Review | Melancholia – A Sebald Variation at Somerset House

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Descend the vertiginous spiral staircase to the Inigo Rooms of Somerset House in London between September 21st and December 10th 2017, and you will encounter ‘Melancholia – A Sebald Variation’, a fascinating exhibition in almost complete monochrome curated by writer and art historian John-Paul Stonard and the author Lara Fiegel. On entry you will be handed a little blue hand-stitched catalogue to the exhibition bearing on its cover a single black and white image by the forgotten (at least here) German photographer Hermann Claasen (1889-1987), entitled ‘Düren, Innenstadt, 1946’. This understated booklet leads you through the exhibits that sparingly fill the five or six small rooms of the basement. All draw on the striking images of those moonscape ruins of post war Germany, the ‘Year Zero’ of 1945, when the rubble women formed up their long lines and ceremoniously passed each brick hand by hand to initiate the massive German reconstruction.

But this exhibition is not about rebuilding it is about destruction or rather, WG Sebald’s eponymous work On the Natural History of Destruction (1999) and the way melancholy alluringly affixes to these tragic scenes, which once having leaked away the reality of their human suffering, become artistically aligned images whose visual message creates a space for new creativity. The obvious starting point is Albrecht Dürer’s allegorical engraving Melencolia I (1514) which sets the tone for the exhibition as a single work framed in a room of its own, completely shrouded in floor-to-ceiling grey curtains. Sebald himself has written on the Dürer engraving, and the famous arrangement of the crestfallen ‘winged genius’ surrounded by the kit of mankind’s progressive rational tool box points forward irresistibly to the weaponised technological maelstrom of the twentieth century and its darkest summit, the Second World War.

With Sebald as a kind of spiritual ringmaster, contributing performers come from a range of contemporary artistic backgrounds and mediums from across Europe. They are Tacita Deane, Susan Hillier, Dexter Dalwood, Guido Van der Werve, George Shaw, Jeremy Wood and Anselm Kiefer. A modest collection of Sebald’s mysterious photographic material is also under glass here, drawn from the Marbach archive. Sebald famously experimented with the insertion of photographic images within text, a trend which has now since caught on. But Sebald’s use of images was highly original, eccentric and complex, a means of suggestion rather than straight depiction, as if he followed the edicts of symbolism with a cheeky nod to surrealism. Sebald’s ‘taking to task’ of those post-war German writers who had repressed the memories of the bombing, lead to a re-evaluation of the so-called ‘Trümmerliteratur’ (Rubble literature) and hence further responses in the visual arts.

Wilhelm Rudolf (1889-1982) in particular was responsible for a remarkable series of drawings of the ruins of Dresden, ‘Das zerstörte Dresden’. The two works included here are both powerful, harrowing in fact, despite their classical technique which tends away from the more overt tension wrought in the disjointed jaggedness of Expressionist-style drawings. One shows stricken figures lying in or by the Mozart fountain in Dresden. As we know from accounts of the tragedy, people had gone there in desperation to immerse themselves in whatever water was left during the firestorms. In the next room Hermann Claasen’s photographs of a devastated Cologne published as ‘Gesang in Feuerhofen’ in 1946 endorse Rudolf’s withering visual statement. The endless rubble piles and shattered remains of once impressive edifices, reminding one of images of Ypres from 1915, stand out all the more starkly through the highly effective contrasts of black and white, giving a sense of an exacerbated perspective. In ‘Christus König vor der Kirche Maria in Kupfergasse’ a giant effigy of Christ is seen embalmed in a heap of rubble high as a house, like a human survivor of a wreck adrift in the ocean, with only the haloed head visible and the outstretched arms. A leaning blackened fang of masonry looms menacingly over the resisting figure. Another image ‘Fronleichnamsprozession’ 1946, is even more impressive. It shows a procession of nuns at the feast of Corpus Christie passing through the ruins of Cologne. If any one picture in this exhibition should symbolise its overriding theme, it must surely be this one. Here the seemingly interminable procession of religious orders move like a black river through the alien wastelands on either side. They look ahead and continue their advance as if what is around them has simply been accepted. The sense of absurdity is striking given the incredible evidence of destruction in the background, the stasis of the obliterated environment set against the undeterred movement of the people. Even here in this crucible of absolute destruction, Claasen seems to suggest, the human will cannot be stopped but is only rerouted around the rubble.

One of the most moving exhibits, drawn upon by Sebald in his writings, is a historic recording of the crew of a Lancaster Bomber chatting amongst each other during a raid on Berlin. The sense of men totally divorced from the destruction they are reaping is all too clearly relayed. ‘What a wizard prang!’, ‘Look at that, my, a really good show!’ the crew members cry enthusiastically as they gaze down at the flaming hell below them their massed incendiaries had created. These men are naturally concerned with their own survival and nervously check on each other’s welfare and that of other planes in their formation; their reserves of sympathy however can only stretch to their own tribe.

Anselm Kiefer’s works are replete with historical references and no more so than in the domain of German history. In the eighties he began making huge sculptures of fighter planes made out of lead sheets, some of which fittingly came from the roof of Cologne cathedral. Here a wall has been devoted to photographic images of these plane sculptures, works that have never been exhibited before. The glazed polyhedra placed on one of them is a direct reference to Dürer’s Melencolia I, suggesting the problems facing the creative artist in the aftermath of a German-inspired Holocaust underpinned by science.

Of the remaining exhibits special mention should be made of Tacita Dean’s Our Europe and I had a Father, a series of new works on slate specially commissioned for the exhibition and dynamic Dutchman Guido van der Werve’s award-winning endurance-art film project Nummer Vierteen: Home, 2012, a highly personal and searching absurdist work that uncompromisingly explores themes of exile, place and history.

In the final room a video installation shows the legendary interview of WG Sebald by Susan Sonntag on 15th October 2001, only a couple of months before the author was killed in a road accident in Norfolk, though oddly the catalogue states ‘Suffolk’. In this interview Sebald reads a section from his then new novel Austerlitz and goes on to provide valuable insights into his use of photographs. Sebald who eschewed public appearances, ceremonies, interviews and the spiritually inhibiting paraphernalia of literary fame, left behind but a handful of such filmed interviews, making them all the more valuable. I could not help wondering as I left Somerset House what Sebald then would have made of such an exhibition and I surmised that had he not been central to it, he would surely have relished it all the more. But that was the measure of the man, his modesty was a given. For the rest of us this exhibition constitutes a rare gift which we should accept gladly from these able curators and in the hour or so spent receiving it and beyond, set out to explore its myriad intellectual tributaries.

by Will Stone


Melancholia – A Sebald Variation
Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, London September 21st – December 10th 2017.