Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg

Saturday. Magdeburg, after the quite incredible Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina, about 3pm, so I could have spent more time in the church before wandering up to the Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg about a block westwards. I didn’t, expecting proliferation in the latter, especially after the excess of the former. Somewhat disappointed then. It wasn’t the unbelievable overabundance of Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes with its acres of Rubens. It was kinda average, to be frank (hawhaw) (the Museum für Naturkunde in the same building was by far the better of the two, I just wasn’t there for that stuff).

I was expecting medæval art. Probably because I interpreted Kulturhistorisches as Kunsthistorisches, wishful thinking or something. Possibly also because some of the rooms containing this stuff were either closed or empty. Who knows? Museums can be really crap at communicating, particularly when it comes to the not so cool collections. Blahblah context, etc.

It did get off to a good start with the Tiroler Weihnachtskrippe, a joyous diorama of a town with fancy houses, sheep and farmers, porticos and mad baroque architecture, and omg! it’s Joseph and Mary in a crappy lean-to and a bunch of angels and everyone’s lining up to I dunno, give them a goat or something (complete aside here, why does Joseph never figure in mediæval (or otherwise) Christian religious imagery the way Mary does? Besides the Nativity Scene / Heiligen drei Könige, he doesn’t figure at all, and even there he’s all awkward in the background), and there’s Balthazar looking his usual young and innocent self, in a much-embroidered light maroon tunic and golden jacket showing plenty of torso, and a turban with golden ornaments. He looks a bit lost and on his own, but one of the quintet of angels is keeping him company. It’s all rather sweet in that late-Baroque / Rococo way.

A few notes: it came from Ursulinenkloster Innsbruck, transferred to Posthalterhaus in Schönberg bei Innsbruck before arriving in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in 1908. It was restored by the Fachochschule Erfurt between 2007 and 2011. The museum describes it as a perfect example of nativity scenes in the 17th and 18th centuries created in Tirol, and contains 68 figures 8-30cm in height and 28 animals. Plus a score of houses and buildings, and carefully placed mirrors at the ends of the porticos making it look much larger than it is—and it’s the size of a small room.

Next to that is the life-size Der Magdeburger Ritter from Magdeburg in the 13th century Gothic stone sculpture style. It probably depicts Otto the Great (the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I), with two unknown women bearing his shield and banner (I’ll pretend they are the sisters Eagdyth and Eadgifu). As with the Saints Mauritius and Katharina sculptures, its creation dates from 1240-50, concurrent with when Mechtild of Magdeburg resided in the city, and the place was pretty much the centre of mediæval Germanic awesomeness. It still has the stiff, narrow, vertical and symmetrical aesthetic of early Gothic art, but there’s already some movement, naturalism, and asymmetry entering, particularly in the two women.

Off into the Magdeburg – Die Geschichte der Stadt collection. I really was expecting to see more of St. Maurice. Besides Gepanzerte Krieger (the bronze lower-left panel of a door wing) of which the caption says, “Die Mittelfigur nimmt Bezug auf den Hl. Mauritius, der den Märtyrertod erlitt, weil er es ablehnte, Christen zu verfolgen und den Kaiser als gottgleich anzuerkennen. Otto der Große weihte dem Heiligen den Dom und das Erzbistum Magdeburg.” (“The central figure refers to Saint Mauritius, who was martyred because he refused to persecute Christians and to recognise the emperor as godlike. Otto the Great consecrated the Holy cathedral and the archbishopric of Magdeburg.”) It’s a little ambiguous to me whether by ‘nimmt Bezug’ the museum is saying this is St. Mauritius or whether translating as ‘refers to’ loses some meaning, or if there’s just a whole pile of ambiguity. Anyway, it’s a rather splendid piece of bronze-work that sat next to an even more splendid one which sadly was unphotographable.

Sprinting through the centuries like no one’s business, a couple of paintings from the early 19th century of the Magdeburger Dom which show off its very attractive (and completely absent of flying buttresses) Gothic form. A stack of early 20th century Expressionist works (by women!) most of which I did a shit job of photographing, so only one appears here, and then it’s into fun time.

By which I mean, “Heh … we have to talk about this stuff, but it’s kinda embarrassing” Nazi-land. Both the Nazi and DDR periods are in a single room, which is fitting, as I’ve been considering lately that the Soviet occupation of East Europe really was a 45 year prolongation of the war, and as the Second World War was fundamentally a continuation of the First, the 20th century takes on a very specific coherency when the first 90 years are war and only the last ten years (nominally) not.

Up first, Fibel für den Gau Magdeburg Anhalt (Primer for the District Magdeburg Anhalt, from 1942) with its adorable children playing with lanterns at night on one page and the “Heil Heil!” Nazi-fuckery on the next. Nearby are the photos of Das so genannte Zigeunerlager in Magdeburg (The So-called Gypsy Camp in Magdeburg), to which the caption concludes: “In 1943 the camp was abolished and all occupants deported to Auschwitz.” Beside that is a large diorama of Magdeburg in 1945, Magdeburg Zerstörte Innenstadt, the destroyed inner city. What I find curious in both is the passivity of the language, “the occupants were deported” by whom and to what fate, is left unsaid; the “inner city was destroyed” again by whom and why hangs overhead in its absence.

When I arrived in Magdeburg, I was struck by the absence of people. It’s a city of around 230, 000 so not small, and a university town. Outside of the main station it was as if aliens had vacuumed the town clean. And besides the absence of people, the absence of buildings. It was comprehensively bombed by allied forces towards the end of WW2 (the argument about how much of a war crime intentional fire-bombing was is not for here), but the Soviet occupiers left tracts of the inner city abandoned and they remain so to this day—where they didn’t fill it with high, frothy Soviet architecture, the kind that lines Karl-Marx-Alle in Friedrichshain (except in Berlin the rent is impossibly high for these places; Magdeburg it’s—at least part—subsidised housing).

So you have this city, the capital of the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, in beautiful countryside, sitting on a river, a thousand years of history, obviously underpopulated and with plenty of available accommodation and land in the city center, and rather than go, “Fuck yeah, we need shitloads of new people here, yo!” a full quarter of them voted for the anti-immigration, crypto-fascist, nationalist Alternativ für Deutschland, the place is rife with Neo-Nazi anti-immigrant and -refugee attacks (despite it having a reasonable number of both), and the general sentiment (which I’ve encountered elsewhere in former East Germany—and West) is they’d far sooner sink together as ‘Germans’ in their own misery than do anything meaningful to better their situation. And by meaningful, I mean make the place attractive to artists, immigrants, refugees, young people, small businesses, people fleeing increasingly expensive Berlin. The place could be awesome.

Last piece then: a wall tapestry from Tournai. The caption says:

Der Bildteppich stellt eine Geschichte dar, in der geraubte Heidenkinder verkauft werden. Von einem Schiff werden die meist dunkelhäutigen Kinder an Land gebracht. Ein Seeräuber oder Zigeuner erhält von einem prächtig gekleideten Mann im Vordergrund Goldmünzen und die Kinder werden an Edelleute in spätgotischen Gewänder übergeben.

Im Inventarbuch eines Teppichhändlers des 16. Jahrhunderts aus Tournai gibt es die Aufzeichnung über 17 Teppiche einer so genannten “Carrabarra-Geschichte”, wozu dieser Wandbehang gehört. Trotz eingeschränkter Farbskala und relativ geringer Fadendichte verstanden es die Weber der Bildwirkereien in Tournai, technisch und künstlerisch hochwertig Teppich herzustellen.

Loosely translated first paragraph: The tapestry depicts the story of the selling of the stolen heathen (pagan or perhaps Gentiles is best) children. From a ship, the dark-skinned children are brought ashore. A pirate or Gypsy (Zigeuner, i.e. Roma, Sinti, a Romani person) receives gold coins from a splendidly dressed man, and the children are handed over to noblemen in late-Gothic dress.

Again this passivity of language, as if the nobility are being coerced into handing over their coinage by the wily gypsy, or saving these children out of their own altruistic goodness, when by the 16th century the European slave trade was already underway, and for nobility across Europe, buying children (and dwarfs) from Africa was common. Or perhaps that’s how the nobility wished to imagine what they were doing, altruism and saving the dark continent from itself.

As the second paragraph says, it’s not a great work, limited colour palette, low fibre density, but still technically and artistically proficient—and one of seventeen, though the museum only has this one.

After that, I barged through the Museum für Naturkunde, was pretty much museumed and arted out by this point—and you can probably tell I was a little underwhelmed by the museum. Unfortunately then stuck in Magdeburg with nothing to do for a couple of hours. The busses to the city are plentiful, but leaving … and as for trains, Deutsche Bahn have a monopoly and they love squeezing passengers for every euro they can. Not the greatest for tourists. (I can really see a sideline job for me photographing mediæval art in small towns and obnoxiously telling them how to be better at tourism.)