Germaine Krull, From Industry to Aesthetics
The German photographer Germaine Krull owes her reputation as an avant-garde artist to her work “Metal”. Until 10 June, Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne is devoting a huge exhibition to her. An interview with Simone Förster, curator for the Ann and Jürgen Wilde Foundation behind this exhibition.
AMA: Over her life, almost 90 years long, Germaine Krull lived on four continents. Could you retrace the different stages of her life?
Simone Förster: Germaine Krull was born in Poznan, Poland, in 1897, and moved many times during her childhood. Her family lived in Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria. She arrived in Germany when she was a teenager, where she studied photography, and then she opened a studio in Munich. Because of her political stance during the Bavarian revolution, she was expelled from Germany in 1920. After, she went to Russia, where she stood up alongside the Communists.
But she was deemed a counter-revolutionary there, and was imprisoned and expelled from the USSR. After stints in Berlin and Amsterdam, she settled in Paris, where she opened a portrait and fashion photography studio. It was also during this period that she produced her work Metal.
Next, she worked as a war reporter, declared her opposition to the Vichy regime, and became a journalist-photographer in Congo-Brazzaville. Germaine Krull then left for Thailand where she managed a hotel for around twenty years. When she was already getting on in years, she moved to India to support Tibetan refugees, before returning to be with her sister in Germany, where she died in 1985.
AMA: What role did France play in this artist’s career?
Simone Förster: It was in Paris that Germaine Krull made a name for herself as an avant-garde artist and photographer, with her Metal portfolio, produced in 1928. The part of her work for which she is appreciated today was executed in France.
It was also in France that she published a number of books. This in fact was her artistic centre. In Germany, the publication of the Metal portfolio earned her a reputation as THE Parisian photographer. She thus scored a few contracts this way, for example to work on a photography book on Paris for a Berlin publisher, and also from French electricity plants and companies.
It was the starting point of her professional photography career.
AMA: What subjects does Germaine Krull tackle in her work?
Simone Förster: She pored over cities and industry. She produced some very fine portraits, fashion photographs, as well as publicity photos for different companies, for example a tie company, which demonstrate an original artistic approach.
But she also produced some very beautiful documentary series that reflect her social criticism, for example a series on the prostitution ring in Marseille, or a very impressive series on homeless people in Paris. So there is abstract artistic work as well as work committed to social documentation.
AMA: The current exhibition at the Pinokathek der Moderne in Munich is based on the first edition of her famous portfolio. Metallic constructions weren’t that common as a theme in the 1920s. To what extent did Germaine Krull’s work influence photography of the time?
Simone Förster: Documentary photography on industrial prowess has existed since the 19th century. But Germaine Krull’s work, and above all Metal, contributed to showing industrial installations, machines, or industrial architecture as aesthetic images. She was one of the first to turn towards constructivism, photographic experimentation, and to produce free artistic work.
In this exhibition, we also show the mutual influence and inspiration of photography and film in this era, by screening the film De Brug (The Bridge) by Joris Ivens, a Dutch filmmaker and Germaine Krull’s partner. In this film on a lift bridge in Rotterdam, he uses photographic angles and cuts. Germaine Krull, in her portfolio, through the way she presents the 64 leaves one by one, uses a range of montage and cutting techniques similar to those in the film.
AMA: What fascinated Germaine Krull so much about these metallic installations?
Simone Förster: It was a time when people had faith in industrial progress, or if we think about the Bauhaus, a time when art and technology were inseparable. But it was Germaine Krull who brought this theme and artistic approach to the foreground. Metallic constructions, like the Eiffel Tower, were icons of the industrial era. Since the second half of the 19th century, they represented modernity.
It wasn’t Germaine Krull who invented this with her work, but what was innovative was that she, as a woman, climbed up the cranes and onto industrial installations. Not only did she document, but she also captured dynamic perspectives, detailed views, dramatic cuts to create an artistic image completely disconnected from the object’s identity.
For her, it didn’t matter which the city the object was located in, which machine it was, or which architectural feature.
This wasn’t important: it was just a matter of expressing oneself freely through art.
AMA: How would you define Germaine Krull’s personality?
Simone Förster: She was an extremely independent person who believed entirely in her own positions and visions, not only regarding art, but also politics. A courageous person who exposed herself, time after time, to situations which were unusual, especially for a woman.
A woman who, also in her sex life, had a very libertarian conduct. A free spirit who defined her frontiers independently.
AMA: When Man Ray and Germaine Krull met in Paris in the 1920s, he apparently said that she and he were the best photographers of their era. Why did Germaine Krull fall into oblivion after 1945?
Simone Förster: On the one hand, it’s probably to do with her leaving Europe. She first went to Congo-Brazzaville, via Brazil. She then returned briefly to Paris, before moving to Thailand, and finally India.
In Asia, she exercised a completely different profession: she was general manager of The Oriental hotel in Bangkok, and she turned it into one of the most renowned hotels there. She continued photography over there, shooting Buddhist temples and statues, but photography was only a secondary occupation. The many stages in her life mean that today, her work has largely disappeared.
In addition, Metal, which Germaine Krull herself saw as one of her major works, only exists in very few copies today. In the last six years, I’ve regularly researched auction houses, antique dealers and art dealers, but it no longer comes up. Even in the large exhibition on Germaine Krull, organized in 2015 by the Jeu de Paume in Paris, Metal was represented by two leaves only.
AMA: The exhibition was organized thanks to Ann and Jürgen Wilde’s collection. Could you tell us more about the relationship between Germaine Krull and this couple of collectors?
Simone Förster: The Wilde couple started collecting art in 1968, by acquiring part of the legacy of German art historian Franz Roh who, in the 1920s, strongly supported avant-garde photography. The couple started to research art from the 1920s and 1930s, but Germaine Krull’s work had completely vanished in Germany.
Via old acquaintances of Krull in Europe, they finally got hold of her address in India, and began, in 1974, an intense correspondence with her. The Wilde couple managed to gather around a hundred of Krull’s works, which were completely dispersed.
In 1976, Germaine Krull met Ann and Jürgen Wilde for the first time, and from that point they developed a very close relationship. In 1977, the couple staged a big first retrospective on her work in Bonn.
This marked the start of a rediscovery of Germaine Krull’s work by the general public. Her work was then shown at Documenta 6, and ever since, has constituted a major component of the history of photography. It was also the Wildes who, in 2003, initiated a re-edition of Metal.
The current exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, marking Jürgen Wilde’s 80th birthday, presents all 64 leaves of one copy of Metal, which Krull gave the Wildes in 1977, supplemented by original photos from the couple’s collection.
Germaine Krull. Metal, until 10 June. Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, Germany.
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Featured image: Germaine Krull – Tour Eiffel, 1927. © Nachlass Germaine Krull, Museum Folkwang, Essen.