Germany, perhaps more than other countries, has its dream destinations far away. Since the late 19th century, photography has brought these countries closer. When the photo book “Hellas” by the photographer Herbert List was published in 1953, Greece was still outside of everyday travel possibilities. Perhaps that is why a few of List’s images stuck in their minds and have become codes for Greece: the silhouette of the stretched-out lion from archaic times, the single caryatid from the Athenian Acropolis, the goldfish bowl on the island of Santorini, and, perhaps most powerfully, the decanter of wine glasses , in which the sun’s rays are refracted, while a temple ruin can be made out of focus in the background.
This photograph from 1952 is entitled “Tavern under the Temple of Poseidon, Sounion”, the youngest of the Greece pictures; the others were written 16 years earlier, under completely different conditions. Herbert List, born in Hamburg in 1903, was a self-taught photographer and had a lot of luck in his life; the good fortune, for example, to have pursued photography with official commissions in the midst of the Nazi state, despite having a Jewish grandparent and hardly concealing homosexuality. In 1942 he visited Arno Breker in his Berlin studio, in 1943 he photographed Kyiv, which had been destroyed by the Wehrmacht. List was not drafted until mid-1944, but managed to get away in quiet Norway without having to go to the front.
The Nazi period remains a vague shadow over Herbert List’s life and work, while the fruits of two long stays in Greece in 1937 and 1938 mark the high point of his work. And List was able to give this dream adequate photographic expression. The images mentioned stuck in the memory because they gave shape to the collective dream of Greece, as images of a reality that coincided with their dream image.
A retrospective with 243 photographs is now on view at the Bucerius Kunstforum in Hamburg, presenting all facets of his life’s work. It turns out that List cannot be assigned to any particular photographic trend of the 20th century. List took inspiration from personal acquaintances, early on with Andreas Feininger and later with George Hoyningen-Huene, and through stays in Paris and London.
But although he earned his living as a professional photographer during the Nazi era – he had given up his parents’ coffee business after years spent carefree in the Weimar Republic – he apparently made no effort to adapt to clients. He carried the plan for the Greece book with him for years, and it wasn’t published until 1953. By this time, List had already opened up a new field of activity and, more importantly, a new photographic perspective in the form of reports, of human-touch stories, particularly from Italy, Rome or Naples (the exhibition at the Bucerius Kunstforum in Hamburg will run until the September 11. Hirmer catalogue, €29.90. www.buceriuskunstforum.de).
Before he started reporting, he worked slowly and with great patience, waiting for the moment when the sun was at the right angle to the water’s surface or broke in the glass. He also experimented with stagings in which he approached surrealism; with crossfades and enigmatic inventory such as the articulated puppets prized by fellow painters.
But these images try hard to do what he effortlessly succeeded in observing reality, namely to uncover the potential for dream and irritation that is already contained in things. The Hamburg exhibition is aptly titled “The Magic Eye”. List later portrayed artists, including those with whom he felt a special connection, such as Giorgio de Chirico and the metaphysician Giorgio Morandi.
In the mid-1960s he photographed the cultural elite of the GDR in an unheroic manner. List worked in black and white throughout his life, only daring to use color as an experiment. In the shades of gray and in the contrasts of List’s black-and-white photos, everything that makes a statement can be seen and more than color would do in these compositions.
Portraits and male nude studies make up a good part of the oeuvre. “The images of the young men and the fragments of antiquity,” says the excellent catalogue, “are endowed with a potential for longing that refers to the ideal of a society in which homosexuality is accepted.” One could say that List anticipated this ideal. This is one of the reasons why ancient Greece became a lost paradise for him. He has given it timeless expression as a country of longing. In the last years of his life – he died in 1975 – List gave up photography. He had said everything.