In an essay entitled The Museum’s Old, The Library’s New Subject, Douglas Cimp recounts how, researching in New York’s Public Library for documentary material for a film, he comes across Ed Ruscha’s book Twentysix Gasoline Stations in the ‘transportation’ section rather than, as he would have expected, the ‘art’ department. Edgar Leciejewski’s Aves likewise defies the attempt to assign it to an unequivocal systematic place. Located at the intersection between art and natural science, the artist’s scanographs might also be found under the headword ‘ornithology’.
Perhaps we can compare them to the illustrations in eighteenth-century encyclopaedic works whose draftsmen, rather than merely recording what they actually saw, interpreted their object, emphasizing, correcting, or idealizing features they believed were important. With the invention of photography, science turned its back on its illustrators, thinking it now had an instrument at its disposal that let nature speak for itself, registering instead of interpreting. The photographic lens was to serve the analysis of scientific objects as a guarantor of objectivity, registering in order to compare, classify, and archive.
The scanographic procedure on which the series Aves is based is fundamentally comparable to the photogram, the direct imprint of an object positioned atop light-sensitive material, considered to be a ‘vera icon’ of nature, authentic and objective, unaffected by artistic interpretation and creative interventions. Edgar Leciejewski, however, flouts the expectation of objectivity people bring to his medium, leading us back to the way illustrators worked: arranges, corrects, interprets. In so doing, he abandons important features that distinguish the genres in favour of aesthetic decisions. The postures of song thrush siskin, and great titmouse, for instance, hide the shapes of their beaks, and physical proportions, which the photogram renders unaltered, are virtually impossible to tell from Leciejewski’s scanographs. Yet whereas the photogram is compelled to renounce the representation of surface structures, the scanographs depict these same structures with striking physical intensity and acuity.
In many respects, Aves recalls the plant studies Karl Blossfeldt published in 1928 in the book Urformen der Kunst. Like Blossfeldt, Leciejewski strives to compile the greatest possible variety of species and shapes, presenting his objects as though they needed to meet the requirements of scientific study, and yet they are ultimately useless. The artists are interested not so much in scientific value as rather in shapes and structures. Making these shapes and structures visible takes more than mere photographic reproduction, as Karl Blossfeldt explains: ‘When I put a common horsetail in someone’s hand, they will have no difficulty producing a photographic magnification of it – anyone can do that. But observing, seeing and finding the shapes, that is something only very few people are capable of.’
Blossfeldt was interested not in the object as such but in the shapes that appeared when he prepared that object and arranged it before photographing. in so doing, he increasingly removed the plant from its natural shape, bringing ornaments to light that served him and his students at the Institute of the Museum of Decorative Arts, Berlin, as templates on which they modelled their creations, Leciejewski’s series Aves likewise foregrounds shapes and structures. He, too, stages his object. And as the latter changes its form, the gaze upon it changes as well, balancing uneasily between the recognition of a blackbird or a starling and the perception of abstract shapes.
The eighteen-century scientific illustrator would presumably present the birds in a way that underlines their characteristic features. The taxidermist, by contrast, would prefer a posture that is characteristic of the species, the aim being to convey the greatest possible sense of animation. Their decisions, no less than those the artist makes, are motivated by their personal histories as well as historical and cultural factors, as the taxidermist and ornithologist Hermann Funk in Marcel Beyer’s novel Kaltenburg explains, relating the story of two mounted white-tailed eagles Crown Prince Rudolf von Habsburg shot during a hunt only days before committing suicide: ‘It is unlikely that here should be similarly string mounted animals anywhere, the posture, the facial expression, the plumage: after all, the taxidermist, going to work, had not only two dead birds on the table in front of him but another, a third dead body on his mind, and so the two eagles – we might even say: the one double eagle – turned under his hands into grief-stricken birds staring mournfully, their wings drooping, as though they already sense on the day of the hunt that their shooter would soon take his own life.’
Leciejewski deceives his beholder, whom the sculptural quality of his pictures strikes as a trompe-l’oeil of sorts. So do the studio shorts, photographs taken on different days in the fashion of a diary that document considerations on how photography is used and how is operates. Here, too, the gaze wavers, between the illusion of three-dimensionality and the plane surface on which it emerges, between optical illusion and disillusionment. Hung on the studio walls are prints of the artist’s photographs, but also printouts of found photographs as well as newspaper clippings and notes – loose leaves that seem to detach themselves from the plane surface of the pictures. In Lauter Fetzen, a text that consists of a collection of quotes, Edgar Leciejewski himself gives what is probably the best description of his work on the wall, as a sequential arrangement of fragments, borrowed ones and others that are his. A model for Edgar Leciejewski’s studio photographs can be found in an early photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, Sunlight and Shadows: Paula/Berlin. Following Rosalind Kraus’s analysis, we can recognize in that picture also something we might almost call a ‘catalogue of self-definition: an elaborate construction through which we are shown what, in its very nature, a photograph is.’Edgar Leciejewski’s work studies the same question.