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Exhibition "Envisioning Asia: Gandhi and Mao in the Photographs of Walter Bosshard"

April 28, 2019 – June 10, 2019 

The exhibition Envisioning Asia: Gandhi and Mao in the Photographs of Walter Bosshard focuses on images from a critical decade in the life of two vast Asian countries, China and India. The Swiss photojournalist Walter Bosshard (1892–1975) visited both places in the 1930s and in the course of his travels, met with two transformational leaders, Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1947) and Mao Zedong (1893–1976), capturing with his camera intimate moments from the lives of these men and their movements. The exhibition offers a tantalizing overview of some of his camera work, alongside a rare silent film on Mao, also shot by Bosshard.

Co-curated by Peter Pfrunder of the Swiss Foundation for Photography in Winterthur (Zürich) and Gayatri Sinha of Critical Collective, New Delhi, the exhibition hosted by the Völkerkundemuseum VPST also serves as a paradigmatic example of the art of comparison. It has become something of an academic fashion in the last decade or so to bring China and India into the same comparative framework. These acts of comparison have generally focused on politics and economics, and especially international relations and current affairs. By contrast, Envisioning Asia enables us to engage in the art of comparison by turning to images and specifically to photographs in order to understand what we might learn by juxtaposing Gandhi and Mao, India and China, and bringing them into an inter-visual dialogue.

The exhibition also features lectures by the co-curators and by Heidelberg art historian Liane Wilhelmus alongside a mini-seminar anchored by Heidelberg Sinologist Barbara Mittler and Duke historian Sumathi Ramaswamy titled “No Parallel? The Fatherly Bodies of Gandhi and Mao.” For detailed program of the exhibit and its accompanying lecture series, please visit.

This exhibition and the framing program was made possible by the generous commitment of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Anneliese Maier Research Award for Sumathi Ramaswamy), the Confucius Institute Heidelberg, the Fotostiftung Schweiz (Winterthur), the Harmony Art Foundation and the Raza Foundation (Delhi). Our thanks to all of them.


About Walter Bosshard in India and China and the Heidelberg exhibit:

Swiss photographer Walter Bosshard arrived in India in March 1930. He had been commissioned by the Münchner Illustrierte Presse to report on the growing unrest in the country and the movement for independence. Bosshard traversed several thousand miles across India over a period of eight months, authoring important stories such as “50,000 Indians Break the Salt Monopoly,” “India of the Maharajas,” and more. But the highlight of his coverage was on May 18, 1930 when the Münchner Illustrierte Presse published his story on Gandhi. The cover of the magazine showed Gandhi deeply immersed in reading a newspaper. On the inside pages, the European viewer encountered Gandhi in intimate situations: while he ate onion soup, while he shaved, even while he slept. These photographs mark the Mahatma’s “darshan dilemma” and his ambivalence towards photography (to receive darshan is to profit spiritually from seeing an auspicious person or icon and Gandhi was, obviously, considered such and often complained about the nuisance of having people come for such “audiences” all the time, thus disturbing his work). As he told Bosshard, “I have sworn never to ‘pose’ for a photographer. Try your luck, it may even turn out well.” Bosshard brought great skill and an enquiring spirit to his subject. Photographing Gandhi several years before other Western photographers like Margaret Bourke- White and Henri Cartier-Bresson did, he documented the first manifestations of the Civil Disobedience movement of 1930.

After India, Bosshard spent the next eight years in China. A critical observer of political developments, he shot the arena of war under Japanese occupation, as well as the dramatic Loess landscape around Yan’an. Bosshard was the first European journalist to interview and film Mao. His photographs of Mao in his headquarters in Yan’an in 1938—a focal point in the Chinese revolution and the Long March—brought the attention of the Western world to this rising star of China. At the same time, Bosshard also shot a silent film on Mao living and working out of a Yan’an cave dwelling. He was in China around the same time as famous US photojournalist Edgar Snow (who visited Yan’an in 1936) and like him, he recorded the sprawling revolutionary base and its most influential inhabitants. Bosshard also visited the training camps of the Chinese army, which—as he was told—made great progress in their resistance against Japanese invasion. Inspired and encouraged by guerilla tactics practiced in the Red Army (or, as it was called from 1937, the 8th Route Army), a large number of peasants joined the resistance.

The exhibition at the Völkerkundemuseum VPST comprises 51 photographs by Walter Bosshard, and a short silent film on Mao in Yan’an. In its essence, the show juxtaposes the non-violent movement in India and the violent resistance of Communist guerilla in China in the 1930s—two very different strategies closely connected with two personalities who were to become the most iconic Asian leaders of the 20th century and global icons into the 21st century.

(Adapted from Envisioning Asia. Heidelberg: CATS 2019, 1)

Picture on top, left: adapted from "Gandhi reading the “War Correspondences”, Dandi, 7 April 1930"; picture on top, right: adapted from "Mao Zedong at his writing table, Yan’an, April 26, 1938" © Fotostiftung Schweiz / Archiv für Zeitgeschichte (ETH Zürich)

Picture at the end of the page, left: "Mao Zedong in front of the entrance to the “Red Academy”, Yan’an, April 26, 1938" © Fotostiftung Schweiz / Archiv für Zeitgeschichte (ETH Zürich); picture at the end of the page, right: "Gandhi reading the “War Correspondences”, Dandi, 7 April 1930" © Fotostiftung Schweiz / Archiv für Zeitgeschichte (ETH Zürich)


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