. NS-Dok is located in former Gestapo headquarters with permanent exhibits detailing the painful history of Nazism, complete with a basement prison. I visited NS-Dok to look at some collections not available to the public — I was able to hold in my hands (with gloves, of course) extremely delicate Third Reich-era passports belonging to Jews from Köln. As August Sander’s portraits were taken for the purpose of identity documents, it was helpful to look at these objects as they function in the sense of corroborating the historical record. They also operate, as do various other instances of portraiture by the Third Reich, for the purposes of inflicting persecution, victimization, and annihilation. As the storied history of state identification and the passport unveils, it is a clear reminder that they were and still are documents of “suspicion rather than recognition.”
Considering that the museum occupies a space with such a tangibly violent history, the permanent exhibition space is all the more vivid and terrifying. In the basement prison space, approximately 1,800 inscriptions and drawings by prisoners have survived on the cell walls — written with pencil or chalk, occasionally with lipstick or scratched with iron nails, screws, or fingernails.
The permanent exhibition, complete with media stations, pertains to the history of Köln during the Nazi-era, highlighting the realities of the National Socialist systems of terror as they took place in the actual location.
For more information: https://museenkoeln.de/ns-dokumentationszentrum/default.aspx?s=333
3. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Foundation Corboud — Köln, Germany
The next institution I visited was the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, located close to the Rhine. It boasts quite the incredible collection of Middle Ages, baroque, impressionist and neo-impressionist art in Germany. Big names like Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Morisot, Signac, and Seurat are represented; van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Bonnard, Ensor and Munch act as the main figures of modernism. With not only paintings in its permanent collections, the museum also has a rich collection of graphics that contains drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Rubens, Max Liebermann, Auguste Rodin, and many others.
Photos courtesy of Molly Gosewich.
My clear favourites here were the French Impressionism pieces and German landscape paintings — along with the paintings that featured food and dogs. What’s not to love?
I definitely recommend checking out the Wallraf-Richartz through their virtual tour here.
4. Museum of Applied Arts (MAKK) — Köln, Germany
For modern art-heads, MAKK is the place to visit. There are two exhibitions on view that I visited: “40 years of laif – 40 positions of documentary photography” and “The Circle. The most iconic shape redesigned.”
“40 years of laif” is an exhibition that marks forty years of the Köln-based photo agency laif that has paid a special focus to documentary photography from 1981 to 2021. The laif agency was founded in 1981 by the 4 photographers Günter Beer, Jürgen Bindrim, Manfred Linke and Guenay Ulutuncok in the south of Köln and today represents more than 400 photographers across the globe, including numerous World Press and Pulitzer Prize winners. With the sale of image licenses for high-quality photo productions and the mediation of editorial and corporate shootings, especially in an international context, laif is one of the leading photo agencies in Germany. laif also represents more than 40 international partner agencies in German-speaking countries and is a syndication partner of the New York Times (makk).
Arranged chronologically, the exhibition reflects on the world’s conflicts and points of tension, showing how documentary photography has developed aesthetically and how art and solidarity has formed connections between people. The exhibition, introduced by the works of two co-founders of laif, Manfred Linke and Günter Beer, is followed by:
…artistic-documentary image-text works on people at the Berlin Wall by Bettina Flitner (1990). Katharina Bosse portrays women worldwide in her work "Surface Tension" (1997), while Michael Lange presents an experimental work about Los Angeles, photographed on black and white Polaroid slide film, which can be viewed as a tribute to elements of “film noir” (1999).
In “The Third Day,” Henrik Spohler documents coolly, distancedly, and with high pictorial quality how the agricultural industry today grows food around the world (2012). Sandra Hoyn visits a brothel in Bangladesh and takes an interest in the fate of the women and girls who live and work there (2015).
Towards the end of the exhibition, the narrative closes and the exhibition turns its focuses back to Germany. Hannes Jung delivers a report on the New Right with a calculated and cool effect (2017), while Andreas Herzau presents his long-term work on (former) Chancellor Angela Merkel in subjectively combined image excerpts in 2018. In 2019, David Klammer chronicles the resistance against the deforestation of the Hambach Forest. Finally, in 2020, Ingmar Björn Nolting travels all over Germany and creates a unique and timely testimony to the COVID-19 crisis. The year 2021 concludes with the flood disaster in the west of Germany.
As the mother of all other forms, “The Circle. The most iconic shape redesigned” is a conceptual exhibition created as a process in collaboration with the Eindhoven design studio “Dutch Invertuals.” Twenty international designers trained in the Netherlands and Germany took on the challenge of reinterpreting what the Circle means to them — a representative and iconic shape that is the foundation that reflects the identity of the participating designers.
Through truly unconventional approaches, they explore how this form is influenced by design, material, composition, production, and collaboration. It also examines what the circle stands for when it comes to addressing social, cultural, political, and environmental issues.
The exhibition includes 18 projects by 20 designers who trained in the Netherlands or Germany: Anna Resei, Audrey Large x Théophile Blandet, Bram Vanderbeke, Carlo Lorenzetti, Christian+Jade, Edhv, Elena Blazquez, Germans Ermičs x The New Raw, Johanna Seelemann, Laura Kluge, Elly Feldstein, Moon Seop Seo, Philipp Weber, Rogier Arents, Sander Hagelaar, Wendy Andreu and Willem van Hooff.
I extend a special thank you to Gabriele and Marimba of SK Kultur Stiftung; Julian Sander; and Annika and Sigrid of NSDOK.