Alte Nationalgalerie

The Alte Nationalgalerie’s audio guide tag team slayed it. Good thing I checked the map first, or I’d have gone to the Altes Museum. Good thing also I turned around at the first painting when I saw it had the luscious headphones icon, went back and got some.

First painting: Osman Hamdi Bey’s Der Wunderbrunnen, subtitled Lesender Araber, originally titled Ab-ı Hayat Çeşmesi (The Fountain of Youth) from 1904. Audio Guide! Three minutes of detailed explanation about the painting, the fountain, the cabinet, the artist. Osman Hamdi Bey is the reason I go to museums and galleries. It was really poorly lit off to one side of the first floor entrance to the exhibition rooms. Just a bit of light, please?

Then into … ah I went backwards again, Secessions & fin de siècle instead of Realism from Constable to Courbet. There were a lot of paintings throughout of girls or young women at a table, on a sofa, sitting around looking listless and bored. Like Leo von König’s Am Früstückstisch. Kinda charming. Then there was stuff like Max Beckmann’s Kleine Sterbeszene, all Edvard Munch brutal colour and application, green or yellow skin, psychological horror rather than realism. As I got further through it became obvious what a reaction against the sentimental, cloying realism it was, with all the latter’s nationalism, colonialism, racism and misogyny. God I got sick of looking at self-righteous, self-important men in uniform. And the landscapes. I love a good landscape, but there was something about these in the context of late-1800s that seems more about propping up the insecurity of a national subconscious than it does celebrating nature.

There was Franz von Stuck’s awesome woman with the serpent, all blue-ish and sickly, Die Sünde, which I loved when I was a teen Goth. All glossy as hell also and until I get around to buying a circular polarising filter for camera, glossy is what I’ll get. There’s also his Tilla Durieux als Circe. The commentary is hilarious. Obviously Stuck had a boner for Durieux and thought his work of her was well tasty. She on the other hand wrote most excellent autobiographical slapdown.

Now we get to the bones of the collection. Massive, wall-covering Gründerzeit objects from the mid- to late-19th century. Adolph Menzel fills a few large rooms with four or five paintings. That kinda thing.

Before him though, Wilhelm Gentz and his 1876 colossal Einzug des Kronprinzen Friedrich Wilhelm von Preußen in Jerusalem 1869. Friedrich Wilhelm (we have to make sure which Friedrich Wilhelm, seeing there were so many. In this case, William I, German Emperor) was there representing Prussia (then as Crown Prince, not Emperor, hadn’t slammed France in the Franco-German war at that point) for the opening of the Suez Canal. Of this painting, art critic Adolf Rosenberg wrote in 1891: “…es ist die erste bildliche Darstellung der sieghaften Macht, die das neuerstarkte Deutschland über Orient und Occident damals zu gewinnen anfing” (“… it is the first pictorial representation of the victorious power with which at that time the newly invigorated Germany first began to win the Orient and Occident.”). The artist by the way, is the guy in white on the donkey, far right.

I think this is an exemplary work of the orientalism of the time, and side by side with say, St Maurituis illustrates the change in European attitudes and regard for people of colour and places outside Europe in the 350 years between the mediæval and the 19th century colonial imperial era. Particularly in the (Germanic region) Holy Roman Empire, representations like St. Mauritius were common enough to occur multiple times in every museum I’ve visited in the last year and an half, and these representations placed people of colour in equal positions to the other subjects. By the 18th century these representations were mostly that of exotic subjugation. In Adolph Menzel’s 1878 Das Ballsoper the range of skin tones (with the exception of the seated man far right) is a function of available light and shadow—something often used to explain away real variation in skin colour—and the only people with dark skin are half-naked and bejewelled statues holding enormous candelabra. This then is the representation of 19th century ideas of race and nation as presented in the Alte Nationalgalerie.

Another massive Adolph Menzel, Ansprache Friedrichs des Großen an seine Generale vor der Schlacht bei Leuthen 1757 from 1859-61 unintentionally presages where all this will go. Unfinished, Friedrich the Great himself is a bare patch of canvas. Behind the first grouping of generals, some of the second tier are also these off-white voids. On the right, severing the tree from its base, another, and on the left one who seems to be evaporating, feet melting into snow, a blob rather than a person. Across the painting eyes have been scratched out, faces hacked, the work abandoned in despair. It reminds me of the Romanian flag with the centre cut out on the cover of Žižek’s Tarrying with the Negative of which he says, “…instead of the symbol [for Žižek the flag, here Friedrich the Great] standing for the organising principle of the national life, there was nothing but a hole in its centre.”

Amidst the landscapes—some of which I did find attractive, or at least capture what is beautiful in northern Germany (hah, yes, occasionally yes), like Karl Hagemeister’s Märkische Landschaft or Paul Baum’s Nach dem Regen—there was this theme of orientalism. Mihály von Munkácsy’s Zigeunerlager (translated as Gypsy Camp, though both those words are … well, the Zentralrat Deutscher Sinti & Roma say Zigeuner is a racist, discredited term also favoured by the Nazis) is one, nearby is Narcisse Diaz de la Peña’s Orientalin mit ihrer Tochter. Horace Vernet’s also, which I was looking at going, “Wow, well awesome!” wondering if it was one of those historical or mythical subject. Nope: Sklavenmarkt (Slave Market). It’s all-round troubling, all the way from foreground to finishing off with the guy having his teeth checked way up back. Sometimes things really need context (like is this something the artist saw himself, or in a photograph, or is it imagined from descriptions? Is the central man a buyer, is he himself a slave?) and having a work like that pretty much next to Constable’s The Grove, yeah, good to show what people were painting then but it’s kinda like putting Hello Kitty next to Holocaust. Anyway, something I almost missed is her tattoo which looks like a Star of David.

Not to say I disliked these works. I thought they were some of the finer in the collection, technically and artistically, even if from today’s perspective they’re iffy the way Wagner is. I keep banging on about context in the museums I visit and it’s stuff like this which really needs it.

Then … Cézanne (whose work is glorious in real life, unlike Monet whom I find kinda meh), beautiful Mediterranean works by Hans von Marées, the wonderful Don Quichotte und Sancho Pansa by Honoré Daumier and equally wonderful and mundane Auf dem Kanapee by Wilhelm Trübner (she totally looks like she’s on her phone and is all like, ”Can I go yet? Are we done?”) Carl Schuch’s still lifes look like they were done 200 years prior in the Netherlands, but with a 19th century brush and aesthetic. Died of syphilis.

One of the last, Max Liebermann’s Flachsscheuer in Laren is somewhat a companion for Adolph Menzel’s Das Eisenwalzwerk (Moderne Cyclopen) for me. Painted a couple of years later, it’s without the Industrial Revolution heroism and bragging of the latter, it doesn’t have gargantuan machinery belching hot coals and fire, nor an instant of energy and motion caught, it’s uneventful, a group of women spinning flax into thread, a group of children under the spindles, it would be the same the next day and the day after. It’s anonymous in a way that singular iron mill floor isn’t. It’s also an industrial revolution that isn’t one of men and furnaces and machinery, one that was equally prevalent. Really one of my favourites here.

Up to the third floor, and Gottfried Lindauer. Die Māori-Portraits. Non-stop goosebumps. It was like seeing someone I used to know, and hearing Māori spoken again, and seeing Kapiti Island and the Coromandel and remembering stuff I hadn’t thought of for years. No photos. I bought the catalogue. Fuck it, 40 euros is worth it.