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Books: Liszt, the nineteenth-century celebrity's life in photographs

A new photo-documentary of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt

Why would anyone want to look at 260 carte-de-visite photographs of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt? Taken from his early middle age in 1843, around the time of the birth of photography itself, until his death in 1886, they are a visual record of the man who, by anyone’s reckoning, was one of the greatest luminaries of Romanticism—there can hardly be a single artist in any medium of his period or since whose work, image, and personality were so widely known. Ernst Burger has spent four decades collecting these sepia images, most of which appear here for the first time. It has to be said, however, that one is pretty much like the other as one leafs from one clutch to the next, and, although Burger is to be congratulated on his detective work in terms of dates and identifications, the images are often of the sanitised, press-pack variety: Liszt in right-hand profile, in stylish pose. Not once do we see him on stage, surrounded by the knicker-throwing teenage girls and groupies we know about from written sources. For the most part, he appears or attempts to appear youthful, especially in the gorgeous PR photographs from the 1840s. In late middle age, he took Holy Orders and appeared thereafter in clerical dress, having become a sort of Weimar “sage” and largely misunderstood avant-garde composer. The most noticeable change, particularly from a publicity-conscious, air-brush-wielding, 21st-century point of view, is the growth of the warts on his face (above), which became ever more child- and adult-repulsive as the years rolled by, but which were never disguised in the photographs. Nonetheless, he retains traits of his earlier physical attractiveness and that mesmerising mental edge shining through the features that helped inscribe him on Europe’s consciousness as a cultural hero and musical demi-god. This photo-documentary ends with his old age when, better known as the father of Wagner’s wife, a virtuoso of times gone by, he was yet a composer whose B minor sonata had become a monument more lasting than bronze. The relative paucity of nineteenth-century celebrity photographs may seem bizarre in an age of publicity-image prodigality; all the more reason to cherish every one of these 260 photos.

- Author of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” and early Romantic poetics (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Ernst Burger, Franz Liszt in der Photographie seiner Zeit: 260 Portraits, 1843-86 (Hirmer Verlag, Munich, 2003), 142 pp, 260 b/w ills, € 49,90 (hb) ISBN 3777497908

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Warszt and all'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 139 September 2003