“Circus People” (1930) by August Sander, from his collection, “People of the Twentieth Century.”
Photo from americansuburbx.com

Afterimages

Observations on picture making, its silent witness and its ghosts

By Iain Bamforth

 

The Spaniard, wrote Stendhal in “Memoirs of a Tourist,” is “not a copy of anyone. He will be the last original to exist in Europe.”

Boswell and Rousseau, in their time had said more or less the same thing about Corsica, another land that time forgot. In this island of rugged and Homerically primitive landscapes, hitherto impervious to the corrupt societies to the north and east, lived the last living specimens of the state of nature. One of their number, a certain Napoleon Buonaparte, would not forgot Rousseau’s prediction: “I have a certain premonition that this one little island will astonish Europe.”

August SanderIn fact, the last originals in Europe were probably the Sardinians (though a later case could be made for the Albanians, hidden away in their Communist oddity). August Sander went to photograph them on the suggestion of his friend Ludwig Mathar in 1927: their 30 days of travel around the island were his longest trip away from Germany. No longer did an artist have to travel to Polynesia to find exoticism; it was there, in the centre of the Mediterranean. The two Germans had perhaps come across D.H. Lawrence’s travel book on the island, “Sea and Sardinia,” published in 1921, which he had visited in the belief that it was “outside the circuit of civilization”; Lawrence was chagrined to find − for all that he praised the “magical look” of the island − that he had arrived too late. Civilization had done its corrupting work.

Tree timeSee a portfolio of Beth Moon's unusual tree pictures here.That was not Sander’s impression. Like the local painter Giuseppe Biasi, he found many unselfconscious subjects. The three hundred prints he brought back, some of them glass-plate negatives, show some of the island’s sights − scenes of the capital, Cagliari, including almost surrealistic views of a staircase at Santa Chiara and the medieval wall around the cathedral, a striking composition of scenes around the most important Romanesque church on the island, the Basilica of the Holy Trinity of Saccargia, which was constructed in 1116 in alternating layers of local black basalt and white limestone, the northern harbor town of Porto Tórres and the prehistoric site of the Nuraghe Losa, the ancient megalithic broch which has become a symbol of the island − as well as portraits of the local people in traditional costumes or at work, with women at the loom or fetching water from the well. At the same time as he was working on his epic portfolio “People of the Twentieth Century,” Sander had managed to crystallise some precious images of an ancient pastoral population on the verge of its disappearance.

The decade of Stendhal’s death was also the decade in which the first photographic image was produced. Sander knew that somebody who has never seen a camera wears a different expression from one who has glimpsed its workings and products. It is impossible to fake the attitude of people quietly confident of their own dignity, such is the inner optics of being looked at in a certain way (which traditional Sardinians would instantly have recognized as the attribute of a jettatore − somebody who casts the evil eye).

Read the rest of this story in the Winter 2015 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

There are over 80,000 bodies belonging to nobles, bourgeois and clergy members in the Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Palermo. They form a "picture" of another time. YouTube video

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