January 17: What?

#17My first encounter with the work of Mario De Biasi was traumatic.

After leaving school I had a holiday job in the darkroom of The Australian Tourist Commission and feeling rich with my first pay crinkling in my pocket, I crossed St Kilda Road to the newsagent, and there treated myself to an English edition of the World Exhibition of Photography published four years earlier, in 1964.

I could see it was based on the catalogue which my father had purchased in 1959, The Family of Man, which sourced many of its images from LIFE magazine photography, while the World Exhibition used many from the German periodical Stern.

World Exhibition of Photography : Who is Man? Cover photos:Wolfgang Schmittel (c.1964) Africa (top); Bruce Davidson (1958) Jimmy Armstrong, ‘The Dwarf’. Palisades, New Jersey, USA. (left); Herbert List (1948) Pablo Picasso in his studio at 7, rue des Grands Augustins, Paris with “Chouette dans un intérieur” (right)

Views of the exhibition confirm this, and its organisation was almost as ambitious; more than 20,000 images were submitted by 703 photographers and more images were selected than for The Family of Man—and as far as I can find, no image appears in both shows— 555 photographs by 264 photographers from 30 countries. Most were Germans, Americans and Europeans but this exhibition included more from the Soviet Bloc, including East Germany.

Edward Steichen made, or approved, most of the selection for his show, while a jury chose what was shown in the World Exhibition. They were museum directors and curators drawn from a huge list of international museums and galleries, including figures in the photographic world, such as Otto Steinert.

Pawek View 2
Unknown photographer (1965) What Is Man? Installation view. Akademie der Kunste Berlin, West Berlin.

Like Steichen’s show, it was presented as a giant magazine layout with enlarged photographic prints, of differing sizes and proportions, on boards, in clusters, grids and sequences, though more conventional than Paul Rudolf’s innovations for The Family of Man which included displays on the ceiling, or on tilted, curved or swinging panels.

Pawek View 1
Unknown photographer (1965) What Is Man? Installation view. Akademie der Kunste Berlin, West Berlin.

Seen in Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Hanover, Munich and Bochum, the exhibition, like Steichen’s, toured widely, to Europe, Iran, numbers of major and minor museums in the UK, and likewise in the USA, and ultimately was seen by 3.5 million visitors from 39 countries, over a period of 4 years. By comparison, The Family of Man, still on show at Clerveaux Castle, has now been seen by an estimated 10 million.

Both shows translated well into book format and went into several re-printings—the show did not tour Australia so I saw only my printed copy. But it is in the subtitle of the World Exhibition; What is Man?, a question, that we find the difference, and that is reflected in the catalogue. That is a challenge to the reader/viewer.

The first few pages follow Steichen’s formula – we are all the same under the skin, sharing the same experiences of birth and love no matter where we are in the world, more of it in What is Man? since it drew a larger number from Soviet photography.


That section ends with a spread of pictures of courting couples by Michael Freidel (German, b.1935), Eberhard Seeliger (German, b.1914), Jaroslav Guth (a writer, perhaps Czech), and the otherwise unknown Georg Lotter‘s full page picture of groom and blushing bride watched by a recession of smiling passersby.

Turning the page with a shock, terror confronts us in Richard Peter‘s (German 1895–1977) young soldier standing shell-shocked; Wolf Strache‘s (b.1912 Germany) mother in a gas-mask pushing her pram past a ruined cinema marquee that trumpets ‘Return to the Past;’ and other mothers in Dmitri Baltermants‘ (b. Warsaw 1912) apocalyptic scene search bloodied faces for dead sons. Christa Armstrong‘s (USA, b. Germany 1912) Indian soldier at the Himalayan Ladakh Front points his bayonet forward a page to…


…that right-hand full-page image which stays with me; a scene of wanton revenge in which a young man wearing what at first appears to be a mortar-board bellows with curled lip at a bloody body being dragged on a rope by three others. It is uncertain, in that inverted crucifixion, whether the victim, who seems to gasp, is yet dead. Those two gaping mouths, among the grim sealed lips of disgust, hate, revulsion, fear, and one smile, of the crowd, seem to be echoed in the surrounding windows and arches…and across the spread where there are more mouths…Pawek3

…from Richard Peter’s series on the fire-storm in the Allied bombing of Dresden, a Nazi air-raid warden’s ghastly, seared skull gapes, and below, a man sobs in Tibor Honty‘s Killed in the last seconds of the war made at the Prague Offensive 1 May 1945, and a young soldier in the Algerian War, photographed by Jean-Pierre Biot in 1960, grimaces as his wound is dressed.

Mario De Biasi (*1923 – 2013) was sent to report on the Hungarian revolt of 1956. Epoca, a weekly then edited by Enzo Biagi. There for only two days, the 23 and 24 of October, De Biasi recorded the lynching of one of the members of the communist state’s secret police. Those suspected of collaboration with them or the Russians were also summarily executed.

1966 Epoca on the anniversary 10 years after the Hungarian Revolt displays this deep-etched Di Biasi picture with the headline “The boys of Budapest”… “As long as the Homeland and Liberty have a place in the hearts of men, the heroism of the Hungarian people will be honoured.”


Mario De Biasi (1956) Budapest

Reportedly he and Erich Lessing were the only European photographers there. But a picture by London’s Daily Herald photographer Jack Esten for Picture Post‘s article on the uprising shows there were several photojournalists dodging the bullets of the revolutionaries and the shells of the opposing Soviet tanks.

Picture Post Hungary's Last Battle For Freedom - pub. 1956
Jack Esten (1956) Member of the Hungarian secret police lies dead in a Budapest street. “Hungary’s Last Battle For Freedom”, Picture Post, 1956

In the crowd with cameras are both De Biasi and John Sadhovy (with moustache). The massacre of 1,000 unarmed citizens in Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian Parliament building and before, the anger, the dead hanged in the streets and the pain are well documented.

Characteristic diligence on the part of Marcus Bunyan has uncovered yet another, anonymous and probably Hungarian photograph, which links to this incident. In an addendum he notes;

“According to the experts at Fortepan, an open access public resource of the Hungarian audio-visual culture, the dead men in the photograph above are very likely (~99%) not patriots, but members of the State Protection Authority, ÁVH- Államvédelmi Hatóság. The State Protection Authority was the secret police of the People’s Republic of Hungary from 1945 until 1956.”

Examination of this surreal image convinces me that the body at the rear, with bare chest, could be the man —or corpse—dragged through the streets and tied to the tree. All of the bodies have been cleaned of blood and gore before being lain in this temporary morgue with the ironic company of the gargantuan wresters, one echoing the poses of the oddly dwarfed dead below. Both arms of that half-naked dead man are still stiffly outstretched. His jacket, partly stripped from him during De Biasi’s sequence lies on his thighs. In it is a rip that exposes its white lining—the same as is visible in the above series, as are the jutting chin, long thick-soled laceless boots, and dark trousers, also torn.

Anonymous photographer (1956) Victims of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 brutally put down by the Russians. In some abandoned premises in Budapest, the bodies of Hungarian patriots lie beside a statue removed from its base [dedicated] to the glory of Soviet sports Budapest, Gelatin silver print 29.8 × 22.6cm. © Private collection
The vicious vengeful hatred of the communist invaders and their collaborators might be understood against that background, and thus might also curator Karl Pawek‘s (1906–1983) inclusion of Di Biasi’s picture in What is Man? and its violent juxtaposition against images of love.

In preparing to write this post, and curious about Pawek’s motives, I have been re-reading Sarah E. James‘ essay “A Post-Fascist Family Of Man?.” and her sources, in her 2013 Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain. It is the most comprehensive analysis of the 1964 World Exhibition, with insights into its relation to The Family of Man. The latter had opened nine years before Pawek’s show and, even while it was still touring the USA, a copy was exhibited in Berlin, as American propaganda to ‘democratise’ Germans at the very focus of the Cold War then underway. An estimated 40% of visitors were from East Germany, prior to the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Steichen and his international exhibition directly inspired Pawek, especially his concept of a ‘meta-photography,’ that relies on and exploits the relationship between images. In his catalogue essay Language of Photography, he writes;

“the fact that two photographs go together, so far as their theme or subject is concerned, is not the point; there must be some interplay between them . . . One photograph may gain a great deal from another . . . Photographs often clash with each other, even if they seem to belong together because of their subject matter … other photographs may spark off a new visual effect, and set our intelligence working by the very fact of their juxtaposition.”

While James credits Pawek’s What is Man? with reflecting “the partial displacement of photojournalism by the hegemonic spectacle of television,” against that, she reveals in Pawek’s past a philosophical lineage that leads to this concept. That accounts for the way he constructed an exhibition with a quite different agenda to Steichen’s original, to which it is so similar on the surface that it was rejected by the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Baden Baden as a mere imitation.

Erna Lendvai-Dircksen from Der deutsche Volksgesicht (‘Face of the German Volk’) , 1932

Pawek received his doctorate in Innsbruck in 1931 with the dissertation: The category teaching of Othmar Spann. An attempt to communicate between holistic and Aristotelian-scholastic procedure. Othmar Spann was a supporter of the authoritarian Austrian government from 1934 to 1938.

Anti-union and anti-socialist, his authoritarian-corporate holistic doctrine of universalism, based on medieval German mysticism, Hegel’s idealism and the philosophy of romanticism, was also anti-democratic, a hierarchy in which, instead of equal voting rights for the citizens, a supreme leader would be emplaced by the leaders of structured masses unified as German Volk.

Die Pause, 1940

In 1935, Pawek founded and became chief editor of the magazine Die Pause (which incidentally also means a ‘photostat’) as part of the Volksbildungswerk the main goal of which was the cultural-political training of the population in the ideas of National Socialism. You can see where this is leading…

Countless statements can be found in National Socialism on the idea that the “image of women” is particularly suitable for depicting social conditions. An author wrote in 1940: “The appearance of women has always been a cultural problem. The spirit, level and sense of form of a time are expressed in it. She is most visibly the embodiment of taste. Your attitude will determine the face of the times. She will make known who we are; a decadent society or a people endowed with spirit and culture, with soul and beauty.” Karl Pawek: “The German Woman of Tomorrow”, in: Die Pause (double number, issues 2 and 3, 1940), p. 37.

… and gender is also loaded and problematically cliché in Pawek’s exhibition. James also points to a remarkable lack in What Is Man? of any imagery relating to the Holocaust, or indeed any image of Jewish culture.

Where The Family of Man‘s Americanised but universalising vision was supposedly apolitical, Pawek’s adoption of the conceit clearly was not. During the war In 1942 Pawek was drafted as a soldier, but due to a severe nervous condition was posted in an administrative position in which he heard Austrian officers opposed to Hitler, Major Karl Biedermann, Captain Alfred Huth and Oberleutnant Rudolf Raschke, preparing to hand over of the city of Vienna to the Red Army without a fight (Operation Radetzky). Pawek, from his perspective feared a Soviet invasion of Austria, so denounced his superiors and they were executed on April 8, 1945.

He was promoted to corporal and shortly before the city of Vienna was occupied by Soviet troops on April 13, fled to St. Gilgen and worked for the American military government at Salzburg Radio. Arrested on July 16, 1945 he was sentenced to a prison sentence of three years, and solitary confinement in darkness on April 5 of each year; a comparatively mild sentence on advice of a psychiatric expert. Pawek had to serve the entire sentence.

Consequently his editorship of the highly influential magnum (no relation to the French photo co-op) had to be concealed behind an alias for his first six issues, before his war record came to be forgotten, like those of the writers he admired to its pages;  art historian and the NSDAP member Bruno Grimschitz, the Haus der Wehrmacht architect Josef Hoffmann, the controversial Carinthian writer Josef Friedrich Perkonig, who in his 1942 book for children Das Zauberbründl wrote; “God gave [Germany] a leader who led it back into the light. You must be devoted to him in life and death, because we owe him the most wonderful fatherland: Großdeutschland. […] Give happiness and good for Germany and, if necessary, your life.”

Ernst Jünger (1933) Die Veranderte Welt
Ernst Jünger (1933) Die Veranderte Welt (‘The Transformed World’)

Like Pawek, the reactionary, anti-democratic and nationalistic Ernst Jünger and his books Die veranderte Welt (‘The Transformed World’) of 1933 were being rehabilitated in the 1960s, despite his belief that the ‘hygiene’ of war formed a new, machine-like and harder mankind. The book is, like What Is Man?, a collection of press images, often violently juxtaposed, and pictures of crowds. The wrenching impact of clashing images, both Jünger and Pawek believed, activates the viewer’s political consciousness to reveal the metaphysical in the concrete. This application of the photo-essay perpetuates the fascist politics of graphic affect into the post-war period and Pawek’s editorship of Stern from 1962 while simultaneously tapping an homogenous humanism to ‘forget’ National Socialism.

After commencing his career with the magazine Epoca in 1953 that heralded a golden age in Italian photojournalism, Mario De Biasi spent thirty years traveling the world to cover events after the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, including the cultural scene in New York in the 1950s, and made portraits of personalities Marlene Dietrich, Brigitte Bardot, and Sophia Loren. He also exhibited his work. Amongst several awards received throughout his career was the Saint Vincent Prize for Journalism in 1982, and the title of Master of Italian Photography in 2003. He died in 2013 at age 89 in Milan. You can survey his work at Paolo Morello Studio Gallery

Mario De Biasi (1964) Siberia. 65° degrees below zero

5 thoughts on “January 17: What?

  1. I saw this exhibition in 1965 in Washington, D.C. as a young teen. It inspired me to become a photographer and artist. I still have the exhibition catalog. Thank you for your article.


    1. Thank you Elsa for your message. Yes, the catalogue projected a hard-edge driving syncopation of stunning imagery; pop qualities we sought in the sixties. Wonderful that you had the opportunity to see the actual show! Do you have any record of where it visited in the States?


      1. Hi James,

        I haven’t found a list of show venues – I think I saw it at one of the Smithsonian Museums.



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