Riding home on the Berlin U-Bahn after seeing the Diane Arbus photo exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau makes me smile. I look at all the different people that you can only meet on Berlin’s subway; folks who are so exemplary for this city: The drunks, the drug addicts & their dealers, the homeless people selling their newspapers, the hipsters… And I begin to wonder if the famous photographer Diane Arbus would have liked Berlin in 2012? Probably! In a school assignment at the age of 18 she wrote: “That is what I love: the differentness, the uniqueness of all things and the importance of life… I see the divineness of ordinary things.” Almost sounds like a poetic interpretation of the Berlin slogan “Poor but sexy” to me. Though she clearly meant New York – the place where she was born in 1923 and where she committed suicide in 1971.
The curators at Martin-Gropius-Bau intentionally do not guide you through the exhibition; Arbus’ pictures should be soaked up solely through the lens of individual experiences. This works for me only to a certain extent. A bit more coherence for the 200 pieces would have been helpful. My personal anchor are the particularly fascinating New York pictures from the 50s and 60s. Diane Arbus’ New York is a mad men’s place – but not the one you might know from the popular TV show Mad Men. You barely see the Don Drapers or Pete Campells in Arbus’ artwork, she stalked with her camera behind the scenes of social success, norms and convention. Her whole life being skeptical about the concept of (finite) success, Arbus didn’t pay too much attention to the conforming lifestyles of people who are climbing up the greasy pole. She was more fascinated by the quiet minority that is mostly represented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition as well: The American families in nudist camps, the Russian midget friends in their living room, the tattooed female impersonators from the Bronx, the backwards man, the man who swallows razor blades, the Santas in front of a Santa Claus school, a Mexican dwarf in a hotel room, the albino sword swallower at a carnival or a Jewish giant at home with his parents.
The famous writer Norman Mailer once said: “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.” And indeed her artwork is not only explosive and blows your mind; it also has this huge amount of passionate curiosity that you normally just see in children’s eyes and that so many people lose after childhood and adolescence. Or, to end with a Diane Arbus quote: “If you’ve talked to somebody with two heads you know they know something you don’t.”
- Martin-Gropius-Bau Diane Arbus. June 22nd – September 23rd, 2012, Wednesday – Monday: 10am – 7pm (Price Range: Not for sale).