Tag Archives: German women

Image-making

21 Apr

Bear with me as I try to make a point about the media’s construction of “Image” and its manipulation of the visual record–whether aesthetic or historical or both. Theory has never been my strong suit as a thinker or teacher, so I may be reinventing the hermeneutic wheel here in a flat-footed way; and it could be that my comparisons here are stretched beyond persuasiveness, but current events have contrived to bring these ideas together for me right now.

This is the article that began this rumination:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/04/17/mary-beard-cut-us-version-civilisations-fearing-slightly-creaky/

 

If she is to be believed, the eminent scholar Mary Beard, pictured above, was largely deleted from the American presentation of the ambitious new “Civilizations” series, because, according to her, PBS Boston thought her appearance wouldn’t appeal to an American audience. She tweeted: “Can’t help think that there is something about a creaky 63 year old grey haired lady that doesn’t quite fit the bill. But I am probably smelling a rat where there isn’t one!” Beard also indicated that the American edits veered the narration of the series much more directly toward Christian views, and turned the episodes into an “anodyne” version that critics have noted in a rebuke of the productions’ “value free” approach to the subject.

While Beard may indeed be placing blame for the cuts on the wrong culprit, that such edits were made at all is a dismaying indictment of U.S. media’s interpretation of what American audiences want or should be exposed to–as if we can’t deal with another culture’s approach to history and art. Such micromanagement of what the American public sees smacks of the most egregious kind of censorship:  insulting an entire culture’s intelligence. Personally, as a “creaky old lady” myself, I tend to believe that Mary Beard is right:  her physical appearance doesn’t fit the mold of female talking head in America.  As if anyone watching a series with as lofty a goal as explaining “civilization” would be put off by a female presence not as attractive as the weather girls on local television stations!

The second image (which I don’t seem to be able to edit into place, so will have to place it  at the bottom of this discourse) is a screen shot from the scholar Thomas Elsaesser’s film about his family, “Sonneninsel”, “Sun Island” in English.

http://www.3sat.de/mediathek/?mode=play&obj=72067

As I have written before (https://esauboeck.wordpress.com/2018/01/16/a-book-proposal/), Elsaesser serendipitously discovered my blog about Irmgard Rexroth-Kern, one of my “Three German Women”, and contacted me because Kern and her husband H.G. Rexroth figure in his film! (An indication of what a godsend Google can be for researchers!) He quite graciously sent me photos of Fr. Kern, as she appeared in the 1940s, and we have been sharing information ever since.  I was thrilled that he brought his film to USC this week, where we were able to see it yesterday and to meet the man himself.  “Sun Island” is a fascinating documentary based on home movies that tells a complex story of family, but brings up many other intellectual strands, having to do with architecture, the birth of the Green movement, memory, and revelations about everyday German life before, during, and after World War II.

After the film’s presentation and insightful discussion by extremely clued-in film students (they are, after all, at one of the most renowned film schools in the world), one of the faculty members wanted Elsaesser to address the “dilemma” raised by the film showing images of family members in Nazi uniform. The argument seemed to center on the fact that American audiences would not be able to read these images as anything but meaning that Elsaesser’s family were indeed Nazis, and that while Elsaesser does mention the appearance of people in uniforms, he doesn’t explain clearly enough what these depictions “mean”.  There was much back and forth about whether such images should be deleted for an American audience that wouldn’t understand.

Such concerns, to my mind, are exactly why such images of Germans in the 1930s and 1940s should be shown–to give a realistic presentation of what living in Germany at this tumultuous time meant.  Everyday life went on, people continued to make gardens, have friends over for tea, went for strolls in the gardens or swims in the lake.  Just like today, most Germans were, if not apolitical, neither Nazis nor leftists. As the war proceeded, men were drafted and sent off to the front. There wasn’t much they could do about it no matter how they felt about the military forces in charge of the country, unless they were immensely courageous and refused to go. Americans should also try to remember that Germans were not receiving the same kind of news that the Allies received; as far as most Germans knew, they were winning victories, they were fighting for the Fatherland, and life went on.  By the mid-40s, having a family member in uniform was as normal as seeing an American in uniform during the Vietnam war, and the feelings about their presence were as complex and emotional as were ours during that time.

But for the media,  what IMAGE is presented and how it will be interpreted is of utmost importance.  The awareness by professional documentarians and filmmakers of the inevitable self-censorship that happens with any film-making must always, I think,  be informed by film’s educational possibilities, even when dealing with “the market”, as the film-watching public is considered to be. Too often, however, those market forces seem to take precedence over the opportunity to educate.  That Elsaesser has such access to this amazing vernacular footage provides a brilliant opportunity to expand the interpretation of German life, to broaden the expected image of GERMAN that the world has created. As the people in this film reveal, they embraced neither one ideology nor the other; their visualized story presents a much more mundane picture of human beings going about the living of their lives, unaware that they were experiencing what has now become history.  Elsaesser’s desire to eradicate some stereotypes and misinterpretations of this past is the main reason I’m writing my book, too:  each of my German Women had to deal with the exigencies of this miserable history as it was happening, and none of them fit neatly into any of these black-and-white models of politics or ideology.  The concern about “accepted” presentation–whether of the supposedly desired female image for TV or the assumed meaning of a Nazi uniform–is not what is important to me or, I would hope, to most intelligent viewers or readers.  This “creaky old lady” just wants these stories to be told as factually yet evocatively as possible.

 

2018-04-21.png

A screen shot from Thomas Elsaesser’s “Sun Island,” showing a family member sitting in German uniform at a family gathering during WWII.

Irmgard Maria Rexroth-Kern (1907-1983)

8 Jun

(First, I must thank Fr. Kern’s son, Vincent Rexroth, Heidelberg, for his gracious assistance in providing information about his mother. I would not have found most of the sites that provided me with details of his mother’s life without his help. Vielen Dank!)

In 1974, I had a Fulbright scholarship to Germany. The topic that I was to study was “the artist’s ambivalent relationship to the machine.” The Fulbright Commission, determining that I should study at the Bauhaus-Archiv, sent me to Darmstadt–where the Bauhaus-Archiv had been housed in the Ernst-Ludwig Haus on the city’s famous Mathildenhöhe for many years until that year, when it had, apparently unbeknownst to the Fulbright Committee, been moved to Berlin! No matter: the Werkbund-Archiv was still there and also in the Ernst-Ludwig Haus. I spent many hours walking to and from that delightful hill, with its many Jugendstil buildings by architects who would become well-known figures in the history of modern German architecture.

Walking up the Mathildenhöhe path one day after I had been in town for a few months, I smiled at and said “Guten Morgen” to an elderly woman who was coming toward me, leading on a leash an Airedale terrier. She was so surprised that a stranger would greet her that she stopped, turned around, and asked me, in German, if I was an American.  When I said yes, she immediately switched to perfect English, and we began a conversation which led to coffee and a continuation of conversations throughout the rest of my year in Germany.

Kernasgirl_ptgbyOppenheimer_GEM-72-15

Joseph Oppenheimer, Irmgard Kern, 1916, Berlin Museum (now Märkisches Museum).

Her name was Irmgard Rexroth-Kern, her married name being Rexroth, her maiden name Kern. She had led an extraordinarily eventful life, determined in large part by the tumultuous circumstances of 20th-century Germany. She was born in Berlin on November 11, 1907, the daughter of a prominent art historian and artist, Guido Joseph Kern (1878-1953). She had two younger brothers. (On Guido Kern, see http://www.deutsche-biographie.de/sfz40604.html#ndbcontent) She grew up in comfortable circumstances as part of a family connected to the most vibrant artistic and intellectual circles in Berlin. Her first memory, at 4 years old, was of being in Florence when her father was working at the Deutsches Kunsthistorischen Institut there.  Guido Kern was until 1911 assistant to the renowned director of the Berliner Nationalgalerie, Hugo von Tschudi, with whom he worked on the first catalog of the Berlin painter Adolph Menzel; later, he published many books on other German artists as well as continuing his own artistic practice. In these active, prosperous years, while Irmgard’s mother was still alive, her father commissioned a portrait of his only daughter from Joseph Oppenheimer (1876-1966), at that time the leading society portraitist in Berlin.  She was 9 when she sat for the artist. (On Oppenheimer, see http://www.josephoppenheimer.com/index.html) This is so far the only portrait I have of her.The family was prosperous enough that Irmgard was privately tutored as a small child, and then was sent to the most progressive schools in Berlin. She also described spending many happy days at  her father’s family’s estate near Aachen.

Here is one of her father’s early drawings:

kern_guido_port_80-5560-1

And a later beach scene, from 1932:

Kern_Die Kunst für alle; Malerei, Plastik, Graphik, Architektur (48.1932-1933), S. 314-1

While Fr. Kern did share some of these stories with me when I knew her in Darmstadt, I gleaned most of this information about her early life from the charmingly insightful series of reminiscences that she published anonymously in 1934 in the Frankfurter Zeitung under the title “Neue Wege-Autobiographie einer jungen Frau” (New Paths-Autobiography of a Young Woman). In 13 segments in June of that year, the newspaper presented on its first page her memories of coming of age in Berlin right before and during World War I; they end with her going off to university in Heidelberg, newly independent from her family. Her memory was phenomenal: she wrote of their time in Florence when she saw a poster of the Titanic on a kiosk across from their house; she remembered her stuffed animal named Füffi and her first governess when she was a very little girl, as well as her first communion and travelling in an automobile for the first time.  Her most fascinating insights are of the hardships of the war and its aftermath. She recounted how everyone had to stand in line for hours for bread rations and her mother’s family’s loss of their brewery and grand property, “Falkenrode”, in Westphalia during the inflationary period.  The most traumatic event of her young life was the death of her mother during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, a terrible blow that caused her father to send her to the countryside to stay with her mother’s family for many months; her small brothers, who had also been ill with the flu, survived. She recounts how her grandmother cried on seeing photos of Irmgard’s mother: “Von ihren Kindern hatte sie meine Mutter am meissten geliebt”–“of all her children, she had loved my mother the most”.

When she returned to a shattered post-war Berlin–only 11, motherless and with a mean new housekeeper–she got caught up for a while in the proto-fascist youth groups that so many of her fellow students were joining. In her recounting, she gives an amusing picture of their home-made clothing and their penchant for nude sunbathing. She soon tired of their purist dogmas, and so became lonelier and more isolated, and began, as so many other young German women would, to read the romantic stories of Hedwig Courths-Mahler, and to pour out  in her diary all her sadnesses and frustrations. She loved spending time with her father, who took her to museums, talked to her about art, and even arranged a trip for the two of them to the Eifel region. He praised her artistic efforts and encouraged her activities at school in student government. From her descriptions, she must have accompanied her father to some of the Expressionists’ exhibitions–and even the famous Dada show in Berlin–which she found “verrückt”, crazy.  Her father explained that they were indeed crazy, but not in the way she thought; they were just intended to be doing something else than she thought art was supposed to be doing.(Or perhaps he didn’t introduce her to modernity: according to a recent article, Guido Kern was a vehement anti-modernist who actively participated with the Nazi regime to remove “degenerate” artworks from German museums. See Kai Artinger: Bilder “ohne Herkunft”. Der Kunsthistoriker Prof. Dr. Guido Joseph Kern und die Bilder von Carl Blechen in den Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz.  In: Kunstgeschichte. Open Peer Reviewed Journal, 2014 [urn:nbn:de:bvb:355-kuge-403-9]).   Through her father’s circles, at 14, she met her first professional woman–a female who had a career! From then on, she knew it was possible and determined that she would go on to university and have a professional life.

Within that year (in 1922), her father remarried. Her new mother was Franziska Müller, one of those educated, professional women, who became a sympathetic and important figure in Irmgard’s life. But her angst-ridden teenage years coincided with the disastrous events of 1920s Berlin, all of which Irmgard described in terms of her own experience.  The assassination of Rathenau in 1922 affected them all deeply, so much so that school was cancelled. During the worst of the inflation, she embroidered hankies that she could sell abroad for real money, which was the only way she could afford to buy a book that she wanted. A teacher at her school was sacked because he allowed the older students to read the newspapers and discuss politics in class. She suffered all the usual longings of a sensitive intelligent girl of the era:  she pined after boys, she found nature transcendent while on a school outing, she continued to draw animals at the zoo, and she struggled to understand why there is suffering in the world. She passed her school exams, and was still uncertain what she wanted to study or do, but determined she would go to art school. As a reward for succeeding in her Abitur, her parents sent her with two other girls to England for 4 months–the beginning of Irmgard’s lifelong love of all things English, and the source of her fluency in the language.

Still uncertain of her path, but longing to break free from home and family, she gave up the idea of art school and started studies in history and philology at the University of Berlin.  She was beginning to savor all the exciting newness of Berlin during the Weimar era, and was present for some of its monumental events. About some of these she told me stories when I knew her in Darmstadt. When she learned how fascinated I was with Brecht and Weill and The Threepenny Opera, she remembered how she had seen one of the first performances in 1928. When other young people walked down the Kurfurstendamm, she said, they would start humming the “Moritatenlied”–Mack the Knife–and everyone would smile knowingly at each other.

Dreigroschenoper

kern_shipmanifest_1929_record-image

The ship’s manifest, showing Irmgard Kern arriving in the U.S. as a student in 1929.

Irmgard still longed for independence:  according to her autobiography, at this stage, when about 21, she rebelled, insisting on leaving for another university. Her parents would not support this move financially, and so she was now on her own.  To make ends meet, she babysat, tutored in English, did secretarial work–and from the sound of things, had a ball. She gained a circle of friends, and felt that her independent life was beginning. From stories she told me in Darmstadt, she took classes from the likes of Paul Tillich (with whom, she told me, she had an affair–as he seemed to have with many of his students) and began to  write for newspapers and magazines. And in 1929, at 22, she began another great independent adventure, as the first German exchange student at Wellesley College. She especially loved to talk about this time , telling me how she was known as “Kernel” by the other students, and spending Christmas with one of her roommates’ families in Connecticut. She studied Psychology and Government, and by the time she returned to Germany, she had decided that she wanted to be a journalist more than anything.  Being at an American woman’s college in 1929 and 1930 must have been a liberating experience for a proper Catholic girl from good Berlin family.

(Wellesley students in 1928:)

wellesley students_1928_wca00318

Cazenove Hall, Wellesley College

Cazenove Hall, Wellesley College

But what a time to return to Germany:  the beginnings of the worldwide Depression, and the catastrophic rise of Nazism in her country.  Tragedies and joys and hardship were in her future.  Irmgard Maria Kern’s young life of privilege and culture ended with this chapter of her life.  Much, much more would follow, but that will wait for the next chapter.