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Homoerotic Male Nudes and Still Lifes by Herbert List

  • Herbert List - Wrestling Youth
July 14, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

After the Nazis officially seized power in 1933, they started forcefully imposing their politics according to which not only racially and politically targeted groups were not desirable, but gay people as well. Although homosexuality was criminalized by the disgraceful Paragraph 175, the people were not prosecuted especially during the Weimar era, but in 1935 the Nazis extended this paragraph and things became much worse than earlier. Many fled Germany due to increasing homophobia imposed from the state, and among them were many talented artists and photographers.

The prolific figure who was openly gay and Jewish, and therefore had to leave the country (and return in the midst of war) was Herbert List, known for his highly sophisticated and slightly mysterious aesthetic influenced by Surrealism and Metaphysical painting. His series shot in Italy and Greece made quite a mark on the further development of modern and contemporary photography.

Currently on display at the Fahey/Klein Gallery is an exciting exhibition of those photographs titled Herbert List, Young Men & Still Lifes, the first show of the legendary homoerotic male nudes in Los Angeles in practically three decades.

Left Herbert List - Goldfish Bowl Right Herbert List - After the Bath
Left: Herbert List – Goldfish Bowl, Santorini, Greece, 1937 / Right: Herbert List – After the Bath, Portofino, Italy, 1936. Copyright the Herbert List Estate, courtesy of the Fahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles

The Photographers Development

Herbert List was born into a prosperous Hamburg merchant family involved with the coffee business. Initially, he studied literature and art history at the Heidelberg University and apprenticed in the family company. While traveling through Latin America to learn about the plantations in a period between 1924-28, List started taking photographs.

The young amateur photographer was familiar with the latest avant-garde current and around 1930, he met American photographer Andreas Feininger, who introduced him to the Rolleiflex, a more sophisticated camera that allowed a deliberate composition of images. After leaving Germany in 1936 due to pressure from prosecution, List became professionally involved with photography which led him to work in Paris and London; he mostly did fashion photography which bored him much and was more interested in creating his personal style expressed through still lifes.

Herbert List - Beach Comber
Herbert List – Beach Comber, Baltic Sea, Germany, 1933. Copyright the Herbert List Estate, courtesy of the Fahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles

The Iconic Images

In the wake of WW II, List produced some of his best works still lifes and portraits of his friends which, as mentioned, the photographer’s apparent fascination with the Surrealism, Bauhaus, and most importantly works of Giorgio de Chirico (List was a practitioner of what he called the Fotografia Metafisica).

List was enchanted with Greece, and the first bunch of photographs he took in 1937 was exhibited in the same year. The images centered on the Male models, draped fabric, masks and double-exposures and the glorification of ancient Greece show List’s highly modernist Imaginarium. The publications in influential magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Life followed, along with the preparations for his first photo book titled Licht über Hellas (unpublished until 1953).

Left Herbert List - Young Men Under a Reed Roof Right Herbert List - Young man behind curtain
Left: Herbert List – Young Men Under a Reed Roof, Terromolinos, Spain, 1951 / Right: Herbert List – Young man behind curtain, Ascona, Switzerland, 1936. Copyright the Herbert List Estate, courtesy of the Fahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles

Herbert List at Fahey/Klein Gallery

In 1941, List was forced to return to Germany. Because of his Jewish descent, he was unable to publish or work officially in his native country (several works were hidden in a Parisian hotel, but were lost). Finally, in 1944 the German Wehrmacht sent the photographer to Norway where he served as a map archivist.

In the 1950s List was approached by Robert Capa to work as a contributor to Magnum, but he was not interested and throughout the decade photographed street scenes, architectural views and contemplative photo-essays in Italy. In general, his work became more relaxed since he was influenced by the Italian Neo-Realism film movement and Henri Cartier-Bresson. In one point, List withdrew from the world of photography and focused solely on his collection of Italian Old Master Drawings.

This exhibition will revisit his domains from a timely distance and in accordance to the fact List definitely left an indelible trace in art history with his distinct black and white surreal, queer, and in later years photojournalist aesthetic.

Herbert List, Young Men & Still Lifes will be on display at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles until 31 August 2019.

Featured image: Herbert List – Wrestling Youth I, Baltic Sea, Germany, 1933. Copyright the Herbert List Estate, courtesy of the Fahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles.