REVIEW: ‘BEYOND THE BATTLEFIELDS’ AT GROSVENOR GALLERY
A classically posed portrait of a young boy, smiling into the lens; he clutches an almost comically large white rabbit in his lap. This is the image chosen to advertise ‘Beyond the Battlefields’, an exhibition of images made by Käthe Buchler around the timeline of World War One.
At a glance, the image could very well be a school portrait or even a family snapshot, the careful preservation made by mothers and fathers dutifully carried out in an attempt to elongate the unknowing delight of youth. Upon closer inspection, the boy’s smile is made up of twisted teeth. A rabbit’s claw appears extended. Accompanying wall text placed at intervals throughout the show introduce the boy as ‘Collecting King Willy von Hinten, the most diligent collector of 1915’. The title was most likely given by Buchler. The rabbit, however, was in fact awarded by local German authorities in exchange for his metal scavenging abilities. The text presents an altogether more harrowing image of food, labour and material shortages – Willy’s portrait was taken only a year before the ‘Turnip Winter’; the young scavenger’s previously unclenched grip appears much closer.
Käthe Buchler’s depictions of German civilians in wartime are tender, composed, and do not appear entirely out of place next to her early autochromes of flower arrangements; these are images of stillness in a time of agitated uncertainty, where any degree of normality suddenly becomes poetic. Read in the context of a gallery, the photographs are heavily symbolic, common visual metaphors such white rabbits, collected shoes and oversized soldier’s uniforms repeat through frames. A group of children in costume as goats and sheep kneel as a large figure dressed as a wolf looms, pantomime-style, towards the edge of the frame. Buchler’s images dissolve the expected male-centric spiel covering the glory, and tragedy of war – the gallantry of Buchler’s narrative comes from the prevailing sense of humanity of the women and children left behind. Those who, malnourished and tired, continued raising families, took on gruelling jobs and maintained society as husbands and fathers were fighting a failing war. As much as rabbits, wolves and empty shoes become poetic emblems of innocence, hunger and violence, a strictly historic reading of the images still offers a touching reality of theatre performances and small trophies continuing to exist during an impoverished time – revealing perhaps a more tangible romance.
Insulated by her position as a partially deaf woman of considerable wealth and status in a very disciplined society, Buchler approaches the everyday civilian as something of an outsider, a woman who can command sitters to pose and has the obvious technical ability to capture a striking portrait. Despite this, Käthe Buchler was described as an amateur; a title weighted with negative connotations, of incapability and lack of professionalism, an assumption that Buchler was of no threat. It was this degree of translucency, which allowed her to carve out a creative agency, challenging the regimented and established hierarchy of the time and recognising others doing the same. While the expectation of men was to fight for their country, it was left to women to take up roles usually denied to them. Buchler began a series of portraits recognising women pushing the boundaries of stereotype entitled ‘Women in Men’s Jobs’. There are images of female conductresses standing side by side in sharp uniform, a ‘Carrier’ hunched double under the weight of her cargo, grinning. The various backdrops of ladders and ascending stairs in each photograph appear to be specifically chosen.
‘Beyond the Battlefields’ exists as an exhibition caught between document and sentiment, this sense of duality lies in the contrasting voices of historian, Melanie Tebbutt and visual artist, Jacqueline Butler. As co-curators of the show, Tebbutt and Butler manage to balance two very different disciplines, neither does the show feel cold and factual nor does it belittle difficult subjects with whimsy: downfalls very much possible if approached from a singular angle. The accessibility of the show does not have to rely on an audience’s ability to read the nuances of symbolism, nor does the viewer have to have a wide knowledge of the First World War. ‘Beyond the Battlefields’, which runs until 2nd March at Manchester’s Grosvenor Gallery, exists as a point of dialogue that actively confronts usual gender and generational boundaries with an authoritative level of quiet all too often forgotten. The exhibition shows the faces of survivors and the impact small gestures and moments of ingenuity have in an otherwise desolate and unsure time.
Review by Declan Connolly
Images ©Estate of Käthe Buchler – Museum für Photographie Braunschweig/Deposit Stadtarchive Braunschweig