Gunter Sachs, 1934 – 2011

On 19th November 1958 a gunshot reverberated through the forest and the mountains near the Bavarian Alpine village of Oberaudorf. The industrialist Willy Sachs fired his final bullet at his hunting lodge, this time directed towards his own head. The successful entrepreneur and heir of the Fichtel & Sachs combine had suffered with the guilt of his SS-past and the emotional pressure of being blackmailed over the abortion of his unborn child. His younger son Fritz Gunter, had not been aware of the depression the father had been suffering. He was three years old when his parents got divorced and after a brief period of living at an orphanage, he moved to Switzerland with his mother, Elinor von Opel, heiress to the car manufacturer.

Gunter Sachs — successor of the Sachs group, Mathematician and Economics graduate, bob sleigh champion, playboy, jetsetter, millionaire, entrepreneur, art collector, gallerist, documentary filmmaker, photographer, astrologer — briefly spoke about his father in an extensive interview with Sueddeutsche Zeitung in March 2008.

‘People suffering from depression usually don’t have the strength to end their lives, but as a hunter with weapons in the house there were no obstacles here.’

Like father, like son, Sachs was a hunter. Fearless and determined, he conquered the goals he had set out for himself, moving across different and often new territories. An autodidact, Sachs had a good eye for detail, while never losing sight of the overall picture. He was a sharp observer, making quick logical judgements and connections. Despite the media’s trivialising of his life, he never seemed resentful towards those people working for the tabloids. Instead, in the manner of the honourable businessman, he respected them as people making a living, so long as they recognised certain boundaries. The yellow press became obsessed with Sachs when he was briefly liaised with Soraya, Princess of Persia, in 1962. Photographs of Sachs and his entourage at cocktail parties in Saint-Tropez, Après Ski at St Moritz, earned him the title ‘the only German playboy’. In fact, he was monogamous, but that did not seem to fit into the media’s image.

In the late 1960s he was married to Brigitte Bardot for three years, one of the most sought-after women at the time. However, he claimed that he had been in a monogamous relationship since he married his wife Mirja in 1969. As a highly respected patriarch, he hosted many notorious parties, whose guest lists read like a ‘who’s who’ within show business and the art world. ‘I was never photographed in the mornings, on the way to the office with my briefcase. To the magazine reader, I was in Saint-Tropez for eleven months a year … I had an organisation that always kept me in the loop, also the five weeks in Saint-Tropez.’

As well as being an entrepreneur, Sachs also earned himself credibility as a filmmaker and photographer. His five documentary short films, made between 1963 and 1968, received international awards. He then moved on to still photography, because he felt ‘constricted and overstrained when filming with the ever bigger and cumbersome technical apparatuses.’ Gunter Sachs wanted to feel free and autonomous when working.

In ‘On Photography’ (1973), Susan Sontag compared cameras to guns, and described the lens as a predatory weapon that captures and (potentially) violates the subject. Cameras can be seen a substitute for the aggression of a gun. According to her, the photographer as predator notion is epitomised in the safari tourist, hunting for rare beasts to appear in front of his lens. Sachs described himself as landscape and (women’s) fashion photographer, most of his shots feature beautiful young women with little clothes (if any at all). During the 1970s and 1980s, he photographed for French Vogue and put the first shot of a nude into the magazine in 1973.

In his photography book ‘Licht’Bilder’ (1981), he quoted Chanel in his introductory text, ‘Jamais un bouton sans sa boutonnière.’ Anything that does not fulfil a purpose is redundant. While previously, he admitted, he would have written this notion off as ‘theoretical purism’, he then tried to work according to this principle. His photographs were shot against the light and he used artificial backlighting in order to create a surrealist effect where both background and subject were illuminated in strong colours. Aware that the world he was portraying was not a realistic depiction, he stated that he was showing the world he was familiar with the unrealistic ideals that they were pursuing: ‘the newer, the more beautiful and the absolute’. Sontag’s comparison of the photographer as predator becomes a prime example through Sachs’s work.

When Sachs moved to Paris in the mid 1950s, he started collecting artworks, his wealth and his strong taste and intuition enabled him to build up a substantial collection of artwork. ‘I became an art collector the day I realised that I had more pictures than empty walls.’ The foundations of his vast collection were pieces from the Nouveaux Réalistes and Art Informel, later moving on to Pop Art. In 1969 he got a group of artists he personally knew together in order to design the interior of the tower suite ‘Palace Turm’ of the prestigious ‘Palace Hotel’ in St. Moritz. Roy Licthenstein, Tom Wesselman, Andy Warhol and César were amongst the group who made the unique pieces. The apartment was later rebuilt for Sachs’s retrospective exhibition ‘Die Kunst ist weiblich’ at the Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig in 2008. In 1972 in his Galerie an der Milchstraße in Hamburg, he displayed an extensive collection of Pop Art in a sole exhibition dedicated to Andy Warhol. In Hamburg’s traditional art scene Pop Art was still met with antagonism. For the fear of hurting Warhol’s feeling, because the sale of his artworks were off to a slow start, Gunter Sachs put red dots on a third of the gallery pieces. He ended up buying most of Warhol’s work himself, the pieces’ value multiplying by 1300 from their original price. ‘To me art has always been a natural exposure. Today, the prices — especially through the Asian and Russian opulence — have been distorted like within a panopticon’, he said in the interview with Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Throughout his life, he published over twelve books and his work has been displayed in forty exhibitions. By the mid 1990s Sachs changed his course yet again and dedicated his life to astrology, his book ‘The Astrology File’ was on the bestseller list of ‘Spiegel’ for twenty-one weeks and was nominated for the Astrology Research Award in the UK.

It seems that Sachs took the imminent deterioration of his memory as an indicator for which challenge to take on next. Everything he did was done with absolute conviction, with a determination, his execution like that of a predator, by blanking out anything that had previously engaged him or was distracting. A skill that was probably part of his (respected) success in anything he did. He said of photography and later of astrology, that this was now the only thing he was interested in. When he realised that his memory was beginning to fade, he seemed to have come to his conclusion with the same conviction and determination about what had to be done. His ‘illness A.’ was self-diagnosed. In his suicide note he wrote that, ‘the loss of mental control over my life would be an undignified condition which I decided to confront resolutely.’ Deeply rooted in German (and Western) ideology, the Enlightenment period of the 18th century heralded the perception that what makes us human was the capability to reason. According to Immanuel Kant, it was reason that constituted autonomy and therefore dignity. With regards to people who do not or no longer have the ability to reason, such as those suffering from forms of dementia, this belief becomes problematic. Ethicists have been challenging the old Kantian notion, basing their altered versions on new neuro-scientific research. The Oxford based Jeff McMahan, for example, claimed that people with dementia are so-called ‘post-persons’ who have lost part of their ability to reason and therefore their autonomy. According to this highly controversial account, people with advanced Alzheimer’s disease would then be seen as a lower form of human life. Challenging this thought, Agnieszka Jaworska at Stanford University claimed that autonomy is still present in dementia patients, as they are able to express moral concepts through emotions, even though they can no longer implement the relating actions.

For Gunter Sachs, the debate was clear and decided. He believed that his life was no longer worth living without the ability to remember, and that the slow loss of memory would take away his autonomy and ultimately his dignity as a respected human being. Sontag stated that, ‘When we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.’ In a life without limits, Sachs encountered his ultimate boundary: fear. Somebody who had never been scared of death (his daredevil bob sleighing and speeding on his motorbike without ever wearing protective headgear), life under the conditions of Alzheimer’s seemed scary. Instead of waiting for nature to run its natural cause, tormenting the gradual crumbling away of his memory, he outwitted Alzheimer’s and gave himself the Gnadenschuß, a mercy blow that wipes out all memory at once.

On 7th May 2011 Gunter Sachs shot himself with a rifle in his chalet in Gstaad.

This text was written in response to Icebox, a brief that was developed with Sam Thorne, Associate Editor of Frieze and students of the Critical Writing in Art & Design MA course at the RCA.

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