Helmar Lerski. Series and Hugo Erfurth. Faces

EXHIBITION Sep 21 — Nov 28, 2002

Kicken Berlin is exhibiting the work of two artists who were among the most prominent portrait photographers of their times: Helmar Lerski (1871–1956) and Hugo Erfurth (1874–1948). For the first time, their different artistic styles are juxtaposed in one exhibition. The show therefore enables a new insight into two exciting photographic streams of the 1920s and 1930s.
Helmar Lerski’s life took place between Europe, America and Palestine. After having worked as actor and camera man, he only became a photographer when he was forty years old. With its expressive light effects, his series "Jews and Arabs" of the years 1931–1935 stood in contrast to the contemporary stream of neo-realistic photography.
Hugo Erfurth’s oeuvre is to be ascribed to this Neue Sachlichkeit. In contrast to Lerski’s metaphorical language, his style advocated naturalness and realism. In front of Lerski’s camera, the faces of the Jewish and Arabic models became images of biblical heroes and prophets. Although a political component of the work had not been intended by the artist, the works are of surprising actuality today. The plasticity of Lerski’s faces is expressed even stronger in his main work "Metamorphosis Through Light". This series originated in Jerusalem from October 1935 until February 1936. The face of his 24-year-old model Leo Uschatz is transformed into a scene on which the photographer stages his play with light. With the help of small mirrors installed on music-stands, he created sharp lines, soft shadows and darker interludes in the face of his model. The young Swiss man’s expression and character are radically transformed from photograph to photograph, any similarity to the previous image seems to vanish. Lerski was not interested in the circumstances his models lived in. ‘Depending on how I guide my light, my model changes into someone who accepts life, or a melancholic, a hero or a weakling.’
Of a completely different character are the portraits by Hugo Erfurth. In contrast to Lerski, Erfurth became passionate about photography at an early stage in his life. He was entirely devoted to capture the personality and aura of the sitter. Erfurth wanted to show the ‘humane in a human image’ without expressionist deformation. Today, the close focus on the head of the sitter still comes across as extremely modern. Most of the 1920s and 1930s great figures, political, cultural as well as social, sat for Erfurth, often several times. Amongst those were Konrad Adenauer (1928), Max Planck (1938) or Hans Thoma (1920).
His portraits purvey calm, dignity and occasionally a strong thoughtfulness, such as the portrait of the artist Käthe Kollwitz (1920s). With her aged face resting in one hand, she looks into the viewer’s eyes, absorbed in her own thoughts. But the feeling remains that her look goes inwards. Konrad Adenauer on the other hand looks self-controlled, almost stern. Only the diagonally striped tie loosens the compositions slightly. Like in most pictures by Hugo Erfurth the background remains neutral; attributes which would point to profession or social status of the sitter are missing. The powerful portrait of his painter friend Otto Dix (c. 1940) represents an exception. Erfurth portrayed him several times with paintbrush and dressed in a tunic.
Helmar Lerski and Hugo Erfurth most probably never met, although they were engaged with portraiture in Germany at the same time. It is therefore all the more exciting to exhibit their extreme positions together in one show seventy years later.

On display in the second exhibition space (Kicken II) is a small selection of landscape photographs by Ansel Adams (1902-1984) in honor of the master´s 100th birthday.