Life among the ruins

Life among the ruins

Poignant moments of love and loneliness in postwar Europe

Three decades before Robert Mapplethorpe became infamous for his explicit homoerotic photographs, the German photographer Herbert Tobias (1924-82), an artist who was openly gay when it was far less accepted – homosexuality was still a crime, in fact, in postwar Germany – was making erotically charged photographs of young men. It’s not the usual sense of the term in art circles, but in this regard Tobias’ work was certainly in the vanguard.

A Tobias retrospective has been drawing an unexpectedly large number of viewers at Galerie Rudolfinum. The exhibition was curated by Ulrich Dömrose of the Berlin Gallery State Museum for Modern Art, Photography and Architecture, where the show originated and which owns the artistic estate of Tobias, and is the first comprehensive presentation of his work.

Although his photographs of men and his work in fashion is what Tobias is most associated with, he made strong images in a variety of genres, from high fashion and portraits to dramatic staged tableaux and street photography. Rather than presenting his body of work chronologically, or even thematically, the exhibition has it grouped by moods, such as “Gazes,” “Dramatic scenarios” and “Loneliness, Lostness.” The latter is the predominant mood, and much of his work is steeped in it.

Born in Dessau, Tobias trained as a land surveyor before he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht at the age of 19 and sent to the Eastern front in Russia, where his earliest photographs in this show were made. Despite not having formal art training, he had been taking photos from an early age, and his wartime photos exhibit a sensitivity that goes well beyond straight documentation. Dirt, Lice, Exhaustion looks almost like a still life focusing on the legs and boots of two soldiers in stacked bunks.

After the war, Tobias came out and moved with his American lover to Paris, since living as an openly gay man in conservative postwar Germany was difficult. His talent was recognized by the Paris fashion world, and he developed a successful career as a photographer there, producing fashion shots for Vogue. During his years in Paris (1951-54) he also produced personal work that included pictures of his lover and himself along with other portraits, often exaggeratedly expressive to the point of theatricality.

When Tobias returned to Germany, he worked in Berlin’s thriving fashion world and continued his personal projects, focusing on life amid the rubble of postwar Berlin. One of his fashion shots from this period, titled ? And New Life Emerges From the Ruins, presents the stark contrast of a model in a white evening gown and long velvet cape posing elegantly on caved-in stone steps leading to a crumbling building. He also photographed a dancer in front of the destroyed Reichstag in 1954, looking as if she were performing on just any normal stage set.

Some of his strongest images from this time were taken on the streets of the heavily damaged city, showing children playing amid the ruins, or old men selling flowers from a makeshift shack where a building once stood.

While in Berlin he photographed the young model Christa Päffgen, who later became famous as Nico (Tobias gave her the name, which she adopted). In a striking 1956 photo, she is shown wearing a floral cocktail dress and matching gloves, serenely holding an orange in her hands with a haphazardly arranged fruit still life in the foreground.

In addition to the melancholy and solitude that suffuse many of his images – perhaps best exemplified by a self-portrait from 1952, in which he moodily looks out from a rain-spattered window – Tobias’ admiration of the male form threads through his body of work. In an untitled photo made in Paris in 1952, a teenage boy gazes up in reverie while he in turn attracts the “gazes” of male faces carved into a fountain. There are a number of more explicit male nudes, along with personal photos. Offering a counter-balance to his many melancholy-suffused photos, the latter capture moments of happiness, such as Toi et Moi, Paris from 1952 of Tobias and his partner.

The majority of photos in this show are from the 1950s and ’60s, when Tobias was at the height of his creativity. Toward the end of the show, viewers are catapulted forward to 1979 with a photo showing a gay pride parade in New York City. Tobias died in 1982 at the age of 57, one of the early victims of the AIDS crisis.

The photographer’s homoerotic photographs were highly courageous when he made them and decades ahead of their time in terms of what can be exhibited in a major art gallery. Certain images in the show may not be for everyone (parents might think twice about taking younger kids), but his entire body of work is certainly worth a visit. Tobias, along with other pioneers in portraying same-sex eroticism such as Herbert List, helped pave the way for artists like Mapplethorpe – and, more importantly, pushed back boundaries in the art world and in society.

Herbert Tobias
at Galerie Rudolfinum Ends March 28 Alšovo nábř. 12, Prague 1-Old Town. Open Tues.-sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Thurs. until 8 p.m.

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