As the Ground Shifted, He Stayed Focused


Consider two pictures. In the large and absorbing new exhibition of photographs by German artist August Sander (1876-1964) at the J. Paul Getty Museum, two pictures tell an almost unbelievable story. Both show women.

The first is a photograph of a farmer’s elderly widow, taken in 1912 in the small town of Ottershagen near Cologne. Sander had opened a portrait studio in that city two years before, and he regularly traveled the surrounding region of the Westerwald in search of new clients.

The old woman, seated ramrod-straight before a dark and impenetrable backdrop, holds her hands in her lap and a small book in her hands. (Given her pious demeanor, perhaps it’s a Bible or a prayer book.) A faint smile rests on her lips, but it’s toughened with age.


She’s neatly if simply dressed, wearing coarse, heavy garments and a fringed shawl tied in massive folds around her head. Her sturdy chair is a rustic throne. Lighted from the side, the old woman emerges from the blackness like the passive apparition of a timeless mountain emerging from fog.

The second picture is a portrait of the wife of Cologne painter Peter Abelen, made in 1926. The young woman stands inside an urban apartment, where paintings adorn the walls. Her left leg is bent and her right hip is thrust forward, creating a stylish modern riff on a classical contrapposto pose. Her hair is slicked close to her head, and she’s dressed in white harem pants and a man’s white shirt and necktie. The air of androgyny demands a double take.

Her frozen grin is interrupted by a cigarette, held between clenched teeth. In a manner at once playful and aggressive, she’s performing for the camera’s lens. With her white clothing set in sharp contrast to the dark background, the willowy figure is like a flame flickering in an unseen breeze.

Just 14 years separate these two photographs. The worlds they depict, on the other hand, span light-years.

The old woman represents Germany’s stolid rural past. She’s an Ur-Mother for the Fatherland.

The young one embodies the New Woman, heralded in the tumultuous period’s press. She’s the unconventional, independent, self-invented, quintessentially modern figure, who was emerging from the Weimar years.


The yawning divide that separates the old woman from the new is marked by one of the most traumatic events in world history. World War I was the Great War, the War to End All Wars. It was also a war Germany had lost. Despair stood side by side with possibility; tragic loss mingled with new options; fear fostered urges both reactionary and libertine. To see these two extraordinary photographs hanging in adjacent Getty galleries is to visualize powerful fault lines running through German society at a critical moment in world history.

The show is titled “August Sander: German Portraits (1918-1933).” It’s the second survey drawn from the museum’s extensive holdings of Sander’s photographs--at more than 1,200 pictures, the largest collection outside Cologne--and it coincides with the publication of a small new book about the artist in the Getty’s “In Focus” series. The concise volume includes an excellent overview by independent scholar Claudia Bohn-Spector as well as an edited transcript of an interesting colloquium on the photographer held in 1998.

The show features 125 photographs, more than twice the number shown in the Getty’s prior exhibition 10 years ago. Eighty-three are portraits. The remaining 42 document Sander’s home and studio in Cologne.

In a way, the two pictures of women also represent conflicted sides of the artist. Sander was socially and politically conservative. His hugely ambitious portrait series, which grew to encompass tens of thousands of negatives and was aimed at nothing less than creating a typological atlas of the German people, was partly inspired by Germany’s battered condition after the war. At a time of profound upheaval these photographs demanded to know, who are we?

Sander’s conservatism can also be seen simply in the number of his photographs of women. Women were peripheral subjects for him, even though they made up one-third of the German work force by the mid-1920s. More than seven out of eight portraits in his monumental oeuvre record images of men. And note that his stunning picture of the New Woman, titled “Wife of the Cologne Painter Peter Abelen,” identifies her by marital status and her husband’s name, not her own.

Another portrait from 1926 is more in line with Sander’s own worldview and with that of the largely conservative community of Cologne. A stylish young bourgeois mother is shown seated on the grass with her chubby-cheeked baby--happy symbol of maternity--at one side and a perky little dog--venerable symbol of fidelity--at the other. The picture celebrates a woman’s enduring place in the cycles of nature and society. Her capacity to be a driving force in civilization goes unconsidered.


At the same time, Sander had artistic ambitions that were distinctly progressive. His rejection of soft-focus, atmospheric, painterly lighting effects in favor of sharp, crisp delineations may have started as a business decision, meant to attract portrait customers not given to arty affectation. But the style also lent an aura of clarity--and therefore the implication of scientific truth--to his pictures.

In creating a typology of the German people after World War I, Sander extrapolated various popular theories of the day concerning the rise and fall of nations. He organized his volumes of pictures according to a rigorous method. The sturdy base on which a nation could build began with the peasant class, like the old farmer’s widow in a shawl (which Sander titled “Earthwoman”). Then came skilled craftsmen, wives and mothers, members of the learned professions, creative artists, denizens of the city and, at the end of the line, the sick and infirm.

Provocatively, the exhibition suggests what may be a kind of autobiographical arc to this approach. It follows much of the trajectory of Sander’s own life. He was born of peasant stock, and he first worked as a miner. He learned photography to join the steady ranks of professionals, but he was eventually overtaken by creative aspirations. In this regard Sander’s atlas was something of a family photo album.

The exhibition concludes with an unusual room hung with 42 images from Sander’s photographic chronicle of his home and studio in Cologne. Destroyed by Allied bombers in 1944 (along with 30,000 negatives), the house had been obsessively documented by the artist during the late 1930s, as war loomed. He photographed his darkroom, the parlor, corridors, the kitchen, the dining room, staircases, bedrooms (separate chambers for August and his wife, Anna), the bathroom, doorways, stained-glass window panes, the roof garden and views out his workroom window (a chestnut tree is shown in all four seasons). Nothing escaped the curious camera.

Individual pictures in this domestic chronicle tend to be unremarkable, but the project as a whole makes your head spin. The mostly empty rooms feel haunted. In the context of this show the house pictures serve to underscore a subtly autobiographical impulse in Sander’s art. If the aim of his atlas of German portraits was to establish a typology of the new man in 20th century society, the photographic map of his own habitat showed where a representative new man lived.

* “August Sander: German Portraits (1918-1933),” J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, (310) 440-7300, through June 24. Parking reservations required weekdays before 4 p.m. Closed Monday.