Peter Geimer's study "The Colors of the Past" - Culture

A rural scene: a woman and three children, their backs to the viewer, are moving towards a green hill. A friendly sky above, spring mood, fair weather clouds. From the clothing of those depicted, it is easy to see that we are in the period around 1900.

The illustration is quite appropriate for the cover of the new book by art historian Peter Geimer. You could succumb to the first impression and think you are dealing with an impressionist painting. A second look, however, reveals the irritating brown spots, chemical residues and discoloration that appear in photographs. Because it is a photograph of Heinrich Kühn (his children and their governess can be seen), who photographed like Impressionism painted.

The illustration on the cover brings together numerous problems that determine this book, which is well worth reading: the past and the pictorial anyway, but then also the media characteristics of painting that seem to look like photography, or of photographs and films that are painted on afterwards. Above all, however, it is the rear view that can be interpreted as representative of the theses of the book: What past do these people come from? What future are they going to?

And how can we as viewers deal with the gap between the different levels of time, which we know can never be bridged in the end? Precisely because those depicted do not look at us, they refer to the invisible that the past inevitably is. Or as Peter Geimer puts it: "The past is unobservable".

Nevertheless, we keep an eye on it. And it is in particular looking at the past (not reading about it, which is much more common) that interests Geimer. By moving along four visual media in an approximate chronology - the history picture, the panorama, photography and film - he makes it easy for the reader to follow his argument. And through this order, the temporal turbulence that is negotiated below can be tamed somewhat.

Thankfully, Geimer doesn't even try to create the illusion of a largely complete overview that is so often pursued in non-fiction literature. Instead, he enables his readership to take a detailed look at some of the workshops. His exemplary studies follow, among others, the approach of the French history painter Ernest Meisonnier, the panorama producer Jean-Charles Langlois, the photographer Marina Amaral, the successful director Peter Jackson and the filmmaker Harun Farocki, who is not quite as successful but is incomparably more reflective - to name just a few to call. By looking at less than so-called overview presentations normally claim, Geimer is able to show more.

The battle paintings and battle photos have an eerie topicality

The focus is on the 19th and 20th centuries, so that the question of pictures of the past from earlier times arises. The consideration of non-Western regions would certainly have been insightful. And the apparent dominance of wars, battles, and other forms of murder in the after-dwellers' desire to visualize the past deserves some thought.

After all, the battle paintings, battle panoramas, battle photos and battle films treated are horribly up-to-date in view of the Twitter pictures and Instagram clips that are currently being produced in Ukraine (even if Geimer hardly suspect anything of the imaging reality effects of this event when the book is finished could).

But that hardly affects the cognitive values ​​as well as the reading pleasure of this well-written book. And the insights presented are, on the one hand, on a microscopic level, if attention is paid even to the accidental appearance of a fly on the forehead of actress Maria Falconetti in the film "The Passion of the Maid of Orleans" (1928), because this fly is such a part of a unforeseeable collateral documentation, as is particularly characteristic of photography and film (after all, the camera captures everything that comes before its lens, including everything that is initially completely uninteresting for the image producers).

The bow tie can illustrate how times are constantly being tied together

But this fly - similar to the rear view of the Kühn family - can quickly overcome the distance from the micro to the macro level. And that's exactly what Peter Geimer does consistently in his instructive book. On the one hand, the fly makes clear the impossibility of wanting to capture the no longer existent of the past visually, since other times have always interfered: it is, so to speak, the time stamp of the year 1928 on the forehead of a woman who was just in the 15th century. century should be.

The bow tie, on the other hand, can illustrate how those times are constantly knotting together in an almost dizzying way, because the film is set in the 15th century but was produced in 1928 and almost a hundred years later we can still see a bow tie that is theirs future is long behind. Pasts, present and future tumble merrily here.

True, the past is unobservable. And the stories that are told about it, with words or images, arise in the in-between, arise in the references between all those who constantly keep an eye on this invisible.

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