This photograph is a three-quarter-length double portrait of an elderly farming couple posed formally outdoors in a natural setting. The man, who seems visually impaired, is seated and holds the end of a wooden walking stick, while the standing female figure clasps the wrinkled fingers of her left hand with her right hand, the short sleeves of her outfit exposing her gnarled wrists and forearms. They both appear in formal attire but their clothes are rather ill-fitting.
The photograph was taken by August Sander using a large format, glass plate camera with a long exposure time, the kind primarily used in portrait studios. This is one of many photographs taken by him of rural people from the wooded low mountain region of Westerwald in the German federal states of Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, and North Rhine-Westphalia. Westerwald was the region where the photographer was born, and it was where he travelled in search of new clients after setting up his portrait studio in Cologne-Lindenthal in 1910, having returned to Germany the previous year from Linz, Austria.
Farming Couple – Propriety and Harmony belongs to the ‘Stammappe’, a portfolio of ‘archetypes’ planned as a visual preface to Sander’s life-long but incomplete project People of the Twentieth Century, which was envisioned as a comprehensive photographic index of the German population, classified into seven groups according to social ‘type’. The first volume of People of the Twentieth Century was devoted to peasants and farmers. The ‘Stammappe’ was the first portfolio of this volume and consisted of twelve photographs, the first of which – The Man of the Soil (Tate AL00002) – dated from 1910. Farming Couple – Propriety and Harmony was the tenth image in the portfolio, although it should be noted that Sander only started to arrange these photographs systematically in the early 1920s, probably as a result of debating the social and aesthetic concerns of the day with a group of young left-wing artists known as the Cologne Progressives, some of whom often gathered at his studio. At this time photographs for the ‘Stammappe’ portfolio, which had originally been commissioned by farming families, were each emblematically re-titled to signify that the sitters represented ‘prototypical building blocks of human society’ (Greenberg 2000, p.12), for example, The Philosopher (Tate AL00003), The Fighter or Revolutionary (Tate AL00004), and The Sage (Tate AL00005). Farming Couple – Propriety and Harmony 1912 (Tate AL00012) is the title that Sander also gave to the eleventh photograph in the portfolio, in which a different couple is posed, the female figure seated and the male figure standing, also in a woodland setting.
As in The Man of the Soil, the seated male in AL00011 clasps a wooden staff which connects him organically to the earth, a notion emphasised by the vertical forms of the surrounding tree trunks and the wooden legs of the chair on which he sits. In the last photograph of the ‘Stammappe’, Three Generations of the Family 1912 (Tate AL00013), trees also serve as an effective arboreal backdrop suggestive of organic generational growth, while the verb ‘to grow’ in German is anbauen, which is linked etymologically to the word bauer, meaning peasant or farmer. Photographs from this portfolio can be understood in the context of the Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) ideology of nineteenth-century agrarian romanticism, especially as it was expressed in the work of writers such as Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl (1823–1897), who argued that the peasantry represented the foundation of the German people, and visually encapsulated in the work of artists such as Wilhelm Leibl (1844–1900). This literary and artistic celebration of rural peasant life gave rise to the term and movement Heimatkunst (homeland art).
August Sander: Citizens of the Twentieth Century, ed. by Ulrich Keller, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 1989.
Mark Greenberg (ed.), In Focus: August Sander: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2000.
Christian Weikop, ‘August Sander’s Der Bauer and the Pervasiveness of the Peasant Tradition’, Tate Papers, issue 19, Spring 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/august-sanders-der-bauer-and-pervasiveness-peasant-tradition, accessed 27 June 2013.
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