On the Natural History of Destruction

Bloodlines

In his essay, On the Natural History of Destruction, WG Sebald describes he RAF and US Air Force raids on Hamburg on 27th July 1943. The aim of the operation was to destroy as much of the city as possible:

Within a few minutes huge fires were burning all over the target area, which covered some 20 square kilometres, and they merged so rapidly that only quarter of an hour after the first bombs had dropped the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see. Another five minutes later, at 1.20 am, a firestorm of an intensity that no one would ever before have thought possible arose. The fire, now rising 2000 metres into the sky, snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force, resonating like mighty organs with all their stops pulled out. The fire burned like this for three hours. At its height the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising hoardings through the air, tore trees from the ground and drove human beings before it like living torches.

It is hard not to think of the wholesale destruction of Hamburg (and of so many German cities) even now when you are standing in its spotless squares. After all, it is only seventy years ago, still within living memory, that these unthinkable acts occurred – thousands of civilians simply set alight in their homes and on the streets.

Undoubtedly, the city bears its scars, if you know where to look. Sebald talks about the reluctance of many Germans, then and now, to speak of the air raids – perhaps for Sebald it was easier to face, as he was an infant when the war ended, and he spent much of his adult life in the UK, where the war is still very visible, constantly reassessed and discussed.

Hamburg, to a casual visitor’s eye, is a very peaceful and friendly city. We arrived at the Hauptbahnhof in the late afternoon, just as the light was fading. I was thinking a lot about Sebald after my walk around the East End of London a few weeks ago; I was inspired to reread Austerlitz, whose eponymous hero is a connoisseur of grand train stations. Parts of the Hauptbahnhof were bombed during the war, but it is still an imposing building, a symbol of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Imperial might. 

As most of the station remains, it is easy to picture what this bit of the city would have looked like in 1938, before it was destroyed, when hundreds of children were put onto trains heading for the Netherlands and France via the Kindertransport. Eva Hesse was two years old when she left her native city. We think of her these days as one of the most radical New York sculptors of the sixties, in her cold water studio in the Bowery (back in the days when the Bowery was truly edgy), shaping latex and plastic into strange almost-organic forms. She must have carried Germany with her – although too young to remember Hamburg, something of the fear of the small child fleeing a war-torn place stayed with her. The attempt to use salvaged and post-industrial materials is all about taking things which are discarded, which do not appear to have an intrinsic value, and making something new of them. The spectre of death is everywhere – there are boxes she makes us peer into, like tombs; messy strands of rope-like tendrils that might have risen from some hellish swamp. Her mother survived the camps, and made it to New York, but committed suicide a few years later, when Eva was still a child. Eva faced illness as something inevitable – she died at the age of 34, but left a huge catalogue of work behind, as if she knew she had to work fast before her time was up. 

At the Kunsthalle, the recent retrospective of Hesse’s work was paired with a new show of pieces by Gertrude Goldschmidt, known as Gego. Hesse and Gego share many similarities – both were strong-willed Jewish women artists who fled Hamburg to escape the Nazis – although Gego is a generation older. When the two-year-old Eva was boarding her train at the Hauptbahnhof, Gego was soon to follow, but by then she was twenty-six, already trained as an architect. She scanned the globe for somewhere she would be accepted, and chose Venezuela as a destination because it seemed to be the sort of place she could practice – a country that embraced modernism (at the same time that the Nazis were destroying any art they labelled as ‘degenerate’), where the war was a distant episode. The Caracas she arrived to was a vibrant and growing city, full of opportunity. It was here she made a name for herself designing a number of public projects, developing her ideas of kinetic movement, ‘drawings without paper’.  

By putting these two artists side by side, the Kunsthalle created a dialogue between them – one that begins with the line as a vehicle for connection and cohesion, a way of finding a wordless order within the chaos they both fled. Gego continued to work until her death at the age of 82. She remained in Caracas her whole life, but like Hesse, never forgot her roots.