One of the less well-known, abortive grand fantasies of the Nazi era was the idea that the Germans did not, as science suggested, originate on the African continent. Instead, they looked eastwards to Tibet. In 1938, a year before the invasion and the beginning of the war, an expedition led by Ernst Schäfer headed out to document the population. Some of the Schäfer Expedition’s inadvertently artless photos have been revived by Tomas Lundgren and turned into portraits.
Sweden is anything but innocent of promoting such ideas. Categorisation of people was not associated with now-discredited right-wing ideologies at the time; rather, it was standard fare. The Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology was founded in 1922 with the support of all the parties in Parliament, though there were critical voices. Carolus Linnaeus’ vision of naming and categorising the world’s plants and animals evolved into a dream of dividing people into more and less valuable categories.
”This has been a big interest of mine, how people were portrayed in the name of science. By the time I grew interested in this theme, more and more institutions were digitising their archives, and suddenly everything was accessible. The dark past was leaking out. Its ethical lapses were coming to light.”
In Tomas Lundberg’s hands, these forgotten, humiliated, diminished and dominated individuals are elevated to portraits, “an ancient, extinct genre”, as he puts it.
”What kind of people have their portrait painted? Important people: the wealthy, priests, kings. A portrait is a way of holding them up to be admired. They are worth an oil painting. That was my original idea, too. It became a tool for understanding these events, bringing them down to the level of the individual. Ultimately, it’s people who ended up being the focus.”
”Am I just repeating the violence stored in the archives, or am I shining a light on it? It’s not obvious to me. Most of the people I’m painting have been dead for at least 70 years, so there’s a gulf. They are almost like ghosts. There’s so much missing from our connection, but its very incompleteness is what is interesting. This is why I avoid sharp contrasts and let the uniformly grey, bleached out, damaged quality underscore the fact that this is the past. I have to fill in as best I can. I’m making something out of the fact there’s something missing. This is the aspect I’m fascinated with, that the photos are ambiguous, incomplete evidence of people’s lives. They are the presence of the absent.”