Tomorrow the National Museum of American Art, formerly known as the National Collection of Fine Arts, will open a fascinating show on Germany, once known as "Das Deutsche Reich."
It is an exhibition of 93 pictures by Alfred Eisenstaedt, a leading pioneer of photojournalism. Some of the photographs show German life in the Weimar Republic before Hitler and Holocaust. Others show Germany in the past two years.
This illuminates far more than Eisenstaedt's art or even the obvious changes between Germany past and Germany present.
The exhibition (through Jan. 4) is associated with a festival of pre-Hitler German films (currently playing) and a symposium and musical evening, featuring Lotte Lenya (Nov. 17).
This invites reflection on what the changes in Germany might tell us -- not just about the Germans but also about our time.
For better or worse, what is happening between Oder and Rhine has special importance for everyone. Questions of war and peace, friends and foes, are inevitably associated with World War II, to say nothing of the Holocaust. Questions of art and style are inevitably associated with the Bauhaus and Weimar culture.
Eisenstaedt is just the man to give us interesting insights.
Born in Dirschau, Prussia, in 1898, he became, in an unofficial way, the official photographer of those poignant Weimar years. Eisenstaedt's famous pictures, more than the words of participants and historians, shaped Weimar's image, Nazi demonstrations, Marlene Dietrich, Max Schmeling, Paul Joseph Goebbels and all.
After Hitler seized power,, Eisenstaedt came to this country and went to work for Life magazine. He was sent on some 2,500 assignments, but -- until last year -- never to Germany. That gives the pictures he brought back for this show a benign distance. And yet he knows.
Better than any German photographer, he knows what Americans want to know. Better than any American, he knows where to find it in Germany.
What is more, Eisenstaedt is not only a good photographer, he is a superb reporter. His pictures are never arty. They are always informative. His camera does not editorialize. It reflects what Alfred Eisenstaedt saw and how he saw it. The viewer must think for himself what to make of it all.
This viewer spent part of his childhood in Germany at the time Eisentaedt photographed it. He came to this country at about the time Eisenstaedt did and for the same reason -- to escape Hitler. So his reflections are obviously personal: The Lost German Faces
The burghers of the Berlin Aquarium Society, which sounds harmless, whatever it is, were photographed in 1931. They look so grimly Teutonic, you can hear them bark. The Prussian Junkers, learning to hold the reins of a team of horses in 1934, are a caricature. You laugh, as you laugh about one of those acid George Grosz drawing of the period. But it isn't -- or certainly wasn't -- really funny.
The people photographed in Berlin or Munich in 1979 or 1980 might have been photographed in Washington or New York.It's not just the dress -- the blue jeans and parkas on the kids, the Brooks Brothers suit on Theo Summer, editor of Die Ziet, to say nothing about the Lufthansa stewardesses. It is the absence of any specific, national physiognomy.
Have the Germans adopted the All-American look along with American jargon and supermarkets? Marlene Dietrich
There are two pictures of Marlene Dietrich before she was Marlene Dietrich. One is with Josef von Sterberg, director of "The Blue Angel," and one with Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl, both of 1928. Dietrich looks like an utterly innocent dumpling. There is nary a hint of the Falling in Love Agin Marlene, top hat, white tie, giant carnation, cigarette and bemused smile, whom Eisenstaedt photographed again after Sternberg had created her a year later.
It was quite a creation! Form and Content
No. 75. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, film director, Munich, April 1980. The picture is of an international hippie, grubby, pot-bellied and contemptuous of his appearence. Formalities don't seem to matter in life or in art.
No. 78. Joseph Kantuscher, master violin maker, Mittenwald, March, 1980.
Here is the open, uncomplicated face of a craftsman, simply but immaculately groomed. Herr Kantuscher obviously believes that he owes it to his violins to shave and combhis hair. Totalitarians
East German soldiers wear Soviet helmets and SS-like uniforms as they goose-step in Royal Prussian manner. What a frightful combination!
But then, in another picture, one of them breaks rank to take a snapshot of the others -- to send home to Mom, no doubt. It is absurdly comical. And also a relief. Even Soviet-helmeted, goose-stepping "SS-men" are probably homesick. Leni Riefenstahl
She is represented twice. First as a young actress in 1928, sweet. You'd never guess that five years hence she would be Hitler's filmmaker touting Nazi power in "Triumph of the Will." She was wary to pose for Eisenstaedt last March, according to catalogue notes by the photographer's friend, the writer Gregory Vitiello.
Eisenstaedt managed to relax her, reminiscing. And, on the 1980 picture, she appears as a truly beautiful woman.
Perhaps she has become a truly beautiful woman.
One of the virtues of democracy is that it grants individuals the right to grow.
Eisentaedt said,"In New York, people were always asking me."Why do you want to photograph Leni Riefenstahl, that Nazi collaborator?' I don't know what she was. I only know what she did. I have great admiration for her work.
"What those people in New York don't realize is that I don't see Germany with political eyes. I see pictures." Shalom
I felt a twinge seeing the picture of "Israel Week" promotion billboards on the famous Ka De We department store on Berlin's Tauentzienstrasse. In big letters it says "Shalom."
One of democracy's virtues. . . .
Is it good or is it bad that we forget? At any rate, it is life. Celebrity
Eisenstaedt shows his famous picture of Max Schmeling, the world heavyweight champion, having his portrait sculpted in 1931.What an eager young face, ennobled by his triumph.
Then we see Max Schmeling, president, Max Schmeling Coca-Coca Bottling Co., Hamburg, 1980, all preened.
He would not rate an Eisenstaedt portrait if his name were Max Lingschme.
Celebrity is like the emperor's clothes. Why do we keep saluting? Graf Zeppelin
There is a thrilling photograph of men repairing the torn skin of the giant dirigible in mid-air on the flight to Brazil in 1934. There is another of the big airship at anchor mast -- calm, every bit as majestic as a great ocean liner.
It was as majestic. As a boy, I once watched the zeppelin take off at Friedrichshafen on an earlier transatlantic flight. The wonder was that this luxury hotel could so gracefully rise, so beautifully diminish in the horizon. Technology seemed somehow more promising then, more human than Wernher von Braun's noisy rockets. Correction
We are shown two pictures of dancers in Berlin taken in 1931 at the Truempy School. The caption says the Tuempy Ballet School. Poor Truempy! Having never, positively never, turned a pirouette in her life, she is probably spinning in her grave.
She was a student of Mary Wigman and disdained ballet the way Mies van der Rohe disdained Victorian architecture or Kandinsky disdained painting academic nudes. I know, because by mother taught at Truempy's. But she isn't in the picture.
I have no conclusion about my fascination, except perhaps to note that the Germany of the 1920s seems to be amazingly alive in the current American culture.