Books! Yes! Panda acquired quite some for me — and snuck a head into shot looking well smug. “Pands, how did you afford so many new books?” “Well, Xiao Fang, I sold 50 of your old ones.” Dead clever is Panda.
Wotchagot then? From left to right:
What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Fantasy and SF by Jo Walton
The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia edited by Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng
Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures by Miri Rubin
Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe by Caroline Walker Bynum
Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire edited by Kathryn Babayan and Afsaneh Najmabadi
The Public in the Picture: Involving the Beholder in Antique, Islamic, Byzantine and Western Medieval and Renaissance Art edited by Beate Fricke and Urte Krass
Mauritius: Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice by Gude Suckale-Redlefsen
And not making it in cos I forgot cos I’ve already read them:
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
Fifty out for ten in. Plus a few extra euros. Bargain! And how good is that list? Jo Walton again! Caroline Walker Bynum again! Afsahneh Najmabadi again! Saint Mauritius! Mediæval Art! Science-Fiction! It’s a pity that my remaining books, now filling three entire bookshelves, are entirely too good to sell, otherwise I’d be repeating this and polishing off my wish list (it’s been sitting at around 110 books for a couple of years). It’s a fukken library in here.
Awesome book arrival yesterday. Two in fact! Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice is the one I’m talking about here.
Ever since I discovered The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II, Part 1, and that the deservedly famous cover image was of the 13th century Saint Maurice sculpture residing to this day in Magdeburg (in Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina, yes I went there), a mere 90 minutes south-west of Berlin, and Mechthild von Magdeburg, Gertrude von Helfta, you know, all this mediæval Germanic stuff I seem to have gotten rather preoccupied with in recent years, ever since all of that, and when I discovered this book, I’ve wanted to have it.
And now I do.
Cheap as chips. A mere 14,-€, ex-library copy with the dust jacket, in remarkable good condition, save for the flouro-green highlighting of someone (sometimes I love people’e highlighting and marginalia; often though I just think, “You’re kinda picking the simple bits, no?”). Not so big either, Slightly larger than trade paperback size, hardcover, nicely bound with good paper stock, so despite its cheap price it’s a score.
I started reading it over breakfast — well, dinner really, but I was cross-eyed and started again this morning. I did not know it was sponsored by the Menil Foundation, responsible for The Image of The Black in Western Art, and it’s something of a companion work to Volume II, Part 1, which is probably the most accessible and in-depth work currently available on representations of Saint Maurice in mediæval European art.
The book is split into facing pages of German and English, the latter translation by Genoveva Nitz, Given German’s tendency to run on and use half a dozen words where English gets away with abbreviation, the two keep remarkably good pace, making comparison easy.
Highly pertinent is the publication date: 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall came down, and when the majority of churches, museums, historical records, people consulted were in East Germany. On this point alone, I think it’s important to see this work within that historical context. When I was reading The Image of the Black, and comparing there to what I saw in Wrocław, Kraków, Budapest, Prague, I noticed a marked lack of works from the former Eastern Bloc.
Along with that, some of the language choices sound awkward and dated, like the use of words such as Mohr/Moor, Neger/Negro (that’s German/English), though equally and contextually in certain cases they might be the most accurate choice, for example referencing historical documents. Making broad generalisations here, I find German language lags by comparison to English on diction and semantics when it comes to issues of representation, equality, language reclamation, which is often in contrast to the tendency of the language to be intellectual and precise on these same issues. I started writing this paragraph thinking I could make a fairly simple, easy to understand summary of word choice, but turns out I can’t. An addendum here after finishing reading it: I rewrote some of this as I thought maybe I came across a little flippant when in fact I’d written multiple paragraphs trying to get to what was bothering me here. I think it comes down to context — which is often a subject I return to when discussing museums. My discomfort with the language is a question of how would the word choice have sounded thirty years ago; would it have read as awkward or old-fashioned then, in the context of an art-historical work. in museums, in broader society? And that language changes, not over the course of a millenium, but in decades or years.
Beyond the introduction and a bit of the first chapter, The Black St. Maurice of Magdeburg and its Historical Background I haven’t read much; enough anyway to say this is one of the clearest and most succinct summaries to the history of black representation in European mediæval art, in Christianity, in the 13th century shift which led to that sculpture of Saint Maurice in Magdeburg (and its accompanying Saint Katharina), to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal written between 1200 and 1215, the preceding images of the Queen of Sheba in the early 12th century, the subsequent representation in the Adoration of the Magi, and the loss of Saint Mauritius from the canon of Saints — despite still having his day on September 22nd.
I’ve read enough back and forth to know the idea of Saint Maurice and his Thebian Legion being martyred in Switzerland in the 3rd century is a contested one, even before the idea he was black. Suckale-Redlefsen does a good synopsis of this and if we’re going to be all ‘balance of evidence’ and ‘objective’ about it, then Saint Maurice as at least North African (if not North-East African, given the proximity of Thebes to Sudan along the Nile route, or east to the Red Sea) is a reasonable conclusion to make. And she documents the presence of Africans in the courts of Frederick II in Mainz in the 13th century, so it’s not as though Saint Maurice in Magdeburg came from nowhere.
There’s a lot of excellent images of works from across central Europe, plus a small selection of colour plates, of which I’ve personally gawked at two, and which naturally get me all excited about what strange little towns in this part of Germany I can bolt to for more. The second half of the work is a catalogue, arranged approximately chronologically, so it starts with that sculpture in Dom zu Magdeburg. This section is all in German, though if anyone had gone so far as to buy this, running the text through Google Translate scrubs up fine. It’s also — I want to say lavishly illustrated, black and white photographs on most pages, sometimes three or four even.
Suckale-Redlefsen I haven’t found out much of, presuming she’s around the same generation as Caroline Walker Bynum, though Bynum is a superior writer (fully partisan here), and I believe is based in Berlin. One of the few (and incomplete thanks to academic journal paywalls) reviews I’ve come across calls this a “less than satisfactory treatment” compared to Jean Devisse’s work in The Image of the Black, which is a not invalid criticism. But let’s remember The Image of the Black costs at a minimum 50,-€ if you were lucky like me and my favourite bookseller happened to snag a complete unopened set, and more usually Volume II, Part 1 sells for around US$100 or 90,-€. So honestly, who can afford that? And Suckale-Redlefsen’s The Black Saint Maurice? Amazon UK has it for £16. Even me as a poor student could scrape that up if I really had to, and for the price it’s worth far more than that. If this kind of thing’s your gear — and it’s totally mine — irrespective of its shortcomings it’s worth it.
The last museum and the last collection for the day! Seriously I thought I’d whizz through here in 30 minutes and be off to Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr (cos they have good art there I’m told). It was 16:30. I still had no idea. Sure, I got through in under an hour, but more than 9 hours of stomping on three bananas and two coffees left me a little fragile — not to mention head implosion from art.
Let’s start with head explosion. This deserves a What The Fuck? I have no idea either. What exactly were Wenzel Jamnitzer and Abraham Jamnitzer thinking in Nürnberg in the late-1500s when they conceived and created Daphne als Trinkgefäß? I thought of Charles Stross and his Laundry Files series. It’s hilarious and simultaneously disturbing. Nearby is Trinkgefäß in Gestalt eines Basilisken built around a large melon shell perhaps acquired from a trip to the South Pacific. Unlikely used for drinking from, but imagine the kind of party where you’d get hammered quaffing from the neck of a basilisk.
A large part of the collection, and indeed the room I photographed most (and last as my battery died around 570 images in) are the works of Balthasar Permoser in collaboration with jeweller Johann Melchior Dinglinger. Almost all of these feature African people, on camels, elephants, horses, towing sleighs, with massive chests inlaid with precious stones, gold and rare metals everywhere, multicoloured feathers and headdresses, inlaid enamel, generally wondrous and overwhelming. Totally Late Baroque excess. There’s a lot going on here as Europe shifts fully into slavery mode, as the arguments for racial superiority take a turn for the worse (and which Kant himself is responsible for a few short decades later), as European colonialism and imperialism ramps up. You can’t look at these works, and their difference from — opposition to — the humanity of say, Rubens and not see how they serve to diminish whole peoples and continents. Simultaneously, they stand as an embarrassment. Look at Rubens, his vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor, then look at these. For whatever their richness and opulence, they speak loudly of a narrowing of European culture, of smallness, of choices made we’re all still paying for. They’re still amazing works of art. It’s kinda like listening to Burzum though, really good black metal but part of your brain is always going, “You know what he is.”
So I finish with Der Thron des Großmoghuls Aureng-Zeb, again by Johann Melchior Dinglinger und Werkstatt made in Dresden between 1701-1708 at the cost of no small fortune. For all I’ve just said, there’s no mistaking the revelling in a larger world here. It’s fucking berserk. Imagine dropping LSD and staring at this for an afternoon. I especially like the nonsensical but very convincing Chinese calligraphy. Or maybe it isn’t gibberish. I keep seeing recognisable characters, then followed by weird scratching. I was just pointing and snapping at this point, battery flashing red, no time for composing a shot, but somehow it captures the chaos, the noise, the fantastic procession of people and clothes and animals and just in case that wasn’t enough, mirrors to reflect it all back on itself. And it’s huge, almost 2 metres wide. It’s the kind of thing that would bankrupt a city, and I’m so glad there’s a history where excessive works of art were part of the deal.
Then I’m done. No camera, feet worn out, brain trashed and fried. 9 hours with barely a stop. Museums and collections unseen. Enough. Why am I doing this? I can’t even answer that. The physical labour of experiencing a museum, of looking at art. I’m done.
I’m mixing up a few different collections and museums from the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden here. None of these collections I photographed enough of to want to write a whole post, and at 236 images plus unfettered word count, I’m trying for a little restraint here.
So, After I left the Zwinger mit Semperbau’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister I toddled over the the Porzellansammlung. It’s row after row of Chinese and Japanese ceramics, Ming Dynasty vases large enough to bury a corpse in. A little difficult to grasp what I was looking at, more like a second hand shop than a museum collection. Over the other side, split as the collection is by the east entrance, is more of the same, with the addition of some really beautiful figures from Dehua Fujian. And the excess of Dresden baroque porcelain, rows and walls of birds from all over. I was expecting an Australian Cockatoo and did not leave disappointed. One other piece deserving a mention is from the Werkstatt der Madame Gravant: Blumenstrauß, a beguilingly detailed floral arrangement that messes with reality. Yes, it’s porcelain.
Midway through the Albertinum, I pass through the Skulpturensammlung. It’s somewhat truncated, one wing is closed as they set up a new collection — and here I’ll mention again how cool and friendly and helpful the staff were, pierced lips and all, reminds me a bit of the museum in Stockholm. It’s almost archaeological, dark rooms of cabinets lined with heads and busts. And to see Birgit Dieker’s Kleine Diva in that. Mind-blowing. I could spend a whole post writing on the references to mediæval dress and armour and black metal from that one piece alone.
Jumping ahead now to the Residenzschloss. There’s multiple rooms and sub-rooms and collections, and largely I didn’t photograph any of it. But if you’re into mediæval and renaissance warfare, armour, mounted fighting and all that, or just Game of Thrones levels of excessive opulence, this is your gear. The Rüstkammer also has the Türckische Cammer, with its comparable collection of Ottoman art and objects. It’s nice to see this in Dresden, what feels like so far north and east of Turkey, but it in fact underlines the close history of European empires and peoples stretching back millennia. I’m not so into armour and swords and guns and shit right now, so I did a runner. The Münzkabinett, just breezed through looking for Saint Mauritius (nope) or Adoration of the Magi (yup) in coin form.
Lastly in this ill-fitting post of collections and exhibitions, the Residenzschloss Kupferstich-Kabinett which had a rather splendid series of prints by Jan van der Straet from 1591 called Nova Reperta. I was going to blog these all, but screwed up the focus a few times, so these were the ones that has specific meaning to me. Like America. Americen Americus retexit, & Semel vocauit inde semper excitam, with the Native Americans chowing down on a couple of roast human legs in the background. It’s pretty obnoxious, but the point of these works is a series of world-changing — explicitly here for Europe, but by extension the globe — discoveries or inventions. Staphæ, Sive Stapedes, the use of stirrups on horse saddles; Oleum Olivarum, olive oil; Conspicilla, lenses and optics; Orbus Longitudines Repertæ è Magnetis à Polo Declinatione, navigation by the magnetic poles and longitude; Astrolabium, Astrolabes, and more of the same, together it makes for a convincing argument of world-changing technological development in the renaissance.
A little out of order here, you could easily devote half a day to these collections if that was what you were into. Though I did wonder about the arrangement of museums in the Zwinger and Albertinum. For me it would make more sense to turn over the entire Zwinger to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister and move the Porzellansammlung into Residenzschloss (yeah I dunno where either! Just throwing ideas out) where it would fit better with the Neues Grünes Gewölbe collection; and do the same for the Galerie Neue Meister in the Albertinum taking out the Skulpturensammlung. These location decisions seem to me decisions of exigency that don’t do any of the collections great favours. Which is a much larger conversation I’m not having here. Off to the Neues Grünes Gewölbe!
The last of the Albertinum. I’d been at it 5 hours by the time I was through. I thought I was doing well. No idea, Frances, no idea.
The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Galerie Neue Meister (the bits I’m calling the contemporary collection) in the Albertinum I didn’t photograph so much, and I’m wondering if it was complete. Certainly parts of the museum were closed, and there seemed to be plenty of construction going on in various buildings. Of all the museums though, the Albertinum got its lighting right. Mostly it was natural light, diffused in such a way that there was very little reflected glare on the art. Of course art since the late-19th century was way less infatuated with lashings of glaze, or acres of darkness, nor suffering from centuries of light damage. Which is not to say my camera was all nonplused about what it saw.
We start with Dresden’s own Gerhard Richter. High abstract expressionism, one of the big men of art. I’m generally not so interested in big men. I’ve had a lifetime of art study where it’s big men with big names and big art and it’s a little too easy and unreflective. But we all know that, we all know Frances and her didactic positions on everything from art to car racing. And I’ve been looking at and walking through art for 5 hours straight now so I’m slightly more receptive to just taking in what I see as it enters my field of view. And look, it’s impressive, these hallucinogenic horizontal lines in Strip (927-9) or the neutral grey of Grau (401), which is difficult to truly focus on (my camera had a fit trying to understand what I was asking of it). Some of the other works, like März (807) or Abstract Painting (865-2) I feel I’ve seen multiple variations by multiple artists, and as much as I accept here I’m in the city of Richter in the Richter collection, I don’t find them especially compelling. But those horizontal lines, at that moment, priceless.
Likewise with Günter Fruhtrunk or Sigmar Polke or Frank Nitsche, they’re all big names and it’s good to experience the history of 20th century art, particularly in a city with such a history of artists, and I do love the eyeburn caused by Fruhtrunk’s flourescent orange, yellow, green Die Illusion vom Grund, but. But. There’s one woman artist I saw in all this (maybe others, just only noticed only one), as if the history of art was only male, with a rare, unremarkable exception. Katharina Sieverding is an exception though, her Deutschland wird deutscher is the only explicitly political work in all these. I also like it because it’s punchy and in your face. It looks like a bunch of knives in a masked face. It’s deeply unfriendly, the underside of Germany that remains unaddressed. It kicks the shit out of the noodling geometric doodles of Nitsche and the others and really forces the question at them, “What are you doing?” I have this argument occasionally with German artists where they claim they’re not political, and I tell them they’re lucky they can choose not to be, the rest of us don’t have that luxury. That’s what Deutschland wird deutscher is.
Finally, before I exit into the afternoon, there’s two works by Valérie Favre, they’re unclean Lovecraftian My Little Pony horror, oozing and dribbling pustules of colour that don’t belong together on backgrounds that suck the light out of the room the more you look at them. You really wouldn’t want to find yourself awake in that world. Probably my second favourite of the contemporary artists after Birgit Dieker, who also does a good line in corporeal horror.
Albertinum done, last stop for the day is Residenzschloss, though I don’t know it. I thought I’d get to the Libeskindian Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr. Wrong. 9 hours will barely get you through the three museums in the Altstadt.
Max Slevogt! I’m devoting an entire post to him! And why wouldn’t I when the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister gave him a whole room? If you go onto their website and have a perv at the virtual tour for Galerie Neue Meister, you see something quite different. Ungrouped paintings, Degas next to Slevogt all over the place. Now, you leave one room having correctly fallen in love with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Eisenbahnüberführung Löbtauer Straße in Dresden and you’re thrown across into North Africa.
All but one of these paintings comes from his trip to Egypt in 1914, and together in one room, what a treat. The odd one out is Bildnis der Tänzerin Anna Pawlowa from 1909, but who cares? It’s Pavlova! I love paintings of dancers! And anyway, she’s dead jaunty in a costume that looks like it’s from Petipa’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter or one of Ballet Russes’ pieces, like Cléopâtre from the same year. And you have to look at her facial expression. Also the brushwork. Closeup, her torso and hips merge into the background without any clear boundary. For an impressionist painter, there’s a lot that resembles expressionism.
All around are these dozen or more works with bright sky and land. It’s not the full set of 21 works, and I’m also not sure I successfully photographed them all, but it’s a rare display. I’m torn a little between liking these too much and the awareness this kind of orientalism came at the peak of European imperial colonialism, after centuries of slavery, and when the colonies of Africa, the Middle East, … all the colonies, Australia, Canada, all of them were sites of genocide. And there’s no way I can look at these works and know how a European audience in 1914 regarded them, whether they saw these people as their equals in some way, or whether it fed and confirmed their belief in their own superiority, culturally, racially.
Not long before this, from 1891 until his death in 1903, Gauguin was in Tahiti. It’s useful to compare the two, their similarities and differences. Both of them seem to have a sympathy for their subjects, but whereas Gauguin’s works are unequivocally those of a person who knew these women (much like I think of Rubens and the person of his Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor), Slevogt’s are more like holiday snapshots, or memories. He never gets close to them, either physically or in the intangible way I see in Rubens and Gauguin. I think you can see this clearly in Bildnis der Tänzerin Anna Pawlowa, it’s staged, she’s pulling moves, giving him what he wants, though he doesn’t really comprehend what a dancer is; it’s his idea of a dancer rather than the person themself. So in Egypt we see ideas of people who when he is absent live lives that have little to do with the tourist who passed them by.
Contradicting all that, to see two muslim women standing side by side, or the interior of a mosque or madrasa during class, or a group of men sitting outside a café, these images are more than what they might be reduced to. They’re representations, and like photographs, like ethnology or anthropology or musicology or … artists also document history and culture and it’s possible for people now to see themselves here, to see their own history.
They’re also mad impressive altogether in one room. Photographs on a blog simply can’t explain that. You walk into a room, leaving Germany, leaving expressionism, and you’re in North Africa. And to put them in a single room without other works to diminish this, that’s very good museuming.
From Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Zwinger it’s a quick cross-town stroll to the Albertinum past Residenzschloss and Frauenkirche, through the rebuilt and touristic old inner city, where lanes use the cute diminutive Gässchen, all having been rebuilt (or rebuilding continues) after the firebombing of the city in 1945.
Once again, I fail to find the entrance. Museums. How do they work? I’m inside, in the colossal roofed inner courtyard where some manner of ghastly conceptual museum dance is being rehearsed and have a moment of relief that I ditched being a dance audience for museums and art. I keep returning to an essay I read recently which ranged far beyond dance, but its core was an unrelenting criticism of two decades of conceptual dance and the current fashion for dance in museums, “…when the labouring body is erased by (white, male, of European origin) philosophical constructs, we are complicit in devaluing human lives …” Dance proper is physical labour.
The first painting I see is a Degas. Two ballerinas. It doesn’t have the emotional impact his work in Berlin did in the Impressionismus – Expressionismus exhibition, nor does his famous Vierzehnjärige Tänzerin sculpture, but I’m happy to see them both. To be honest, I find his fixation on young female ballet dancers creepy, and could well imagine even at that time he was an old-fashioned presence in the room.
Whipping through a few rooms I stopped at Gotthardt Kuehl’s Die Augustusbrücke zu Dresden im Schnee. It’s a habit for me lately when I visiting museums in other cities to photograph paintings of that city. It wasn’t winter or evening, but that’s what Dresden looks like from near the Albertinum looking west along the Elbe, probably from the front of Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden.
Then we get into Expressionism. Not infrequently indistinguishable from Impressionism, particularly when nose prods painting. Of course aesthetically and philosophically the former is opposed to the latter, and the former also I associate with Germany and particular groups of artists around Die Brücke und Der Blaue Reiter in the early 20th century, whereas impressionism sits almost a generation earlier in France. Still, they’re inextricable from today’s perspective, which is why they’re often displayed side by side.
The first big work, and by big I mean wall-spanning, is Otto Dix’ major Der Krieg – Das Dresden Tryptichon painted between 1929 and ’32. Not even half a decade before Germany would be going for a repeat performance. It’s a traumatic piece in the form of a mediæval altarpiece, a central square panel flanked by two narrow wings and sitting on top of a coffin-like lower tier. On the left where the broken wooden wheel would signify Saint Katharina, there’s just the backs of soldiers marching off through and into fog; on the right, a tree and figure like Saint Sebastian instead is a blasted post-battle landscape with a hellish tornado of fire in the background. The lower tier is simply a box of sleeping bodies stacked lying in their dugout. And the central panel, where you’d expect to find Adoration of the Magi, or Mary with Jesus, is a gaping wound around their empty central location. Instead of an angel flying above, there’s a ruined corpse of a body hanging in the bones of a house.
Writing about it like this, I find myself appreciating it more. It’s a work I feel I’ve seen often in passing, which has little effect on me. Perhaps because it signifies nothing. As a bloody warning of the horror a Christian country was jack-booting towards once again, it failed utterly. It seems almost too didactic now, even though this is exactly what a nominally Christian society — Europe has been inflicting on the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa for fifteen years.
So I move onto proper expressionism, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and others in an outer ring around a central room full of Carl Lohse. Lohse I didn’t like so much on first look. I was taken enough by his Sie to photograph it, all Mars Attacks! green alien face, despite the blah mediocrity of the title — the male dominance in museums of artists from any period gets tiring pretty quickly, along with the embarrassingly crude displays of gender they attempt — and got a kick out of his monstrous Kleine Stadt, which must have enraged small town Germans nationwide. His Frühling in Bischofswerda is nothing other than an expressionist interpretation of van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
van Gogh himself makes an appearance with a plate of quinces, and if you get a chance to see any work of his, it’s worth it if you can ignore the hype around him. He really was doing something different, which is often hard to realise when contemporary representation of an art movement, be it impressionism, post-impressionism, expressionism, baroque, whatever, depends on differentiating as absolutely as possible between the individual artists in the movement, so we get the poles of Monet and Manet and van Gogh and impressionism against expressionism but it was far more diffuse than that. So when you look at the rows of long, parallel brush strokes of van Gogh, it’s sometimes good to forget all that and the expectation of awe you’re supposed feel in his presence and simply look at what he was doing. That cluster of nine red strokes on the far middle-left, or their more bold correlates mid-bottom. Rather than see these as indicators of genius, you can see in this an example of how both impressionism and expressionism understood light. That’s enough to take from this.
One of my absolute favourites, as an artist and a single painting is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Eisenbahnüberführung Löbtauer Straße in Dresden. I loved his Berlin works I’ve seen in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s collection, like Nollendorfplatz or Potsdamer Platz, and this one, more understated and simple than those two, almost like a different artist in the uncomplicated brush strokes and blocks of colour, I kept returning to it, running back for one more gawk. And I even gave it its own post, having discovered the house in the painting still stands in Dresden.
Let’s finish with a Gauguin: Parau Api. Gibt’s was Neues? I just like Gauguin, as an artist and in the care he takes with his subjects. Maybe it’s only his work reminds me of living in Auckland.
I forgot to mention the buzzers. Braaaaaap! every time I got too close to a painting. Which was often. And hearing it echo through the halls and chambers as others stuck their greasy noses too close to art. I started making “Braaaa!” sounds when I heard it, which caused a few weird looks. Probably was talking to myself also. Fuck it, if art doesn’t cause an emotional response, you’re dead inside. Shout at paintings or get the fuck out.
I’m calling the second part of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in the Zwinger mit Semperbau ‘Baroque & Enlightenment Art’, even though it crosses over with the previous works or at least there’s no explicit divider between the edges of say Mannerism and Baroque.
Another Die Anbetung der Könige, this time from French artist Nicolas Poussin. A really beautiful piece with soft light, openness, animation, horribly difficult to look at or photograph thanks to glass and glare. There’s so much movement from the figures in this, they’re all running or pointing or falling to their knees, and Mary’s just sitting there wrapped in a huge swathe of blue. It’s as much, maybe more about her as the small, almost inconsequential Jesus. I was overjoyed with this one.
Nearby, and with Baroque we’re leaving religious art proper for the goings on of fantastically wealthy people, there’s Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem’s Ein Handelsherr, am Hafenpalast einen Mohren empfangend. Another difficult one to photograph, but wow it’s awesome. The scudding clouds cutting diagonally across an evening sky, the peacock, musician, the woman in the canary yellow dress, the stacked architecture beneath which sits a total pirate of a merchant, all eyeliner and huge feathers in his hat who’s engaging two merchants equally opulent in their dress. I’d thought they were African at first, because the painting caption calls them ‘Mohren’ but I was wondering if they might be Indian. That’s all a conversation about captioning anyway. Many of these works never had captions, and what we presently hold as the canonical title is best described as a placeholder text from a later period. So with all our current forensic abilities allowing old works of art to divulge more of themselves, now’s a good time to reconsider these captions. And maybe not caption them at all. One more thing about this piece which only seemed obvious when actually looking at it: the peacock is a mirror of the merchant on the left.
Rubens! I fukken love me some Rubens! When I arrive at a Rubens it’s like meeting an old friend, and in his Dianas Heimkehr von der Jagd, my first thought was that I totally know the guy up the back playing Bacchus. Completely convinced. Then I doubted myself. Then I dug up my photos of his Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor. The fourth photo, that smile. But his studies are from around 1640, and this is from 1616. Still the same smile. A bit later is his Bathseba am Springbrunnen, which is not such an impressive piece, except for the boy. Ruben’s character studies are simply exceptional. If you want to understand why he’s deservingly one of the greats, look at his studies. Dude is a magician.
More Rubens, a Tintoretto, then Francisco de Zurbarán’s Gebet des heiligen Bonaventura um die Wahl des neuen Papstes. This was in the same room as the wildly famous Die Sixtinische Madonna of Raffael, which like the Mona Lisa is kinda unremarkable, and makes me think many people are fooled by the naïve simplicity of the two. Ok, it’s got the pair of pensive angels at the bottom, subjects of bookmarks the world over, but right next to it is Correggio’s Die Madonna des heiligen Franziskus, and if you want to talk about formidable pieces of renaissance religious art, this is the one. Forget everyone else, just look at the woman on the left, staring directly at you (sure, it’s supposed to be the Holy Antonius, but I’m definitely reading this as a chick). And Catherine on the right. Why would you even want to spend time with Raffael when you’ve got this kind of brilliance?
But I was talking about Zurbarán. This is a solid thump to the face of a work. It’s not going to elicit that effect in a photo, the way light works on its surface and into the pigment is something you need to see by standing in front of it. Or quite a way back cos it needs the appreciation of a little distance. It verges on colour field abstract expressionism. There’s this slab of darkness, off-black ebony broken with a quarter circle of sunset orange in the top left corner, and slabs of muted darkening reds in the lower left half. On the right though, it’s cut and gouged from top to half-way down, an abrupt slicing from darkness to light greys, and occupying the lower half of this is this flat blast of scarlet and coquelicot. It’s an aesthetic I’ve seen even in early mediæval art, the fact it’s the robes and caps of the Cardinals doesn’t refute the acutely abstract composition happening here. Look at the closeup, all this wash and torrent of red, in the centre of which a single hand.
Rushing on again. Bernado Bellotto, otherwise known as Canaletto. There’s half a dozen of his pieces in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and I have to admit I’m attracted to his formalism. It’s pre-photographic but photographic in the way Ansel Adams is. Comparing Adams’ The Tetons and the Snake River with Der Canal Grande in Venedig vom Palazzo Balbi aus or Die ehemalige Kreuzkirche in Dresden, I’m totally sticking with this comparison. Normally I’d be put off by such a style and technique, call it fussy, or worse, see in it the 18th and 19th century self-aggrandising imperialism, but for some reason Canaletto just makes me smile. He goes too far, the perspective is too much, yet somehow unassuming and, yeah, he was just looking out the window one afternoon and snapped off a photo. There’s a guy pissing in the corner to prove how spontaneous it is. Or the two on the gondola wearing masks and I dunno, about to drown a baby?
There’s a lot of him in Dresden, quite a lot inadequately lit. His stuff is just too subtle for direct light. I could imagine a space with only indirect overhead light, none of it pointing at the paintings so the room itself rather was illuminated, with pale walls and floor so the light almost churns into an even diffuseness. An interesting remark in the gallery though was his use of an unstable Prussian Blue pigment, which over time has deteriorated to a silvery sheen. I always thought he’d painted the sky as if it was on one of those summer days in Australia when the sky goes beyond blue, not a glare, just this fullness of brilliance.
I diligently avoided all that 19th century imperial bollocks. I can’t look at it. Everyone gets so white it’s terrifying, like they’ve been drained of blood and painted in lead oxide. And they’re all so pompous and self-satisfied. There’s an absence of joy or humour or life that’s only rediscovered in impressionism and expressionism.
A quick mention of Johann Alexander Thiele’s »Caroussel Comique« Aufzug im Zwinger 1722 and »Caroussel Comique« Rennen im Zwinger 1722 which show the Zwinger where the Gemäldegalerie is, the first from (I think) where the Porzellansammlung is looking west, the second from the south looking north with possibly Residenzschloss being the tower on the right. The perspective is highly exaggerated.
Finished with the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, it’s off the the Porzellansammlung, though I’m going to combine that collection with some of Albertinum and Residenzschloss as I didn’t photograph so much in any of them. It was about 1pm, I was feeling rather smug with my progress. I had no idea.