In this exhibition, uncharacteristic for a contemporary art venue, gallerist Daniel Buchholz and Berlin-based artist Henrik Olesen collaboratively mined the private affairs and public persona of Danish literary giant Herman Bang (1857-1912). Correspondence and handsome publications lined the narrow ground-floor space, while enlarged, at times damning, caricatures of the prolific author were assembled in an adjacent gallery. Bang achieved notoriety and a divided reception after the Danish government censored his first novel, Hopeless Generations (1880), for breaching sexual mores. Though he was lauded as a preeminent writer of impressionistic fiction, his homosexuality repeatedly sparked fascination and ridicule.
Following an extensive showcasing of German illustrator Marcus Behmer (1879-1958) at Galerie Buchholz in 2008, this exhibition continued the venue’s focus on Northern European queer intellectuals. (Behmer designed an edition of Bang’s Eccentric Stories in 1905.) Indeed, this aspect of the gallery’s program bears affinities to Olesen’s own research-based works, which have probed painter Thomas Eakins and computer scientist Alan Turing, among others.
Bang’s range as a cultural critic spans a book of literary criticism compiled at age 22 and a posthumously published defense of a homosexual esthetics titled “Thoughts on the Problem of Sexuality” (1922). The breadth of his oeuvre, however, was revealed through an array of Danish, Norwegian and German editions of more than 15 novels, novellas and collections of short stories sourced by Buchholz, who operates an antiquarian bookstore in Cologne. These volumes-many of which include a portrait of Bang as a cover or frontispiece-survey a vast achievement. Buchholz and Olesen highlight the life and likeness of the author rather than his chosen themes, such as a firm stance against xenophobia and nationalism.
The exhibition derived its title from a series of letters that Bang wrote to his Danish publisher between 1901 and 1908. He repeatedly requests money, and expresses concern about how his books might be printed and disseminated-“There is no future for the author who is not sold.” Deeper problems arise from fatigue: he was exhausted by his renowned lecture tours and a perennial search for suitable working conditions. During an exile in Berlin in 1907, which ensued after Bang’s implication in a prostitution scandal (“My name has been stained enough,” he writes), he lived just two blocks from Galerie Buchholz’s current location.
A constellation of oversize cartoons culled from Danish periodicals further evidences Bang’s marginalization. In one, an aged Bang slumps under the weight of a large “B” he grudgingly carries on his shoulders. In another, the forlorn dandy-couched between decanters of booze and strewn books-takes center stage at a zoo while female onlookers appear alternately worried, snide and shocked at his appearance. For this contemporary of Oscar Wilde, here presented as a queer modernist par excellence, the cultivated sentiment of his publications and his survival within a hostile public sphere could not be reconciled.
Photo: View of the exhibition “Herman Bang Writes a Letter to his Publisher,” 2012; at Buchholz.