Confronting the dead: ‘The Last Image’ at C / O Berlin

‘The Last Image: Photography and Death’ presents the endeavour of artists throughout the ages to grapple with the mysterious concept of mortality through the medium of photography.

With over four hundred works, the collection is divided into three main sections: ‘Dying’, ‘Killing’ and ‘Surviving’ which explore the human compulsion to produce a lasting image of life after it has been extinguished.

As this exhibition illuminates through fine art, journalistic and scientific photographs, death is an inherent part of the medium of photography itself. For Susan Sontag a photograph is “both a psuedo-presence and a token of absence.” Photographs represent reality, but only ever in a past moment. They portray life and death, presence and absence, simultaneously.

Nowhere is this duality more apparent than in the post-mortem funeral pictures of the early nineteenth century, which were presented in glass cases in the ‘Dying’ part of the exhibition. Limp bodies dressed in smart clothes – their hair neat and faces powdered – were presented, in death, in the manner in which they lived. With eyes closed, their vacant expressions give the illusion of a person dreaming, rather than a person who is no longer alive.  

 

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G. M. Howe, Older Child Propped on Pillow and Tucked in Bed, ca. 1853, Daguerreotype . Courtesy Stanley B. Burns, MD Photography Collection and The Burns Archive, New York

Photographs taken after death were a way of immortalising the departed. Post-mortem photography became central to the grieving process of the loved ones left behind – a way to deal with, and perhaps even defy, the finiteness of death.

The most disturbing images of all in this section were the pictures of dead infants – their corpses propped up in lifelike poses as if still among the living.  

Striking, too, were photographs of women in coffins,  interred with a mass of flowers arranged around their heads. Ostensibly, the aesthetic decoration of a corpse created a more palatable image of death for those left to grieve – a concept that can be seen in wider traditions of nineteenth century culture.

In literature of this period, the trope of the beautiful, dead beloved, made only more lovely by the seal of mortality, reflected ideas about love and memory. Arranging the corpse like a work of art allowed the dead body to be preserved as a lasting image in the mind of the still-living lover.

The next part of the exhibition takes the viewer from the funeral to the morgue in a series of images about murder. ‘The Morgue (Rat Poison Suicide I)’ by Andreas Serano, presents a body – or  part of one, at least – post-mortem. In the image, the foot of a cadaver lies lifeless on a crumpled body bag. Stark white flesh, coloured only by a gaping wound beneath the body’s left ankle, is made visible against an oblique background.

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Andres Serrano, Rat Poison Suicide II, a.d.S. The Morgue, 1992 Cibachrome © Andres Serrano, 2018 . Courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Bruxelles

Photographs taken in a medical setting such as this often serve to distance the viewer from their severity. The body’s individuality is reduced to a lifeless specimen on an operating table.

Photographs in journalism and media can arguably have a similar effect on the beholder. ‘The Last Image’ presents photographs of high profile deaths in the last century.  Images of John Kennedy’s murder plastered in newspapers and periodicals of the time, each accompanied by catchy headlines and portraits of the smiling President, remind of how death has, throughout history, often been turned into a public spectacle for the benefit of the voyeur. Death can be a good story, not a tragedy.

A postcard depicting a victim of lynching has onlookers in the exhibition reeling. In the image, a man’s tormented body hangs lifeless above crowds of people who stand moralizing – even grinning – over this supposed demonstration of justice.

From instances of targeted crime to mass genocide, photographs of the Holocaust further reveal the disquieting silence of the still image. Scenes of anguished faces, anonymous corpses piled high and loaded incinerators are fixed in time through the lens of the camera as a memory that cannot be erased.

‘The Last Image’ is brutal and heavy, succeeding in having its viewers shocked and disgusted. It handles a broad range of interpretations of death, suggests its sensationalist potential, and even exposes the voyeuristic compulsion of humans to look at, and wonder, at images of death.

 

Through the looking glass: women and art at MeCollectors Berlin

Permanence and transience. Can art represent both of these simultaneously? These questions of time and history are just what “The Moment is Eternity”, an exhibition starting September 26th at meCollectors Room, aims to explore. 

Comprised of some 300 images from over 60 artists, “The Moment is Eternity” illuminates the photographic works of the Ollbricht Collection, and shows them in conjunction with a range of weird and wonderful historic artefacts from the Wunderkammer, or “Cabinet of Curiosities”. 

Considered to be one of the most extensive private collections in Europe, the Olbricht collection is filled with artwork ranging from the 16th century to the most recent contemporary work of artists and photographers.

Through an interplay of art forms, the “Moment is Eternity” looks at the theme of transience in a series of single fleeting moments – the only “perceptible slice[s] of eternity” – as captured through the lens of a camera. As meCollectors suggest in their accompanying press release, “Lending duration to the moment is inscribed into the very medium [of photography] itself.”

“The Moment is Eternity” is diverse in terms of medium and epoch. This is a collection of harmony and incongruity: where images of defining moments in history are placed next to erotic scenes of young lovers, where bodies meet with objects, colour meets with negative, and the passing of time persists despite all human effort to prevent it. 

It is this juxtaposition of the past and the present, the conventional and the absurd, that gives us a peripheral view of identity across the ages. 

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When taking my first steps into “The Moment is Eternity”, I was aware that this was an exhibition with a clear purpose. With the many sheets of information I’d been given in hand, I began looking at these images with preconceived ideas.

These works were about timelessness and eternity and about collecting and preserving, interrogating and reporting, the moment. 

These images were a tangible memento mori, a symbol of transience, mortality, life and death, mapped, at least for the first half of the exhibition, onto visceral representations of the body. 

I glanced from image to image of the human frame. Next to the exposed, elegant physique of the model Kristen McMenamy was an anatomical print of a dissected frog, a quirky reminder from the Wunderkammer of our long standing, human interest in anatomy. 

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Helmut Newton, Nude of Kristen McMenamy, 1995

It seemed odd to have a sexualised portrayal of a woman next to an obscure, even grotesque, image of a dead frog. But perhaps this was the aim: presenting incongruity to inspire new ways of seeing. 

Around the room were shameless depictions of the female body. Women were clothed, or not, arranged in a variety of positions, shamelessly projecting their identity and reflecting the aesthetics of the age from which they were captured.

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I thought of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s dictum of the ‘decisive moment’ that meCollector’s had referred to in their accompanying press release.

To capture the ‘decisive moment’ is to capture the essence of a transitory moment and the “form that corresponds to that essence” simultaneously. 

But as I looked from image to image of women stood gazing either in the mirror at themselves, or outwards towards their viewer, I thought that these weren’t, perhaps, what was meant by ‘decisive moment.’

These didn’t appear to be fleeting moments, caught in time, but moments captured, pinned down and perfectly contrived for the viewer’s pleasure. 

Russ Meyer’s ‘Eve in front of Fireplace’ seemed to confirm my view. A woman lies partially clad on a fluffy carpet, looking seductively out at the camera. The fire glows in the background as a glass of wine sits within reach of her hand – all the indications of cosy lovemaking. The artist calls her ‘Eve’, the first woman who deceived Adam and the biblical figure who has been identified for centuries as a wily seductress. 

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Russ Meyer, Eve in front of Fireplace, 1955

A person’s history is always brought to bear on an image they see before them. Mine was informed by the readings of John Berger in his essay, “Ways of seeing”, which takes a critical look at the way we perceive art. 

Berger discusses the disparity between nudity and nakedness and the rhetoric surrounding it in a chapter of his book. He says, “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.” 

In an an examination of the European oil painting tradition, he says that only twenty or thirty nudes in the entire collection depict a woman as herself rather than as a subject of male idealisation or desire. After reading “Ways of seeing”, I could no longer look at the naked female frame and not question whether it was indeed nakedness, or nudity, that I saw before me.

These images of women didn’t appear to be caught in time, but purposefully arranged for artistic consumption. Was the ‘decisive moment’ here, one that had been artfully put together, rather than spontaneously captured?

The images represented female identity, their roles and rituals, throughout time. But was it their own self, or one created by another, that was being presented in these images? Was Russ Meyer’s Eve naked or nude? Did she arrange herself this way, or was she arranged? I looked to the next image. 

In a black and white photograph, Cindy Sherman is captured looking into a mirror. She poses, clutching a towel around her and looking over her shoulder with a provocative gaze, as if decidedly arranged this way, perhaps even by a male photographer. The moment here was certainly ‘decisive’, yet not spontaneous. 

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still 

Through this image her identity is obscured. We see her face, but only through a secondary source – her reflection. Here, the woman doesn’t show us her real identity, but an assumed one. Her body does not relax into its natural shape, but stands perfectly poised for a photograph.

Women, mirrors, make up, masks, are historically tied up with issues of identity, authenticity, beauty and vanity. Paul Outerbridge’s ‘Nude at a dressing table’, not only depicts a woman gazing into a mirror,  but presents her applying makeup – an action seen by the Elizabethan stage as a concealing of the self. Does the woman portrayed looking into the mirror mask her identity, or accentuate it? And if so, then who for? And why?

Andre Gelpke’s ‘Christine mit Spiegel’ presents a woman behind a handheld looking glass, her face completely hidden by the mirror – her arm raised as if applying makeup to the visage she hides from view. And then there is Gerhard Richter’s, ‘Betty’, a woman captured, but looking away. Her identity unable to reach the viewer at all.

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Andre Gelpke, Christine mit Spiegel

The identity of these women, as represented by these images, reveal something about how they are, and have been, perceived, and how they perceive themselves. They are a double image, with a double purpose. A reflection in a mirror. 

I stood looking at a courtly handheld mirror, dated back to 1650, encased in a glass box near these images. Staring at this tangible emblem of “womanhood”, I wondered how many women had looked into this glass through the ages and had truly seen themselves.

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Questions of time and history returned as I wandered through the rest of the exhibition. Historically charged pictures of the first test of an Atom Bomb in New Mexico, the explosion of Mount Vesuvius and a static image of the KKK juxtaposed naked lovers on a back seat of a car and Ed va der Elksen’s photograph of a passionate, cinematic kiss. 

The ‘decisive moment’, one momentarily suspended in time and hastily captured by the lens of a camera, was here, urgent and unrelenting. Whether nude, naked, premeditated, spontaneous, for the self or for someone else, these images have something in common: they are moments in history that cannot be replicated. 

Photographs can capture, as well as distort, reality. They can confirm and conceal the self, but the ‘decisive moment’ remains the same: one that can only be captured by the swift click a shutter. 

‘The Moment is Eternity” is open until the 1st April 2019 at the MeCollectors Room Berlin. The gallery is open every Wednesday to Monday, from 12-6pm.

Stefanie Moshammer’s “Not just your face honey” at C /O Berlin ★★★

Stefanie Moshammer’s “Not just your face honey” documents a narrative of infatuation. Through a series of photographs, Moshammer aims to discover more about the “sinister stranger” who arrived, completely by chance, on her doorstep. Using images captured from real life and some produced from her own imagination, she powerfully explores the fine line between romance and delusion, love and obsession.

Upon first entering the exhibition, I got taken up by the swell of the romance of it all. A guy named Troy travels across the continent to say hello to his ex and, upon opening the door to you, falls instantly in love, “not just with your face”, but with “your heart”. He sends a letter declaring his love for you, describing how his life has led up to this moment and how he couldn’t possibly forget the “honey” that he saw filling up the doorframe like a portrait. What more could a girl want?

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C/O Berlin, in their accompanying press release, describe this story as a “bizarre declaration of love from a stranger”, a “fleeting, banal encounter” that lasted no longer than five minutes. Moshammer’s exhibition is a visual curation of this encounter – a story only images could capture. She aims throughout the exhibition to “answer his image of her with her image of him”.

To me, however, it seemed more like the staging of an inquisition. One of the most striking examples of this was the display of Troy’s letter in three different forms. Each time the letter was further zoomed in, the words became clearer on the page. It felt to me like Moshammer was questioning how we would handle such a powerful declaration of love, or perhaps whether it was ever “love” at all.

As individuals who are all susceptible to the daily deluge of romantic culture, Moshammer’s exhibition questioned whether romance of the kind she experienced, the kind that we see in movies, is really what we desire. The image of a gas station and a Motel – a literal emblem of Moshammer’s journey across state lines to learn more about the stranger who sought to steal her heart – was particularly powerful to this end. In scenes of American romance films, the Motel is iconic – a stop off point for travellers, a temporary love nest – perhaps even an imagined life where all you know is the road.

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Using phrases from Troy’s letter to form themes or ideas for each image, Moshammer gives them new power by isolating them. The line “the almost new special car to feel special and appreciated” for example, (taken from Troy’s promise to buy her a new motor if only she would come back to live with him) seemed on the surface to be a man’s humble bargain for affection. But after dwelling on it a little longer, the words take on a sinister quality. This kind of monetary exchange sounded something like prostitution: the giving of oneself for money or possessions. Was this, in Moshammer’s eyes, the ultimate promise of comfortable living, or ownership?

An image of perfectly arranged postage stamps – their neat rows obstructed by an image of a naked woman packaged in bubble wrap as if for sale – seemed to confirm this idea.

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As I continued round the exhibition, I couldn’t help but feel like Troy was trying to silence Moshammer with promises of the perfect life. Troy spoke assertively, not speculatively, in his letter, almost removing her ability to reply. I began to understand Moshammer’s photographs as a visual answer to his letter. Her images became her agency.

Through images of suburbia and domesticity, possessions become conflated with affection. An image of a hotel room and a perfectly laid out bed placed next to each other seemed sinister in their simplicity. I thought of the typical budget hotel bed sheets, steamed stiff with starch, that were strict and imprisoning, unable to be moulded to the body. This seemed the perfect metaphor for what Moshammer thought of a life with Troy. Below the caption read, “Happily married, or want out”.

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Pictures of the landscape, seemingly desolate and infertile, were juxtaposed with images of supposed happiness and unity: a demonstration of the fine line between dreams and reality;  the discrepancy between what we are told we should want, and what we actually want.

Towards the end of my visit, I thought back to the picture of a woman with her face blurred out that I had breezed by at the start of the exhibition. Perhaps it was Moshammer’s own identity that she was uncertain about. Perhaps Troy had unearthed uncertainties within her about her own dreams and desires.

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Another interesting element of the exhibition was the fact that each accompanying title could not directly explain what was going on in each image. It occurred to me that sometimes words are inadequate to convey experience. At times, we need demonstrable evidence. I enjoyed the gap that was left between words and images, feeling that, like Moshammer, I too was having to piece together fragments of a puzzle to form meaning.

A title reading “Duck Sick” caught my eye. It accompanied a picture of an old school motor with “Suck Dick” elegantly printed onto the back of its bumper. A perfectly contrived image, perhaps, of Moshammer’s rebellion against Troy’s offering and an assertion of her own power and identity. His perfect aesthetic arrangement from a movie: the car, the house, the woman, wouldn’t ever, it seemed, quite make the cut.

“Not just your face honey”  is on show at the C/O gallery until 23rd September 2018.

 

 

 

Poverty exploited by the privileged: how Berlin Fashion Week exposed the industry’s dark side

Berlin & her places

By Miriam Partington 

The 3rd – 7th July of this year saw Berlin’s annual Fashion Week take to the streets. Vogue voiced how “logomania and streetwear were alive and well”, and how “wild prints” and effortless ensembles were “perfectly complemented by Berlin’s eclectic architecture”. In accordance with Berlin’s eco-spirit, sustainable fashion took centre stage. And then there was Florian Schulze’s collection, ‘Put Me Back Together Again’.

fashion week poster An outline of Florian Schultz’s collection at Berlin Fashion Week 2018. Credit: @slowberlin 

Schulze’s collection “revisits romanticised ideas of homeless women dressed in shabby layers of discarded clothing”. Taking inspiration from the “bag ladies of New York City”, Schulze has created garments that reflect their “beauty of imperfection”. Through his collection, the clothes of these women, drawn from “dumpsters” and found in the streets, were showcased in all their glory. Using “detailed handwork” and “precise processing”, Schulze supposedly applied intricacy to their…

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‘Put Me Back Together Again’: Florian Schulze’s Homeless Aesthetic 

Poverty exploited by the Privileged: how Berlin Fashion Week revealed the industry’s dark side

The 3rd – 7th July of this year saw Berlin’s annual Fashion Week take to the streets. Vogue voiced how ‘logomania and streetwear were alive and well’, and how ‘wild prints’ and effortless ensembles were ‘perfectly complemented by Berlin’s eclectic architecture.’1 In accordance with Berlin’s eco-spirit, sustainable fashion took to the stage. And then there was Florian Schulze’s collection, ‘Put Me Back Together Again’.

Schulze’s collection ostensibly ‘revisits romanticised ideas of homeless women dressed in shabby layers of discarded clothing.’2 Taking inspiration from the ‘bag ladies of New York City’, Schulze has created garments that reflect their ‘beauty of imperfection.’ Through his collection, the clothes of these women, drawn from ‘dumpsters’ and found in the streets, were showcased in all their glory. Using ‘detailed handwork’ and ‘precise processing’, Schulze supposedly applied intricacy to their ‘shabby’ aesthetic. His website reveals how his homeless muses received a ‘well deserved upgrade regarding their appearance’ in exchange for the inspiration they so willingly provided. Now this is just offensive.

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There is something quite incongruous, or perhaps even unsavoury, about using the clothes of the homeless to inspire a collection for a multi-billion pound industry. Simply put, this is poverty exploited by the privileged.

The ‘bag ladies’ of New York City do not carefully select their fabrics for aesthetic purpose as fashion designers do. They look this way because this is all they have. Their ‘fashion choices’ are based on accessibility, not taste. Their ‘craftmanship’ derives from necessity, not free will. Florian Schulze takes their scraps of survival wear and ‘puts [them] back together’ again for his own artistic purpose. And was their uproar on the runway? In the name of ‘Fashion’, not one critic batted an eyelid. With very little stir in the press, the incident seemed to slide under a perfectly woven rug into insignificance. This kind of exploitation is clearly nothing new in the underbelly of the fashion world.

I wonder what Schulze’s first thought was when walking the streets of New York, gazing intently at the outfits of homeless people with an artist’s eye. He looked at the homeless women of New York and saw an aesthetic worth replicating. He saw inspiration, rather than desperation. I slightly winced when I scrolled to find a comment from a friend on his instagram reading, ’I told you, you were going to be famous.’3 Amidst the showers of compliments lies a moral problem obscured from view. The homeless people of the streets of New York do not profit from their ‘shabby’ aesthetic, but fashion does.

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This is symptomatic of a wider global problem in the fashion industry. Schulze’s decision to replicate the garments of the homeless and ‘upgrade’ them using high quality materials fits into a wider framework of ‘ cultural appropriation’ – a controversy that is woven into the fibres of many designer’s work. Gucci’s Fall 2018 collection, for example, came under fire for producing looks for white models which were inspired by the turbans worn by the Sikh community. Schulze’s negative appropriation of poverty commits the same crime, placing high fashion over cultural sensitivity.

A quote on Schulze’s website reads ‘Fabrics sometimes need to be destroyed before they show their real beauty and become a part of their actual usage.’4 His artistic vision involves denigrating before creating: ‘putting things back together again.’ Whilst this is an interesting philosophy – it’s not entirely original, nor something that should be applied to real people in real circumstances.

In what perhaps began as a noble artistic pursuit to take inspiration from destruction, Schulze’s collection turned quickly into a patronising reimagining of the homeless ‘aesthetic’. Schulze used the shabby scraps worn by the people of the streets to exhibit his own artistic skill and provide a collection worthy of Fashion Week’s scrutinising eye. In doing so, he chose style over moral substance.

 

1 http://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/berlin-street-style-spring-summer-20192 http://iamflorianschulze.com/ma-graduation-collection/
3 https://www.instagram.com/iamflorianschulze/
4 http://iamflorianschulze.com/about/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Romantics and the shackles of Modern Life

‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains’ – Jean Jacques Rousseau

We’ve all heard scientists talk about how sickness is epidemic in the modern world. The ills of technology, social media, processed foods and oppressive schedules affect every part of our physical and mental wellbeing. While a lot of this can be considered scare-mongering, I think there is some truth to the warnings. In some ways, we are the sickest we have ever been.

We are somewhat fortunate in the West that our culture propagates a strong work ethic as the key to success. People climb higher than ever before. The ascendance of individualism, however, has its costs. Humans are wired to always be on the run. Rising stress levels cause us to produce fight or flight responses to small inconveniences. We rely on substances to wake us up or put us to sleep. Chronic stress,  high blood pressure and strokes are more prevalent than ever before.

We are the generation of immediacy. We expect quick results, and everything in society must attend to this purpose. Technology provides shortcuts and brain-power where ours has lapsed – it is the clock that makes us tick. Time is of the essence, and our health suffers because of it. We have cultivated a society that attends to our needs, and doesn’t. Our quality of life has been impaired as much as it has been improved.

Literature has long chronicled the illnesses of modernity. The words of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl suddenly spring to mind. His harrowing image of ‘starving, hysterical, naked’ automatons, the otherwise ‘best minds of [his] generation’, ‘dragging themselves through the streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix’, can only resemble the long queues of people waiting in line at the doctors for their magic pill: the elixir of life that will charge them up enough to face the mound of paperwork at the office the next day.

Ginsberg often used natural imagery in his poetry as a point of contrast to the encroaching threat of modernity. He visualised a world that rejected the oppressive conformism and materialism of American society that had produced the sickness he saw on the streets. Like the early Romantic poets, Ginsberg saw industrialism as the disease of the modern condition.

Ginsberg’s generation, the Beats, were liminal figures. They expressed their cultural marginality by being everything and nothing, and belonging nowhere. They were the nomads of the American streets. The poets of early nineteenth-century Romanticism pioneered this interest in the figure of the ‘wanderer.’ Wordsworth, writing against a backdrop of rapid industrialism and the casualties of the French Revolution, fought against the changing order of society that modernity had brought along. He wrote of ‘thou wanderer in the wood’ – a person who wilfully chose to escape the reign of inequality being produced by a hierarchical, industrial-led society, into the recesses of nature, ‘the guide, the guardian… and soul of … moral being.’ Nature was still pure, untouched by human influence, and therefore a place to receive spiritual consolation.

Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, ‘Wanderer above the sea fog’ (c. 1818) captures a lone man stood on a summit, absorbed in quiet reverence, overlooking the catastrophe of the modern world. Framed by nature, he stands objectively, disconnected from the ills of modernity. Wandering was to the Romantics a way of submerging oneself into Nature and into a world with infinite and unlimited potential. Gazing out into the immensity of modern life, one should learn that it is, at times, okay to ‘wander.’

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Casper David Friedrich: ‘Wanderer above the Sea Fog’, (1818)

I now realise how Wordsworth felt composing ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, sat peacefully on the banks of the River Wye. Nature and writing, I have found, have an interesting alliance. I have learned enough about myself to know how susceptible I become to claustrophobic environments, and how much this can stifle my creativity. Sometimes sitting alone on a park bench amidst a cluster of trees truly can, as Wordsworth said, allow us to ‘see into the life of things.’

As Rousseau observed as early as 1762, “man may be born free”, but in the 21st century, our “chains”, obscured by the flashes of our mobile phones, may not be visible. We are inescapably tied to an overcharged sense of responsibility to perform at our best, reach success, make as many connections and as much money as possible. We may just not realise it.

Perhaps what our society needs most is a Roussean call to ‘get back to Nature!’, for it is Nature that can provide clarity to an unintelligible world.

The Romantics felt that life was not always something to be analysed, but felt and experienced. Nature, in all its majesty, was an apt setting to contemplate how one could strive for something greater.

Of course, it is too late in the day for us all to flee to the mountains, but all humans do need an outlet. For the Romantics it was opium; for my generation its the hyper-escapism that digital connectivity, recreational drugs and binge drinking can afford. The antidote for the stresses of modern life shouldn’t have to be a rejection of responsibility, or a substance-induced oblivion, but a carefully planned, structured, period of escape. 

Allow yourself time, stillness and flexibility. Cultivate an environment where only your own thoughts pervade. Shake the pollution of the city and embrace the fresh air of the country. Plan a day where events can be unplanned and spontaneous. Turn off that bloody phone.

Accepting uncertainty is not surrendering. It is choosing to relinquish, if only momentarily, the planning, structure and insatiable drive that lies behind our success. 

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Portraits of the Past: the House of Bertolt Brecht

‘Hungry man; reach for the book: it is a weapon.’ 

They say you never really understand a person until you see where they have lived.

The house of Bertolt Brecht seemed wholly unremarkable from the outside. Tucked away on Chausseestraße in Mitte, a stone’s throw away from the Berliner Ensemble that Brecht and his wife Helene opened in 1949, I almost missed the house as I approached it.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German theatre practitioner, playwright and, I recently discovered, a poet. Marxist and mastermind behind the genre of Epic Theatre, Brecht addressed contemporary issues through a didactic form of theatre that employed techniques to distance his audience from emotion and steer them towards analysis of his political messages.

During the period of World War II and the rise of Nazism, Brecht fled first to Scandinavia and later to the United States, returning to East Berlin after the end of the War. He spent the last three years of his life in this house. But this did not appear to be the home of an exile. 

Brecht’s house is arranged exactly as if he still lived. His possessions are minimal, but significant. Everything looks as if it had been placed there intentionally. A living museum.

Brecht and his wife Helene lived here together, albeit in separate apartments. After Brecht’s serial affairs, this is how they agreed to make it work.

The first of Brecht’s rooms acted as a space for reading. Brecht’s bookcase displayed literature on Communism, Fascism, Ancient philosophy, Confucianism, Buddhism, writers from around the world like William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare – a confluence of international influences arranged in the shelves and manifested into the space. On the wall is a portrait of Confucius himself gazing out at Brecht’s reading space – a visual anecdote for how Eastern philosophy often touched his plays with its influence. On a wooden table, a picture of Lenin, the most potent symbol of Brecht’s beliefs, resides.

A selection of three antique masks are displayed proudly on an adjacent wall, vying Confucious with their steely gaze. It’s said that these were some of the few possessions Brecht travelled with while in exile. When fleeing a country, you would suppose that you would travel light with only a few important items. Brecht considered these items essential, for what reason we don’t know. The unsolvable mystery behind the mask.

Brecht’s days were evidently coloured by travel, exile, political activism, but artistic promise, concepts that are vividly mirrored in his apartments. Brecht was a visionary. An individual that trusted art to make society a better place.

In contrast to the intimate domain of his reading room, his second study was a wide open space filled with light. I imagined it strewn with paper; Brecht pacing up and down the wooden floorboards, pipe in hand, gazing out at the magnolia tree. Pictures of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels occupy his writing desk, while the back wall is occupied by two biblical figures; their identity obscured by erosion. Every possession seemed to fit into a harmonious collage of influences – ideas and concepts that coloured both his life and work – occupying space in both his mind and his home.

In a corner of the room, a wooden table with various chairs and a sofa made of horse hair stood majestically. Brecht’s guests would be seated on this throne beneath the weighty stare of another, much larger, portrait of Confucious, while he would recline on a rocking chair. In Brechtian theatre, the physical level of an actor on stage could visually determine the status of their character. The poor would be on hands and knees at one with the dirt, while the rich would glide across the stage with importance, chins up, eyes raised. This image of Brecht stooped on a rocking chair before his guests reminded me of this. Brecht honoured his guests, their minds, their skills, and seemingly remained humble in their presence.

Brecht’s sense of minimalism, of only having important objects occupy his space, extends to his bedroom, the smallest of the rooms in his apartments. It looked, to my surprise, like a monk’s cell. A bed, not too comfortable, with three objects placed above its head, and a single Chinese portrait. A doubting man absorbed in thought. I felt like I had discovered a dimension of Brecht I never knew. A man who was almost monastic in discipline and contemplative in mind.

His wife’s bedroom downstairs suggested a contrast between their two personalities. Her life was arranged chaotically around her bed: heavy scripts laden with dust, pin cushions, pictures of her children, wild plants that loomed over the sheets, a television straight in front of the bedstead. Work and rest collided. It had a kind of minimalism, coloured by traces of the actress within her. The windows were framed by gilded wood of gold and green and weighty curtains resembling a proscenium arch stage.

Brecht and Helene’s garden was always green, square and trim, unoccupied by flowers or a vegetable patch, a symbol, perhaps for how everything in their house had to have a use, a sense of importance. Like the lifetime of influences Brecht chose to incorporate into his plays, Brecht and Helene chose their possessions with care, arranging their rooms with images of their life. Two people’s spaces in one home. Two parts of a whole. Two people that could not live together all the time, but made things work based on mutual artistic admiration.

So what brings us to the houses of the dead? Its simple, we seek to understand the context, the history, behind the great minds of literature. We seek to piece together their narratives and understand the influence that life and experience had to bear on the words they wrote.

Brecht’s house, now a ghosted vessel filled with emblems of the past, is a space where his presence is made palpable. I entered this building, sceptical of what a sparse collection of possessions could reveal about his person, and left feeling like I had climbed into his skin.