Archaeologies of the Standpoint
Noa Turel ’s presentation:
Ghosts and Demons
These are the words of the Munich expressionist Franz Marc, about his 1913 tormented apocalyptic vision, The Fate of the Animals. Marc, along with many stars of the European avant-garde of his time, was supportive of the Great War of 1914, a war which he did not survive. In my previous talk I excavated a phenomenon in a group of photographs from the Macmillan Committee collection at the Conway Library, and discussed it in the context of propaganda and moral ambiguities. Today I will expand the imagery scope to present some wider – and still very open ended – questions, about documenting destruction and its place in twentieth-century visual culture.
These two 1943 photographs of the bomb-torn interior of the Messina Cathedral, taken by a local, Italian photographer were my point of departure in this Conway excavation. They are strong, unusual and compelling photographs. They are not records taken by outsiders, such as the destruction snapshots of the British and American officers of the Macmillan and Roberts commissions; their mounts expose them as former fuel in Mussolini’s propaganda machine. Representatives of the Macmillan and Roberts commissions in the ‘liberating’ allied forces appropriated these Italian negatives and mounts thus reversing the images’ political implications.
That in the context of this highly charged subject-matter and this focused propaganda pretext, a photograph emerges, that before being a useful record, a propaganda vehicle or whatnot is essentially a flat surface covered with patterns assembled in a certain beautiful order, is surprising, and indeed unusual.
Rome, San Lorenzo Basilica, WWII damage
Most photos of destruction, from these collections and others, are not pretty, but rather straightforward and functional. Those which are, tend towards kitschy dramatization. These pretty pictures provoke thoughts about the purpose and essence of this documentation effort. What do you photograph when photographing a damaged monument? Do you photograph damage? Do you still photograph a monument? Which part? To what avail?
Surveying photos of destruction in general, like these of San Lorenzo in Rome before and after World War II damage, we can discern the most straightforward approach, one that I label Ghost imagery. The photographer assumes the standard viewpoint to capture an image that always operates against another image. He or she replicates the ‘healthy’ image extant either physically or mentally by the prospective spectator.
Still, there is an ever so subtle standpoint difference: the standpoints in these “after” photographs usually seem closer. There is a forensic feel to them, and unlike the Messina photos, their aesthetic dimension, much as a Baroque autopsy theatre, is usually the fascination of the abject.
France, Carentan Cathedral
Then there is indeed the clinical approach. Record not of consequences but of the recovery processes, a visual taxonomy of fragments, and here there is an affinity with a more established practice of recording damaged monuments, namely archaeology. We realize that the people undertaking these war-damage recording missions needed these visual cues. A young, developing, medium had to contend with very unusual subject-matter. These photographers both in the First and the Second World War had to conceptualize and execute at the very same time – they had to invent a new visual language.
Jan Gossart, drawing of the Coliseum in Rome
To that effect, it is indeed useful to compare their work with the older and more established archaeological visual language. Images of the Coliseum, like Gossaert’s drawing, demonstrate a crucial difference between the pre- and post-photography era. In drawings and prints, occupying both the hallmark standpoint and other ones, care is taken to preserve the iconic, recognizable nature of the edifice; these are images that could circulate caption free. Photography opens other possibilities.
Florence Palazzo Acciaiuoli, March 1945
France, Baccarat, WWII damage
There were of course, on the continent and in Italy specifically, other new languages in the making in the first half of the twentieth century. And I wonder whether these other languages were in some way informing some of the choices these photographers made. Unlike the drawings and prints of pre-ruined monuments in the pre-photography era, here the cohesion, the iconic, recognizable nature of these edifices is absent from the photos. These are photos of damage, not of a monument; they only function as records with a label.
Robert Delaunay, Eiffel Tower with Trees, 1910, New York, Guggenheim
Olga Rozanova, City on Fire, 1914, Smara, Art Museum
I wonder how embodiments of conceptual iconoclasm fed into depictions of actual vandalism. How the de-construction of cityscapes and monuments resonated with the destruction of cityscapes and monuments, and its immediate visual aftermath.
View of Caen, Macmillan Commission photo (?)
The aesthetic parallels of these war-damage photographs and the realities they captured certainly played a central role in the long-term aftermath, with visual and material chaos turning into the language of the postwar artistic generation, and debris assuming center stage with the post-minimalists and Arte Povera. Ironically, the vision of Franz Marc, who in 1914 argued the war ‘was...just the kind of event that was needed for sweeping the dirt and decay away to give us the future today’, did materialize after the war – his apocalyptic pictorial formulations did portend horrific realities which then shaped art very much along his expressionist lines.
Naples, San Giovanni a Carbonara
Is there a concrete connection here? A latent dissent in the work of these anonymous Italian photographers, whose reaction to the damage must have been far more complex than that of the visiting American and British soldiers – perhaps even ambivalence. They photographed beauty more than they documented calamities, and as Susan Sontang noted, the two values are indeed conflicting: ‘The less polished pictures are... welcomed as possessing a special kind of authenticity.’ Indeed war photography is one of the rare genres where even the lay audience tends to contemplate the circumstances of the image-making – to scrutinize the photographer and question his standpoint.
If there is an element of dissent in the Messina Cathedral photographs, is it the naiveté of the pre-World War One generation, of Marc and Marinetti? Was there, in 1943 Italy someone who still regarded war as the world’s only hygiene? Or is this just a product of European visual culture between the wars, in which other beauty was sought in the wreckage of Old Europe, or to paraphrase again Marinetti’s words from the 1909 Futurist Manifesto, an era in which no one wished to waste all their best powers in the eternal and futile worship of the past.
© Noa Turel 2006
 ‘Do you, then, wish to waste all your best powers in this eternal and futile worship of the past, from which you emerge fatally exhausted, shrunken, beaten down?’, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909. reprinted in Marinetti: Selected Writings, ed. R. W. Flint, London 1972, p. 44.