Arno & Alice Schmidt
Photographs from Three Centuries
January 9 – February 21, 2010
It was the prize money for his first work Leviathan that Arno Schmidt invested in a Bonafix roll-film camera in 1950. This purchase is all the more remarkable as the Schmidts were nearly destitute after the war years and was evidence of the enormous worth that this item held for them. The new camera was from then on a constant companion, with which they documented their everyday life: they photographed one another, and recorded dwellings and their interiors, locations, and landscapes. Above all the camera is an indispensible tool for his literary production all his life; it is his sketchbook, with its help he can “ganze Bündelchen von Erinnerungen [...] heraufangeln” (catch whole bunches of memories), as written in his work Abend mit Goldrand (Evening edged in gold).
From Sketch to Aesthetic Object
Arno Schmidt photographer? Only declared Schmidt-aficionados know of the writer’s passion for photography. The photographs from Arno and Alice Schmidt are first of all snapshots, just like those that everyone makes for their photo album and is in this respect alone relevant as a biographical document. The photographs function as visual notes as well, with which Arno Schmidt records settings for his writings. Additionally there are landscape photographs by Arno Schmidt, which resulted from his travels, that show their own style beyond amateur photography and are technically skilled.
Since 1958 Alice and Arno Schmidt lived reclusively in Bargfeld, a small village in Lower Saxony. Here arose images, whether portraits or views into the daily life of village living which reveal an increasingly conscious implementation of compositional aspects. The subject of focus is more than just a memory for the family photo album or notes for literary work; rather the image as aesthetic object moves toward the center of its interest, gaining power and coherence. Expanses of fields, meadows, water, or sky are dynamically composed, light and dark consciously staged, and the lines of the edges of forest or field, trees or buildings are perceived and recorded as appealing graphic elements. This development was aided through his friendship with the Hessen lecturer Wilhelm Michels, with whom Arno Schmidt intensively dealt with photography, especially regarding the technical side. That Alice also knew her way around a camera is clear from the many portraits she made of her husband.
Images against Forgetting
The photography as well as the thoughts about their specific possibilities are conspicuously present in Arno Schmidt’s literary work. In Zettel’s Traum the camera is the "Protest gegen die Vergänglichkeit" (protest against transitoriness); it is in a position to keep things from being forgotten. Amateur photographer Schmidt knows that images are not made in the camera, rather in the head; images are always the result of the inner images of those who experience, who remember. What’s more, image and text in Arno Schmidt’s work flow into one another, insofar as on the one hand the viewing of photographs immediately conjures up memories in the form of words. The image says not more than the famous thousand words, it allows many more words to come into being, in that it calls up associations and memories. On the other hand, Schmidt’s linguistic work compresses itself in turn to exceedingly colorful images and often linguistic photograms with a positive/negative effect, as well as in to “audio images,” given the strong phonographic elements of his prose.
Four Times Four out of the Shoebox
Different from Schmidt the writer, who divided his audience into enraptured fans and uncomprehending detractors with his neological and orthographical originality and who challenged every typographer with his formal text design, Schmidt the photographer is no enfant terrible. On the contrary, his images seem almost unpretentious and, particularly in their overall context, they gain in complexity. From them speak a love for nature and detail, without being clichéd. Schmidt had the photos developed inexpensively at the lab and stored them in a shoebox, which shows that he didn’t explicitly see them as objects for exhibition nor himself, the writer, as a photographer. Around 2,500 color photos and a good thousand black-and-white photos were created between 1949 and 1979—taken first with the Bonafix, then with a Yashica 44. All images have one thing in common: their square format. It is effectively a trademark.
Arno Schmidt was born January 18, 1914, in Hamburg and grew up in a working-class neighborhood. At four years old the son of a police officer was already able to read. In 1928 when his father died, he and his mother and sister moved to Lauban in Silesia, the birthplace of his mother, today a part of Poland. After graduating from high school he worked as an apprentice and warehouse clerk in the Greiffenberger textile factory. He met Alice Murawski there and they married in 1937. Both devoted themselves exclusively to Arno’s writing. In 1939 he was drafted into the artillery and stationed in Norway in 1942; he was captured by the English in 1945 and let out that same year in November.
After the war Alice and Arno Schmidt moved into the “Mühlenhof” in Cordingen near Fallingbostel. His sister sent the destitute relatives care packages from the US. In the postwar period Schmidt worked as a translator, and by the end of the ’40s as a freelance writer. In 1949 he debuted with the volume of stories Leviathan, which was awarded with the grand prize of the Mainzer Academy in 1950. To earn a living he translated and wrote for newspapers and radio. In 1950 the Schmidts moved to Gau-Bickelheim in Rheinhessen and in 1951 to Kastel on the Saar. In 1953 Aus dem Leben eines Fauns and Die Umsiedler were published. In 1958 Alice and Arno Schmidt changed location for the last time as they moved to Bargfeld in Lower Saxony.
In 1964 Schmidt won the Berlin Fontane Prize and in 1965 the “Große Ehrengabe des Kulturkreises im Bundesverband der deutschen Industrie” (Great Award of the Cultural Committee of the Federation of German Industry). Schmidt withdrew for many years to finish his opus: in 1970 Zettel’s Traum was published. The city of Frankfurt awarded him the Goethe Prize in 1973. In 1979 Arno Schmidt died following a stroke at the age of 65. Alice Schmidt and Jan Philupp Reemstma founded the Arno Schmidt Foundation in 1981. Alice Schmidt died in 1983.
Estella Kühmstedt (translated by Thea Miklowski)
Photographs © Arno Schmidt Stiftung, Bargfeld