Book Review: Grotesque Visions: The Science of Berlin Dada

30 September 2021

Rachel Eames, Independent Scholar

Thomas O. Haakenson, Grotesque Visions: The Science of Berlin Dada, (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021)

Part of Bloomsbury’s New Directions in German Studies series, Grotesque Visions focuses on the interaction between ways of seeing in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century medical and anthropological sciences and the work of the Berlin Dadaists Salomo Friedlander (aka Mynona), Til Brugman, and Hannah Höch. Haakenson explores ‘the tenuous use of sensory knowledge in empirical scientific practice, and reveal[s] the ways in which hierarchies of vision’ (118) formed and were challenged by artists in early twentieth century Berlin. Haakenson relates strategies of scientific observation and typification to the development of the grotesque and frames his study around their opposition. Where scientists sought to teach a standardized and regulated form of vision, the Dada grotesque celebrated bodies that refused to conform to scientific type.

Building upon – and often critiquing – John Crary’s influential study, Techniques of the Observer (1992), Haakenson draws attention to the institutional pressures that shape modern science’s rhetoric of vision and seeing. However, where Crary locates vision ‘in strategies of visual engagement’, devaluing the individual observer and, albeit knowingly, setting aside more ‘marginal and local forms’ of resistance to dominant practices of vision, Haakenson’s local focus allows him to unpick both institutional strategies and the pressures put upon untrained or ‘nonspecialist observers’ (85-86).

Haakensen sees the grotesque body as a site of exchange between scientific and artistic vision. For example, in his analysis of Friedlander’s ‘A Child’s Heroic Deed’, he identifies a web of satire, fantasy, and absurdity around an intense critique of contemporary science’s treatment of divergent and disabled bodies. Friedlander and his colleagues, he argues, ‘utilized the grotesque as a critique not simply of modernity, but more specifically the empirical sciences associated with modern rationality’ (9). The affordances of grotesque representation, outlined in Haakenson’s introduction, form the dichotomy upon which the author’s argument rests: grotesquery functions as a repudiation of visual and embodied norms – the very norms the scientists were at pains to establish and solidify.

A strength of this study is its bringing together of diverse disciplines and media; in his third chapter, a discussion of the ‘architectonics’ of Rudolf Virchow’s Museum of Pathology (between 1901-1914), the author deftly explores the impact of the scientist’s pedagogical agenda upon the architecture, lighting choices, and design of the museum’s public and research exhibits. Alongside analyses of the photographs used by early anthropologists such as Carl W. Dammann, Grotesque Visions presents a strong case against the supposed objectivity of the scientific photograph and display as a means for augmenting, capturing, and preserving scientific observations. Indeed, Haakenson argues that scientific representation in Berlin was motivated by the concept of ‘sehen lernen’ – the idea that a lay audience must learn to see scientifically. In order to ‘acculturate the public into the visual ideology of empirical science’ (63), scientists are shown to be constant mediators of knowledge, employing ‘photographic artifice’ (97) and selective curation to ensure the viewer’s perspective is as close to their own (often culturally biased) perspective as possible. The dynamics of control and curated familiarization in spaces of scientific communication demonstrate how public science is often far from objective.

Haakenson traces the contours of an emerging science that teetered precariously between sensationalism and supposed objectivity. The stakes here were high: scientists fought to maintain authority and their hierarchical position as ‘experts’ against growing suspicion that their perception was neither particularly acute nor objective, replicating inaccurate assumptions about sexual, racial, and gendered bodies which came to inform political and eugenicist thinking. Further, by emphasising the pre-eminence of ‘direct observation of the empirical world’ (92) while simultaneously conveying supposedly objective truths in curated photographs and mediated spaces, the scientists invited satire from Dadaist writers like Til Brugman (1888-1958). Haakenson’s reading of Brugman’s short story, ‘The Department Store of Love’ (ca. 1931) offers a compelling account of the grotesque satirical style, drawing together the new science of sexology and its reliance upon photography, political commentary, and Dadaist absurdity.

In Chapter Six, Haakenson turns his study of the history and aesthetics of anthropology to Hannah Höch’s (1889-1978) photo-montage series, Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (From An Ethnographic Museum) produced between 1924 and 1930. He reads this series as a challenge to science’s assumptions about the objectivity of the scientific record offered by photography. By cutting and splicing images of people and objects from so-called ‘primitive’ cultures, he argues, ‘Höch refused to simply represent objects, but sought rather to invoke a strategy that criticized the illusory nature of visual representation’ (149). Haakeson emphasises Höch’s challenge to the racialized science of anthropology but misses an opportunity here, following his discussion of the development sexology, to comment on Höch’s perspective as a woman in a relationship with another woman (Brugman).

While the research and connections made in Grotesque Visions offer fascinating insights into turn-of-the-century discourses around vision and visibility, the book’s organization is at times confusing. There are moments when the case studies feel disconnected, and there would be some value in the author articulating the connections more clearly. The sections directly addressing Dadaist works feel as though they fade into the background in favour of the analysis of the scientists’ methods. However, more jarring than this is the final chapter before the codex, ‘Learning to See Grotesquely’, which jerks the reader back to a position of ignorance as to the subject matter they have enjoyed in the past 180 pages. This short chapter contains prefatory information, including introductions to the key people considered and a statement of intention, which would have been appreciated in the book’s introduction.

Overall, however, this book offers a valuable contribution to the study of the visual language of early twentieth century science in Germany, attentive to the motives and manipulations of the various actors Haakenson discusses. In particular, the discussion of Friedländer’s writing, much of which has not been translated into English, is very welcome and indeed receives some of the best treatment of the three Dadaists the book considers.

Image Credit / Caption: © Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

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