The film Michael Hamburger was created as a result of a commission for an exhibition entitled Waterlog, held at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery and the nearby Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in early 2007, before it travelled to The Collection in Lincoln in autumn of the same year. Tacita Dean was one of seven British artists invited to respond to ‘the wider landscape of the east of England, with the idea of the literary journey as one its overarching themes’ (curator Steven Bode in Waterlog, p.6). This literary journey is embodied in the book The Rings of Saturn (Frankfurt am Main, 1995) by the German writer WG Sebald (1944–2001), who settled permanently in England in 1970, making Norwich his home. Part memoir, part fiction and part poetic and philosophical meditation, Sebald’s book describes a meandering circular walk that begins and ends in Norwich. Dean chose to make a portrait of the poet and translator Michael Hamburger (1924–2007), whom Sebald visits in the seventh chapter of the book. She has explained:
I had a personal connection to [Michael Hamburger] and I was told he had an orchard. When I filmed him I filmed quite a lot and I talked to him about Sebald and all sorts of other things but in the end I made my film just about apples. It was in cutting the film that I realized it was the most important thing and through apples he talked about everything else as a metaphor ... My work has become about traces and capturing things before they disappear. It’s all about the recording of an atmosphere and usually it’s transient in a sort of way.
, accessed 5 June 2009.)
Dean’s anamorphic film is a series of almost exclusively static shots filmed in the Suffolk garden and house of her subject. Utilising natural light and unusual points-of-view – often filming either against the light or looking through windows – the looped 28 minutes of widescreen imagery constitutes a portrait whose subject is barely visible, evoking an intensely private personality. Hamburger features in semi-darkness, as a silhouette, as a pair of hands, handling apples, or seated with his back turned to the audience; in one shot only slivers of him are visible intermittently through a chink in a curtain drawn across an internal glass-paned door. This subtle visual representation is echoed in the words he speaks – a discourse exclusively focused on his apples – the different types, their origins and characteristics. Between shots of him, the camera focuses on apples on trees in the garden, rows of apples on a wooden surface in the house, and many rows and piles of books. One shot lingers on a copy, in English, of poetry by the German writer Günter Grass (born 1927). The climax of the film is a reading of one of his own poems by Hamburger, written on the occasion of the death of his friend, the poet Ted Hughes (1930–98). For Hamburger, the link of their friendship is expressed through an apple – the Devonshire Quarenden apple growing in Hughes’s garden – from pips of one of which donated by Hughes, Hamburger grew two trees. He explains that he did this, partly because he was attracted to it by its dark colour, but also because Hughes ‘was a very good friend and it was a kind of link between us if I could have this apple in a Suffolk garden where it didn’t really belong’. His poem lingers on the apple as remembrance and the notion of the fruit’s continuity in contrast with human mortality, ending with the words: ‘hardened, mellowed the fruit to outlast our days’. Dean extends the theme of mortal transience by following Hamburger’s reading with a shot of him smoking in semi-darkness, succeeded by views of a rainbow in the sky above his house. This climax is rendered more poignant by the fact that Hamburger died in June 2007, only a few months after Dean completed her film.
Michael Hamburger is the most recent in a series of film portraits Dean has made that include Mario Merz 2003 (a portrait of the artist by chance also made shortly before his death), The Uncles 2004 (footage of two of the artist’s uncles talking about the family’s relation to Ealing Film Studios, set up by Basil Dean, her grandfather) and Presentation Sisters 2005 (featuring a group of five nuns living in Cork, Ireland). All share with Michael Hamburger an elliptical approach to portraiture which functions as a kind of poetical allegory. Dean’s work is based on networks of coincidental linkages that originate – usually invisibly – with the artist, and more visibly with a person, thing or event in the world, extending outwards into the larger macrocosm of time and space. She shares this preoccupation with Sebald; her essay on him, first printed as an artist’s book as part of a seven volume publication in 2003 (Göttingen and Paris) and reprinted in Waterlog (pp.92–109), describes her personal connection to him through a series of historical coincidences. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald describes Hamburger’s emigration from Germany with his family to the United Kingdom in 1933, the fears and loss of emigration, his memories of his native Berlin and the ways in which they inform his dreams. He meditates on the question of why his identification with Hamburger, as a fellow German who has made his home in England, should run deeper than a question of national identity, writing, ‘how is that one perceives oneself in another human being or, if not oneself, then one’s own precursor? ... why it was that on my first visit to Michael’s house I instantly felt as if I lived or had once lived there, in every respect precisely as he does, I cannot explain.’ (The Rings of Saturn, London 2002, pp.182–3.)
In common with all Dean’s films created since 2001, Michael Hamburger contains no titles, credit sequences or additional sound, other than what is present during filming. It is projected from a booth onto a screen on the opposite wall in a darkened room, showing on a continuous loop. It was produced in an edition of four, of which Tate’s copy is the first.
Waterlog: Journeys Around an Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, 2007, pp.40–7, reproduced 42–4.