Motion Sensitive

NEXTBOOK.ORG–December 10, 2008

Photographer Hans Robertson captured the expressionist dancers of Weimar Germany

By Deborah Kolben and Gal Beckerman

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When Lotte Jacobi’s photos were exhibited together for the first time four years ago, reviewers were dazzled by how many of Weimar Germany’s glittering jewels—from Käthe Kollowitz to Martin Buber to the famously vampy Lotte Lenya—had been captured by her lens. She seemed to have single-handedly taken on the task of portraying the immense artistic, psychological, and political fervor of those tumultuous years, which seemed fragile even at the time—an ambitious task for any one photographer, even one as hungry as Jacobi. But her atelier was, in fact, one of 400 in Berlin, and she was just one of the many—mainly Jewish—photographers feverishly recording the dancers, writers, and actors that made this doomed moment in German history so extraordinary. Another photographer who clicked away at an incredible rate and with singular results was Hans Robertson.

To say that an artist has been forgotten is to imply that he was well known in his time. Robertson’s name—like that of Jacobi and most other commercial photographers—was not familiar outside the circle of performers who were his subjects and magazine editors who used his services. But from the evidence of only a fraction of his prolific output, discovered almost by accident and now on display at the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin, his work deserves attention.

Robertson’s specialty was expressionist dance. And expressionist dance was huge in 1920s Germany: the avant-garde innovations that had taken place at the turn of the century in everything from painting to fiction became popularized, and dance was transformed from an aesthetic exercise into an attempt to translate the inner life into movement. The gestures of this modern dance were primitive, dramatic, almost ritualistic, with a fetishistic focus on the human body. Mary Wigman, one of its main innovators, slid across the floor on her knees, eyes closed, fists clenched, performing her Witch Dance. Her school in Dresden became a center of this Ausdruckstanz, producing world-renowned modern dancers like Harald Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi.

They all posed for Robertson. His studio on bustling Kurfürstendamm—a boulevard that was both the Fifth Avenue and the 42nd Street of Berlin—saw a steady stream of business in the late 1920s and early ’30s. But the commercial aspect of these photos, which were in demand by popular illustrated journals like the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, is less important than the artistic vision that guided their creation. Robertson was trying to use his camera in much the same way the dancers he photographed were using their bodies. From the creative way he manipulated light to his innovative use of multiple exposures, he wanted to capture more than just straightforward ornamental shots of the dancers. He was trying to convey their new art form on its own terms.

The dancer Harald Kreutzberg in 'Irre Gestalten', 1928
The dancer Harald Kreutzberg in Irre Gestalten, 1928

This is clear in the photographs. The series called “Leaps,” of Gret Palucca, a favorite muse of expressionist painters and the Bauhaus crowd, catches Palucca in mid-air, limbs splayed. Only part of her body is in focus—the ability to photograph sudden movement was itself a recent technological advancement. In one image her naked torso is twisted, in another her back arched. Then there are the soulful photos of Jo Mihaly, performing her one-woman piece, “Mütter.” She stands in front of a black screen wearing a black turtleneck, her pale, emotive face almost floating in the frame and illuminated from above by a single beam of light. On the more abstract end are Robertson’s photos of Harald Kreutzberg performing his “Lunatic Figures.” Robertson overlays three different exposures of the famously shaved headed dancer, capturing the various expressions of madness Kreutzberg is embodying. Even in Robertson’s more straightforward photo of Kreutzberg as a lunatic, holding a flower and posed loose as a marionette puppet, he captures the dancer as a depersonalized body, a trope of Expressionism that would later inspire, among other post-war dance forms, Japanese Butoh.

Of Robertson’s biography, says the curator of the Berlinische Gallerie show, Thomas Friedrich, “there are more questions then answers.” He was born in Hamburg in 1883. After studying engineering—a profession that inspired a few early photos of construction sites and workers—he changed course and headed to St. Mortiz where he apprenticed for the Swiss landscape photographer Albert Steiner. At 28, Robertson’s first photo spread—a pictorial tour through Holland—appeared in Photographische Rundschau. But his photo career would have to wait until 1918, when he arrived in Berlin. There he joined Lili Baruch—one of the disproportionately high number of Jewish women then making her living with a Leica—who set up the studio on Kurfürstendamm, specializing in dance photography, which Robertson took over in 1928.

To produce the thousands of photos he printed over the next five years, Robertson most likely worked long days and weekends. In addition to dance photography, he shot a wide range of portraits of many of the era’s personalities, from the famous—a nude profile of the boxer Max Schmelling—to the forgottn, such as a close up of the publisher Irmgard Klepenheuer, gazing intently at the camera, a cigarette between her fingers.

In 1933, following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and the subsequent boycott of Jewish businesses, Robertson had an inkling of what was to come. He handed over the studio to his apprentice, Siegfried Enkelmann. One of the few documents Friedrich, the curator, has been able to uncover is a contract signed by Robertson that makes the transfer final, and describes Enkelmann as “reliable.” And he was. The protégé survived the war and continued photographing dancers (including Mary Wigman) until his death in 1978.

Robertson and his coquettishly beautiful wife, the actress and dancer Inger Vera Kyserlinden (born Levin), escaped to her native Denmark. While the avant-garde movement had been taking place in Berlin, Paris, and Prague, most photographers in Copenhagen were stuck in the pictorial style of the 1910s. As a result, in 1963 Robertson established the first modern photography school in Denmark. But eight years later, just before Hitler began deporting Danish Jews, the Robertsons were forced into exile again, this time fleeing to Stockholm. They returned in May of 1945 and Robertson died just five years later at the age of 67. Thousands of his photographs were turned over to the Royal Library of Denmark following his wife’s death in 1969.

Over time, Robertson was reduced to little more than a footnote. And not just proverbially: It was literally in a footnote in 1992 that Friedrich—a charming, slightly disheveled curator who thrives on the detective work involved in resurrecting dead photos and their makers— discovered his name. He was intrigued, but it took another 14 years (after encountering Hans Robertson’s name in another context) for Friedrich to finally take a trip to Copenhagen to peruse the archive at the Royal Library. What he found there astounded him. Not only did Robertson’s photos offer the most comprehensive catalogue of Weimar dance, but his work was also that of an artist with a unique style and vision. Friedrich still marvels that Robertson’s photos manage to look so distinct from one another, even though they were all taken in the same studio.

The building that housed that studio, on Kurfürstendamm, no longer exists. Like it did in much of Berlin, new construction in the 1950s erased what was before. Now two pharmacies, a clothing store, and a nondescript café look out from the ground floor. There is no trace of the glamour and wild experimentation that was once captured there in pictures. But Hans Robertson himself might yet have an afterlife: Friedrich, it seems, is planning a large retrospective for 2011.

Deborah Kolben and Gal Beckerman are freelance writers living in Berlin.

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