Monday, 29 January 2018

The Blind Musician and the Voyeurs 5

Escher: Bank Manager at the Public Baths, 1938

I want briefly to look at two more Escher images before passing on. This is the famous Bank Manager at the Public Baths of 1938.

Neither seal nor merman, this corpulent figure is, nevertheless, something other than a portrait. He is a stereotype but so perfectly pitched that he transcends stereotype. He is not merely a concrete example of a lay figure, one likely to have found his way into one or other concentration camp where he might have been exterminated some four years after the photograph was taken but, as with the young soldier, he is also a symbol at a deeper level. Of what, I am not sure. Not merely mortality. Symbols are not easily definable, but it seems clear that, at some level beyond the vulnerability associated with mortality, he symbolises money and its offices,  a mixture of power and vulnerability. His arms are stretched out either side of him as in a crucifixion but he looks out at us, confronting us directly, even pulling a face for us, with an expression that is part comical, part contemptuous. His face, body and position arouse feelings in us that lie close to the root of who we are and what we are. I last saw his image on the Gents door of the Budapest restaurant that used to be the bank of which our floating banker was manager. Like the Dude in the film, The Big Lebowski, the image of the banker abides.

And lastly this image of a blind musician in 1944, the year the Germans marched into Hungary and the year the Holocaust deportations began in earnest.

Károly Escher: Blind Musician, 1944

That information is not in the photograph of course. Information of that sort rarely is nor would I want to pile too much baggage on the poor musician’s back but his wide open mouth seems to be bellowing something we almost hear. The angle at which he is shot, and the framing, destabilise him as much as they do the viewer who is effectively tipped sideways into his world. Once again, as in all great photographs, the photographer has seen or sensed a field beyond the subject. He too has been tipped over. We are not sure whether to call this a portrait or a social document. It is much more than either.

I would like this photograph to act as a bridge to another photographer, possibly the greatest of Hungarian photographers, in fact more than that, possibly the greatest photographer of all, André Kertész.

[to be continued]

Friday, 26 January 2018

The Blind Musician and the Voyeurs 4

Let us look at more of Escher’s work. Here is Soldier Entering the Re-Annexed Territories (1940). The soldier is probably marching into Transylvania just as my mother is considering leaving it. The caption in The Hungarian Connection catalogue called it Soldier Going to the Front and dated it 1947 which clearly cannot have been the date of the photograph since there was no ‘front’ in 1947. War was over. In any case, the photograph was the subject of a poem in my 1988 book, Metro, so is likely to have been based on the exhibition or the catalogue. Here is the poem:

A Soldier
(after Károly Escher)

A young man with two flowers in his cap
Has turned away across the platform
To move towards two women wearing headscarves.
He is the country I am leaving.

He is beautiful, a beast decked and garlanded,
He stands gently and placidly, tall, slim,
Melancholy, prepared for sacrifice,
A peasant soldier, simple as they come.

Death has half closed his eyes
Ready to devour him at a blinking.
Behind his head the blur of a wagon pulling out.
He seizes one of the women, embraces her,

Presses himself against her.
As we depart I am tempted to shout
To attract his attention. I can only guess
The occasion of his death, his tenderness.

I must have believed the caption regarding his preparedness for the front and discounted the date as an aberration because I saw in him a sacrificial beast prepared to fight, from my point of view, on the wrong side – in other words supporting the Nazis – yet somehow as a symbol of something innocent and tender. The two women with the headscarves are behind him and nobody is embracing. The embrace has either happened or will happen. I think it was some quality of the photograph that caught my attention and produced the embrace, something rooted in the specific moment (though not the specific moment I had thought) but extended beyond into a symbolic field I could only sense not describe. The poem had been launched into that field by the photograph. Had I known that the young soldier was not heading into battle but towards the repossession of historical territories it would probably have meant something else, something more complex, rousing other feelings and thoughts.

The photograph is a document yet so much more. Much of Escher’s early work between the wars was in fact documentary, recording poverty of the Thirties for example as in his Evicted Tenants (1934)

Escher: Evicted Tenants (1934)

and Slumhouse in the Suburbs (1932). 

Escher: Slumhouse in the Suburbs (1932)

The subject in these photographs is so powerful the symbolic level is pressed a long way back. Such photographs are very valuable as works of sociology, registering a phenomenon. They are part of a job recording something that needs to be recorded with an eye to the most powerful image. They are, in that respect, not without a symbolic aspect but the condition of the subjects reminds us that they are suffering specific conditions at a specific time.  They are a social cause that should be addressed. But there is more. There is always more.

How much more there is and what that more actually is is the question that arose for me when asked by the Barbican Gallery to write about certain photographs by Sebastaio Salgado. The exhibition formed itself a question for me. At what moment does misery become beauty? Is beauty that something more

Sebastaio Salgado link: The Mines of Serro Pelada, 1986

It is an uneasy, faintly queasy feeling confronting such images as aesthetic objects.