Appropriated imagery replayed evokes wider, personal memories

Artbeat column no 430 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 5 January 2009

The world is full of images, especially in popular culture, but when you want a particular one, it can be hard to find. I was thinking of this in connection with Ben Webb’s art because part of his practice rests on an extensive search of the vast detritus of popular imagery.

Mr Webb particularly looks at European material, much of it German, mostly dated, a lot of it what many would consider anti-glamorous, the output of the old DDR, the German Democratic Republic, better known as East Germany. It was a communist state not famous for the brightness of its life. Looking at some of Mr Webb’s material I was thinking how these images re-play when appropriated and reminded of a picture which has haunted me for years. It comes from a little before the DDR was created in 1949.

Long ago when the world was young, or at least when your columnist was very young, in drab and battered post-war England, there was a song which impressed itself on me. I remember it with a background sonorous murmur, so I imagine it came from an old 78 RPM record. It must have played often enough for me to remember the words. They were strange, although that didn’t strike me then. They were also hard to hear, precisely. But the voice was memorable and the singer is easily identifiable. She also used some distinctive words.

The song began “Vor der Kaserne/Vor dem großen Tor/Steht eine Laterne/Und steht sie noch davor…” which will be familiar to some. The melody swelled, the words continued, “So woll'n wir uns da wieder seh'n/Bei der Laterne wollen wir steh'n…” before descending to the chorus, “Wie einst Lili Marleen. Wie einst Lili Marleen”. The song is the famous “Lili Marlene” – its English title. The version I knew was sung by Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992).

I know this because her extraordinary voice is instantly recognisable. Also, for some reason, Dietrich says “Steht eine Laterne” while the official version is “Stand eine Laterne”, faithfully intoned by the woman who first made the song famous, Lale Andersen (1905-1972). Never mind the words. The difference between the two voices is phenomenal and greatly to Miss Dietrich’s advantage.

My father had been a prisoner of war in Germany, bore the Germans no grudge, but had seen terrible things – a woman crucified on a barn door for betraying a communal loyalty, for example. He was an historian and a powerful speaker with a broad understanding of the peculiar savagery of Europe’s recent past which he could convey very effectively. Ms Dietrich’s languid, world-weary voice expressed the weight of this for me, which I think would have happened anyway, at some level, even without my father’s commentary. I think it helped that the words were in German because it masked the triteness of some of the phraseology of the song which would have detracted from the deeper feelings it conjured.

When I was still very young I saw an image which was a visual accompaniment and an entry point to the same emotional terrain. I see it on a blackened wall, but that may only be association. It’s a picture of Miss Dietrich.

I looked for it on the internet but couldn’t find it, unsurprisingly. There are thousands of images of Miss Dietrich, who controlled her pictures and had a personal archive of some 15,000. When you look at them now you see numerous examples of glamour photography which helped to form a generation’s way of seeing. They represent good glamour photography of the time, ranging from seductive to even, improbably, gamin. No matter. Miss Dietrich had good bone structure and understood a thing or two about lighting.

The point is such images are layered. They are capable of arousing our emotions because of their associations but they have an afterlife. Mr Webb’s art employs this.

Strip the images and overlay them and you get something different. Their associations, personal and wider, continue to exist. But they become something else.

Two will serve as examples. Both are of Miss Dietrich but one is highly glamorous while the other is not. Probably nowadays only a few will recognise the sitter, even fewer the woman in the plainer picture. More will recognise their approximate period and associate them with those times of terrible stress. People will have different reactions but few will think of the period as happy.

So, even without my personal associations, these images are likely to conjure the Depression and the war, at least as background. Of course there are many other feelings they will raise too: because they show an attractive woman; because one presents her as a femme fatale. Although their original purpose has gone they are rich in meaning, possibly over rich. But they are useful canvases for doing something new.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times