Germaine Krull – Photographs

15 October 2015 to 31 January 2016

Germaine Krull (1897-1985) was a prominent photographer in 1920s and ‘30s Paris, who shaped the history of photography with her experimental shots and photo articles for magazines like VU, Variété and Jazz. She is one of the protagonists of modern-day photography, yet her work has rarely been explored, and only presented at a few exhibitions. After the large exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen in 1999, the Martin-Gropius-Bau, in co-operation with the Jeu de Paume Paris, is dedicating a retrospective to the focus areas of her work and her aesthetic innovations. With about 130 original prints, and excerpts from photo magazines, the exhibition demonstrates the extraordinary depth and inventiveness of her pieces.

As part of photography’s avant garde, Germaine Krull was closely affiliated with artists like Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Man Ray and André Kertész. Walter Benjamin and Jean Cocteau were photographed by her, and were among her admirers. Benjamin included her in his “Kleine Geschichte der Fotografie” (brief history of photography). He highly regarded Germaine Krull’s strong engagement at both a political and social level, coupled with her radical visual aesthetics, ranking her alongside artists such as August Sander and Karl Blossfeldt. Jean Cocteau is quoted as saying that she and her camera have “uncovered a new world, fusing technology with soul”.

Yet Germaine Krull’s work is difficult to classify. She has developed a profile as a unique, distinctive photographer, particularly during her Paris years (1926-1935). Both her oeuvre and her life are characterised by changes and relocations:

Krull is born to German parents in East Prussia, is raised in Italy, France and Switzerland, and commences her training at Munich’s Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt für Photographie (academy and research centre for photography) in 1915. It is there that, in 1917, at the age of 21, she opens her first studio. She adopts the pictorialist approach to photography, capturing people and interiors with a soft focus, creating a paintwork-like effect. The young photographer publishes her portfolio of nudes in an initial illustrated book, but very few of her early shots have been preserved. Among those that have are two portraits of Kurt Eisner, the first Minister-President of the Free State of Bavaria and a socialist revolutionary. It is also in Munich where she first encounters Buddhism, takes up an interest in theosophy, and participates in the great “November Revolution” in 1918. She becomes involved with the Spartacists. Following her expulsion prompted by the confusion of the Bavarian Council Republic, Krull starts living as a political activist in Russia. She returns to Germany (Berlin) in 1922 and resumes her photography work. She creates unconventional nudes in Karl Hübschmann’s Kurfürstendamm studio, including of her sister Berthe in theatrical poses. In the capital, Krull meets Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, whom she later marries. She spends a few months in Amsterdam with him, before finally moving to Paris in 1925.

It is there that she experiences her breakthrough with her unusual photographs of technical structures, including series: The Eiffel Tower, ports and industrial plants. She creates a new type of technical photography, which does away with spectacular pictorial rhetoric. Her book, “Métal” (1927/28), catapults her into the international avant-garde of photographers, known as the Nouvelle Vision (New Vision). Her shots send viewers mad, their fragmentation not permitting any orientation or point of reference, while simultaneously opening up new, unusual perspectives.

In 1928, she is hired by Lucien Vogel, chief editor of the newly established weekly illustrated magazine, “Vu”, for photo articles, and, together with André Kertész and Éli Lotar, she invents a new form of reporting. With her small Icarette (6x9 cm), she takes shots characterised by their proximity to the subject, which result in portraits and streetscapes (including a report on Paris’ homeless) which reflect a notion of topicality and unconventional realism without artistic effect. She primarily focuses on specific aspects of Parisian life in the working-class neighbourhoods and market halls, at outdoor markets and annual fairs. She performs numerous assignments for magazines, the fashion industry and advertisers.

Krull takes part in major international exhibitions, such as Essen’s “Fotografie der Gegenwart” (1929), and the Werkbund “Film und Foto” (1929) travelling exhibition, which was also being displayed in the Martin-Gropius-Bau at the time. She publishes illustrated books, and experiments with multiple exposures and collage-like details. She works on scenes depicting the Parisian underworld, landscapes, automotive images and streetscapes, and portraits artists, literary figures and filmmakers, including Colette, André Malraux and Sergei Eisenstein. She repeatedly photographs hands as if they were faces – always with an unorthodox angle and not subscribing to any specific trend.

Having become involved with France Libre, the resistance organisation founded by General de Gaulle, in 1941, Germaine Krull works as a war photographer, witnessing events such as the Battle of Alsace (about which she later writes a book). Her working conditions change, when after World War II the media no longer express interest in photographers’ artistic statements, but rather only in the illustration of texts.

Krull relocates to Asia, where she takes over Bangkok’s “Hotel Oriental” as manager. This continent inspires her to capture thousands of shots of Buddhist sites and monuments. It is another 15 years before she returns to Paris to exhibit her photos. Right until the end of her life, she continues to publish originally designed books, including “Ballets de Monte-Carlo” (1937), “Uma Cidade Antiga do Brasil”(1943), “Chiang Mai”(around 1960) and “Tibetans in India” (1968). Despite being in her seventies, she joins the followers of Tibet’s Dalai Lama, who fled to northern India, and lives with them there in an old temple for some time. Germaine Krull dies a somewhat forgotten figure in the Hessian town of Wetzlar in 1985.

The displayed works have been provided by public and private collections, including from the Museum Folkwang, Essen; the Amsab Institute of Social History, Ghent; the Ann and Jürgen Wilde Foundation, Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich; the Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris; the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, and the Bouqueret-Rémy and Dietmar Siegert collections.

Organizer: Berliner Festspiele / Martin-Gropius-Bau. An exhibition of the Jeu de Paume in cooperation with Berliner Festspiele / Martin-Gropius-Bau. Made possible by the Sparkasse cultural fund Sparkassen-Kulturfonds of the Deutschen Sparkassen- und Giroverbandes
Partners: Wall, visit Berlin, Where Berlin, Alexa, Bouvet Ladubay
Media partners: Tagesspiegel, inforadio, Monopol, Exberliner, Aviva-berlin.de, Photo International, fotoforum-Verlag, EMOTION Verlag GmbH, schwarzweiss, flair, H.O.M.E

Germaine Krull – Fotografien: Partner