A city's spirits unextinguished

An exhibition foregrounds the people of Dresden and their many and contradictory stories rather than their historical tragedy, discovers Ulrike Zitzlsperger

November 29, 2012
  • The Dresden Archive Project
  • German Historical Institute London
  • 23 November to 22 February 2013

    Ghosts of Dresden (detail)

    Among the numerous villages, towns and cities destroyed in the course of the Second World War, few have more emblematic status than Dresden. The Allied bombing campaign of February 1945 remains controversial, and the city is imprinted in cultural memory for the sheer scale of destruction so close to the end of the war. There is the loss of “Florence on the Elbe”, as Dresden was once known, and even more so the number of civilians, refugees and inhabitants who died during the firestorm between the 13th and 15th of that month. One of the lasting memories of those who experienced the bombing is that of the river Elbe, which runs through Dresden’s once beautiful and now rebuilt cityscape. The river provided no refuge from the fires: people trying to escape the searing heat jumped into the kerosene-laden water only to burn to death in it.

    Thankfully, however, any expectations of yet another exhibition of an apocalypse on display are disappointed in Alan Turnbull’s The Dresden Archive Project at the German Historical Institute London. Instead, Turnbull uses that fatal February as a point of reference. He recalls the city that was: its buildings, its people, easily ignored minutiae of everyday life that make the lingering sense of loss more acute. The exhibition is based on documentary photographs, prints and postcards - assembled in the form of 42 images - that challenge what, in a different context, John Berger once termed “ways of seeing”.

    Some of the archive material presented in the exhibition has been turned into delicate pictures with etchings predominantly featuring birds and insects, culminating in the final collage, A Cage Went in Search of a Bird: Memories of Dresden 1828-1945. They are a beautiful and fascinating accompaniment to the artist’s creative engagement with photographs.

    The visitor’s first encounter is with the portrait of a Young Girl with Earrings, c.1900, which Turnbull found in a Dresden street market in 2001. It is typical of a time when having one’s photo taken was limited to special occasions. The girl does not stand out; rather, she blends in to the overbearing frame. A second image provides a close-up of her face. Her features, thanks to digitisation, are readily visible now and the process has turned her into a real person. It is tempting to compare the impact with that of the 1994 restoration of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which also transformed its subject’s eye contact with the viewer into something far more intimate. Here and elsewhere Turnbull provides a focus on individual details where, our gaze unguided, we tend to see generic street scenes. He singles out those faces and angles that would otherwise go unnoticed: a gardener in a park where the arrangement of the plants dominates; women looking through the windows of an anonymous facade; a barely visible boatman on the Elbe by the photographer Hugo Engler; or the figures on Marschallstrasse, bombed in 1945 and rebuilt under a different name under the communists a few years later.

    Apart from placing individuals in the pre-war city - with a few references to the communist propaganda that was to blame the destruction firmly on the Western Allies - Turnbull also arranges collages that challenge what we instantly perceive as pretty city views in the form of postcards. Ghosts of Dresden I casts doubt over such views, each image providing a brief context: for example, that of the genteel Hotel Bellevue. Hitler and Goebbels stayed here, we are informed, in 1934. Hotel Continental, close to the main railway station, is no less attractive until one reads that it served as the Gestapo’s Dresden headquarters from 1937 onwards. For the postcard depicting a colourful castle Hohnstein, close to Dresden and still a popular tourist destination in Saxony, the caption is a reminder that history is marked by the simultaneity of good and bad, the beautiful and the ugly: the medieval castle served as a Gestapo torture chamber. The information is limited to the textual snapshots that underpin the collage - in fact, the history of Hohnstein continued to be full of other chilling contradictions: it served as a prisoner of war camp, then as an East German youth hostel, and before the end of that regime plans were in place to reclaim it as a prison for political opponents. The pre-1933 history of the city also comes into play: Ghosts of Dresden links the once-famous Circus Sarrasani building with the workers’ uprising during the 1918 revolution that led to the end of the Kaiserreich, and mentions that Dostoevsky walked in the Grosser Garten in 1869. The sense of perspective that is provided by playing on images and information is maintained in relation to Dresden itself. Turnbull reminds us, as part of the same collage - it comprises 14 images - that this is also the city that had its flags flying at half-mast after Hitler committed suicide in April 1945.

    Alan Turnbull is a lecturer in fine art at the School of Arts and Cultures at Newcastle University. His work has featured in exhibitions at international venues; one-man exhibitions took him to the US and Russia. He has worked in international public collections such as Harvard Art Museums’ permanent collections, the Nabokov Museum in St Petersburg and Dresden City Council. He first visited Dresden in 1994, when he began collecting postcards of the pre-war city. The appeal of these ephemeral items is strong: originally intended for brief messages, the postcards have survived, in contrast to the buildings of the city itself. The cards have been postmarked, redirected and cancelled - some are legible, others barely so. They were written by civilians and by soldiers at the front. By artistically juxtaposing the daily and banal with the force of history, Turnbull makes tangible what is otherwise hard to grasp.

    Arguably Turnbull’s approach corresponds with W.G. Sebald’s take on what he perceived as German amnesia about the Allied bombing and the destruction in Germany during the Second World War. Sebald’s study On the Natural History of Destruction caused a furore when it was published in Germany in 1999 and aroused much interest when it appeared in English translation in 2003, two years after his death. In connection with the overwhelming desire for a new beginning after the war, Sebald observed the general tendency to acknowledge “the first stage of a brave new world” rather than “the image of total destruction” that dominated Germany at the time. He goes on to ask: “How ought such a natural history of destruction to begin?”

    Turnbull’s historical intervention is that of going back in time. He avoids the temptation to single out retrospectively decisive historical turning points. Instead he favours a time frame from around 1870 until the 1950s - that is from the Kingdom of Saxony right through to the very beginning of the newly founded German Democratic Republic in 1949. The “ghosts” - there appear to be lots of ghosts currently in Germany - that he evokes with the help of this very personal archive and his careful arrangements are of multiple pasts and origins, just as the memories, scenes and portraits are snapshots in time reflecting individual narratives. As a whole they tackle another kind of amnesia: continuity that outlasts monumental events. The bare chronology of events and the all-consuming statistics of destruction are replaced with impressions of a real place with real people: they might have no names but their faces have been reclaimed.

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