A photographic Dialogue: Carl Djerassi - Gabriele Seethaler

Carl Aigner, director, Landesmuseum Niederösterreich, St. Pölten, January 2009

Photography as multiple imagery

The dialogue between the sciences and the arts by Carl Djerassi and Gabriele Seethaler

The radical break-up of the central perspective that emerged in the Renaissance was not started by cubism, as is often claimed, but the invention of photography. It marks the beginning of multiperspectivism, by establishing the seriality of the image and the technology of the “collage” based on the possibility of the multiple exposure.

In very subtle ways, biochemist/photographer Gabriele Seethaler traces the multiple thought processes by scientist/writer Carl Djerassi by sounding out the new pictorial possibilities of the photographic image. From the very beginning, the question of pictorial identity stood in the center of her interest. One large series of images, entitled „Identity Genotype Phenotype,“ fuses a person’s portrait with the genetic fingerprint (Franz Neuhuber, professor of forensic medicine) and the musical identity (Renald Deppe, composer). Quickly, the monotonous portrait is transferred into new scientific contexts and the unilateral photographic image is broken open.

In addition to multiple exposure as simultaneous parallelism, facet-cut mirror portraits and the almost forgotten lenticular image technique become her preferred procedures and modes of presentation. This experimental realization of a photographic claim transcends Carl Djerassi’s thinking and reflects the question of (sexual) identity in the age of genetic and biotechnologies. Gabriele Seethaler emphatically demonstrates that the conception of the subject of an era and a society correlates directly with the conception of the image.

   "In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others they think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.” In this way, French philosopher Roland Barthes describes the complexity of the traditional portrait. In her works, Seethaler broadens our understanding of the multilayered personal identity in the 21st century and again inquires into the notion of subject and human identity in the age of genetic reproducibility which Djerassi so insistently treats in his novels and plays."


excerpt of catalogue Gallery Heike Curtze, Salzburg, 2006:

“Four Jews on Parnassus” and Paul Klee’s “Angelus Benjaminianus” (var. Seethaler): A case history of canonization.


“Four Jews on Parnassus” is a play in progress, written by Carl Djerassi, who is both a playwright and long-time collector of the works of Paul Klee. The four Jews of the title and main characters of the play are four towering intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century: the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg and the three German literary figures and philosophers Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Gerschom Scholem. The play deals with historically documented facts about their interactions with each other as well as events associated with their respective wives. But what has that got to do with Paul Klee?


In fact, Benjamin, Adorno, and Scholem were deeply involved through most of their creative lives with Klee’s oil transfer drawing of 1920, entitled “Angelus Novus.” Benjamin purchased this drawing in 1921 for the princely sum of $14 and kept it until his suicide in 1940, the year in which he wrote his famous 9th Thesis on History which featured his description of the Angelus Novus in terms of a highly emotional and complicated text. By a circuitous route, in 1947 the drawing together with important Benjamin manuscripts reached Adorno, who for years used to have a copy of the drawing hanging in his apartment. Only after his death in 1969 was the original transferred to Gerschom Scholem, who by that time was the most famous scholar of the Cabala and Professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Actually, already in a testament written in 1932, which however only surfaced in the 1960s in the East German archives, Benjamin had (unbeknownst to Scholem) willed the Angelus Novus to his best and longest friend. After Scholem’s death, the Angelus Novus was donated in 1987 to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where it has remained ever since.


Benjamin’s thesis on history has been interpreted and reinterpreted so many times—even ending up as the virtual anagram (Der Angelus Satanas) for one of Benjamin’s pseudonyms (Agesilaus Santander)—that is has turned into one of the best-known representatives of Paul Klee’s huge oeuvre of over 9000 works in spite of the fact that it had virtually not been displayed during the first 60 years of its existence. Most people only imagined the drawing from Benjamin’s description rather than having seen the actual image. Klee had drawn angels for over twenty years with approximately 50 of them bearing the actual word “angel” in the title. Yet none but the most dedicated followers of Benjamin or aficionados of Benjamiana would really discern many of his textual descriptive features in the actual drawing. This point is mostly made through Arnold Schönberg’s words….


…..In the play Schönberg then shows a number of images that use components of other drawings by Paul Klee, primarily those of angels, to generate a convincing Angelus Benjaminianus, whose likeness really does correspond to Benjamin’s famous text. These new images were created by Dr. Gabriele Seethaler based on a variety of Klee drawings chosen by her and by Carl Djerassi, and assembled in the present exhibition.


Dr. Seethaler’s collection, together with a reproduction of Klee’s Angelus Novus and of Walter Benjamin’s text, should thus serve three purposes:  (1) aesthetic pleasure on its own merits; (2) offering viewers the opportunity to express their own personal preference for the most appropriate modified Angelus in the light of Benjamin’s text; and (3) causing us to reflect on the nature of the canonization process of individuals or of works of art. To put it bluntly, from an artistic standpoint, does Klee’s Angelus Novus really deserve the place of honor it has acquired among the enormous number of outstanding works of that artist, solely because Walter Benjamin wrote about it? Even Klee had an opinion on that subject, marking 341 out of his over 900 works with the notation S Cl—in other words “Sonder Klasse.” Neither the Angelus Novus nor any other Angel in Klees vast oeuvre has been so anointed by the artist himself.


Carl Djerassi, San Francisco, May 2006



Copyrights of the original photographs:

Walter Benjamin: © Walter Benjamin Archiv, Akademie der Künste, Berlin.

Arnold Schönberg: © Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna.

Gershom Scholem: © Gershom Scholem Archive, ARC. 4* 1599, The Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem, Israel.

Theodor W. Adorno: © Theodor W. Adorno Archiv, Frankfurt am Main.



© 2009 Gabriele Seethaler