April 12: If we visualise it, especially using photography, we might approach the term ‘body politic’—Körperpolitik in German—with renewed consciousness and heightened caution.
The origins of the idea of the ‘body politic’ are mediaeval and theological (distinguishing the King’s ‘two bodies’), but it was Sir John Fortescue (c. 1394–1479) who applied it to the particulars of English law in his De Laudibus Legum Angliae (‘Commendation of the Laws of England’), in which he uses the analogy of the body to describe how parts of the ‘corporation’ of government are assembled in its ‘constitution’. Reference to the ‘body politic’ appears more widely from 1543 when his manuscript first appeared in print, and increasingly after his book was first translated from Latin into English in 1606.
To test this analogy let’s reverse it to say that it is in the body, through its language, that we might read its politics or radicalism. It follows that we may find that in the photographic portrait genre, since the photograph provides us with simultaneous records of the figure and its setting.
The now-extinguished state of East Germany provides an excellent case study and a comprehensive retrospective Die Ostdeutschen, Fotografien aus drei Jahrzehnten DDR of Roger Melis‘ (1940 – 2009) photographs from three decades in the GDR furnishes 160 examples, including many previously unknown photographs from his estate. Curated by Mathias Bertram (*1960), the exhibition opens today at the Reinbeckhallen, Reinbeckstraße 17, 12459 Berlin, Germany.
Melis’ longitudinal study provides an insight into a society that was closed to most of us in the West. Traversing the GDR he surveyed both urban and rural settings and created a picture of East Germans in the three decades between the 1961 construction, and the 1989 fall, of the Berlin Wall. Given the political climate (and surveillance of the population by the Stasi), his imagery is not openly subversive, though there are subtle signs of his attitude.
The son of the sculptor Fritz Melis, Roger grew up in the Berlin household of his stepfather, poet Peter Huchel, and from 1952 in Wilhelmshorst in Potsdam. From 1957 to 1960 he completed an apprenticeship as a photographer. He then served as a sailor on a deep-sea trawler until the Iron Curtain restricted his travel to within East Germany. Consequently in 1962 he began working as a scientific photographer at the Berlin Charité, the oldest hospital in the city and one of the largest university hospitals in Europe, before moving on to freelance work for magazines.
His study of the divided Germany began in 1962 with an unrealised book project of portraits of poets and artists in East and West including Anna Seghers, Christa Wolf, Thomas Brasch, Wolf Biermann, Franz Fühmann, Heiner Müller and Sarah Kirsch.
From 1966 he freelanced for the travel magazine Merian and from 1968 made fashion photographs for Sibylle, at the same time living and working with the fashion journalist Dorothea Bertram, whom he married in 1970 and who introduced the mini-skirt into East German fashion.
The curator of this exhibition is Dorothea’s son who today administers the Roger Melis estate and has edited photobook collections of other East German photographers such as Bernd Heyden (1940–1984), Gundula Schulze Eldowy (*1954) and Harald Hauswald (*1954) adding to our understanding of those previously little-known in the West.
In 1968 Melis became a member of the Association of Visual Artists (VBK) and in 1969 he founded the photo group Direkt with Arno Fischer (1927–2011) and Sibylle Bergemann also remembered for her own documentation of East Berlin life under Communism. Melis was influential as chairman (1980) of the VBK, and as a teacher of photography from 1978 to 1990 at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee.
Melis produced reportage photographs for the Neue Berliner Illustrierte, Wochenpost, Die Zeit, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Geo, though his collaboration in the latter with the disgraced ex-Nazi playwright Erich Loest meant he was forbidden to work for the GDR press from 1981, and instead produced a book on Paris which became one of the most successful photo books of the GDR. After the fall of the Berlin Wall he returned to reportage and portrait photography for the Wochenpost, Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, then from 1993 until three years before his death at 69 he taught photography at the Berliner Lette-Verein.
Soviet and East German photographic theorists, including the influential Berthold Beiler (Partiality in Photography, 1959; Photography as an artistic image process with specific technical means, its aesthetic problems and cultural and politico-cultural significance, 1964; and Thinking About Photography, published in the same year as Susan Sontag’s On Photography, in 1977) prioritised the uncomplicated messages of ‘socialist realism’, over individual expression or formal experimentation, and supported a culture of censorship and ‘photo-correction’.
Beiler, especially, defended such ‘post truth’ practices in Partiality in Photography as ‘aesthetic education’, arguing that one could “turn possibility into reality” by “interfering with a gentle hand”, stipulating only that the seams and erasures caused by making the changes should not show in the finished product. Meanwhile Melis and his group Direkt became ever more subjective and authorial in their approach against a requirement that art and visual culture be progressive and oriented to a unified collective vision.
Despite the bleakness of their surroundings, the faces of the East German citizens, though resigned, display a determination to make the best of things. How are we to read the image below? Is it for lack of transport to take them to a park, that the the couple below sets themselves up for a relaxing Sunday, on a piece of cardboard covering the pavement outside their block of flats, under the sole tree in the street? Ignoring the burgeoning rubbish bins, they cheerfully greet a passing neighbour, while another, from his perch above surveys the scene somewhat dolefully. They could be a couple, or a daughter and her elderly father for whom this roadside picnic is a treat.
Melis purchased a house in the Uckermark region north of Berlin as a retreat, and there he cultivated friendships with the locals who appear in his documentation of rural life and traditional occupations, such as that of begrimed chimney-sweeps, below, in their characteristic hats and costume who regard the camera with a weary pride.
There is a limit, though, to the representation of the ‘Body Politic’ through documentary photography. In his introduction to his book In a Silent Country, Melis advises;
“This book [….] does not—and this I must emphasise—document life in the German Democratic Republic. Rather, it shows how I saw this country and the people who lived here. When selecting the photographs for this volume, I placed no demands on myself, and certainly did not try to comprehensively depict working and living conditions in the GDR […] they focus on the everyday, and not on the spectacular. In my photographs, I only rarely attempted to capture a decisive, unrepeatable moment. The moments I always searched for were the ones in which whatever was special, unusual or temporary about people and things had dropped away, revealing the core of their being, their essence.”
It fell to photographic artists, such as Thomas Florschuetz (*1957) and Kurt Buchwald (*1953), rather than the Direkt photo-realist documentarians around Melis, to subvert the language of the portrait co-opted by Soviet Realism. They re-imagine the “official” genre of portraiture, though for irony they maintain traces of the official norms of representation which they interrogate, subvert and distress.
On the 10th of December, 1984, on the Alexanderplatz, Buchwald stepped in front of his camera, obscuring its view with his, out-of-focus, black half-length figure; anonymous. His action Stehplätze – Störplätze expanded into his series Ein Tag in Ostberlin (A Day in East Berlin), competed during 1984–6.
His presentation of these in grids amplifies their consistency of production and connects them to a then-current minimalist aesthetic; each cuts the figure at the neck and below the hands, always in the pockets of a black coat, leaving sufficient detail to assume that it is the same person in every image (though in fact, for images later in the series, someone else dons his coat).
While the background is obscured, sharp focus is reserved for unmistakably recognisable locations in Berlin, picture postcard sites, on which the figure has turned its back; a fossilised dinosaur in the museum looms, Berlin cathedral spire juts out, and in another, the columns of the Neue Wache (also seen in Melis’ picture earlier in this post) can be identified. All are tourist destinations denied their usual prominence by the ‘failure’ of the photograph to represent them ‘correctly’, thus turning the public performance of the state into an act of its self-criticism.
Produced between 1985 and 1986, Thomas Florschuetz’s Körperbilder (Body Portraits) fragment and reassemble the photographic portrait. Like Buchwald’s each of his images, comprised of two to six 50 × 50 cm black-and-white prints, adheres to a consistent logic and transparently reveals the process of their assembly from full medium-format film frames.
Fragmented though he, is Florschuetz remains identifiable, despite a jumbling or deletion of the body’s component parts so that the standard anatomy is corrupted; the head may connect directly to an arm or leg, or the leg may become an arm, or any appendage may completely fall away. Sometimes the figure is twinned, confronted by itself. The puzzle is made more disorienting as there is no background, only a whiteout within which the figure is forced into agonising acrobatic postures, shouting, blurred, apparently in restless motion, and clearly in distress.
In the East German context, Florschuetz’s Körperbilder reject socialism’s realist expectation, apparently reviving Hannah Hoch‘s (1889–1978) Weimar-era Dada anarchism of which Florschuetz makes a body that is an aberration, habituated to an authoritarian oppression that contorts it into an unnatural political posturing— Christoph Tannert calls it a ‘martyrdom’.
Simultaneously the montage recalls the ideologically-motivated and notorious photographic liquidation or insertions of figures by the Soviet state, condoned by Berthold Beiler, which reflect the rise and fall, often into the prison camp, of the indviduals represented.
The body language of the portrait, in various forms, talks back to the Body Politic, sounding alarm about any state that would manifest authority as a benign human form.