Skewering clichés in Ellen von Unwerth's erotic Bavarian wonderland

Updated 3rd March 2017
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Skewering clichés in Ellen von Unwerth's erotic Bavarian wonderland
Written by Alicia Eler, CNNLos Angeles
Milk the cows. Churn the butter. Chop the wood. These farmland chores sound boring as all hell until they're re-envisioned as a campy Bavarian fantasy in "Heimat," a series by German photographer Ellen von Unwerth.
The photos have been compiled in a 454-page art tome published by Taschen, which is accompanied by a gallery show of blown-up images at the publisher's West Hollywood exhibition space.
At first, it's hard to know where to look inside the huge warehouse-style gallery. A girl peeking through a thick pretzel stands out, as do two girls standing in a boat on a lake, a fish hanging from the end of a rod. On another wall, three buxom models coyly peel potatoes with knives, turning the banal erotic.
Von Unwerth's inspiration for the show came from her teen years growing up in rural Bavaria, after a childhood spent in Frankfurt. She considers the Bavarian landscape her "heimat," a German word that roughly translates to "homeland" -- but not quite.
The German word carries with it a sense of longing for, and fidelity to, the place an individual acquired their early memories. For von Unwerth, that longing came much later in life, in part because it was never a place where she felt that she fit in.
"I moved to Bavaria when I was 12 years old," she says. "At the time I was like a hippie, and I wasn't very into the Bavarian culture. I thought it was very conservative and too traditional and too cliché, but then being away from it for so long, for more than 30 years, I kind of have a nostalgic feeling for it."
After World War II, German heimat films idealized pastoral scenery, focusing on the natural beauty and provincialism found in rural areas. In von Unwerth's photographs, she embraces this sense of heimat in relation to Bavarian culture just enough to parody it.

Pastoral parody

For the shoots, von Unwerth chose locations in Bavaria that had not yet been modernized. Scenes were staged on mountainsides, and inside domestic farmhouses and huge wooden barns.
Sometimes the girls were half nude, sucking their fingers while kneading dough for the traditional German dumplings, while at other times, they were getting cozy together, crammed four into a bed. The walls of a staged bedroom are covered images of the Virgin Mary, baby Jesus and haloed saints.
The secret world of Ellen von Unwerth
In these scenes, Von Unwerth reimagines what she remembers as a very conservative and gender-normative world. As is often the case in her work, she's portraying strong women enjoying themselves in ways that are both subversive and sexual. This allows for a sense of playfulness in the imagery, as well as tongue-in-cheek critique.
"It's a parody of Bavaria, you know. You have those women with the busts to fill out those dirndl, and the lederhosen, you know, it's so sexy," von Unwerth says. "I just wanted to make it a bit camp and exaggerate it."
"Heimat" by Ellen von Unwerth, published by Taschen, is out now. The exhibition is on at the Taschen Gallery in Los Angeles until May 2, 2017.