Writing a review of a Sibylle Bergemann exhibition that goes beyond what is already known is a challenge; apparently everything has already been said at some point about the exceptional photographer who died in 2011 with the special view, all pictures seem to have been seen. The large exhibition with the title tries to show that this is not true at all city country dog to convince in the Berlinische Galerie. The curators are reluctant to call it a retrospective, because that’s what exhibitions are called that show an overview of an artist’s oeuvre. In the case of Sibylle Bergemann, however, this is not possible at all, because even ten years after her death, the estate is by no means completely accessible
Writing a review of a Sibylle Bergemann exhibition that goes beyond what is already known is a challenge; apparently everything has already been said at some point about the exceptional photographer who died in 2011 with the special view, all pictures seem to have been seen. The large exhibition with the title tries to show that this is not true at all city country dog to convince in the Berlinische Galerie. The curators are reluctant to call it a retrospective, because that’s what exhibitions are called that show an overview of an artist’s oeuvre. In the case of Sibylle Bergemann, however, this is not possible at all, because even ten years after her death, the estate is by no means completely accessible. There are still a number of boxes of negatives just waiting to be viewed, not to mention processing. “It’s hard to believe that ten years later I still haven’t held every single photo in my hands,” writes Frieda von Wild, the photographer’s daughter, in the catalogue.
Sibylle Bergemann is considered a master of poetic realism. She gained greater fame in the 1970s and 80s with her fashion photos for the sibyl, the most important fashion magazine of the GDR. If you look at her complete oeuvre, the diversity is astounding – fashion, reportage, essay, landscape and portrait, she mastered all subjects. In addition to fashion photos, her oeuvre was characterized above all by portraits, although the two genres can hardly be separated in her work; in her productions, the photographer was always more interested in the people behind the surface. With her portraits, she gave women in particular an aura that defies cool analysis.
The decision not to leave the estate in the hands of others, such as the Academy of Arts, but to leave it in the family, was made while Bergemann was still alive. For Frieda von Wild, the development and cataloging of the huge archive has since become her life’s work, supported by her granddaughter Lily von Wild, who is currently studying the theory and history of photography at Essen’s Folkwang University and contributes scientific expertise. The fact that the development of the estate is progressing so slowly also has to do with the lack of funding and funding from the institutions, which have so far rejected the relevant applications.
Sibylle Bergemann is well represented in exhibitions
The impetus for the current show came from Katia Reich, who took over management of the Photographic Collection at the Berlinische Galerie in 2020 after Ulrich Domröse’s long and formative tenure. city country dog is her first big project in the house. Her assumption of office represents a generational change, which, however, is not limited to the Berlinische Galerie; A new generation of art historians with a focus on photo history has taken over the curatorial scepter in numerous German museums. The future will show whether this also indicates a paradigm shift in terms of the representation of women in photography and in the exhibition program.
So far, however, there has been no need to worry about Sibylle Bergemann’s representation in the German and international museum landscape. Apart from numerous monographic exhibitions, there is hardly a show that even remotely deals with East German photography without its pictures; when it comes to fashion photography, her name ennobles every exhibition. In 2006 there was a representative exhibition at the Academy of Arts, and since 2009 a selection of her works has been traveling around the world in a touring exhibition organized by the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations. Of course, this raises the question of which new facets the current exhibition with its approximately 200 photographs is able to convey? The answer lies, on the one hand, in the variety of photographic themes and subjects that occupied Sibylle Bergemann, which made so many and constantly new discoveries possible that surprising cross-references and relationships between individual groups of works can be established again and again.
What seems more important, however, is that the heirs and administrators of the estate have now achieved a certain emancipation from the oversized model given the time lag and the work on and with the material. The focus of the curatorial work is no longer exclusively the question: “What would Sibylle have thought/did/choose?”, which may also mean a break with traditional hangings and viewing habits. With this exhibition, the generation of those born later appropriates Bergemann’s work and presents their own, contemporary view and interpretation in a strictly subjective selection of the works shown. Frieda and Lily von Wild were asked in an interview a long time ago whether there were any surprises when looking at the boxes with the pictures. Well, they replied, you don’t always see it at first glance, but there really is a dog in a lot of the pictures – which ultimately led to the strange title of the exhibition.
Her early experiments become visible
Of the around thirty previously unseen motifs from the photographer’s early work, the most surprising are the color images from New York, where she was allowed to travel to in 1984 with her husband and colleague Arno Fischer. For decades she detested the color in photography as “loud, garish, abominable” (Jutta Voigt). It was only in her later work that she discovered – fortunately – the possibilities, because her fashion photos from Africa, which she published in 2010 for the magazine Geo made are unthinkable without the frenzy of colour. It can now be discovered that Bergemann was already experimenting with color in 1984 and that her color slides from New York already have a luminosity similar to that of the later color photos.
In addition to the new discoveries from the archive and many pictures of her early travels, including to the Soviet Union, the USA and Paris, the visitor will find well-known and “classics” from different eras of Bergemann’s work, interesting for younger people, Sibylle Bergemann and the first discover the somnambulistic certainty and intuition with which she arranged and composed her motifs. Selection and editing follow less a specific guideline, but rather are aimed at an “associative-poetic coherence” (Bertram Kaschek in the catalogue) that wants to clarify Bergemann’s idea of humanistic photography. Last but not least, all the photographs in the exhibition (apart from the first enlargements) are vintage prints, i.e. original prints that Bergemann made himself. This will be appreciated by those who know that she was a darkroom perfectionist and this was her main retreat. “Guests report that Bergemann was rarely seen. Most of the time she worked in the darkroom,” says a laconic text by Anne Pfautsch in the catalog about East Berlin bohemians and their private spaces as oases of encounter.
An inexplicable level
The exhibition catalog opens with the series window, one of Bergemann’s first, if not the first, conceptual work series from the late 1960s. This, too, was an intuitive-subjective decision by those born later, which the author probably would not have made. The show window the beginning of her work and the attempt to overcome her shyness and to approach the people behind her through the window are exemplary. As in her later more famous works and portraits, there is already this inexplicable level of mystery and a melancholy that seems to refer to the photographer herself.
What is striking is the attempt to use a scientific method and a source-based approach in the texts in the catalogue. The essays, which certainly meet academic standards, illustrate the eleven-year artistic process that led to the famous series The monument (Jan Wenzel), examine Bergemann’s typologies of femininity (Susanne Altmann), describe her numerous journeys before 1989 (Lily von Wild) or analyze her public image and the presence of her photographs in newspapers and books (Bertram Kaschek).
In the process of a gradual change in perception and interpretation of Sibylle Bergemann’s work, the exhibition and catalog mark the beginning of a historicization of the photographer and her oeuvre. While the memory of the people gradually fades, their images remain, and these slowly go from being a product of current events to being objects of (photo)historical interest. It will be interesting to see what surprises the estate still has in store.
Sibylle Bergemann. city country dog. Photographs 1966 – 2010 is on view at the Berlinische Galerie from June 24th to October 10th