Nelly's  photographer

Nelly, Riefenstahl and the propaganda machinery of the 4th of August State

nelly greek photographyNelly’s involvement in the propaganda machinery of the Metaxas regime found its consummation in the New York International Expo of 1939, when she agreed to decorate the Greek pavilion with her photographs and four collages. The subject matter of these compositions, apart from the paired comparisons, consisted of images referring to Byzantine history (the Meteora monasteries), Greek landscapes and scenes from rural life.

Looking at the four collages we cannot help but notice certain details which add up to a very polished and well designed ideological programme. The way in which the continuity of Hellenism is extolled, combined with the promotion, both in Greece and abroad, of the fundamentals of Metaxas’ propaganda bring to mind the words of a great theoretician of nationalism, Ernest Gellner: ‘In a nationalist age, societies worship themselves brazenly and openly, spurning the camouflage’.

The first collage is made up for the most part of scenes from the Cyclades. It sings the praises of the Greek landscape and the light from which the so-called ‘Greek miracle’ emerged. The second one shows ancient architecture. The third is composed of the paired comparisons, but with the addition of scenes of harvest and of young peasant children with a herd of animals. This detail, together with another from the fourth collage, is indicative of the organized ideology of the Metaxas regime, as we shall see below. The fourth collage presents scenes from Meteora and the monastic life. In the centre of the composition a girl, wearing local traditional dress, is lighting a candle in church, a clear reference to the religious sensibility of the Greeks.

The subjects of these collages coincide completely with the regime’s concerns. They do not just tell of the continuity of Hellenism but extol the virtues of rural life, which was promoted in every possible way by Metaxas, in order to ‘promote himself as the “national leader” who embraces every section of society’. To what extent these collages were thought up by Nelly herself or made at Nikoloudis’ suggestion, we cannot tell; her autobiography at least gives no indication.

Theoreticians of nationalism stress the way it uses cultural capital, inventing traditions and restoring primitive purities in the name of a supposed folk culture and the concurrent discovering of a high culture with links to local traditions. This is what has been described as a nation’s ‘self-worship’, with songs and dances from some traditional culture ‘which it fondly believes itself to be perpetuating, defending, and reaffirming’.

These observations are confirmed by the ambivalent role of folklore studies in Greece from the time of Spyridon Zambelios onwards. This is not the place to expand at any length on this issue on which so much has already been written, just as it is not within my remit to examine once again the involvement of so many intellectuals, mainly from the generation of the thirties, with the Metaxas regime.

What might be said here is that, in Nelly’s photographs, the purity of the Greek race and the direct connection between ancient and modern Greeks has been preserved by farmers and herdsmen as individuals and as a class. And this is apparent in other comparisons which Nelly made, stressing the link and the dialectical relationship between the ancient and the modern. The Moschophoros (‘Calf-bearer’) from the Acropolis was recognized by the photographer in the face of a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders (who knows whether this was a spur-of-the-moment snapshot or staged?); the youths bearing water jugs on their shoulders jar set alongside village girls and peasants. Only the modern ‘Parisienne’ appears to be an urbanite, perhaps because the stylization and the delicate appearance of the Minoan version are in no way suited to a rustic environment. As for the humble architecture of a house in a Cretan village, it is obvious to the photographer that it goes back to the largely reconstructed architecture of the Minoan palace at Knossos.

Nelly was not the only one to use antiquity and above all ancient statuary to illustrate a direct connection between the ancient and the modern eras. In Nazi Germany Leni Riefenstahl, dancer, actress and film director, had been commissioned to film the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, resulting in a four-hour epic in two parts entitled Olympia, simultaneously a record of and a paean to the physical prowess of the Olympic athletes.

Though it may seem paradoxical initially, the careers of the two women are linked by certain common elements. In her monumental autobiography Riefenstahl tells us that in the period 1923-24, i.e. the time when Nelly was studying in Dresden, she was a student at the Mary Wigman School, some of whose students had posed for Nelly. It is not possible for the moment to say whether the two women knew each other at that time, unless the negatives of Nelly’s photographs which are stored in the Benaki Museum’s Photographic Archive should happen to reveal some historical treasure. Nelly herself maintained that they met during the Olympic Games when she visited Berlin, but this may not be completely accurate. Riefenstahl, at any rate, was photographed many times in the style of Nelly’s photographs and was filmed naked at Olympia when, according to the extra material on a DVD now on the market, her face was not shown.

Olympia was an important stage in Riefenstahl’s career, both as regards pioneering cinematography and the solutions she found to immortalizing the athletic events. At the outset of the film she attempts to give a brief overview of the Games from their beginnings up to the opening of the 1936 Games. Riefenstahl and her crew came to Greece for the filming in order to shoot scenes at ancient sites. But rather than going to Olympia, she preferred to film the Acropolis and, starting with a portrait of Alexander, she presented, against an almost dreamlike, misty background, various pieces of sculpture, mostly from the Hellenistic and Roman periods among them the head of Alexander from the Athenian acropolis, Venus de Milo or the Barberini Faun. This first section made it clear that the material had nothing to do with the Olympic Games, but was simply a succession of images of antiquity designed to depict the beginnings of the Games.

The next section is of particular interest. After a shot of Myron’s Diskobolos (‘Discus-thrower’), its place is taken by a naked athlete in the same pose, who continues the movement of the Discus-thrower. After that we see many shots of athletes, exercising almost naked all’antica.

Riefenstahl also went to Olympia, to film the lighting of the Olympic torch. She wrote on the subject: ‘The altar, from which the torch was to be lit, seemed terribly ugly. Even the young Greek in sportswear was ill suited to the atmosphere, as I had imagined it. I was deeply disappointed.’ She goes on to describe how she filmed the ceremony with the torch-bearers. She was unhappy about the whole thing, as it was at odds with the material in her introduction. She wrote: ‘Only the fourth runner resembled what I had imagined; a young, dark-complexioned Greek.’ She managed to communicate with him by pantomime gestures, and learnt that the ‘young Greek’ was not Greek at all but a Russian emigré named Anatol. She shot the scenes of the carrying of the torch from Olympia to Delphi using him. The description of her journey to Greece covers only two pages of her massive autobiography, which suggests that she could not have been very impressed with the Greece she found, and preferred to keep the image of antiquity she had already formed by herself.

Riefenstahl’s career intersects with Nelly’s in the inter-war years, despite the important differences in their biographies, and they appear −up to a certain point− to be following a common path. Riefenstahl’s work has been explored in ideological and political terms. But as regards this particular part of Nelly’s oeuvre, students of her work have limited themselves to examining her techniques, stressing the innovations she introduced and the power of the images, giving no importance to its ideological content. Both women are linked by their passion for what they were doing and their determination to remain in the professional arena come what may, turning a blind eye to what, given the unstable political conditions of the times, was bound to turn out to involve them in dubious projects. Riefenstahl had direct access to Hitler, who granted her every wish, in order to carry out her artistic dreams without impediment. Nelly was on friendly terms with the whole spectrum of the Greek political scene, even though she might have been expected to be a Venizelos supporter given her roots in Asia Minor.

The question which arises from studying her meagre autobiography in conjunction with the plentiful photo- graphic material is whether today –in the light of hind- sight– the strong ideological and political message which, intentionally or otherwise, is expressed through her images, should be ascribed to her. Or was her ancestor worship just the product of the naivety of an ignorant romantic, exploited by the machinery of the Metaxas regime?

It may not be a coincidence that in a recent biography of Riefenstahl by J. Trimborn we read judgements which could be applied to the Greek photographer. Analyzing her work in a political context the biographer notes:

‘Looking at Riefenstahl’s complete oeuvre, which many find fascinating, one recognizes definite and recurring tendencies that characterize her work before, during, and after the Nazi era: her fascination with the beautiful and the strong, her mythologizing of nature, a concentration on purely positive messages, and an avoidance of the negative. Viewed through her lens, Riefenstahl’s subjects take on a new artistic and strongly stylized significance. However, her fanaticism regarding beauty, her quest for beautiful, stylized images, and her aesthetic of the human body, all of which are palpable in her work, belong to a long tradition that developed independently of fascism and that fascism absorbed for a time.’

Perhaps Nelly’s photographs and related activities should be interpreted in this light. The worship of beauty, of the muscular body and its corresponding insertion into styl- ized images existed before the authoritarian regimes of the inter-war period, developed during their tenure and served their ideology, while at the same time express- ing the views of a larger group of intellectuals who saw in these images what they wanted to see. The starting point for these people may have been a different nationalistic or fascist ideology, ancestor worship or even sexual desire for the subject depicted.

Apart from the ideological components of her photography, there are also other elements, which transcend her work and pose more general questions relating directly to the reception of her work by posterity. How do we regard these photographs today?

We judge her work in its historical context, just as we do for all artistic work regardless of period, in this case the inter-war period. However, do we separate out the par- ticular ideological content of her work (above all the ‘comparisons’), which is directly connected with the political situation in Greece and in Europe in the inter-war period, in order to remain detached? Or are antiquity and the images of the continuity of Hellenism perhaps untouchable, precisely because this dogma of continuity is still a moving force in the modern Greek state?

Thοugh this is certainly a rhetorical question, it carries special weight with the realization that Nelly’s comparisons are still used for the promotion of the nationalist and racist agenda: in the world of there is a video entitled ‘the Greek DNA’. Its producers are using, between other iconographic materials, Nelly’s photos to illustrate what they define as ‘the purity of the Greek race’ through history. Is it a paradox?


– By Dimitris Damaskos, “The uses of Antiquity in photographs by Nelly: imported modernism and home-grown ancestor worship in inter-war Greece”