Skip to Main Content
    View of the top of the East Building tower, with green trees on each side

    Members’ Reports

    Sabine Kriebel
    Center 42

    Sabine Kriebel

    Objectivity Viewed Obliquely: The New Vision Photography of Florence Henri and Germaine Krull

    Florence Henri, Margarete Schall, 1928, gelatin silver print mounted on paperboard, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1995.36.88

    The photographers Florence Henri (1893–1982) and Germaine Krull (1897–1985) are central to my book-length reevaluation of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), an often maligned realist tendency in Germany which was first identified in 1923 by the curator Gustav Hartlaub in Mannheim. The term Neue Sachlichkeit subsequently became a buzzword to describe a scientific, pragmatic aesthetic in the arts, architecture, and design and a postwar habitus of cold detachment and material fact. The intersection of painting and New Vision photography, the New Objectivity’s photographic cognate, is integral to my account, and firmly inserts the work of these two iconic women photographers at the center of an art-historical discourse that almost exclusively focuses on male painters. Accompanying the gendered revision is a territorial one, as I argue that the New Objectivity transgressed national boundaries and cross-fertilized European modernisms. Both Henri and Krull, for instance, were peripatetic—their mobility facilitated by both the camera and cosmopolitanism; they both internalized the experiments of the German interwar avant-garde and reconfigured them within the cultural context of Paris. 

    Rather than accept the established narrative that the New Objectivity is rooted in scientific detachment, retrograde mimesis, technophilia, alienation, and dehumanization, my project unpacks the tactics through which interwar artists displace and reconfigure modern conflict in their pictures. Instead, I view the New Objectivity obliquely, reframing the discussion through the dual lens of psychoanalysis and phenomenology, two interpretive discourses evolving at the same historical moment that rigorously interrogated the terms of subject–object relations. Identity, desire, and human relationality to other subjects and to things are central to my account.

    Germaine Krull, Shadow of the Eiffel Tower, 1928, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, R. K. Mellon Family Foundation, 2003.10.1

    The groundbreaking National Gallery of Art exhibition The New Woman Behind the Camera anchored my study, providing sustained access to the global output of women photographers of the 1920s and 1930s, who, like Henri and Krull, adopted and adapted the premises of affective detachment and aesthetic objectivity to articulate unique perspectives on modernity. Unexpectedly, however, the oblique angles of I. M. Pei’s East Building furnished the experiential, phenomenological basis for grasping viscerally the psychological charge of Henri’s and Krull’s off-kilter viewpoints, which were generated after a foundational cultural shift precipitated by world war, the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German monarchy, the establishment of parliamentary democracy, women’s emancipation, and repeated economic destabilization. Spatial relationships reify psychological relationships—as physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach pointed out in his studies of spatial geometry, physiology, and psychology—in a system of layered, intertwined, referential experiences that condition our knowledge of the world. 

    Contrary to claims that Henri was a surrealist photographer, I argue that her photographic compositions were rooted in cubist painting, which she pursued as a student with André Lhote and Fernand Léger at the Académies Montparnasse and Moderne, respectively, from 1922 to 1925, after abandoning her career as a pianist. As I discovered during my fellowship, the impetus for this move from piano to painting, from Berlin to Paris, was most likely galvanized by her intense intellectual and romantic relationship with the critic and theorist Carl Einstein (1885–1940) between the years 1916 and 1922. By that time the author of a foundational Eurocentric text on African sculpture and a theorist of cubist plasticity, Einstein was indebted to the physiological psychology of Mach, who argued that perception is relational and constructed. Given the dearth of archival material, Henri’s familarity with Machian ideas remains speculative, but her photographs repeatedly stage puzzling, indeterminate relationships in autonomous settings. That these relationships are rooted in the real, mediated by photography, lends them an ontological force, while the frequent inclusion of mirrors yields to epistemic questioning, doubling back on the medium of photography itself.

    The pictorial operations of mirrors and shadows, specularity and darkness, are elemental to camera technology and its modernist vocabulary. They are also central to identity construction. Krull, who is most widely known for her vertiginous portraits of industrial architecture, also produced a body of work that interrogates one of photography’s ontologies—photo graphein, or writing with light—by obscuring it and thematizing photography’s dark side. Krull’s shadow studies investigate the shadow as an independent unit, detaching signifier from referent, as an unhinged double. These inversions not only experiment with photography’s alter ego, obscurity; they aim to counter some of the deficiencies of the medium, including optical sensation and superficiality. Krull’s shadow portraits, alienated from their corporeal source, suggest psychological states in which exterior projections intimate interior ciphers. “You and your darkroom reveal a new world,” wrote the poet and playwright Jean Cocteau to Krull in 1930, “a world in which technology and soul interpenetrate one another.” 

    University College Cork
    Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, fall 2021

    Sabine Kriebel will return to her tenured position at the University College Cork in Ireland.