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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY NINETY EIGHT Andreas Gursky and Osnabrück

We're having a late afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen in the Cafe am Markt in the centre of Osnabrück. It was a bit of a push from Dusseldorf, through the Ruhr valley and out onto the North German Plain. Nothing between us and the Baltic now but flat land. My legs are celebrating.

The ride over here gave me a greater appreciation of two, that is to say, three of Germany's great photographers. Bernd and Hilla Becher, children of mining and steel-working families, who became effectively joined at the hip in 1957 when students at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, are the photographic equivalent of Kraftwerk. Obsessed with their Heimat, they spent their lifetimes recording thousands of industrial structures – watertowers, grain elevators, coal bunkers, oil refineries, blast furnaces, gas tanks, silos and warehouses. Later they travelled to the United States to do the same and they photographed our coal fields from Nottingham to the Rhondda.

Pitheads 1974 (Tate) (c)estate of Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher

Their style is very particular and repetitive – flat and expressionless, reflecting the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) of pre-war German photographers who rejected earlier expressionist tastes. The Bechers' intention was that their images should be viewed in clusters - and, if you see them grouped, what seems dull becomes haunting.

By the 1970s, the Bechers were being seen as part of the American-led New Topographics style of landscape photography. In the New York exhibition of 1975 (in which the Bechers showed work), New Topographics was defined as a style "stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion".

The Bechers have had a profound influence on many photographers – not least one of their students, Andreas Gursky - who is now a professor himself at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. I had an email the other day from Fred Sansom, himself a wonderful photographer (who wrote the guest post on August Sander), about perhaps the most notable of Gursky's photographs:

“Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II is one of the most famous examples of contemporary art photography, not least because from 2011 to 2014 it held the record as the most expensive print ever sold, going under the hammer for a cool £2.7 million.

Viewing a reproduction of it in a book or a magazine, it can be hard to see what all the fuss is about. Like a great painting, it needs to be experienced first hand — and at its full three-metre span.

Andreas Gursky Rhein II (c)wikicommons

The upper part of the picture shows an overcast sky, while the lower half sub-divides into alternating bands of greens and greys. If you were to stand on the bank of the Rhine, this is not what you would see, as the image is a digitally manipulated composite of photographs of different segments of the river. Gursky’s art is conceptual rather than documentary.

The landscape is stripped down to its essentials: water, opposing grassy banks and a path are depicted, but a power station and any people, trees or other objects that might have been present have been removed. Even so, it is not a simple image. Within the horizontal lines of its almost abstract, geometric form, there’s perspective and plenty of detail. The super-sized wide-angle creates a sense of flow in the river and makes the viewer feel part of the scene.”

Thank you Fred. As someone who likes the work of the Bechers and Andreas Gursky, Fred found the spot where Gursky took his famous image.

(c)fred sansom

We have come to Osnabrück for several reasons – the first, which we satisfied on the way in, was to see the battleground where the Cheruscan warlord Hermann stopped the eastward spread of the Romans. In the four-day struggle in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, Hermann annihilated a Roman army of perhaps as many as 18,000 men.

The site of the battle was discovered by a British amateur archaeologist in 1987 and since then the excavators have dug up a trove of Roman and Germanic artefacts - human bones with terrible wounds, hundreds of coins, spear tips, lead sling-shot, Roman armour, buckles, tent pegs, surgical instruments and the wonderful cavalryman's face mask pictured below.

Roman cavalryman's facemask - exhibition copy (c)Kalkriese Museum

We live in an historically cynical age: did the battle really happen here, given that no-one has dug up artefacts carrying the emblems of the three defeated legions? And was Hermann really the founding hero of Germany? Historians now point out that Hermann had united only 5 tribes to fight the Romans while there were around another 45 who did not join his alliance – and who are the forefathers of many European nations, not just the Germans.

Osnabrück bears witness to another seminal event in German history, the Holocaust, in the form of an annex to its art museum. This was designed by Daniel Libeskind to display the work of Felix Nussbaum, the surrealist painter murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. You may remember his painting of existence in one of his prison camps that we saw in the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

Felix Nussbaum In the Prison Camp (c)Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin

We shall finish our day of seminal moments in German history back in the First World War, by having supper at Osnabrück's own Walhalla, the half-timbered inn that appears in Erich Maria Remarque's novel The Black Obelisk.

Of course, Remarque, who was born in Osnabrück, is best known for All Quiet on the Western Front (a novel, not surprisingly, banned by the Nazis as unpatriotic) but The Black Obelisk has its moments. The much-quoted the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic is usually attributed to Stalin, but is in fact from this novel. And Remarque describes how Frau Beckmann, a lady with a rare superpower, pulls an iron nail from a wooden beam using only her bottom.

Interview with Hilla Becher -

South Bank Centre's film on Andreas Gursky -

Fred Sansom's wonderful images -

A nice little film about Hermann's victory in 9 AD -

A tour of Osnabrück -

All Quiet on the Western Front (full film) -

An interview with Erich Maria Remarque in 1962 (in German, but with the 'Settings' button you can generate auto-translated subtitles) -

Kraftwerk, The Man Machine -

Supermax, Lovemachine (1977) -

Florence and the Machine -

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