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Issue 31 November-December 1996 RSS

Liberté et Dictature

Hôtel de Sully, Paris, France

A small, doe-eyed blond boy stands at attention. He has the gentle, round face and creamy skin of a cherub. His expression is solemn, his little body tense with watchfulness. He raises a chubby hand, though not to catch a soccer ball or to ask politely about his homework. Rather, he is outfitted in a severe SS uniform, a swastika slapped on his elbow, a cap perched on his head and gleaming black boots on his feet. His gesture is the Nazi salute.

In this exquisitely controlled photograph, the boy is dead-centre, isolated by a rope from a group of German soldiers behind him. A rigorous geometry dominates the picture: the composition stresses vertical lines echoing the boy’s movement. The black and white contrast between the boy, the soldiers and the flags flapping in the background against the sky and muddy ground, constitutes a cross evenly dividing up the photo.

Instead of evoking a sense of calm, this rigid sense of order seems perverse; its austerity is disturbing and its near-perfect symmetry unnatural, sordid. This child might be the alter ego of Oskar in The Tin Drum (1959), the twisted dwarf who, as a toddler, willed himself to stop growing. But while as grotesque and absurd as Grass’ novel, the situation is not distorted - it’s brutally realistic. The image of this uniformed child, by Heinrich Hoffman, who was designated Hitler’s official photographer in 1931 (it was Hoffmann who introduced Hitler to Eva Braun), is one of the most moving and offensive in ‘Liberté et Dictature’. Gathering together 170 photographs from Mussolini’s rise to the downfall of the Third Reich, the exhibition bears witness to a flood of this century’s fascist atrocities and the devastation war leaves behind.

‘Liberté et Dictature’ came to Paris from the Antonio Mazzotta Foundation in Milan. While somewhat smaller than the original, this version has not lost either its diversity or its punch. Juxtaposing the work of professional photojournalists such as Eugene W. Smith, Robert Capa and Werner Bischof with clandestine images snapped by Soviet soldiers, the show reveals just how subjective the medium of photography can be.

The Dadaist John Heartfield viciously attacks the Nazi regime in several photomontages, one depicting Goering as an apron-clad butcher, splattered with blood and wielding an enormous hatchet. Recruited in the 30s to record the dynamism of Russian athletes, Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko offers up mechanical-looking compositions of parades and human pyramids. Equally surprising in this context, Cecil Beaton is represented by sober portraits of air-raid victims in London hospitals.

The cruellest, most violent images come from Margaret Bourke-White, William Vandivert and John Florea, the first photographer with access to the extermination camps: heaps of scorched cadavers; a decaying human head, its mouth opened wide in interrupted agony; a prisoner shovelling dirt into an corpse-lined grave; nude women clutching babies, huddling together as they head toward the Treblinka gas chamber.

But the pictures that seem ambiguous are the most unsettling. Adolfo Porry Pastorel’s photographs lauding the Italian Fascist regime, including many shots of Mussolini himself, have an added sense of irony. August Sander’s archetypal portraits of German soldiers, cooks and farmers, their expressions blank and emotionless, inhibit any sense of human connection.

These more controversial photos inspire less rage or sorrow than wonder, as they unconsciously express our inability to grapple with the inner workings of conflict and persecution, and our refusal to admit the crucial part they still play in our lives. These photographs encourage a fuller understanding of history and propel us into memory; refusing to let us deny the past. Maybe that’s why Hoffmann’s photo of the isolated boy is so disorienting. This child, both innocent and evil, is growing old before our eyes. He’s a metaphor for the here and now, whether in Bosnia, where the atrocities persist, or in France, where figures such as Abbé Pierre can openly support an anti-Semitic re-reading of the Holocaust.

The closing section of ‘Liberté et Dictature’ offers some glorious images of victory. An especially radiant picture, dating from 1945, depicts a glamorous blonde starlet on a Parisian balcony, her arms outstretched with joy upon hearing that peace has been declared. But in the context of the exhibition, it’s a fragile triumph - the blond kid is still there, and his arm is still up in the air.

Laurie Attias

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Issue 31 cover

First published in
Issue 31, November-December 1996

by Laurie Attias

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