Collection Spotlight: The great gymnasts of Heidburg…,Michael Schwab

Artist: Michael Schwab (German, born 1966)
Title: Die grossen Turner aus der Heidburg mit den “Bananen-Bäuchen”, Siegfried u. Kunigunde vom Lehrer gennant (The great gymnasts of Heidburg with the “banana-bellies”—called Siegfried and Kunigunde by their teacher), from the series Erinnern (Remembering)
Date: 1993
Medium: Gelatin silver print
Dimensions: 24 x 19 15/16 in.
Credit line: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Museum Studies Class Fund purchase, 1999.4.3

In his series Erinnern (Remembering), the German artist Michael Schwab, uses found family photographs to create works of art that make history feel both personal and concrete. The artist gives anonymous photographs new life by enlarging them and overlaying the images with handwritten texts that he finds on the back. This text also becomes the title of the work. The interplay between image and text invites the viewer to slow down and meditate on the personal stories and histories behind each photograph.

Of the three photographs from Schwab’s series in The Block’s collection, one in particular stands out to me: Die grossen Turner aus der Heidburg mit den “Bananen-Bäuchen”, Siegfried u. Kunigunde vom Lehrer gennant (The great gymnasts of Heidburg with the “banana-bellies”—called Siegfried and Kunigunde by their teacher). The image shows two young children holding hands, smiling for the camera, and wearing matching snug overall shorts and white shirts.  The background provides an interesting contrast to the cheerful scene; they stand in front of a short chain link fence which is topped by a few strands of barbed wire. In the distance, a large industrial building ominously takes up most of the space.

Because the image is of anonymous German origin, the series title Erinnern, German for “Remembering,” helps provide additional context, as do the textual elements. The writing from the back of the photograph, which the artist has made central to the artwork, indicates that it was taken in the 1930s or 1940s. The text is descriptive yet concise, giving the viewer the only available hints to the identities of the children in the photos. By calling the children by the playful moniker “the great gymnasts” and pointing out their “banana bellies,” the writing provides a lighthearted and personal tone that juxtaposes with the heavier historical context. The text may also resonate with viewers who have jotted down details on family photos to remember the circumstances of a photograph or to share a memory with a loved one.

Schwab’s artwork dates to 1993, giving us another context in which to understand the image. In the 1990s many Germans were reflecting on the history of the Holocaust and World War II and coming to terms with the atrocities and tragedies that had taken place. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war in the early 1990s, this was a period of reckoning with how to remember and memorialize victims of Nazi persecution while also striving to avoid glorifying or beautifying those tragedies.

 While I found all three of Schwab’s photographs remarkable, this one of the children struck a chord with me. The children’s smiling faces contrast sharply with the heavy weight of knowing what happened in the 1940s, shortly after this photo was taken. Now, as we have just celebrated the 75th anniversary of VE Day, when the Nazis surrendered to Allied Forces in Europe on May 8, 1945, the artwork brings an important individualized type of remembrance to the conversation. The passing of time can have a numbing effect on memory and can allow the harshness and reality of a situation to fade. This work personalizes tragedy in a way that acknowledges individual histories. While we may not know who these children are or what happened to them after their photo was taken, Schwab’s artistic intervention invites viewers to contemplate their futures.

– Contributed by Madeline Hultquist, Undergraduate Research Assistant, 2020


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Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences

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