Annette Kelm

Die Bücher

21. March - 1. August 2020

In her photographs, Annette Kelm (b. 1975) explores a variety of styles and genres—still life, object, architecture, and landscape photography—while deliberately flouting their conventions. As she experiments with the semantic charge various photographic forms of representation can give a subject, subtle ambivalences of meaning infiltrate the image, and the things shown seem both familiar and remote at the same time. Appropriation becomes commentary. This applies as well to Kelm’s engagement with the theme of Nazi book burnings in her current exhibition Die Bücher (The Books) at Museum Frieder Burda's Salon Berlin, where she presents a selection of books that were proscribed starting in 1933 as being “un-German.” Kelm pays tribute to these books as “survivors” that stood the test of time, acting as proxies for their authors and keeping them alive in collective memory.

The artist focuses in her photo series on the liberal, enlightened metropolitan zeitgeist that gave rise to these books as well on as their cover design, which reflects the avant-garde spirit of the 1920s and 1930s. Artistically designed dust jackets, which became popular in the late nineteenth century and rose to prominence with the Book Art movement, took up the formal languages of Expressionism, Constructivism, Bauhaus, and Dada, often displaying photomontages and experimental typography. The Nazi regime set out to extinguish this burgeoning modernist aesthetic. Annette Kelm now strives in her work to recall to memory the books that were destroyed and forgotten.

The historical background behind the Nazi book burnings

On May 10, 1933, Nazi students burned some 30,000 books on the former Opera Square in the center of Berlin: political literature, scholarly treatises, novels and poems, and even children’s books. The list of authors includes many well-known names but also some that have since then disappeared from our cultural memory. The burning and subsequent banishment of these books marked the beginning of Gleichschaltung, the enforced conformity of public opinion and university teaching, and was accompanied by the unrelenting persecution of writers and intellectuals who thought differently, especially if they were Jewish. Else Lasker-Schüler’s “Hebrew Ballads,” Erich Kästner’s children’s book “The Enchanted Telephone,” Stefan Zweig’s novel “The Refugee,” Oskar Maria Graf’s “Notebook of a Provincial Writer,” Alfred Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” – all of these works were on the list of “harmful and undesirable literature.”

Annette Kelm’s photographic engagement with the subject

Kelm’s images of the books exhibit a sober and objective aesthetic, showing these editions published between 1913 and 1944 individually as flat objects, photographed frontally against a neutral background. This conceptual approach, with detailed images lighted neutrally, lends the book covers a presence that goes far beyond mere documentation. Emphasizing the factual avoids charging the images with symbolic meaning. What comes to the fore instead is the cultural and ideological significance of these publications. By applying strict formal criteria, the artist renounces all narrative elements, which furthermore underlines the translation of the object from three dimensions into the two-dimensional space of photography: The book becomes an image. The shots follow the serial principle, pointing to how photography can be used to produce signs and metaphors. Reproduced in the style of classic object photography, the books are freed from space and time. It is precisely this device that brings them up to date and makes them topical again, overcoming the historical distance: As they step out of history and into the spotlight, the political imagery, modernist aesthetics, and the socio-critical overtones of many covers come into sharp focus.

There is no archive of the banned books that formed the basis for these photographs. Kelm had to work with various private and public collections. But it’s not a matter of creating a complete catalogue. Her pictures are instead reduced and formalized compositions in which seeing and reading conspire to assign meaning. As in her other work, Kelm’s vantage point on historical artifacts in the series Die Bücher (The Books), produced in 2019/2020, is factual and invests what we see with a meaning that already lies within our realm of knowledge. These are abstractions in which something disappears and is added elsewhere as a visual surplus. The precise photographic focus on each book and its design thus stands as proxy for the persecuted authors, setting us to thinking about both how history is represented and how we are to come to terms with the Nazi era once the contemporary witnesses are no longer with us and we have nothing but objects to keep the memory alive.

In the galleries of Museum Frieder Burda’s Salon Berlin, the former classrooms of a Jewish girls’ school, Kelm’s photographs gain additional trenchancy, resonating with the architecture, which in turn summons to the visitor’s mind the systematic annihilation of the Jews and the persecution of all those who opposed Nazi ideology.

Patricia Kamp, artistic director of the Salon Berlin: “The articulation of racist ideas by a minority in Germany has grown intolerably loud. This gives us all the more reason here at the Salon Berlin – housed in a Jewish cultural heritage site – to actively raise our voices: to promote dialogue in society while joining forces with others to take a resolute stand against racism and hatred, anti-Semitism and apathy, and for greater humanity, diversity, and tolerance. Annette Kelm’s work, especially the series Die Bücher (The Books) on view here, creates a unique platform for urgent dialogue while making it clear that we must never stop remembering.”