August Sander’s portraits of marginalised subjects are often evoked as visual shorthand for his inclusive vision of the German nation. This article uses a portrait he made around 1930 showing two circus workers, an ‘Indian’ man and a white woman, to assess how Sander’s work deals with the cognitive and ethical difficulties posed to interwar Germany by its ‘dark strangers’.
We speak of [the body] to others as of a thing that belongs to us; but for us it is not entirely a thing; and it belongs to us a little less than we belong to it.
Paul Valéry 1
Between 1926 and 1932 August Sander photographed members of Germanys famous Barum circus during their time off, engaged in everyday tasks or assembled in front of their wagons (fig.1).2 Six of these images were included in an album called The City, the penultimate volume of Sanders magnum opus People of the Twentieth Century (Menschen des 20. Jahrhundert), an exhaustive visual document of the diversity of archetypal individuals who made up the German people. During the Weimar era (1918–33) circus caravans wound their way across Germany, occupying urban wastelands and other in-between spaces, momentarily revitalising them as sites of wonder, exoticism and permissiveness. In the popular culture of Sanders Germany, the mobile circus milieu was synonymous with dangerous and primitive types – particularly gypsies and people of colour.3 Sanders dispassionate circus shots feature both these types. Historians have used them to illustrate the photographers liberal values, values that led to his victimisation under Nazism.4 However, although Sander avoided taking photographs that simplified individual and collective identities or rendered them absolute, his subjects never become detached from the social order that determined their position in People of the Twentieth Century. The anthropologist Marc Augé has written that every individual expresses the totality of their social order from a certain angle.5 The same could be said for Sanders portraits and his images of circus people. While Sander expressed apparent sympathy for his subjects marginal status, his pictures of them nonetheless recall the motifs used to represent them in mainstream culture.
Postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha has remarked that a photograph can contain a double exposure.6 He argues that its main frame determines its primary meaning, but, with reference to the philosopher Roland Barthes, he proposes that it can have a blind spot, or punctum, too.7 While the main frame encompasses what is visibly identifiable, the punctum is an accident in the image, something which displaces the primary meaning, and introduces new knowledges, experiences, and affects.8 According to Bhabha, photographs can reveal the double lives that some individuals lead between the mainstream and the margins of culture.9 Sander captures such lives in his portraits of circus workers, particularly in one photograph, taken some time between 1926 and 1932, which shows a man of colour and a white woman sitting by a tent having tea (fig.1). In line with the 2001 publication of People of the Twentieth Century, the Tate title for this work is simply Circus Workers. However, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York titles the copy of the print in its collection Indian Man and German Woman.10 (This article refers to the man as Indian for the sake of clarity, and does not seek to conclusively define his racial identity.) While the Weimar historian Eric D. Weitz has proposed that this picture demonstrates Sanders liberal views, MoMAs title evokes the entanglements of sex, race and nation that Sander captured in this portrait, concepts that played a powerful role in shaping Weimar culture.11
During the Weimar era the primitive, as both a concept and also a human subject, had three potent associations: jazz, America, and Germanys lost colonies in East Africa. Around these revolved the dialectics of vital transnationalism and national shame, of progress and decay. Since the late nineteenth century modern Western artists such as Edouard Manet (1832–1883), Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) had been painting pictures of non-Caucasian subjects and exotic cultures – understood within a colonial context – and such works had served to assert their own bohemian status. There was a slippage in their work, however, between their study of tribal art and received notions of the primitive promulgated by popular culture.12 For example, the German expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) painted and photographed Sam and Millie, a black couple whom scholars have variously identified as circus, jazz and Black American artistes, against tribal backdrops that celebrated the art of Palau, an early German colony.13 After the First World War, which saw Germany dispossessed of its colonies, New Objectivity artists such as Max Beckmann and Otto Dix depicted themselves in nightclubs watching shows by black jazz musicians with ambivalent, often detached fascination; for them, these performers signified an atavistic, urban – and American – modernity.14 In the Weimar period, to depict a person of colour was to take a socio-political position on this modernity, on German-ness, and on the tensions between them. As such, interwar artists often conflated different primitive identities (for example, African and Indian), instrumentalising them in order to understand their own changing world.15
Circus acts were one popular medium through which Germans came to know, or at least encounter, the primitive. Sander took his portraits at Barums American Caravan Menagerie (Barums amerikanische Karawanen-Menagerie), a circus formed in 1878 to compete with the American P.T. Barnum enterprise that toured Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A major attraction at P.T. Barnums (as at other circuses) was a lavish ethnographic spectacle in which Indians played out static clichés of oriental life, as pastoral types or as supplicants to colonial (British) rule.16 Since Germany trailed the British and Dutch in the colonial race, Germans arguably saw in these displays their countrys aspirations to world greatness. With the advent of film – a far cheaper means of producing and showing such spectacles – circus acts of this kind declined but did not die out. At Barums circus, for example, a Cameroonian man named Hermann Kessern, who came to Germany in 1912 at the age of twenty-two, played a fakir (a Muslim Sufi ascetic) alongside a female snake charmer, Asita, battling snakes and crocodiles in a daring act called In the Temple of Shiva. 17 Such narratives illustrate the ways in which exotic identities – African and Indian – were amalgamated in popular entertainment at the time, the colonial implications of which endured into the Weimar era. For example, Weimar travel books described East Africa, which Germany had colonised in 1884, as a lush German India, rivalling the territories of the British and the Dutch. Although they thought of it as chaotic and excessive, German orientalists perpetuated Indias mythic status as the Urwelt, or primeval origin of European culture. The Romantic poet and critic A.W. Schlegel had posited that if mankinds origins and its regeneration lay in India, then Germany was Europes India. This was not an expression of racial kinship, but of Romantic ideals that endured in the convictions of a minority of twentieth-century colonialists who urged Germany to capture India from the British.18 After Germany had lost its colonies, the Indian in Sanders photograph would have evoked, as much as a person of African origin, Germanys failings as a world power.
If a fascination with the primitive was a defining feature of modernist aesthetics, Sanders detached style, however, suggests that he was immune to their allure. Unlike the painters discussed above, Sander did not define himself, personally, in relation to the subjects of Circus Workers. The Weimar intellectual Walter Benjamin, citing the Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe, described Sanders photographic objectivity as tender empiricism – scientific but humane, and intimately involved with the individual subject.19 Yet it is hard to be objective about Sanders image of the two sitters and their relationship to one another. The image could be considered, for example, in relation to a gendered idea of the foreign, inflected with Germanys complex colonial past; or, in the context of People of the Twentieth Century, it could be interpreted as a reminder to the young, democratic country that it should observe democratic principles in its treatment of strangers. On the other hand, it might serve as a foil to shore up the stolid bourgeois identities so prevalent in Sanders taxonomy; or it might point to the impossibilities of racial inclusiveness under the laws of a German nation that determined citizenship by blood. The range of interpretations and attitudes the image might have proffered suggests that, in this instance, Sanders ambitions were anything but objective. This essay explores these attitudes to find out to what extent this photograph speaks about, to, or on behalf of its Indian subject, or indeed whether or not it provides an opportunity for him to speak for himself.
A cyclical narrative of decay unfolds over the seven volumes of photographs that constitute People of the Twentieth Century: from the origins of civilisation and its close relation to the land (represented by farmers), to its ascendancy to intellectual creativity (represented by white-collar workers), to its degeneration as urbanisation and industrialisation advance. Sander placed his portraits of circus people in the penultimate volume, The City, which also contains pictures of persecuted Jews and political prisoners. These images usher in the seventh and final volume, The Last People, which addresses the ramifications of the First World War, implying that it was a catalyst for social decline. Following the crisp surface logic of Sanders archive, the circus people can be read as symbols of societys decay, representing the regressive antithesis of bourgeois professionals. Yet their significance in People of the Twentieth Century is more complex than this. Sander had planned to include many double portraits in his book; for example a pair of usherettes, preceded by a pair of gypsies, followed by two dwarves. All of them are circus types. Art historian George Baker has argued that, cumulatively, these double portraits create an uncanny effect. For him, the doublings in People of the Twentieth Century reveal its intellectual uncertainty, in that they level all distinctions between one site of the typology and the next.20 People of the Twentieth Century structures these sites as if they were stable and discrete, but as particular motifs proliferate across them they are revealed to be unanchorable.21 In this context it is important that the circus transmits, or sets in motion, some of the doublings that render Sanders taxonomy indistinct; it is (literally) an unanchorable milieu, which is historically construed as deviant. As cultural historian Sander Gilman has stated, the circus is a very specific space, and it gives character to the person in it.22 Notably, Sander positioned his images of circus people between portfolios on Street Life and Festivities (like Carnival andCorpus Christi), aligning it with other temporally unstable spaces. Their associated inhabitants included people of colour, onto whom Weimar culture projected fantasies about the primitive, of miscegenation, for example, or of spiritual revitalisation. Together with tropes of regression, Weimar thinkers used these fantasies to organise – or anchor – a transitional world. However, as Baker points out, in Sanders circus photographs a complex interplay emerges between the historical reality in which his sitters lived and the subjective processes of fantasy to which they were exposed.23
Circus Workers is the only depiction of interracial gender relations in Sanders work. As a unique image it does not contribute to the visual repetitions that elsewhere foil his taxonomy. However, it does stand in relation to Sanders other images of circus people, and to the familial pairings – married couples, friends, siblings – that populate People of the Twentieth Century. Yet unlike those pictures, Circus Workers is split by race, sex, blood and, according to MoMAs title, nation. It calls attention to something the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir called facticity: the concrete details of the subjects lives they did not choose but which inform and limit their human freedoms, namely race and sex. De Beauvoir stated that social rituals reinforced the limitations that this facticity imposed on individuals and on the historical situation of groups.24 She argued that these rituals were often too powerful for particular groups (women, for example) to combat. But in Circus Workers, Sanders subjects – a white woman and a black man – meet in the fabled freedom of the circus and enact the most quotidian and civil social ritual – having tea – albeit in makeshift fashion; the pair sit on fold-down chairs by a tent, drinking from a flask. Yet the china, table and tablecloth point symbolically to a static, bourgeois domesticity, registering a powerful correspondence between Sanders marginal subjects and his bourgeois portraits.
In Circus Workers the rituals of Sanders Germany seem to have been opened up to the Indian so as to accommodate him. He is not bound by them, however, in that he occupies an in-between space (the circus). While the Indian is rootless, Sander as the photographer is cognitively distant; they align together as strangers in society. This shot ostensibly affirms Sanders expansive gaze, under which his subject facilitates illuminating reflections onGermany, auguring its liberal renewal. Sanders aim was to collate hundreds of individual portraits into a universal picture of society. However, as Baker recognises, it was this very ambition that made Sanders project so unstable. For if there was only one universal social portrait, then how could there be a Germany to taxonomise? And if there was a national entity to classify, universalism could not apply. A decision had to be made about who was in and who was out, which begs the question where did that leave the sitters in this picture?
It has been well documented that in the Weimar era mass culture and new political models (in particular, socialism and fascism) disrupted the once-centred identity of Germanys middle class. But Sanders bourgeois portraits signified the possessive individualism of a social order in which the legal basis of the self lies in the model of property rights.25 Steady and repetitive, his bourgeois portraits build an insistent, even obstinate vision of the continuing solidity of the middle class. However, during the Weimar era the middle class was undergoing radical transition. In People of the Twentieth Century Sander sought to depict an old identity in a new world that could no longer accommodate it. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that Sander included the two circus workers, existing as they did on the periphery of society, in order to re-affirm those who had once been assured their place at its centre.
In the impromptu act of taking tea, the two circus workers transpose its signifiers (china, table, tablecloth), from the private sphere into a communal milieu, the non-space occupied by the circus. Here, however, there are none of the permanent demarcations of private property that affirmed the bourgeois self in, for example, Sanders portraits of farm people. The pair are only borrowing the symbols of bourgeois life. Yet Sander does not alter his visual syntax for them, which causes a split to emerge between his subject (the stranger) and his style (bourgeois portraiture). The very order Sanders style evokes thus appears unsound. However, recalling the philosopher Martin Heideggers view that belonging is predicated upon possessing, the man and woman mimic the socio-ritual trappings of private ownership, but, owning nothing concrete (the tablecloth, for example, is a rough-edged makeshift), belonging nowhere, they are nothing in this order.26 They possess no markers of identity that are theirs and theirs alone. Thus, if their selfhood is deniable, their non-being acts as an ameliorative foil that serves to reaffirm the bourgeois self to whom Sanders style belongs. For the art historian Hal Foster style can structure a subject and a subject can impel a style into being.27 This photograph cleaves to the portrait form, and exercises both honorific and repressive force on its marginal subjects. Sander invites their otherness yet nullifies it.28 In mapping onto the pairs racial-sexual split a desire to restore bourgeois identity, Sander obfuscates his subjects as individuals. For the feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva, Living with the other … means to make oneself other for oneself.29 In Weimar culture this desire was often expressed in terms of pseudo-imperial encounters, governed by such ambivalence, with the primitive.
In Germanys colonies sexual relations, particularly interracial ones, were regulated under colonial laws that distinguished between black and white, between African colony and German metropole. These in turn informed domestic laws about biopolitical categories of citizenship, including jus sanguinis.30 Cultural output of the colonial era often depicted German men seduced by the pre-Oedipal attractions of native women, and flaxen-haired German women possessed by brutish black males. After the First World War Germanys blood boundaries, enshrined in law, were penetrated when French troops, including a minority of North African colonial subjects, occupied theRhineland. Interracial sex relations, wherever manifest, subsequently took on an even more powerful meaning in Germanys social psyche.
In a 1926 review of the black jazz troupe Revue Nègre the poet Yvan Goll declared that a transfusion of negro blood was conquering – and reviving – Europe.31 A year earlier the eugenicist Hans Harmsen wrote of an invasion of negro men into Germany, raising the spectre of miscegenation. Harmsen felt that the French approach to colonialism was so lenient it had caused the Vernegerung Frankreichs (the negro-isation of France), and feared the same fate for an occupied Germany.32 These writers illustrate how non-Caucasian foreigners were often essentialised in the Weimar Republic as having either a positive or negative influence on the nation. Indeed, Weimar culture did not erect effigies of the dark stranger simply to burn them, exorcising from the new body politic the uncertainties of post-war life. If this were the case, Sanders photograph would be a straightforwardly oppositional work. The Republics cultural tropes depicted the stranger as a vital link to the New World (to be invited in), and as an agent of German abjection (to be expelled); black revues like The Chocolate Kiddies enjoyed great commercial success; Ernst Kreneks 1927 jazz opera Jonny Strikes Up! (Jonny spielt auf!) prompted explosive responses from the political left and right; romantic transfigurations of oriental life (African or other) were popular in film and reportage; while the Rhinelands occupation led to the circulation of posters showing cartoon apes in French uniforms manhandling nude German blondes. Amid the racial turbulence incited by narratives of national progress and decay, German culture pressed the dark stranger into a friend/enemy dialectic from which he always came out doubly over- and under-determined.33
It was against this backdrop that Sander photographed his subjects. The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has suggested that the strangers presence in a society makes him, potentially, an object of that societys responsibility.34 Bauman articulates this idea using the term face, which was developed by the ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to describe the aspects of a persons strangeness that place a culture in a position of ethical responsibility to him; these include unassumingness and silence.35 For Levinas face involves language, which he identified with vision.36 In his view, the ideal relation between members of society and the stranger is transitive and non-violent. In physical proximity to one another, the two circus workers engage in a face-to-face conversation that exceeds the conventional us-and-them ways in which society views and discusses strangers. While Levinas took a contradictory Platonic stance on art, his ideas are useful in framing Sanders photograph as a (potential) face-to-face encounter. Sander seems to give the man in this picture face by placing the viewer in a position of ethical obligation to him. By casting the dark stranger as a clown or brute, Weimar culture denied this obligation, absorbed as it was in collective post-war pain.
Levinas stated that when a society is exposed to the stranger it is denuded; all the protective layers are stripped from the body of knowledge that informs its collective beliefs. The dark stranger became over-determined in the Weimar Republics visual culture at a time when modernism queried the (white) bodys legitimacy as a cognizable autonomous subject.37 As a fraught and inflammatory figure, the stranger breached Weimar cultures protective layers, including its laws; indeed, when he did not fit the elemental forms ascribed to him (clown or brute), he even upset public order. Weimar historian Peter Jelavich, for example, has quoted Dresden police describing how a Cameroonian dancer, on an outing with his German wife and three-year old daughter, was literally spit upon, even by workers.38 The subjects of Sanders photograph engage in a similarly quotidian act. Sander must have known that by depicting it he could excite visceral responses that might disrupt the civilising force his archival project exerted on Weimar society. It is as if this image were intended to lay down an ethical gauntlet to the structural logic of People of the Twentieth Century.
Sanders liberal values were discrete from the issue of how or whether his photographic encounter with the Indian circus worker was, in Levinass terms, face to face. Kristeva has argued that a discourse of crisis characterises cultures in which hybridisation and strengthening nationalism occur. For her, it is at the crossroads or joins between society and its strangers that men and women of the borderlands … rooted in no language or blood – like Sanders circus pair – pose an ethical and symbolic challenge to notions of authentic citizenship.39 While Kristevas thesis tends toward idealisation, privileging the marginal in all its guises, it brings the cultural tropes and the legal limits of strangeness together, which makes it useful in assessing how Sanders photograph stages the Weimar Republics difficulties with social heterogeneity.
The subjects of Sanders photograph can only be described as a pair, not a couple, because the image does not show conclusively what their relationship was, although both figures appear to be wearing wedding bands. The woman rests her hands on the table, on which the man plants his left elbow, his hand draped down. Both hold similar glass bottles and drink straight from them; this breach of another protective layer – bourgeois decorum – is at odds with the tablecloth and china. Sanders project was intended to elucidate, even fix social history simply by recording it. This photograph, which cannot fix or root its subjects, calls this mission into question. The pairs status as a married couple might be less in doubt were the scene to be transposed to the domestic interiors it recalls. But Sander frames the photograph to include a sag in the tent wall behind them, and a taut length of rope at the top, both of which attest to the temporary space they occupy. Similarly, the dry, scuffed-up ground beneath their feet indicates that it has been traversed over and over. Unlike domestic sites (which are conventionally sacrosanct and static), this is a rough meeting ground, a crossroads for multiple, incidental interactions. Sanders photograph might represent a chance meeting of colleagues, not a marital ritual. In this context – characterised by a lack of fixity – the man appears to be relieved of any cultural over-determinations beyond his facticity, and Levinass ethical challenge is met.
The mans posture is quietly proprietorial. His elbow rests on the table, his head inclines towards his companion and his crossed leg points in her direction. Yet she bears no signs of possession. She does not fit the popular typology of an Aryan blonde taken by a dark stranger as seen in Weimar films, for example Maria Among the Cannibals (1919), or in art, such as Frans Masereels black and white woodcut Jazz 1931 (Galerie Bodo Niemann, Berlin), in which leering black trumpeters impel a nude white woman into ecstatic movement.40 Instead the woman is ample, convivial, and sits square on to Sanders camera. Her freedom affords the man his, putting her whiteness and her German-ness in a novel relation to his darkness. She is his foil, his vessel, not vice versa. It might be problematic that he should require her presence to be seen in this way; indeed, it is something akin to being spoken for. However, it is she who, despite smiling, looks away from Sanders lens. This, for me, is the photographs punctum, the meaningful accident that Sander captured. His body points to hers, as if to show that he is not a contagious influence, but the viewer can only answer his gaze and the questions he poses to them, as Weimar citizens, about his status, and theirs.
Sander took another photograph of an Indian in Barums circus in which a similar punctum occurs. In it, an Indian man stands by his seated manager, wearing a turban and a salwar kameez. Both have their arms folded. But while the manager appears relaxed, the Indians chest is pushed out in an odd contrapposto pose. He awkwardly emulates his managers authoritative attitude, testifying to his subjugation in a pitiable way. However, according to Bhabha, by imitating his master, the colonial subject can potentially upset the bond of control between them.41 In this photograph, however, the source of this disturbance is not the Indians gesture, but his gaze: his German manager looks almost beyond the frame, but the Indian, a stranger, looks straight at Sanders lens. In this moment, Sander has captured a conventional power relationship not upended exactly, but clearly displaced. In an era haunted by the lost colonies that helped constitute Germanys modern sense of self, such displacements of an authoritative (German) gaze might have been particularly challenging. In meeting the viewers gaze, the Indian men in Circus Workers and Indian with Manager seem to pose a threat by asserting their own selves. Yet in the latter image the Indians identity is under-written by his uneasy, vulnerable mimicry. In addressing his strangeness, the viewer must negotiate the human complexities of his presence, not merely its phantasmic signs.
For Bhabha it was on the margins of metropolitan desire, in spaces like the circus, that the strangers dark skin was split into signs of bestiality (the clown and the brute). Indeed, the circus ring, featuring Nietzschean supermen and their primal, ape-like inverse, played out racially inflected dynamics of human exceptionalism and descent.42 While few career barriers existed for non-Caucasian circus performers, on stage their skin colour was often treated crudely, conflated, for example, with disability, as Christian Schads 1929 painting of circus colleagues Agosta the Pigeon-Chested Man and Rascha the Black Dove shows. But for Yvan Goll, the dark body merged physical power, or bodily exceptionalism, with the primeval. He wrote: They dance with their legs, breasts, and bellies … This is the dance of the Negroes … this is life, sun, primeval forests and the roar of a leopard, earth … They dance with their blood, with their life.43
It was as if only in perpetual displays of instinctive motion, as a temporal other, did the dark stranger speak to, and in, Weimar culture. But the Indian in Circus Workers is still. It is not the stillness of photographic arrest, commonly thought to be a condition of the medium. Nor is it the immobility that an archival impulse forces upon its subjects.44 This image makes its point by depicting the Indian in the ordinary physical stasis of rest. His body is as contained as it is proprietorial. With his limbs settled and his gaze planted, he refuses (or counters) the kinesis, both violent and vital, into which Weimar culture urged the dark body. There is pathos in the certitude with which the Indian takes up this position, since it is here, where saxophones and jungle drums do not play, that Sander provides an opportunity for a face-to-face encounter with Weimars stranger.
As has been argued, the dark stranger was a symbol of atavism and modernism in Weimar culture. In a Freudian sense, he embodied an aberration in the nations social psyche, its state of becoming, caught between pre-modern (Wilhelmine) and modern eras. Scholars Dana Seitler and Valerie Rohy have written that discourses of atavism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries framed the dark stranger (as an image and a person) as an anachronism that served to ratify, in the linear view of time, who was fit for modernity and who was not.45 While People of the Twentieth Century recalls the eugenic archives that supported such discourses, Sanders photographs themselves offer no such judgement. Circus Workers, for example, stands for the liminality of Weimar Germanys legal, rhetorical and temporal precincts. Like many other images in the opus, it exceeds the role Sander allocated for it, and makes a statement about its era, beyond the everyday event it records. Bhabha has stated that moments of presence which exceed notions of past and present or us and them can be found where everyday occurrences and historical narratives part company. In these moments, the stranger and society can address each other. Sanders photograph, in which the signs of legal and domestic relations are unstable, but in which the mans look is clear, still, and searching, pictures such a moment.
Writing in the 1950s, the philosopher Frantz Fanon stated that the colonised individual exists in a state of muscular tension that expresses itself only in sporadic moments of frenzied, violent physical outburst, including tribal dance.46 Extending this idea, cultural historian Harvey Young has written more recently that stillness, for the black body, can therefore be both a mode of reclamation and also resistance to fixed cultural identity.47 In Circus Workers the mans stillness oscillates between the two. His open poise (chest relaxed, limbs at rest) reclaims the dark body as a locus of personal, humane stasis from clichéd representations of performed movement. His face, however, resists; he is impassive, as if to smile would be to perform. Such lack of expression is not unusual in Sanders oeuvre; few subjects smile in People of the Twentieth Century. But the Indian man in Circus Workers is not just one reserved sitter among others. In contrast to his companions jovial expression, his face reveals the particular and deliberate effort he makes to look Weimar society in the eye in his physical and photographic stillness. This is the mans moment of presence, in which his vulnerability demands an ethical, face-to-face response from the viewer.
The man and woman relate as persons, and their relationship posits a moderate, more ethical, everyday discourse between society and its strangers. Sanders image, then, proposes the margins of metropolitan desire (the circus) as a space more demotic than that of Weimars body politic. But such border spaces tread a fine line between exclusion and emancipation. The mans stillness is symbolic only because it counters the frenetic movement that Weimar culture projected onto his body; as Young has remarked, the abstracted and imagined figure [of the moving stranger] shadows or doubles him.48 Indeed, as this analysis of the mans posture indicates, his stillness occasions scopic scrutiny of his body as much as if he were on stage, albeit scrutiny of a different kind.
The mans white companion, in a plain dress and hat, could pass for a subject in Weimar societys urban world, but the Indian man looks incongruous; his vest and braces, exposed in casual repose, jar with his tuxedo trousers. Incidentally, two usherettes in another of Sanders circus portraits wear the same trousers as part of their pseudo-military uniform.49 The image depicts various circus performers posed in front of a caravan. One of the usherettes, a woman, is on the far left, while a black man, seated on the opposite side, wears similar regalia. This detail proliferates across Sanders circus images, leaking into his portrait of the Indian. If, as Baker wrote, the doublings in People of the Twentieth Century undo its conservative order, this image arguably constrains its liberal (and liberating) elements. Whether the garb of an usher or a performer, the Indians clothing is a signifier of service that interferes with his moment of self-possession. Perhaps he performs, in the tent behind him, as the clown, the slave or the savage – none of which he is in Sanders photograph. This would bracket any face-to-face, ethical encounter with the Indian, in his stillness. The picture fails, finally, to exceed the symbolic kinesis that Weimar culture imposed on its dark strangers.
Cultural theorist Radhika Monhanram has written that the ethnic body resonates with meaning only when it is considered to be geographically or socially in or out of place.50 The idea that the Indians stasis is out of place among the Weimar Republics potent symbols for otherness arguably confirms this view. It would be naïve to see this photograph as a face-to-face ethical encounter powerful enough to break the social order that organises People of the Twentieth Century. Walter Benjamin claimed that Sanders work was an atlas of instruction for modernity, yet its lessons in life lived close with the stranger were only partially successful.51
The Indians face-to-face claim to his own identity is annexed in the non-space of the circus, where it cannot challenge the jus sanguinis laws that Weimar Germany sustained from its colonial past, laws that distinguished between the rights of a man and the rights of a citizen. Like Sanders portrait, this analysis must negotiate contradictions that coalesce, still, around the dark stranger. The difficulties of assigning him meaning are indicated by the fact that this man, like Kirchners black models Sam and Millie, has no stable signification, even now, in historical records. Such mutability is not incidental; it structures knowledge, and demands a perpetual reassessment of how skin, its colours, and its differences are spoken about. Viewing Sanders photograph of this man and his companion is to see a contemporary ethical problem historically framed. It requires not just art historical excavation, but self-excavation also. On both counts, now, as in Sanders time, nothing is as plain as black and white.
- 1. Paul Valéry, Some Simple Reflections on the Body, in Aesthetics, trans. by Ralph Mannheim, The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, vol.13, London 1964, pp.31–40.
- 2. For more images see http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=52601 and http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=52415, accessed 8 April 2013.
- 3. Sander Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Race, Sexuality and Madness, Ithaca 1985, p.109. See also Sander Gilman quoted in Claudia Bohn-Spector (ed.), August Sander: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2000, p.128.
- 4. See Susan Sontag, On Photography, London 2005, pp.47–8.
- 5. Marc Augé„ London 1995, p.22.
- 6. Homi K. Bhabha, Beyond Photography in Taryn Simon, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, New York 2011, p.19.
- 7. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, New York 1982.
- 8. Bhabha 2011, p.13.
- 9. Ibid., p.19.
- 10. See http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=52298, accessed 8 April 2013.
- 11. Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, Princeton 2009, p.210.
- 12. See Hal Foster, Primitive Scenes, Critical Inquiry, vol.20, no.1, Autumn 1993, pp.69–102.
- 13. In 1910 Kirchner took a photograph of Sam and Millie nude against these backdrops in his Dresden studio: Sam and Millie from Zirkus Schumann 1909–11 (Fotoarchiv Hans Bollinger/Ketterer, Galleria Henze). For a description of Sam and Millie as jazz dancers see Foster 1993, p.97. For a description of them as circus artistes see Norbert Wolf, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938): On the Edge of the Abyss of Time, Cologne 2003, p.8. Roland Scotti speculates that Kirchner probably encountered Sam and Millie at the Zirkus Schumann in Dresden; see Roland Scotti, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: The Photographic Work, London 2006, p.285. Glenn Jordan describes them as Black Americans in his article Flight From Modernity: Time, the Other, and the Discourse of Primitivism, Time Society, vol.4, no.3, 1995, p.288.
- 14. See for example Otto Dixs To Beauty 1922 (Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal) and Max Beckmanns Self-Portrait with Champagne Glass 1919 (private collection).
- 15. See Edward Said, Orientalism, Harmondsworth 2006, pp.102–3.
- 16. Bluford Adams, A Stupendous Mirror of Departed Empires: The Barnum Hippodromes and Circuses, 1874–91, American Literary History, vol.8, no.1, Spring 1996, pp.34–56. See also Janet Davis, Spectacles of South Asia at the American Circus, 1890–1940, American Literary History, vol.6, no.2, Spring 1993, pp.121–138.
- 17. See Monika Firla-Forkl, Der kameruner Artist Hermann Kessern: ein schwarzer Crailsheimer, Crailsheim 2010.
- 18. See Todd Kontje, German Orientalisms, Ann Arbor 2004, pp.61–118, and Kamakshi P. Murti, India: The Seductive and Seduced Other of German Orientalism,Westport 2001.
- 19. Walter Benjamin, A Short History of Photography, 1931, Screen, no.13, Spring 1972, p.22.
- 20. George Baker, Photography Between Narrativity and Stasis: August Sander, Degeneration and the Decay of the Portrait, October, no.76, Spring 1996, p.98. In his essay, Baker argues that the doublings in People of the Twentieth Century produce the Freudian affect of uncanny strangeness. For Freud, the uncanny was something that had been become frightening because it had been repressed. It represents both negative traits and utopian wishes which the ego is forced, in its encounter with society, to suppress. Doubles invoke the uncanny because they represent a return to a primitive state and a loss of unitary social space. Baker argues that what returns as an uncanny force in Sanders doublings is something modern society had already suppressed: the idea of a unified (bourgeois) self.
- 21. Baker 1996, p.98.
- 22. Gilman in Bohn-Spector 2000, p.128.
- 23. Baker, 1996, p.98.
- 24. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949, trans. by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovaney-Chevalier, London 2010.
- 25. Allan Sekula, The Body and the Archive, October, no.39, Winter 1986, p.7.
- 26. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 1927, trans. by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, Oxford 1967.
- 27. See Foster 1993, p.74.
- 28. See Sekula 1986, p.6.
- 29. Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. by L.S. Roudiez, London 1991, p.13.
- 30. Jus sanguinis is a principle of nationality law by which citizenship is determined not by place of birth (jus soli), but by having one or both parents as citizens of the nation. It was enshrined in the laws of the Wilhelmine empire in 1913, and persisted through theWeimar era into the Second World War and most of the post-war period.
- 31. Yvan Goll, Die Negern erobern Europa, Die literarische Welt, no.2, 15 January 1926, pp.3–4. For an English translation see Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg (eds.), The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, Berkeley 1994, pp.559–60.
- 32. Hans Harmsen, Der Einbruch der Farbigen Nach Europa, Archiv für Rassen- und Gesellschaftsbiologie, vol.19, 1927, pp.54–63.
- 33. See Bauman 1991, p.59.
- 34. Ibid., p.59.
- 35. Zygmunt Bauman, Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age, Cambridge 2011, p.58.
- 36. See Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. by Alphonso Lingis, Pittsburgh 1962. In conversation with philosopher Philippe Nemo, Levinas stated: The skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute … The face is meaning all by itself … it leads you beyond … The face speaks. It speaks, it is in this that it renders possible and begins all discourse; Emannuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. by Richard E. Cohen,Pittsburgh 1985, pp.86–9.
- 37. See Assenka Oskiloff, Picturing the Primitive: Visual Culture, Ethnography and Early German Cinema, New York 2001, p.10.
- 38. Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1993, p.174.
- 39. Julia Kristeva, Crisis of the European Subject, trans. by Susan Fairfield, New York 2000, p.168.
- 40. Frans Masereel produced a range of expressionist woodcuts dealing with urban themes. He returned often to nightclub life, depicting dancing couples and jazz performers.
- 41. See Homi K. Bhabha, Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse, October, no.28, Spring 1984, pp.125–33.
- 42. Helen Stoddart, Rings of Desire: Circus History and Representation, Manchester 2001, p.5.
- 43. Goll cited in Kaes, Jay and Dimendberg 1994, p.559.
- 44. See Sekula 1986.
- 45. See Dana Seitler, Atavistic Tendencies: The Culture of Science in American Modernity, Minneapolis 2008; and Valerie Rhoy, Anachronism and Its Others: Sexuality, Race, Temporality, Albany 2009.
- 46. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, New York 1963, p.54.
- 47. Harvey Young, Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body, Ann Arbor 2010.
- 48. Young 2010, p.7.
- 49. August Sander, Circus People 1930, http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=52601, accessed 8 April 2013.
- 50. Radhika Monhanram, The Black Body: Women, Colonialism and Space, Minneapolis 1999, p.52
- 51. Benjamin 1931.
Articles relating to August Sander have been brought together in issue 19 of Tate Papers by Christian Weikop, who co-organised the symposium ‘August Sander and Weimar Germany’, held at the National Galleries of Scotland on 13 May 2011 during the ARTIST ROOMS exhibition August Sander at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The editorial team is grateful to Dr Weikop for his co-ordination of these articles, which contribute to the programme of the ARTIST ROOMS Research Partnership, a collaboration between Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland with the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle.
Katherine Tubb is an early career researcher at the University of Glasgow.
Tate Papers Spring 2013 © Katherine Tubb