Sexuality, Gender and Visual Cultures in 20th-century Germany

In January 2020 the project hosted three guest speakers at the seminar “Sexuality, Gender and Visual Cultures in 20th-century Germany”.


Sex Sells! Wolfgang Gurlitt, Erotic Print Culture and Women Artists in the Weimar Republic

Camilla Smith

This talk explores erotic material commissioned by the art dealer and publisher Wolfgang Gurlitt (1888–1965). Between 1919 and 1920, Gurlitt published a hand-printed series of erotic volumes Der Venuswagen (The Chariot of Venus), which straddled the areas of art, literature and sexology that saw him end up in court. A decade later, he commissioned the artist Jeanne Mammen to illustrate Pierre Louÿs’ Les Chansons de Bilitis [The Songs of Bilitis] – a fictional set of poems supposedly written by the lover of Sappho. At a time when women’s sexual autonomy was frequently pathologised, Mammen’s images made a powerful visual statement about homonormative experience in 1920s Germany. But they remained unpublished. Investigations into Gurlitt’s early career expose the limits and tensions of Weimar sexuality, as well as open up important lines of enquiry regarding women artists’ roles as active contributors to, and shapers of, erotica.

Camilla Smith is Lecturer in Art History at the University of Birmingham, where she specialises in German modernism. She is the author of articles on Weimar visual culture published in the Oxford Art Journal and New German Critique. She has also published on eighteenth-century erotica in Art History. She has contributed essays to exhibition catalogues on Jeanne Mammen (Berlinische Galerie), Wolfgang Gurlitt (Lentos Kunstmuseum), and Weimar cabarets and nightclubs (Barbican Art Gallery). Her monograph on Jeanne Mammen is forthcoming. She is currently working on a book-length project on German erotic visual cultures.


„The coming out of the museum“ – Negotiating LGBTQ identities and representations of explicit sexuality in Berlin museums

Hannes Hacke

 In recent decades LGBTIQ activist, alongside feminist, anti-racist, de-colonial and disability movements, have challenged museums for excluding and/or misrepresenting minorities and women and questioned the power structures that are upheld in and by these institution. Museums have become sites of activism, “staging grounds” for struggles over representation and equal access. A turn to the past and a search for historical same-sex loving and gender non-conforming figures has been an important element of these interventions and identifying “ancestors” and historical figures has been an important tool of legitimizing the claim for recognition and equal treatment in the present.

The paper is part of  my dissertation project in which I focus on three LGBTIQ history exhibitions in Berlin which have contributed to rendering visible LGBTIQ identities and histories: “Eldorado. Homosexuelle Frauen und Männer in Berlin 1850-1950. Geschichte Alltag und Kultur” at the Berlin Museum in West-Berlin in 1984; “Goodbye to Berlin? 100 Jahre Schwulenbewegung” at the Akademie der Künste in 1997; and “Homosexualität_en” at the Deutsches Historisches Museum and the Schwules Museum in 2015. I seek to illuminate the complex negotiations between museums and LGBTIQ communities and within LGBTIQ communities in Berlin over the presentation of same-sex and gender diverse histories in these exhibitions and to trace their wider societal, moral and political effects. My aim ist to expand the critical reflection and examination of the format “LGBTI history exhibition”, of the regulatory assemblages that govern visibility, identity and intelligibility of non-normative sexual and gendered identities in museums, and of the role of the past for the articulation of LGBTIQ identities in Berlin and Germany.

While much research focuses on the experience and reception of exhibitions by the physical visitors, recent scholarship has stressed the wider impact that exhibitions can have beyond the actual visit. Exhibitions and their (supposed) content is disseminated though media coverage, advertising for the exhibition, word of mouth, and in some cases activist groups. In my paper I will present first results of my research and focus on the use of images and artworks to advertise these LGBTIQ history exhibitions in Berlin and the reactions and the debates in the media and the LGBTIQ communities about them. The posters of all three exhibitions were the result of negotiations between curators, institutions, artists and communites and subject to subsequent censorship aswell as praise. The debates about the posters of the exhibitions highlight the contradictions of an identity politics in museums that rely on a politics visibility and point to the charged status of depictions of non-normative sexuality in museums.

Hannes Hacke is a research associate at the Research Center for the Cultural History of Sexuality at Humboldt-University, Berlin where he is currently working on the documentation, preservation and exhibition of the Naomi Wilzig Collection,  a collection of erotic art. Hannes holds an M.A. in Gender Studies and European Ethnology and worked as a curator and educator at the Schwules Museum* from 2014 to 2017. In 2018 he co-curated the exhibition “The Eroticism of Things. Collections on the History of Sexuality” at the Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge in Berlin. His doctoral research at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH) at Humboldt University focuses on the history and impact of LGBTQ exhibitions in Berlin. He is also one of the co-founders of the network Queering Museums Berlin.

“Men love with their eyes”: Vision Science and Queer Aisthesis in Germany, 1860-1933

Ty Vanover

Part of a larger dissertation project, this paper seeks to locate the emergence of modern queer identity in Germany between 1860 and 1933 by examining theories of the image and vision from below and new notions of queer visual culture as they emerged in relation to epistemological shifts in the fields of experimental psychology, physiology, and vision science. Beginning with the work of psycho-physiological researchers like Gustav Fechner, Hermann Helmholtz, and Ernst Brücke, I explore how the research carried out by Central European scientists and research institutions during the period in question exemplified a shift towards a conception of humans as fundamentally physical—and aesthetic, perceiving—beings, whose sense of self arose not from a vitalistic spirit or will but from the very visual system through which they viewed the world. And so too, as this research archive suggests, were their erotic proclivities and sexual identities subject to visual experience. As such, my project asks how contemporary science might have been used as a buttress to a vision-based theory of queerness. In particular, I propose to examine the phenomenon of queer sexual vision as a habit of attentiveness that must be recognized as a product of both the laboratory and personal experience, and which queer individuals enacted through their response to images and “signs” found in settings both classical and radical, rarified and low.

In this paper, I will focus on a small selection of images produced by queer makers that are typically dismissed by art historians as marginal, ancillary, or vulgar, but which were invaluable, I argue, to the development of modern queer identity in Germany and Central Europe more broadly. I hope for this paper to raise larger questions that complement those raised by my colleagues: what can objective science contribute to a study of subjectivity? What is particularly German about queerness and its associated visualities? What weight should the “visual” carry in studies of queer visual culture?

Ty Vanover (2017) studies 19th- and early 20th-century art, specializing in German and Austro-Hungarian visual culture, theories of sexuality, and histories of science and medicine.

His dissertation, tentatively titled “Sexuelles Sehen: Central European Pictures and the Queer Psyche,” rethinks long-held social theories of sexual identity construction by arguing for the primacy of visual perception in the formation of modern queer identity. The project considers the significance of a wide array of images—from medical diagrams to paintings, private book illustrations to tattoos—and argues for the emergence of “sexual vision” against the backdrop of sweeping epistemological shifts in sexual science, psycho-physiology, and aesthetics in Central Europe between 1860 and 1933.

Ty received his BA in Art History from the University of Virginia and his MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London.