As we approach what would have been the 75th birthday of W.G. Sebald on May 18, 2019, two interrelated exhibitions will be celebrating and examining his legacy at two neighboring institutions that are only 7 kilometers apart in Norwich: Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. I’ll deal with each in a separate post, starting with Norwich Castle’s exhibition, “Lines of Sight.” From the website of Visit Norfolk:
“Lines of Sight: W.G. Sebald’s East Anglia” at Norwich Castle from May 10 until January 5 2020 is an unprecedented exhibition celebrating the work of the author W.G. Sebald on the 75th anniversary of his birth.
In collaboration with The University of East Anglia, this exhibition brings together a diverse selection of celebrated artworks, curious objects, archive material and the author’s own, unseen photographs to tell the story behind the creation of one of East Anglia’s most famous literary masterpieces, The Rings of Saturn (1995).
From the mystery of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull to the secret landscapes of the Cold War, from the ghostly vessels of the vanished Herring fleets to intricate pattern books of Norwich silk weavers, this exhibition gathers the threads of Sebald’s enigmatic text to present a uniquely poetic visual portrait of East Anglia that will appeal to both those familiar and new to his work.
W.G. Sebald (1944 – 2001) – or Max to his friends – is one of the most revered, authors of the late 20th century. His evocative and unclassifiable prose works: Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), The Rings of Saturn (1995), and Austerlitz (2001) – continue to attract a remarkable international following. His reputation and the passionate devotion of readers to his work have grown significantly since his untimely death in 2001 at the age of 57.
Born in the Bavarian Alps in 1944, Sebald spent most of his adult life in England, first in Manchester then moving to Norfolk in 1970, to study and teach at the University of East Anglia (UEA), where he became Professor of European Literature in 1988. The exhibition “Lines of Sight” is held to mark what would have been Sebald’s 75th birthday.
Curator, Dr Nick Warr from The University of East Anglia explains: ‘Sebald’s books are an idiosyncratic mixture of text and image. Part fiction, part autobiography and part travelogue, they intertwine global history with personal memory to recount the fates of lost and forgotten people. Sebald produced all of his published texts whilst living and teaching in Norfolk and the distinctive character of the East Anglian landscape and the stories of those who have made a home here are the elements that connect them all.
‘A remarkable feature of this exhibition are Sebald’s own, previously unseen photographs that he took during his walks along the Suffolk coast. This extraordinary visual record, loaned from the Sebald Estate, not only documents one of the most famous journeys in Modern European literature but also maps out Sebald’s creative process as it meanders its way around the places, people and events that have shaped the region.’
All of the uncanny black and white images that appear in Sebald’s books were made in collaboration with the photographer Michael Brandon-Jones, who assisted the writer in transforming various photographs, found images and objects into the strange pictures that punctuate the author’s texts. A selection of rarely shown Brandon-Jones’ prints are on display alongside Sebald’s manuscript notes and instructions, giving the visitor a rare insight into how the text was carefully assembled image by image.
To augment this archival element of the exhibition with a view to expanding its appeal beyond those already familiar with the text, Sebald’s work is juxtaposed beside the objects and artworks he weaves into his narrative. Items from Norfolk Museums’ own collections, such as the ornate Norwich weavers’ pattern books are shown with loans from National collections, such as Willem van de Velde’s magnificent oil painting, The Burning of the Royal James at the Battle of Sole Bay (1672) from National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
With the story behind the creation of The Rings of Saturn as its focus, “Lines of Sight” is as much about showcasing the amazing things that inspired Sebald to write his masterpiece, as it is about inspiring renewed interest in his work for a new or established readership.
Each image in Sebald’s work is testament to his fascination with the overlooked; the objects, places, people and events that have drifted to the margins of everyday life. Inspired by Norwich’s most noteworthy polymath, Sir Thomas Browne, Sebald sets out in The Rings of Saturn to identify, through the diligent examination of these remnants, the patterns of nature and history and in turn seek meaning in the strange family resemblances they appear to share.
From the cosmic dust of an exploded moon to the gas lit winter gardens of a Victorian mansion; the luminous rays of Southwold lighthouse to the darkness of the Belgian Congo; the bombing raids of the Second World War to the history of sugar beet farming, “Lines of Sight” presents in an engaging and inclusive manner, Sebald’s unique perspective on the history and ecology of East Anglia.
Curator, Dr Rosy Gray of Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery said: “Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery is delighted to be showing this collaborative, seminal exhibition. The impact of Sebald’s work on artists today ensures that his writing and image-making is continually re-visited and re-discovered, bringing new audiences to the work. The opportunity to explore The Rings of Saturn’s visual complexity is an important moment, not only for existing admirers of Sebald’s work but also those with a more general interest in art, literature, photography and of course local history.”