6. Lost in the Transnational: Photographic Initiatives of Walter and Helmut Gernsheim in Britain
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144 Chapter 6 Lost in the Transnational: Photographic Initiatives of Walter and Helmut Gernsheim in Britain Michael Berkowitz A glut of studies, including documentaries in diverse media, reveal seismic shifts in mid-­ twentieth century British culture. Art, literature (at all levels), music, education, the press, and fashion are among a host of phenomena that scholars and other commentators identify as fomenting and indicative of such changes. Visual culture, in this regard, has come under increasing scrutiny. Although historians have recognized the significance of key figures with central European origins, as well as groups of émigrés from Nazi Germany, as having had a tremendous impact on creativity in Britain, photography has elicited limited attention. The current chapter will not try to fill this lacuna through detailing Jewish contributions. Its aim is to suggest that reigning interpretations of photography ’s history are challenged when one considers ethnic and religious difference and transnational networks. Between 1935 and 1950, relationships between the fine arts and photography in Britain underwent profound transformations beyond technological advances. Historians and others concerned with British culture have scarcely recognized the place of Walter and Helmut Gernsheim in such processes. The Gernsheims did not simply transplant what they practiced and knew from Germany to Britain. Partly due to their marginal status, they adapted and re-­ created ways of conceiving photography ’s role in, and relationship to, the fine arts, and photography’s place in a universal, humanistic culture. Walter and Helmut Gernsheim were both embodiments of the transnational . Born in Munich, they migrated to London, from Nazi pressure, as young Lost in the Transnational    145 men. But beyond the fact that they operated in different national/cultural contexts , they were ardent believers in “transnationalism” in an ideological sense. To the extent that he articulated his politics, Helmut Gernsheim supported the movement for a federated system of world government, which was loosely identified with pacifism. “I am,” Gernsheim wrote in 1951, “a keen Federalist and have recently been elected to the Committee of the Parliamentary Association for World Government.” It strove “(1) To promote the realisation of the necessity for world government among parliamentary associations throughout the world; (2) To seek ways of uniting all the forces moving towards world government”; and “(3) To assist by all possible means the creation of a world authority, based upon the rule of law.”1 His correspondent, Hugh Harris, then the literary editor of London’s Jewish Chronicle, wrote that he was “in close touch with that and similar movements , as I am the Hon. Secretary of the Jewish Peace Society.”2 The other known manifestations of Helmut Gernsheim’s politics were his attempts to ensure that the Allies remained vigilant about postwar Germany being demilitarized , and for former Nazis being prevented from influencing German society and politics.3 Walter Gernsheim was so averse to nationalism—­ to any degree—­ that he struggled to accommodate himself to even the British wartime government. The brothers lived their lives, in large part, as intermediaries between cultures. Both attempted to connect their present and future with ages (and countries) distant and past, and they likewise sought to serve as interlocutors between public spheres that were not determined by conventional national boundaries. Walter Gernsheim was, literally, a translator before and after his career as an art dealer and photographer. In the best of worlds, or at least a world without the Nazis, both men would have remained in Germany and settled into art history as a vocation. When first in Britain Walter ran an art gallery. He realized early on that there was little chance of a refugee making it as an art historian in 1930s Britain. Walter passed this insight to his younger brother, Helmut, encouraging him to learn photography. He inferred that the most practical way for a Jewish refugee to establish a livelihood in the arts in Britain was through photography. Each man not only entered the British arts scene but immeasurably enhanced it. In short: Walter pioneered and institutionalized a novel use of photography in art history. With his (first) wife he conceived of photographing Old Master drawings and selling them on a subscription basis, with the aim of serving a transnational scholarly community. As a refugee in Britain he began systematically photographing Dutch and Italian drawings, and illuminated manuscripts and prints of any origin, as a resource for scholars, museum profes- 146    Three-Way Street sionals, and collectors. The meticulous cataloging dismissed the notion of “race” or essentialized national cultures out of hand...



Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Germany -- History.
  • Germany -- Emigration and immigration.
  • Jews, German -- Foreign countries.
  • Jews, German, in literature.
  • Germany -- Civilization -- Jewish influences.
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