Chinesisches Haus Park Sanssouci

All the 17th and 18th century Berlin-Brandenburg Fredericks/Friedrichs confuse me, so: Frederick the Great Elector, otherwise known as the Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick William (or Friedrich Wilhelm in these parts): not a king. His son, Frederick I of Prussia, also Elector of Brandenburg, upgraded to King of Prussia, married to Sophia Charlotte of Hannover (also of Schloss Charlottenburg), the daughter of Sophia of Hannover, both of whom were good friends of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (and generally good for arts, culture, philosophy, science). These latter three are the ones I’ve been interested in. Their son (Sophia Charlotte’s and Friedrich I’s, I mean), Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, the army guy, the Soldier King, who more or less didn’t go to war. And his son, Friedrich II of Prussia, that is, Friedrich the Great (plain Great, no Elector despite also being Elector of Brandenburg, well they were all Electors of Brandenburg, and the latter three Kings of Prussia and all called Friedrich, when not called Friedrich Wilhelm) who was totally into music, philosophy, the arts, lots of really admirable stuff, and totally went to war with his father’s Prussian military. So:

Friedrich (Wilhelm) the Great Elector (of Brandenburg), Friedrich I (of Prussia), married to Sophia Charlotte, Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia the Soldier King, and Friedrich II the Great (of Prussia). Four of them. (Oh, and the Great’s successor was his nephew, Friedrich Wilhelm II (yes, of Prussia), who was the indolent hedonist (and patron of the arts) who ruined all those previous Friedrichs’ good Prussian work. A couple more Friedrich Wilhelms followed but we don’t care about them.)

Because I was at Park Sanssouci today with David wandering the outsides of all that beautiful baroque and rococo architecture and was totally confused over which Friedrich was which.

As usual, the Bildergalerie was closed. I think I’ve established now that european winter means closed museums. And generally a current torrent of euros from wherever all over the place means renovations means closed museums. There isn’t one city I’ve been in this year where I haven’t been met with locked entrances of significant museums instead of awesome art.

Nonetheless, feast on the bizarre Chinoiserie of the 1755-1764 Chinesisches Haus. It’s really splendid, from the flattened cupola above high oval windows with a buddha-like golden seated figure bearing a parasol at a rakish angle (there’s a good photo on German Wikipedia), to the tented main roof with diagonal patterning and folding giving a sense of motion like a roundabout, to the massive golden columns and arrangement of trios eating and drinking at their bases, quartets of standing figures playing a diversity of musical instruments between the trios of portico windows, the entire trefoil plan splitting it into three main rooms (not that we could go inside), it’s sublime and naïvely kitsch.

Most of the figures are unambiguously European, though more than a couple of the standing musicians have eyes definitely of the Græco-Buddhist style, and some of them it’s possible were based on either art representing Chinese or South-East Asian people or actual people. What’s more remarkable is the plethora of styles and cultures all thrown together as Oriental: dress, fabrics, headdress, musical instruments, cushions, seem to come from as far north as Xinjiang and as far south as Thailand, with some of the musicians even looking Central Asian or northern Chinese, others have styles that seem imagined or fantasied, mashing together vaguely Asian with vaguely northern European hats and shoes, cuts of dresses and bonnets. It’s madly chaotic. Especially for the trios seated on pillows enjoying Chinese tea and other far eastern delicacies. For them, the musicians seem to encourage the freedom to dress up as Orientals, to wear hats and slippers, silk and embroidery, light, form-following gowns, for men to wear changshan dresses and women cheongsam. It’s gloriously radical and liberatory, yet also exactly the opposite, only possible because of wealth and might. It plays with these things, burnishes the participants’ sophistication, but never changes them. Or perhaps it did.

It’s probably far more beautiful in summer or autumn than in the last grey dregs of winter, but still …