Artipoeus Episode 17 – Young Americans and the Marlboro Man

Cowboys: The First Shooting 1992 | Dieter Blum 1992
Cowboys: The First Shooting 1992 | Dieter Blum 1992

 

…in which special guest host Maggie Austin compares the Marlboro Man to the real cowboys back home in Lincoln, Nebraska.


This week, Artipoeus visits…  the dentist.  While your host Susie Kahlich’s face shrinks back to human size, I took over to make sure you get your regularly scheduled episode of art!  I’m Maggie Austin… and this week, Artipoeus visits “Cowboys: The First Shooting 1992” at Daimler Contemporary in Berlin.

Potsdamer Platz in Berlin is an area which I’ve always found to be a bit off putting- a consumerist landscape populated by large group of teenagers and tourists, where the S-bahn and the U-bahn are awkwardly far apart and the Sony Center’s giant Starbucks disperses its wares into the surrounding area.

I was curious as to what kind of gallery could end up adjacent to such a place. When I rose from the depths of the S-bahn, I found that Potsdamer Platz was host to something positive that weekend: Berlin Queer Days, a celebration of one of Berlin’s key communities.

It was still morning, and vendors were preparing for day three of the festival. The stage was being set for a performance. People were gathering for a midmorning drink (Sunday Funday) and though I saw the same booths that would likely be present at any sort of event, I couldn’t help but appreciate Berlin’s constant magic trick of popping something interesting into your path at every turn.

I rounded the corner onto Alte Potsdamer Straße and passed a fancy hotel, an expansive restaurant, and an enormous bank before finding a sign nestled in among some cafe tables. Advertising the Adolf Fleischmann retrospective, it pointed me to Haus Huth, where Daimler Contemporary occupies the fourth floor. Down the street I saw an immense collection of helium balloons tethered to the ground, like someone had just left them there to fend for themselves. I know how you feel, balloons, I thought, as I looked at the large and ornate door to Haus Huth, which was locked and demanded a bell to be rung for entrance. I rang the wrong bell at first. The waiter at the cafe next door smirked at me. I rang the right one and was buzzed in.

Built in 1912, the Haus Huth is an impressive and resolute building which has braved the War and the Wall. In its past lives, it has been a restaurant, a wine merchant’s, a home, and a warehouse. It wasn’t until I was doing research for this piece that the area suddenly made a lot more sense:  I learned that all of Potsdamer Platz was owned by the same massive corporation. The Haus Huth and the whole of Potsdamer Platz was acquired by Daimler-Benz in 1990.

The Daimler art collection makes a lot more sense, too. Composed of approximately 2,600 works of art by 700 artists from around the world, this private collection is anything but skimpy. On their website, the company states that the purchase of art by emerging young artists is part of their “Corporate Social Responsibility.” Could you hear the capital letters there? The majority of Daimler’s collection is located in Stuttgart and Sindelfingen, where it can only be viewed by appointment.

Since 1999, the Daimler collection has presented exhibitions publicly at Daimler Contemporary here at the Haus Huth in Berlin. Daimler contemporary can be visited, for free, seven days a week. As a young woman of meager income and limited time, I very much appreciated these last points. And so, as I ascended in the elevator to the fourth floor, I was able to leave my wallet and my watch in my purse, and focus on what I came here to see.

On the wall, it was explained to me that the two artists being shown simultaneously shared roots in Esslingen in Baden-Württemberg, and had both produced well-known works during their time in the United States. Though the sign on the street had advertised the Adolf Fleischmann Retrospective, I have to admit that when I got there, I was a bit more excited to see the work of Dieter Blum. While a sampling of Fleischmann’s entire life was on display in the retrospective, the Dieter Blum exhibition put just a sliver of the artist’s work on display – his 1992 photo shoot for Marlboro. That’s right. Cowboys. I come from Lincoln, Nebraska, and while my hometown may be largely populated by the university crowd, it’s not unusual to find the occasional rough rider wearing a ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots in earnest. I was excited to catch a glimpse of home in the Blum exhibition.

“Cowboys. The First Shooting 1992,” the wall informed me, and I was struck by the word choice.

Normally, I would think to use the word “photoshoot,” as in “the First Photoshoot 1992.” In this context, however, curator Dr. Renate Wiehager chose a more loaded word – shooting. It fits the theme – we often think of wild-west shootouts along with cowboys, who are often pictured with large, smoking pistols.

As an American, though, it’s word we’ve heard a lot lately– in an entirely different context. I wonder if this occurred to the curator, or if I am perhaps just not so well-versed in the vocabulary used to talk about photography. I do believe, though, that the word would jump out to any pair of American eyes.

In the doorway, the gallery has installed a pair of swinging wood panels that you must push through to enter, an obvious allusion to a pair of saloon doors. They definitely look like a Berliner’s interpretation of saloon doors, though – no slats, no decoration, just plain, wooden rectangles. I suppose that they wanted to keep the doors within the gallery’s overall aesthetic. They’re a fun idea, though, that turns the viewers into cowboys themselves.

Nearest to the door, we see a cowboy getting a shave at a modern barbershop, still wearing his hat. There are a couple of cowboys sitting in a steamy washtub, too, reading the Wall Street Journal as a horse looks on. One cowboy reclines with a newspaper at a Laundromat, another dressed as his twin smoking a cigarette by his side. There are some cowboys hanging out in front of a train, each carrying a pair of skis, and in one photo there’s a close-up of a mustachioed cowboy with a cigarette in his mouth and sincere American smile that I’ve been missing during my time here in Germany.

This first group of photos is fun, it’s goofy, and it treats its subjects not as the butt of a joke, but as being in on the gag. Like I said before, it’s not as though I see a cowboy every day when I’m at home in Lincoln, Nebraska, but when I do see them they are often in this context – shopping at Wal-Mart, heading to the dentist, or grabbing a coffee to-go.  It occurs to me that I never really noticed how funny this was until it was put before me in Blum’s photos.

The six photos immediately facing the saloon doors are big and glossy, “American sized,” if you will. The most striking of them all shows the silhouettes of two cowboys on their horses at sunset, reaching for a payphone. It’s a beautiful image, but the vibe is different from the first group of photos.

Intellectually, I know that the contrast between the imposing figures and the payphone should be funny, and in a way it is – but here it seems to be a bit sad, too. Instead of being quirkily out of place, these men are forced to adapt, including the modern in their classic wild-west world.

Next to this photo, there is the most melancholic of the bunch, which also becomes my favorite. One rider on his horse seems to look down dejectedly, his hat covering his face, looking to be still beneath the overhang of what I would guess is something like a seedy motel. One lonely street lamp glows above, and while it is humorous to see the man and his horse barely fit beneath a sign that reads “low clearance,” lined up next to a few cars, the man seems to be aware that he is out of place, aware that the world is changing around him.

Considering that these pictures were taken as part of a photo shoot for an ad campaign for Marlboro, I wonder if I am projecting too much onto them. But art is what you make of it, and I like that these few images feel deeper than the rest. I can identify, too, with these rugged people who accidentally end up in a man-made world. They’re out of place, and they’re trying the best that they can to adjust to their surroundings. When I first arrived in Berlin, it was January, and the city felt cold and unwelcoming. I came here to work as an au pair. I wondered why the whole of Berlin seemed to be in a bad mood, and I didn’t know how to react when the host father that I work for told me that his son asked why I smiled so much. Maybe it wasn’t that I was out of place exactly, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to adapt to my new life here. So I just tried to blend in. I would pretend not to have taken the wrong tram, and act like I understood the person behind the register in the späti. It’s not easy to fit into a brand new world.

It is interesting how Dieter Blum’s works vary in mood. Some are part of a big joke, and some seem to be more straightforward. One photograph that stands out shows a barely-silhouetted figure on a horse, baring a majestic American flag, the only thing fully illuminated against a black background.

The photo could have been taken at a rodeo, snapped at the time before the main event when the flag is held high, the anthem plays, and the spectators place their hands over their hearts.  It looks like something I’ve seen before, a proud image that plays on the nationalism ingrained in the American psyche.

Blum is, of course, German, as is part of the intended audience of these photographs. According to the literature accompanying the exhibition, which is published in a glossy hardcover and available for purchase at the museum counter, this photo shoot happened for a specific reason.

Because, you see, the cowboy known as the “Marlboro Man,” has existed since 1954, originally conceived as a scheme to sell men on filtered cigarettes. At the time, filtered cigarettes were seen as feminine, and it was believed that real men only smoked unfiltered. The solution was to associate Marlboro filtered cigarettes with the ultimate symbol of masculinity, the cowboy.

It did the trick, too. Supposedly, Marlboro sales increased by 300% in just two years. By the seventies, Marlboro were the top cigarettes in America. Cowboys became less relevant, though, as Westerns fell out of popularity, and it came time to shake things up a bit. By the time the Berlin wall fell in 1989, a whole new international market opened up for Marlboro, and the company decided that the cowboy image needed to be updated for their new audience.

So in October of 1992, Marlboro sent Dieter Blum to Seymour, Texas, in an America where Bill Clinton was about to overtake presidential incumbent George H.W. Bush. The GDP was just beginning to rise, and would continue to do so for years. And, one more fun fact: in October of 1992, I was born! It was a great time for the United States.

And so, I wonder what this grandiose image would look like to a German in the nineties, in a time and place where nationalism was an unfamiliar idea. Would this picture of American pride be seen as admirable, laughable, or despicable?

As I moved into the second room of the Blum exhibition, I felt that I was coming to better understand the artist’s view of Americana. In this room, the cowboy boiled down to an even more straightforward symbol.  Here, the cowboy’s masculinity was highlighted in every picture.

There was a series of intriguing snapshots from a real rodeo, each image blurred with the motion of the wranglers, becoming almost abstract. In one photo a roped cow is yanked off its feet, its legs pointed skyward.  This series focuses on strength and power over animals.

There are some photos highlighting the masculinity of machines, showing huge oil drills looming behind the cowboys, and powerful motorcycles displayed alongside horses. In one picture of Harley and a horse, the cowboy isn’t present save for his distinctive shadow, always there to remind you of his dominance. A series of six more images are close-ups of a cowboy lighting a cigarette, or holding it between his fingers while pulling on the reigns of a horse, he’s shirtless despite the snow in the background. A pair of men have wandered into the room, and one of them points at the last picture. I think I hear him declare the cowboy to be sexy. It crosses my mind that more than one former “Marlboro Man” died of lung cancer.

To Dieter Blum, and to Marlboro, the cowboy is used as a symbol of manhood, a representation of strength and power that goes well with a cigarette. The photos tell us that in the world of the cowboy, there’s adventure, there’s freedom, and you will be strong to stand alone. There are six silhouettes of a sole rider on a horse, each in front of a different color sunset, and each one is titled, “Lonely.” Here, to be lonely is to be strong. I come to the conclusion that Blum isn’t trying to make a statement about rugged American pride – he’s just trying to advertise it.

As it turns out, the images in this exhibition were never actually used for any advertisements. This was actually just a test shoot, designed to show the company what Blum could do for their Marlboro Man. The photographer produced the images used in advertisements a few years later, and in the meantime these first photographs were tucked away. A few emerged in galleries, but most of them have gone unseen until now.

Now that they have come to light, they seem nostalgic, a romantic caricature of the Old America. I think these are the kinds of images that come into the heads of Trump supporters who want to “Make America Great Again.”

While I enjoyed the wink of humor in the first few photographs, and the hint of melancholy in those succeeding them, the last room of the Blum exhibition is full of images that are just a bit too much to swallow.  The latter photographs feel more like advertisements, not just for cigarettes but for America as a whole. And even then, what you get isn’t the real America, but the way that Blum and Marlboro saw America and its history during one of its most prosperous eras.

As I push through the saloon doors once more, and make my way toward the gallery’s entrance, I’m thinking about how the exhibition surprised me. While some of Blum’s photographs tickled me and a few were even somewhat moving, others were almost cartoonish in their exaggeration of the American male. Instead of warming me with familiarity, these photos made me miss the things that really make America my home. They were lacking in a feeling of real life, of real people in a real place. I should have seen this coming, as they are, after all, meant to be advertisements. So though I will probably revisit Blum’s “Low Clearance” someday, I don’t see myself dwelling on the larger-than-life images presented toward the end of the exhibition.

I thanked the woman at the desk and headed out through the heavy door. I pushed the button for the elevator, and found myself feeling glad that I had chosen to brave the strange coolness of Potsdamer Platz to come here. I rode the elevator down, wandered back outside, and found myself again amidst the preparations for Berlin Queer Days. There were more people here now, and I noticed a booth decorated rustically and bearing a longhorn skull above a sign that read “Little Big Steakhouse.” It made me laugh, thinking of Dieter Blum’s cowboys. The helium ballons were still there.

“Cowboys. The first shooting 1992” is on view until November 6th at Daimler Contemporary, located at Potsdamer Platz Arkaden, Alte Potsdamer Str. 5 in Berlin.

That’s all for Artipoeus this week.  I’m Maggie Austin in for Susie Kahlich, see you around town!


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