An artist in Germany had to be careful as the Nazis rose to power—even more so as the Allied bombs fell. It was only natural to put aside worldly matters and to look within. Could that be why Elisabeth Hase looked so often to herself? Though they may look at first ever so carefree, her self-portraits take exquisite care. She catches herself asleep, in the shower, at ease, and in tears. She throws herself to the wind and up a staircase, only to fall headfirst, her Sunday best in disarray and her purse lost by her side. Of course, each is only a pose. Hase could not have fallen asleep in front of her camera, and not many showers rain down in the middle of a room, leaving a woman in shock at the cold. She did not inadvertently trip both the shutter and herself. Her poses can be self-assured or troubling, from a measured look straight forward to her face buried in a handkerchief while a man in a black robe, seen from behind, looks on. He could be her judge or her mirror. And who knows what lies within a cage between her hands, if not another reflection of herself?
Maybe a truly modern artist had to adopt a disguise back then, but Hase has no end of them. Her pose as a scientist peering into a microscope could be right out of a life of Marie Curie, only that movie had yet to be made. She can put her very role as an artist on the line, training her box camera on a flower, like a weapon way too massive for its innocent subject. Yet she began the series by 1927, barely into her twenties, and her first show in America at Robert Mann through May 7 all but skips right over World War II. She lived from the age of the zeppelin, which she photographed, to 1991. It also points to her stubborn consistency.
Although it leaves her last forty years unspoken, it divides in three, including the self-portraits, each third leaving one guessing what came early and what came late. A sewing kit, a glorious swirl of feathers, the bridge of a musical instrument, and apricots like planets in a dense universe all date from 1931, but she returns to still-life after the war. She began her city views early, too, and she gained permission from the occupying U.S. Army to do so again. The ruins of Saint Paul's church testify to change, and one could read change into other photographs as well. Maybe sugar cubes piled high speak to shortages. Cars before the war look oversized and quaint, but one after the war, Hitler's beloved Volkswagen, goes up in flames.
Regardless, Hase has her poses all along, along with edgy points of view. She peeks out from behind someone else, reflected and distorted in a sphere, like the one that Man Ray used for his Laboratory of the Future. Sunlight suffuses the city from behind, casting a mother and child in shadow. A double amputee eyes a wild animal in its cage, whether to seek redress or to sympathize with a fellow prisoner. For all the horror, they belong to the ordinary human comedy, like workers chipping away at the ruins or three children of disparate heights crossing the street with umbrellas. They look like an early version of Abbey Road. In fact, much looks like photography today. The self-portraits anticipate Cindy Sherman and Untitled Film Stills, although Hase is franker and more on the line. Two eggs holding out intact against a wire beater and their shadows look ahead to the kitchen still-lifes of Jan Groover, although in black and white, and a calla lily has the pristine beauty of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1984. Still, like László Moholy-Nagy, Hase belongs to an older world of Bauhaus photography, or like Alfred Stieglitz, of urban shadows. She was also a woman with, as the show's title has it, "An Independent Vision" and its costs. In a close-up of an eye, her lens is wide open, but the eyelid could almost be sewn shut.
Elisabeth Hase An Independent Vision Robert Mann Gallery 525 W 26th St. 2nd Fl Chelsea Map 212 989 76000 robertmann.com March 31 through Sat, May 7, 2016 Hours: Tues-Fri, 10 to 6, Sat 11 to 6