Ornaments of Subversion: Subjectivity in Neue Sachlichkeit Still Life Photography
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Ornaments of Subversion: Subjectivity in Neue Sachlichkeit Still Life Photography


Walter Benjamin’s incisive 1931 critique of Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Die Welt ist Schön, in which he accused Renger-Patzsch’s photography of being a collection of pernicious ornaments, mired the Neue Sachlichkeit genre’s photographic practices in overtones of apolitical regressivity. In 1981, Benjamin Buchloh intensified the castigation against the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, positing that the reductive realism of Neue Sachlichkeit works oriented the genre as an art form imbricated with German fascism. However, by employing theories of the ornament as they relate to subjectivity, this project highlights photographic practices that confuse the politics of Interwar photographic realism, thus providing a more nuanced perspective into the movement’s representational modalities and allowing for the complication of seemingly banal, straightforward imagery. This investigation examines the works of Gerda Leo and Aenne Biermann, two lesser known Neue Sachlichkeit female photographers. On close observation, Leo’s and Biermann’s outwardly benign images of quotidian objects denature into aberrant, disturbing scenes where banal commodities gain a strange subjectivity in the face of the viewer, reminding her of their dangerous nature within capitalist society. By utilizing ornamentation in a variety of forms, Leo and Biermann grotesquely personify the arranged objects within their still lifes, imbuing them with humanoid qualities that threaten animation. Leo and Biermann render the everyday object as menacing, damaged, and all-consuming, and in doing so they employ that which Benjamin identified as their artworks’ most regressive feature as an instrument of subversion. Thus, rather than turning away from or aggrandizing authoritarianism, their photographs stand as socially engaged artworks.

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