Dreams of the Decades

Liz Jobey

  • Bill Brandt: A Life by Paul Delany
    Cape, 336 pp, £35.00, March 2004, ISBN 0 224 05280 2
  • Bill Brandt: A Centenary Retrospective
    Victoria & Albert Museum

In the summer of 1927, 23-year-old Willy Brandt underwent psychoanalysis in Vienna in an attempt to cure his tuberculosis. He had spent the previous two and a half years in Switzerland, at the Schweizerhof sanatorium in Davos, where, along with the prescribed exposure to sunshine, good food and fresh air, he had undergone surgery to artificially collapse one of his diseased lungs, in the belief that this would give it a better chance to heal. Before that he had spent 22 months at another sanatorium in Ticino, where many of the patients, like Brandt, were German. The spread of TB was one of the legacies of the First World War. As Paul Delany tells us, in Germany TB sufferers doubled in number in the last two years of the war, when ‘soap disappeared completely, and the streetcars were foul with the distinctive stench of famine.’ Rolf Brandt, Willy’s younger brother,

would later talk of having to rummage in dustbins for food and living for a week on one loaf of bread, baked with each day’s portion marked out. All his life he would gobble his meals and leave no scrap on his plate, a typical habit of people who have experienced starvation. Willy did not behave in this way; it seems by the time of the famine his mother was so fearful for his health that she kept up his strength by giving him an extra share from her own rations.

Despite all the evidence, it was still a widely held belief that sufferers brought TB on themselves. Wilhelm Stekel, who treated Brandt in Vienna, maintained that ‘the psychic component plays a formidable part in tuberculosis. Many people become ill because they are tired of life and have a wish to die.’ Whether or not this was true of Brandt, his life since adolescence had not been happy. His father, L.W. Brandt, came from a family of wealthy merchant bankers based in Hamburg; he had been born in London, where his own father had been running the English branch of the company, and was registered as a British subject. This brought complications when war broke out. At first the Brandts supported Germany: Delany’s book includes a photograph taken in September 1914 of the four Brandt boys dressed in miniature German army uniforms; Willy looks slightly rueful. But in November, L.W. Brandt was arrested as an enemy alien and sent to an internment camp. When he was released six months later, he found that his business had suffered and his children had been stigmatised. Willy went to school in Hamburg throughout the war, but in 1919 was sent away to a strict Prussian boarding-school where, his nationality being taken from his father’s, he was registered as a British subject. Over the next few years his academic performance and his health grew steadily worse. He developed asthma. Eventually he fell behind so badly that he was sent to his first sanatorium in 1923. Four years later, the offer of psychoanalysis as a possible cure must have been welcome. When he left the sanatorium in Davos his doctors told him he would be dead within months. He took the risk and arrived at Wilhelm Stekel’s clinic in Vienna in May 1927. Stekel practised what he called the ‘active-analytic’ method, and made much shorter work of psychoanalysis than the Freudians did. As Delany explains, he didn’t ‘sit around while his patients slowly uncovered their subconscious fantasy life. Instead, he . . . plunged straight into the deepest recesses of their psyche.’ Brandt stopped seeing Stekel after three months and never went back. Whether the treatment worked, or whether Brandt simply discovered life for the first time in Vienna, we can’t know, but on his next medical consultation he was found to be free of TB.

Delany has a contradictory attitude towards Stekel. On the one hand, he calls him ‘something of a charlatan’; on the other, he credits him with providing clues to, or even laying the foundations of, Brandt’s particular photographic language, because it was Stekel who introduced Brandt to the symbolism of dreams, and this provided him with a means of expression for his own psychic traumas. In this reading Delany is following Brandt’s earlier critics, David Mellor and Ian Jeffrey, who identified in Brandt’s photographs coded expressions of his disturbed psyche. They contain what Delany identifies as ‘symbols and obsessions peculiar to himself’.

Ever since Brandt became the focus of academic study in the mid-1970s, his photographs have been subjected to readings that claim to identify his neuroses and his sexual obsessions, and find them played out in his subject-matter: his iconic, often melodramatic compositions, his love of high contrast, his predilection for shadows and night-time scenarios, the claustrophobic rooms in which his early nudes were cloistered, even the tunnels and chambers of the London Underground, which, from this critical perspective, represent the underworld of Brandt’s troubled personality. His early life is treated as a source book, consulted for corroborative proof after the ‘secret texts’ of the photographs have been decoded. Faced with a significant lack of hard facts, circumstantial evidence has to bear the critical weight. Delany, following Mellor and Jeffrey, identifies some of these symbols and obsessions. Like them, he traces Brandt’s fascination with English ‘types’ to a favourite book from Brandt’s childhood, Cherry Stones. This was an English picture book which illustrated the figures from English life as they were listed in the popular counting chant: ‘tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, plough-boy, thief’ (the beggarman didn’t feature in this version). He finds the frequent appearance in Brandt’s pictures of figures in uniform – servants, policemen, nurses, waitresses – deeply significant. ‘The policeman,’ he writes, ‘was the Freudian superego who kept the dream-world of the city under control.’ The woman in uniform is an expression of his sexual fetishism: ‘Brandt’s passivity towards women could include a positive need for submission, and even to be punished by them.’ Once Brandt begins to photograph nudes, the sexual symbolism is even more overt: his women are acting out private dramas, and the props, which reappeared, not least because Brandt frequently used the same locations, are loaded with significant meanings. A Victorian chair, a lamp, a framed picture of a sailing ship, the bed, all become ‘stock items from Brandt’s erotic inventory’.

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