Featured in
Issue 215

Annette Kelm’s Photographs of Banned Books

At Museum Frieder Bruda’s Salon Berlin, the artist reflects on book burning during the Nazi regime

BY Kito Nedo in Books , EU Reviews , Reviews | 29 SEP 20

The book burning of May 1933 was a campaign orchestrated across many cities in Germany and Austria. Books by Jewish, Marxist and pacifist writers – including Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Else Lasker-Schüler, Klaus and Thomas Mann, Karl Marx and Kurt Tucholsky – were removed from bookshops and libraries and thrown onto bonfires after the Nazis had vilified them as ‘un-German’. At Museum Frieder Burda’s gallery in Berlin, photographer Annette Kelm’s exhibition ‘Die Bücher’ (The Books) stresses the literary and intellectual loss brought about by this brutal event in history. Like an archaeologist, Kelm scoured bookshelves of public and private collections to track down historical editions of proscribed works that survived the storm of fascist destruction.

Annette Kelm, 'Die Bücher', 2020, installation view, Museum Frieder Burda Salon Berlin, 2020. Courtesy: the artist and KÖNIG Berlin/London/Tokyo; photograph: Thomas Bruns


The exhibition presents a selection of 50 photographs of these book covers that Kelm took in 2019 and 2020. The series includes a picture of Tucholsky’s Lerne lachen ohne zu weinen (Learn to Laugh without Crying) published in 1931, the last book he was able to release officially in Germany. The cover image shows a crying baby seated in a tin can, the dust jacket bearing clear signs of use. Elsewhere, the cover of Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, designed by Georg Salter, comprises a handwritten plot summary blended with drawings of key scenes.

Annette Kelm, Kurt Tucholsky, Lerne lachen ohne zu weinen, 1931, Ernst Rowohlt Verlag, Berlin, Fotografie: Wellington Film Manufacture, from the series 'Die Bücher', 2019/2020, archival pigment print. Courtesy: the artist and KÖNIG Berlin/London/Tokyo

The official book burning memorial at Berlin’s Bebelplatz, Michael Ullman’s underground installation of empty shelves (The Empty Library, 1995), recalls the immediate literary loss during the Nazi regime by exhibiting vacantness. Kelm’s approach is different, but no less conceptual. ‘The Books’ reflects on photography as a medium of memory and reproduction, but also presents innovative book designs from the 1920s and early 1930s, for which artists were often commissioned. Kelm subtly combines the history of the Nazi book burning with different narratives, showing that not everything was lost in the fire.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Annette Kelm, 'Die Bücher' runs at at Museum Frieder Bruda Salon Berlin until 24 October 2020.

Main image: Annette Kelm, Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Die Geschichte vom Franz Biberkopf, 1931, S. Fischer Verlag, Berlin, Einbandgestaltung Georg Salter, from the series 'Die Bücher', 2019/2020, archival pigment print. Courtesy: the artist and KÖNIG Berlin/London/Tokyo

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.