Published: November 12, 2002
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. – The San Francisco of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present “August Sander: People of the 20th Century” from November 29 through February 23, 2003. The exhibition comprises more than 200 vintage prints drawn from the photographer’s monumental portrait of German society, made for the most part between the two world wars.
The project has never been publicly displayed in its entirety in the United States. The works on view are culled from the archives of the Photographische Sammlung of SK/Stiftung Kultur, Cologne, and supplemented by selected photographs on loan from international institutions and private collectors.
Accompanying the exhibition is a newly revised seven-volume trilingual (German, English and French) monograph containing all 619 works in the portfolio, as well as Sander’s own annotations on the photographs and negatives, many categorized and evaluated for the first time.
August Sander (1876-1964) is widely hailed as an avatar of modern photography. Sander created a record of the world and time in which he lived by making direct, descriptive posed portraits of ordinary people from a broad cross section of German society – the farmer, businessman, bricklayer, painter, secretary, philosopher, dock worker, blacksmith and coal carrier, for instance – where individuals stood for and were grouped according to categorical occupational, social or familial types. He then collected the photographs into some 45 portfolios, which were finally assigned to seven archetypal categories. “The Farmer,” “The Skilled Tradesman,” “The Woman,” “Classes and Professions,” “The Artists,” and “The City.” The final category, “The Last People,” included the elderly as well as those with birth defects, disabilities, and mental disorders. Taken together, these images capture a detailed view of pre-World War II Germany and reflect Sander’s optimistic view of the prevailing social order.
The first section of the exhibition, “The Farmer,” demonstrates Sander’s familiarity with the rural environment of his youth, as well as his view of the farmer as the basic archetype of society. The first section also includes a portfolio of 12 pictures that Sander created as a prologue to the total project. These images depict a broad cross section of social types as they relate to inner character: the man of the soil, the revolutionary, the philosopher and the sage. A second section, “The Skilled Tradesman,” includes images of members of the trade as they were understood in Sander’s age – the bricklayer, the locksmith, the shoemaker, the tailor, the potter and the pastry cook – as well as images of industrialists, technicians and inventors. In the third section, “The Woman,” women appear largely defined in relationship to other people in pictures with titles such as “Wholesale Merchant and Wife,” “The Innkeeper and His Wife” and “Middle-Class Couple.”
In the fourth section, “Classes and Professions,” Sander creates a complex image of society: the subsection “The Clergyman” includes both Roman Catholics and Protestants; “The Teacher and Educator” shows teachers from cities and villages; “The Businessman” ranges from match seller to publisher to art dealer. Sander’s comprehensive view of society is most apparent in his inclusion of people whose professional activity might be considered marginal, such as the hypnotist in the portfolio “The Doctor and the Pharmacist.” Also on view are portraits of politicians of multiple political persuasions. However, all Sander’s portraits are made in the same spirit of scientific objectivity and neutrality, including a series of national socialists, Jews, and soldiers of both world wars.
The cultural spectrum of “The Artists” ranges from world-class conductor to café musician, from film actor to touring player. The images in “The City” depict the life of urban dwellers on festive and solemn occasions; people living on the fringes of urban society, such as circus artists, gypsies, transients and city youth. The section also includes images of persecuted Jewish citizens, foreign workers and political prisoners. Sanders devotes the final section, “The Last People,” to people on society’s outermost perimeters: the sick, the old and frail, and people born with physical or mental disabilities. On view in this section is an image of the death mask of his son Erich, who died as a political prisoner.
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