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Women and boys: Drawings by Herbert List 1940 to 1946

11. July 2009 – 12. October 2009

For the first time drawings by the important photographer Herbert List (1903-1975) are presented in an exhibition more than 60 years after their creation – a real discovery. They were created during the years of war. Being a self-aware homosexual and artist, List had already left Nazi Germany in 1936 when the persecution of homosexuals was suddenly brought into action in his hometown Hamburg, effecting his circle of friends. In France he was successful in his career as an art photographer. Like other gay artists he remained true to his homoerotic subject despite the menace. An independent artistic work was his reply to the pressure of defamation in Germany. Marcus Behmer and Werner Gilles also worked with gay themes as a political statement during Nazi-time. As always, but perhaps moreso because of the times, the supposed private sphere became a political issue. For years List was in contact with the English authors Auden, Isherwood, and Spender, who simultaneously followed this philosophy with their writing and who turned their private lifes into the objects of artistic work. List’s photographs combine this topic with the metaphorical language of new objectivity or the avant-garde and discovered new modes of expression with regard to friendship.

After having been stranded in Greece at the beginning of the war, List met the two well-known Greek artists Ghika and Tsarouchis, who inspired him to turn to the medium of drawing. In the following years the medium drawing became as renowned as the photography. Reminiscences of the Paris art scene, where Ghika and Tsarouchis had studied too, memories of the French modernity of Picasso and Matisse, as well as of such surrealistic and neohumanistic artists as Christian Bérard, Paul Strecker or Pavel Tschelitschev, who became well-known through the Gallery Flechtheim in Germany before 1933, played a central role.

In March 1941 List compiled his first volume of drawings in Greece, which hardly would have been imaginable in Nazi-Germany. List describes a human counter-world compared with the Nazi-terror and killing that reigned in Germany. Grief, sorrow and melancholy, affection, intimacy, and devotion are his reactions to devastation. An intact universe of women is set against the world of war. This universe seems to be strictly separated from the world of young men. A special homosexual affection exists between both domains. These women move entirely free, without constraint. In part they are completely naked or half undressed and they proudly present their nakedness. Erotic tension and freedom are in the air. They are active women who have different relationships towards each other. They are not an object of men’s desire, but they are independently acting subjects.

The drawings show neither the modern woman of the Weimar Era, nor film stars, nor the androgyne type, and nor the sportive Amazon, as they had been photographed by List in Hamburg before. They were neither pinups, as they had been produced in enormous amounts during the years of the war. On the contrary, they are very female beings with strong bodies, women in their own essence and corpulence with voluminous forms and with powerful presence and potency.

They remind one of mother goddesses and idols of fertility or of the works of Rubens and Picasso. List starts to describe an isolated world of women, which seems to be archaic. However, one also could think of harems and whorehouses. Only children, girls and boys are allowed to enter this world. The absence of men culminates in several drawings showing mourning widows. At this point reality penetrates List’s world of images, reality that means war, death, loss, and mourning.

List absolutely designs an autonomous world of men in his works, but compared with his drawings of women they are fewer in number. The warrior type of man is not presented. His men are full of melancholy; they are no rulers or world conquerors. In no way do they correspond to the national-socialistic image of men which is full of toughness and coldness. Thus List has something in common with German artists like Gerhard Marcks, Hermann Blumenthal and Werner Gilles. List’s men and boys show emotion. Couples, who have an obvious relationship are predominant. Friendship and erotic constellations seem to be subjects of priority. He almost exclusively depicts boys and young men. The traditions of the gay style of representation of the Weimar Republic become obvious here. Works of artists like Erich Godal, Otto Schoff and Renée Sintenis serve as example.

The presentation of families also conveys a peculiar erotic atmosphere as far as the adolescents are concerned. Thus the relationship between generations plays a more important role than that which exists between adults. Mostly they are mothers and sons, grand-mothers and grand-children, grand-fathers and girls, women and girls facing each other with erotic tension. Also they are mostly wilfully acting women. Grown up men shown as love partners are only rare, and if shown, they are patrons of prostitutes. In his drawings List unveils himself as an artist who describes in detail intimate worlds, psychological depths, and erotic tensions. That are less his own dreams and desires, as they are perceptions filtered through his psychological lens.

After his forced return to Germany in 1941 Herbert List continues the themes for his drawings that he first defined in Greece. However, inspired by another visit to Paris in May 1944, where he met yet again Jean Cocteau, Christian Bérard, and Pablo Picasso, List completed a second large collection of drawings. Stationed with the “Wehrmacht” in Norway as a drawer, he had time to go on with his own art during the last months of war.

For the first time, the Gay Museum exhibits amongst a small selection of important photographs roughly 100 drawings from List’s private estate from the years 1940 to 1946. These works are set in contrast with examples of gay and lesbian artists like Lene Schneider-Kainer, Marcus Behmer, Renée Sintenis. Eduard Bargheer, Werner Gilles, Jean Cocteau,and Giannis Tsarouchis, also partially taken from List’s former estate and signed with personal dedications to him.

Curator: Anton Stern