THROUGH HER ELEGANT SHOTS, GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHER KAREN KNORR BRINGS US INSIDE THE MOST FAMOUS LONDON’S GENTLEMEN'S CLUBS BACK IN THE 80S: A REALITY THAT'S AS FASCINATING AS IT IS ANACHRONISTIC, THE LEGACY OF A PATRIARCHAL SYSTEM THAT'S STILL HARD TO DIE.
High coffered ceilings, soft leather sofas, the walls covered with portraits and libraries filled with heavy volumes, corridors crossed by imposing marble busts, tapestries and beautifully draped curtains, men wearing dark, elegant suits captured while discussing between them or checking the markets in the newspaper.
German photographer Karen Knorr’s vintage shots have the power to transport us back in time and make us savour the taste of whisky mixed with cigar moistening the lips of London’s aristocracy back in the ’80s.
All of a sudden, we are standing in the most sophisticated and elitist halls of the city, the gentlemen’s clubs, which among their members counts some of the most influential names in British society – Prince Charles and David Cameron included – and which, in the ’80s, were living a period of particular splendor.
In 2016, the photographer decided to select 26 pictures taken between 1981 and 1983 and bring them together in a photo book, entitled “Gentlemen”. The artist has decided to match the pictures with a series of notes which today appear still relevant and which ironically mocks the (still present) system of gentlemen’s clubs identifying it as the last legacy of patriarchy, the cradle of a misogynist mentality tied to a dried traditionalism. From these short texts, built by grabbing some sentences from parliamentary speeches or news, emerges, in fact, a sort of caricature of the values to which English aristocracy is anchored. “Men are interested in Power. Women are more interested in service.” reads one of the captions.
These lux clubs, which initially appeared in the West End in the XIII century to fill the void left by Coffee Houses, soon became a reference point for cultural, political and scientific elites, and ended up redefining and influencing social dynamics of the time. Clubs “for men only”, for London’s elite, and in which women – regardless of their role or their power – would never be admitted, the ruins of an ancient system of privileges and restrictions that, apparently, still exists.
Between the years the photos were taken and our days we can, in fact, draw some parallels. Then as now, a woman has been appointed prime minister, and, then as now, in spite of this women’s consideration in politics remains a step below than that of men. We have not achieved full gender equality, and it’s still in clubs of this sort, which today are living a moment of rediscovery, where men secretly keep playing to the world’s oldest game, politics. In shadows, kept safe from prying eyes by heavy jacquard curtains, the gentlemen continue to discuss foreign and domestic policy issues, as well as business, to pull the strings of society, thus relegating women out of the discussion.
Of course, an obstacle to the realization of the Frankfurt-born photographer’s project was the fact the prerogative to enter into a gentlemen’s club is to be, in fact, a man – when, in ’91, Queen Elizabeth, curious to see the interiors of the White’s, the most famous gentlemen’s club in London, entered the club escorted by his son Charles, it wasn’t received very well. Anyway, Knorr got the right of access to some of the most famous gentlemen’s clubs right at the core of the City. The result is a series of black and white elegant and clean portraits, which reveal a sense of anachronism – the same in which the criticism of this hard-to-die system lies, and at the same time, where its own charm resides.
Already fascinated by the British metropolis a decade earlier, in the middle of the picturesque 70s, she embarked a project that documented London’s punk scene, featuring exaggerated makeup and flashy leather outfits reclaimed from the fetish world. With “Gentlemen”, Knorr shifts her gaze towards a much less frantic and more calm reality, capturing a more sober style, very elegant and timeless, and providing us solemn yet intimate portraits of an aristocracy that nowadays seems out of the world, that we do not meet on the streets, but that, despite everything, continues to live in these halls and is far from extinct. And as a sort of time capsule, her shots speak to a future that hasn’t change and recall hopes and predictions the world had for our age, for a more open world, made of equal rights and opportunities, that we must not lose sight of.