Erna Lendvai-Dircksen's 'Das germanische Volksgesicht - Flandern' (the face of the Germanic peoples of Flanders) arrived in the post today from Germany. This 1942 text is yet another beautiful portfolio of (mostly) peasant types, expertly photographed and exquisitely presented in this almost Quarto sized book. This edition will sit on the shelf next to my other Lendvai-Dircksen editions - 'Das deutsche Volksgesicht Schleswig-Holstein' and 'Das Gesicht des deutschen Ostens' - my small collection of her work is slowly growing alongside the Retzlaff's, Saebens and other völkisch physiognomic photographers. Happily, decent copies of these books can be still be bought for less than £20 (inclusive of postage).
Erna Katherina Wilhelmine Dircksen (1883-1962), is another of those highly accomplished photographic creatives whose work is still considered 'beyond the pale' in some quarters because she supported and was supported by, the National Socialists in Germany, although she had developed her oeuvre before (rather than as a response to) Hitler's coming to power in 1933. Her contemporary 'critics' have variously described her work as 'kitsch' through to 'racist'. The application of such pejorative terms is simply an exercise in disparagement. To designate something as 'kitsch' is to suggest it is of poor taste or perhaps overly sentimental. Yet, looking at Lendvai-Dircksen's portfolio it is clear to me that what one sees is rather a real feeling for her subject matter, indeed a passion for those that she photographed. But then I never did have a problem with sentimentality either. To feel a tenderness or nostalgia for something can often lead to a heightened engagement with the subject - far beyond the sterile nihilism that is often deemed de rigueur in modern aesthetics.
To label Lendvai-Dircksen's work as 'kitsch' then is to simply attempt to dismiss it because it does not conform to the cynicism or pessimism of much of the contemporary critical narrative. In my judgement, there is nothing derisively 'kitsch' in this volume or indeed the others I own or have been fortunate to look over.
As for the problematic slur 'racist' I think 'racial' would be more apposite. Her work was indeed concerned with race and was part of a large visual catalogue that was used in various books and journals that celebrated the ethnic German (she was a regular contributor to Volk und Rasse for example). It might also be argued that her work contributed to the identification or marginalisation of other races and racial admixtures in the metapolitical crucible of the Third Reich. Race was never disdainfully dismissed as a 'social construct' in the 1930s and 1940s. There can be no doubt that racial science, racial anthropology and a national racial consciousness were significant social and political factors throughout the Occident prior to 1945. However, in the post-war political consensus racial awareness was no longer considered 'politic' and was increasingly rejected and its proponents censured. Yet that trend appears to be shifting once again as the effects of neo-liberalism and enforced globalisation are in turn spurned. The Overton window is clearly moving and with the flood of migrants in the last few decades (and after 2015 in particular) populist political movements and grassroots activists are vociferously questioning the desirability of the imposition of 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism' or 'multiracialism'. The 'natus', the tribe of a people, as represented in the work of photographers like Lendvai-Dircksen, is becoming germane once more to the socio-political discourse.
No, the real problem for Lendvai-Dircksen's detractors is that her work is rather good, indeed, often superb. This, like the work of her talented contemporary Leni Riefenstahl, makes her doubly hated. Not only was Lendvai-Dircksen a skilled maker but crucially her work is counter-propositional to the aesthetic-critical fashions of the so-called post-modern era. She celebrated an 'in group preference' in her work, she selected 'types' who conformed to her aesthetic vision of the world (mostly, but not exclusively, the elderly and children). It is not 'inclusive' in any sense. It is about hierarchy, heredity and tradition. It is a physiognomic depiction of an ethnography, a specifically Germanic ethnography. That is why the National Socialists liked it and why she (like Riefenstahl) is still often despised today.
It is interesting to consider how in the early twentieth century many of the 'pathfinders' of that emergent and often remarkable milieu of Modernism were politically 'of the right' (for want of a better term). A handful of names illustrates the point - T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, T. E. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Gabriele D’Annunzio, W. B. Yeats, Filippo Marinetti, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Williamson and many, many more. It is a fact that discomforts many of our cultural elite today and one that is often brushed aside as an aberration or quietly passed over in the lecture hall. Yet it is still a fact. Lendvai-Dircksen was a conservative, her subject matter and her words demonstrate this. She was also a traditionalist (notwithstanding her own prominent and quite modern role as a female career professional), her vision underlines this. Whatever her association with National Socialism her ability transcends the time in which she worked. It is her talent, whether one agrees with her politics or not, that we should recognise and applaud. Lendvai-Dircksen is a seminal photographer of the twentieth century and should be treated as such.