• Samuel Bilcliff

Herbert List: Metamorphoses

Trapped in our bodies, the open skies and seas seem to shimmer with possibility: List's photos are developed in sweat and salt and sand, a coarse mixture that produces tectonic images of modern myths.



It had begun in a state of flesh dragged firmly afterwards into stone and left, but not lifeless, and without death. Bodies under the Greek sun, growing golden, men and boys and cock and balls. A weight of position and the sun rises with oppressive sublimity. The tentacles have dried, the sea has receded, and the sky has stretched, a seascape in reverse. Objects, tools, meet under this sun too. Sunglasses hold each other. They love, seemingly more so than the tanned flex of Grecian abdomen and bicep and calf. There is homoerotic desire here in the stone, in the splash of water rising with a running foot; in the arm forever as it sips from two glasses. There is want for these objects, too but they can be not immortal in this waking world. Chairs and fishbowls appear ever fragile. Only men seem to live till eternity.


We see it now in summer. The perfect picture of forgotten serenity and the desire, of immortality. As we ourselves journey from a cold north to where sweat and form mirror the mountains and the Mediterranean; we find what Herbert List did, and others. We take ourselves step by step to where they say Fitzgerald once lived or maybe it was Dali. We rest in the sand's bowels and swim in Shelley's azure grave.


Year after year we spend summer timeless, in stasis, floating or flying and never far from pleasure. We consume alcohol and smoke, octopus, and cum. These are the days of our youth and we’re not going to let them die prematurely. And yet something, with metamorphosis tears and Orpheus’ regret, twists us away from this bliss.



Forlornly we become listless in this summer’s tale. We take ourselves from the beaches, from the gods of the coast and yet, I think with Neptune’s favour, we find more: in stone and in halcyon marble. From what began as crumbling flesh, List now shows us it in permanence.

We follow the lines of arse and back, of nose, of chin. These have not cracked and like Dorian have lived a timeless existence void of anything but beauty. They have seen a thousand summers, this one no different. They stand as witnesses, in infinite neutrality, unable to feel pain or doubt. We are like them now, frozen under the heat of the sun.


As we stand there winter comes all too quickly. We shiver and it is time to return home. We leave Italy, we leave Greece. Walking slowly, we cross the land we once called home as it lies in vast devastation, our churches collapsed, and hope broken. We stand under Munich’s shattered sky; years have passed but we remember. For amongst the rubble stone men continue to wait and witness. They were here before, brothers of southern sculptures with their muscles tensing in kinship but difference. They know no beauty, only feel the pain left in the wake of defeat. List seems to collapse the distance between pain and ethereality, between doubt and placidity. He sees these men the same. He paints them as he painted ones we met on roman beaches and in roman hills. He invites us to imagine our seasonal metamorphosis as theirs, a story of innocence to despair. There was a time before the war and List hands us what remains.


We endure the wind, and snow begins to blanket. It crunches with broken glass underfoot. We wander faded streets and find our summer gods in back alleys and buildings torn open. Desire still remains here, headless, and blind. Statues lie beaten. Men pull an unseen object while another watches an empty door; he rests and watches. He waits for summer’s return. We wait too; we too watch. One day the sky will unfurl its wings again and we will go, southward and with gay stride. We will recline in hands of taut tendons and leap through shining seas. For List’s dream is waiting for us, immortal as the men he photographed and as patient as the stone that waited for him. Winter’s wind would not dare to disagree.

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