The late-20th-century German author W.G. Sebald was in the habit of befuddling his readers by interspersing his prose with photographs – invariably sans explanatory captions, and all the more absorbing for it – so there is something rather apt about a Sebald-themed exhibition in which visual art is foregrounded, and the written word relegated to a tersely informative minimum. ‘Melancholia: A Sebald Variation’ presented at King’s College London’s exhibition space in Somerset House, the Inigo Rooms, marks two decades since Sebald gave the Zurich lectures that would appear in book form as Luftkrieg und Literatur (1999) and later, courtesy of Anthea Bell’s translation, as the posthumous On the Natural History of Destruction (2003). These lectures looked back at the Allied fire-bombing of German towns and cities during the Second World War, and explored the reluctance of postwar German society – due to a mixture of shame, trauma and ingrained cultural diffidence – to speak openly about it. Sebald’s sensitive probing of the German collective psyche was jarringly juxtaposed with harrowing accounts of the carnage, such as this description of the bombing of Hamburg during Operation Gomorrah in 1943:
‘only a quarter of an hour after the first bombs had dropped the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see . . . At its height the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising hoardings through the air, tore trees from the ground and drove human beings before it like living torches. Behind collapsing facades the flames shot up as high as houses, rolled like a tidal wave through the streets at a speed of over 150 kilometres an hour, spun across open squares in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders of fire. The water in some of the canals was ablaze.’
Sebald’s subject was not war per se, but memory. It is therefore fitting that the artworks in ‘Melancholia: A Sebald Variation’ do not, for the most part, bear documentary witness in the way we might expect of, say, a show at the Imperial War Museum. With the notable exceptions of Wilhelm Rudolph’s ink drawings from the ruins of Dresden made in the final months of the war, and photographs taken by Hermann Claasen, Erich Andres and Richard Peter of the wreckage of Cologne, Hamburg and Dresden respectively – Claasen’s 1946 Fronleichnamsprozession, which captures a long line of nuns filing past a backdrop of Cologne’s utter devastation, is breathtakingly arresting – the majority of the exhibits are not contemporaneous testimonies but engage with the subject allusively, at a considerable remove in time and space.
The Somerset House exhibition opens with Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melancolia I. This brooding sketch, itself fleetingly referenced in Sebald’s 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn, signposts a thoughtful and introspective timbre. The strange polyhedron which appears in Melancolia I – a truncated triangular trapezohedron, to give it its proper name – is in turn referenced in another exhibit: a set of nine photographs by Anselm Kiefer of life-size model fighter planes that the artist made using sheets of lead, some of which had been recovered from the roof of Cologne Cathedral. The trapezohedron’s likeness in glass sits beside the planes, conspicuously unobtrusive, like a skull in a renaissance painting. If Kiefer’s oeuvre has long comprised a visual counterpart to Sebald’s literature of memory and loss, other exhibits are less context-specific. Tacita Dean’s eerie chalk-and-paint cloudscapes, specially commissioned for this exhibition, are understatedly evocative, while George Shaw’s gloomy, forbidding painting of a country lane by night, Study for the Painter on the Road I (2015), is similarly, indeterminately suggestive.
Two of the more eye-catching works here are by younger artists. Map-maker Jeremy Wood’s cartographic drawing, My Ghost (2015) , which traces a GPS-tracked trail of his movements around London over a 15-year period, nods to the psychogeographical and itinerant tropes in Sebald’s fiction. For instance, Sebald’s 1992 novel The Emigrants is a unitary text made up of four distinct narratives chronicling the lives of a quartet of 20th-century Jewish émigrés. These sombre portraits of displacements and dislocation take us from Lithuania to Bavaria, France to Manchester, engaging along the way with grief, loneliness, mental illness and suicide. Likewise The Rings of Saturn (1995) is structured around a narrator’s walking tour through coastal East Anglia but pans repeatedly away to the past. Combining elements of biography and travel writing, The Rings of Saturn glides through times and places with oneiric ease: one minute we are in the court of King James II, the next we find ourselves pondering the demise of Chinese Emperors; we breeze from the travails of Roger Casement to the cultural history of the silkworm moth, from Catherine of Siena to the hurricane of October 1967. Though more traditionally novelistic in its structure than these two earlier fictions, Austerlitz (2001), is similarly sprawling and digressive in its narrative style and its preoccupation with memory.
These themes are reprised in the exhibition space with a 54-minute video by the Dutch endurance athlete-cum-filmmaker Guido van der Werve, Nummer veertien, home (2012), which takes as its theme the exiled afterlives of Chopin and Alexander the Great. A troubled-looking protagonist is followed across an epic long-distance triathlon from Warsaw to Paris by an orchestra and choir performing a sombre requiem. In successive scenes we see him variously winched into the sky, on fire, and falling to his knees in despair; he is always alone, always ploughing ahead. It is surreal, bordering on kitsch, and curiously uplifting: the feeling of desolation is offset by the suggestion of renewal and regeneration.
The collection’s spare composition and the exhibits’ discrete arrangement in segregated rooms makes for a solemn, contemplative experience. John-Paul Stonard told me that he and his fellow co-curator Lara Feigel had wanted to create a ‘decompression chamber’ effect in the Dürer room, where the title piece hangs alone, to evoke the sensation of entering a quasi-sacred space. The exhibition’s subtle allusiveness, prioritizing the associative and connotative over the directly representational, with pieces drawn from disparate eras and mediums, is a fitting tribute to an author whose own literary modus operandi was stubbornly non-linear – a freewheeling meander through decades and places. In truth, the themes explored here pertain just as closely to Sebald’s better known novels as they do to the essays contained in On the Natural History of Destruction. But the ‘hook’ of a round-number anniversary is known to be irresistibly seductive to institutional funding bodies and magazine editors alike, and the Zurich lectures are as good a reference-point as any; and besides, there is certainly enough overlap to justify the elision.
Sebald occupies an unusual dual status: a cult figure, with an entire posthumous cottage industry in the humanities to his name, but still something of an acquired taste in the wider literary world. (The autocorrect on my laptop, for example, rejects him altogether, insisting that I mean to write W.G. Seabed.) At any rate, ‘Melancholia: A Sebald Variation’, while decidedly more meditative than didactic, nonetheless resonates with contemporary relevance. The exhibition’s examination of itinerancy and loneliness, which we might choose to read as indicative of the human condition in general, or the atomization of emotional life in 21st-century society, feels especially resonant in light of the ongoing migrant crisis. Sebald’s native Germany, from which he emigrated (to the UK) in 1966, has taken in an estimated 1.5 million refugees from Syria in the past three years. As Eileen Battersby, writing recently in The Guardian, succinctly put it: ‘Displacement has moved beyond a literary theme; for millions, it is reality.’
The German electorate has this week returned Chancellor Merkel to power for a fourth term, but the rise of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, which has just won its first parliamentary seats with some 12.6% of the vote, has raised the spectre of German nationalism for the first time in generations. Germany, it seems, is far from immune to the toxic populism that has swept across much of the Western world in the past couple of years. There is an old adage that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. It took the German nation – with the help of Sebald and the other German writers of his generation – decades to truly confront the suffering and trauma that resulted the last time Europe gave free rein to its basest impulses. Let’s hope their efforts have not been in vain.
Main image: An Avro Lancaster of No 1 Group, Bomber Command, silhouetted against flares, smoke and explosions during the attack on Hamburg, Germany, January 1943. Courtesy: Imperial War Museum, London; photograph: Royal Air Force official photographer
Houman Barekat is a literary critic based in London. His reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times, the Irish Times and the Spectator. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books).