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National Portrait Gallery, London
March - June 1997

In London in the first half of 1997, Weimar Germany came back with a discrete vengeance. The trend may not have been strong enough to cut the rope from which the '60s swing in perpetuity, and we're still waiting for a new Social-Democratic Freikorps to kickstart ' Zero Tolerance'. But the last few months have seen Dr. Hans Prinzhorns's 'Art of the Insane' (collected 1919 - 1922) at the Hayward Gallery, George Grosz at the Royal Academy, Marlene Deitrich - the West End musical, and August Sander's 'exact' photography at the National Portrait Gallery.

Now it can't be insisted stridently enough that this coincidence has nothing to do with any kind of 'Zeitgeist', least of all one which vaults lightly over seven decades and half of Europe. Not history, but a truism of marketing is repeating itself here, namely that nothing sells like an 'experience' of danger at a safe remove.

Prinzhorn's patients' 'Raw Creation', like Grosz's lounge bar bestiary, allows us to sniff nostalgically at a state of nature into which our lucidity guarantees there's no risk of slipping. However it's time and nationality themselves, rather than any atavistic forms on show, that serve as prophylactics against National Portrait Gallery visitors' being sucked inside Sander's 'cycle of mankind'.

This cycle need not return eternally, for it describes the 'historical ascent and descent, within the existing social order' of seven groups into which Sander corralled his 'People of the Twentieth Century'. Admittedly, the singular moment in which this order was fixed comprises more than twenty years of sold-out revolution, hyperinflation, ascendant Nazism, etc. Yet this may only enhance its fetish value for a public which fancies its own history to be over, whose distinct moments and undecided conflicts are subsumed in the gelatinous consistency of 'news'.

Sander's seven groups are 'the farm Worker', 'the Working man', 'the Woman', 'the Professions', 'the Artists', 'the City' (street performers, gypsies, unemployed, bohemians), and 'the Last People' ('Idiots, the Sick, the Dying, the Insane'). It's easy to smirk at such an awkward, 'outdated' taxonomy, especially when each category is divided into numbered portfolios. 'Scholar', 'Soldier' (including World War One conscripts), 'Aristocrat' and 'Businessman' are all Professions, while 'the Industrialist' is a Working Man like a gardener, a pastrycook, and Dadaist Raoull Haussmann. The Woman's possible worlds are 'Woman and Man', 'Woman and Child', 'the Family', 'the Elegant Woman', and 'Woman in Intellectual and Practical Occupations' (housewife, real estate broker, porcelain decorator).

Yet even as these incongruities mock Sander's claims to scientific precision, they register a transformation which couldn't have been recognised at the time. For several centuries, modernity and capitalist development have been popularly and vaguely associated with innovation, rupture and shock, in opposition to an image of timeless peasant agriculture and aristocratic tradition. Scattered across Sander's categories, though, is evidence that this habit of perception has been reversed. Set up for a long exposure, the farm workers of the Westerwald look inanimate, in communication with the viewer's world only as inert symbols of their own estrangement from it. Imperial army officers, minor nobility, and traditional master craftsmen also disappear into stereotypes of a past, inaccessible 'age'.

The only subjects who inhabit the photograph's invisible moment exactly as it's done today are businessmen, 'creative and media' professionals, their 'liberated' wives and libertine children. Old-fashioned startled rigidity is drained from their faces, poses and clothes, making room for 'natural' gestures oozing up-to-date humanity. While the camera turns Heideggerian peasants to stone, abruptly cancelling their immemorial 'persisting', these fashionable bodies would be as much at home in the 1990s as in the '30s. Permanence is a matter of (good) taste: timelessness is a property of the classic suit and the little black cocktail dress.

For the stubbornly paranoid critic (see 'How America Won the Century', Log #1) who shrinks in horror from today's rules of empathy, however, the most admirable figures on show were those which leap blindly across decades into the latest cliches of villainy. A grimacing, sunburnt Communist Party official in V.I. Lenin drag obliviously bristles with resistance to 'post materialist' values. Haussmann posing in pyjama trousers, beret and monocle with his wife and mistress by his sides invites future generations to smirk disgustedly: they may be quite justifed in doing so, but in delivering itself wholesale to this instant judgement, the image jealously conceals all nuances of the subjects' endured experience. This cold inscrutability may be Sander's method's most agreeable effect. Psychology is left out of the picture altogether; behind the flat screen of social documentary, lived time is safe from defamation. Theodor Adorno called this technique 'social physiognomy', following Benjamin, who invoked the early physiognomists' respect for 'the anonymity of man and his morality' against psychology's attempts to 'understand the inner life of man empirically'.

'In photography, there are no hidden shadows', Sander declared. This means not that the camera penetrates the subtleties of being, but that it consciously abstains from contact with them. This paradoxical modesty sets Sander's grandiose project as far apart from Nazi science as from current Personality theory, for both of which the Spirit is transparent and infinitely treatable.

Matthew Hyland
25 August 1997