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Up close and personal with Aenne Biermann’s photography

CM 30/08/2021

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You could say Aenne Biermann was born in the right place at the right time. She came of age in Germany during the Weimar Republic when anything and everything in the arts and society seemed possible. Then, sadly, she died at the age of just 34, two weeks before Hitler came to power. Even then – pardon the darkish humor – her timing was spot on, and at least she was spared the horrors of the Holocaust.
Some of Biermann’s groundbreaking photographic work is currently on show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (TAMA), in an exhibition called “Up Close and Personal,” curated by Raz Samira. The display is supported by the Stiftung Ann und Jürgen Wilde Foundation and the Munich-based Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen arts organizations.
“Up Close and Personal,” Biermann’s first solo exhibition in Israel, seems an apt moniker, on both counts. The first part of the title references the Jewish photographer’s penchant for taking shots from close proximity and offering the viewer an insider’s intimate view of the object. The latter part infers the subject matter she – literally – largely focused on. 

“She took pictures of the things around her,” Samara notes. “It was her home life, her house, her children she photographed to begin with.”
And fetching and loving stuff the works are too. Take, for example, the cheekily charming print of Dressing Up in Father’s Clothes, which has children Helga and Gershon hamming it up in oversized adult garb and, by the looks of it, having great fun. That is clearly a snap only someone with whom the kids felt comfortable could have captured. There is also an alluring portrait of her husband, Herbert, in the exhibition and he seems equally at ease when the shutter mechanism did its thing.
 Untitled photograph by Aenne Biermann (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Untitled photograph by Aenne Biermann (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
BIERMANN WAS a self-taught photographer and took the majority of her pictures between 1925 and 1931, after which she became too ill to continue her artistic work. This was a time when gender was not an issue. Women at the time, as glitteringly promulgated by iconic German-born American actress Marlene Dietrich, who was seen to spearhead a brave new world for women, shocked a still highly conservative society at the time by wearing men’s suits and – shock horror – smoking in public. Biermann appeared to go with the androgynous-leaning flow, as illustrated by her Self-Portrait in which she portrays herself in a manly pose. 
She was recognized as one of the leading lights of the Neue Fotografie (New Photography) stream of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement in German art that arose during the 1920s as a reaction to Expressionism. This artistic trend was characterized by unsentimental preoccupation with reality, and focused on the world of objective phenomena, in contrast to the more romantic or idealistic tendencies of expressionism.
The aforementioned solo shot shows Biermann’s smiling face reflected and distorted in a mirror ball, offering the viewer an unexpected take on the juxtaposed reality.
Another remarkable aspect of Biermann’s all-too-brief career is that, despite having two young kids to care for, and not following any professional training, she made it into the big time in her discipline, a highly competitive one at that. There were significant exposés of her groundbreaking creations by such important arts vehicles as the Munich Kunstkabinett, the Deutscher Werkbund and the Folkwang Museum in 1929. Other important exhibitions include the Das Lichtbild held in Munich in 1930, and another showing at the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels, in 1931. Things were clearly going well for her before she was cruelly struck down by serious illness, which led to her premature death two years later.
Biermann soon stepped out of her immediate personal vicinity and added a new intriguing artistic direction when she began taking an interest in non-human subjects. In 1926 she took her first photographs of plants, and things took a more serious, and intense, turn for her when in 1927 Rudolf Hundt, a well-known geologist from Gera in eastern Germany where Biermann lived, suggested she shoot some of the rock samples he’d collected. She clearly did a good job with her debut effort and the photos appeared in Der Naturforscher magazine as an illustrative complement to Hundt’s geological studies text.
Not only is Biermann’s subject matter compelling, she also forges her own visual language, with tight framing, dynamic camera perspectives, strong contrasts, and constructive and abstracting compositions, and she also developed unique photographic and development techniques.
Interestingly, while she focused very much on the intimacy of her family and home, she also presented common-or-garden objects in abstract form. That is, possibly, best demonstrated in Smiling Man, a close-up from 1929 or 1930. She then ramped up the framing element by homing in even further on the face, turning a definitively human image into an inanimate canvas, in Nose and Mouth whereby we are left with a seductive composition of lines, textures and lighting.
Annaliese Schiesser, a facial and upper torso shot taken in 1931 is drama and romance personified, seasoned with sharp interfaces between light and shade, and unparalleled geometric departures. There is more where that came from, albeit with softer lighting, in a nude of Ms. Schiesser, also taken in 1931, with her face turned away from the camera and a maze of body parts subtly illuminated to create the sense of a labyrinth. 
“Biermann’s camera brings us closer to unfamiliar objects and renders them intimate, while also defamiliarizing familiar items and making them abstract and strange,” Samira explains. “On the one hand, the extreme close-up helped her convey a sense of closeness and intimacy with the photographed subject – her children, for example. On the other, it rendered everyday objects abstract and alien.”
That tendency to look inward may very well have been her way of trying to shut out the palpable gathering tsunami fueled by the rise of antisemitism
“Despite the threat to the lives of Jews in her country looming ever larger,” says the curator, “Biermann’s photographs continued to focus on her domestic environment, and did not grapple with the problems and crises of the outside world.”
“Up Close and Personal” features around 100 works, accounting for about one third of her photographs that survived the Holocaust. Biermann’s husband and children made it to pre-state Palestine, separately, but not all their belongings did. There were over 3,000 photographs and negatives in a lift Herbert sent to the Middle East from Trieste, which was diverted en route. Biermann’s granddaughter Edna Godatsky-Biermann is convinced the treasure trove is still around for the taking. 
“The Nazis confiscated the lift, with the photographs. I am certain the pictures survived and are lying around somewhere. That thought drives me crazy.”
So maybe, just maybe, one day someone will stumble on the full Biermann corpus and the world will be able to gain an even better appreciation of her genius. Until then, “Up Close and Personal” will serve as a valuable and enticing aperitif.
“Up Close and Personal” closes on November 20. 
For more information: www.tamuseum.org.il


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