Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig was out on Thursday, not open till midday and we had plans to be museum-ing when doors opened at the proper time of 10am. Second on my list Grassimuseum it was then.
Curious how the ones that aren’t the top on my list turn out to be so bloody good. The architecture! Not looking as good on that first visit beneath a grey haze of fog and mist as it did the second in warm sun, but did I ever want to fondle that stone and glasswork. Robert and I walked in circles looking for a temporary exhibition that turned out to be kinda average, so we did my — and his — favourite: to the top floor and work your way down. First stop: Museum für Völkerkunde, which got very intense and emotional very quick with an unexpected and beautiful collection of Australian Aboriginal art and ethnology (north-east and central-east coast), followed by a smaller one of Aotearoa, a much bigger one of Polynesia including photographic works on glass reminding me of the Gottfried Lindauer exhibition in Berlin, then North American First Nations, going backwards along my own personal timeline through these places.
From that collection to Museum für Angewandte Kunst. 30 rooms. One giant circle of the first floor. 2000 years of applied arts and design. The closer we get to now, the more works. The first millennium wrapped up in barely two rooms with a special inner room for delicate fabric works from pre-Islamic Levant, then zipping through the first trio of second millennium centuries to get properly going in the 1400s.
I was looking for Saint Mauritius, and would have been most disappointed to not find him. I did! On a beer stein! But before that, I think he turned up in the red wax of a Magdeburg town seal (or I think that’s what it was, stupid me didn’t photograph the caption). Beer stein! The happiest St. Mauritius is a beer-y one.
I’m not exactly certain what makes the works here ‘applied art’ and not ‘fine art’. In the later periods, say Gründerzeit and on, and especially in the 20th century collections, a riot of Jugendstil, Neu-Sachlichkeit, post-Bauhaus modernism, DDR and BRD ’50s to ’70s to contemporary, it’s obviously ‘design’: furniture, lighting, jewellery, ceramics, though so rich and careful in design as to be works of art. But in the earlier stuff, this I’m used to seeing in museums as fine art. And how this fine / applied European art is distinct from non-European ethnological art, that’s a question to cause whole museums to collapse. Especially with the chinoiserie and porcelain that was all about adopting and imitating Chinese techniques and doing European things with them.
The earlier rooms, stained glass, wooden sculptures and altarpieces, tapestries, I was pointing my camera indiscriminately. A trio of massive, early 16th century retables, Late Gothic gold, filigree, and polychrome; opposing that, an armless, footless, and bald Jesus suspended from a vanished cross, his beard somehow rendering his face skeletal. Sprinkled amongst these, smaller single works of Mary, Saint Katharina, as solitary sculptures or wall reliefs. Another inner room with Romanesque works in metal, enamel, ivory. Up till here it was a solid collection, really nicely put together, the way the rooms and architecture moved us forward made spending far too much time on individual pieces too easy. Yet so far not exceptional.
And then the weirdness kicked in.
Probably around the place where the donkey-headed, fish-scaled armed and legged, cloven hoofed and bird footed (one of each), and very naked Mönchskalb turned up. Just after drunk St. Mauritius. Nearby, another dimly lit room with a Kaminbehang that was plain disturbing. Doing rough translations here: a “black Moor who wears no clothes and is burnt by the sun’s heat”; a “white Moor crossed with my arrow and my bow in hand”; a “Turk” with a naked Christian baby in one hand and a scimitar in the other. But it’s all a joke. At the end is the “High German who likes all national clothes” but has no idea how to wear them, who imagines he looks like a hero, but he’s naked looking like an idiot. This 2 1/2 metre tapestry hangs above your fireplace. We said, “What the fuck?” about it for some time.
Shortly after we depart the Renaissance for Baroque and Rococo. But stay firmly in Orientalism. There’s the heating oven capped off with the cartoon-like bust of a Turk. Beside this though is a huge and detailed, naturalistic wall tapestry of a village fair by Rococo artist Étienne Jeaurat. On the far right, a travelling merchant bearing the same Turkish signifiers as the guy atop the stove, a turban, curling moustache, rich jewellery and embroidered clothes. Both he and his assistant are on horseback, he on a flirtatious white mare, the assistant on a dark old nag. His assistant is equally lavishly dressed, turban with feathers, a cloak with massive precious stone clasp, earrings and a solid band of probably a slave collar, silver against his dark brown skin.
Further on, in another small side room is a simply massive work of Rococo chinoiserie, three of the room’s walls are filled floor to ceiling and end to end with it. Fantastic scenes mashing European Baroque and Chinese Qing Dynasty together. Months of work by many hands represented in the opulence of these two pieces.
After this, the works become more furniture and object based. Porcelain and ceramics everywhere, like the five glorious figurines of Ballets Russes in their costumes for the ballet, Carnaval by Paul Scheurich, who turns out was a right Nazi. Another Nazi was Joseph Wackerle, who did the beautiful Indianerin. Robert and I only noticed the complete absence of works from the Nazi period after we’d left and come down from our art euphoria. There are plenty of artists whose work in various movements pre- or post- that period is on display, but those twelve years are erased, as are the Nazi tendencies of the artists.
Running on through DDR and GDR periods, into our 4th hour and knowing we need food, coffee, energy for the première that evening. I didn’t take many photos in these rooms, simply so many works all deserving of attention and awe. We emerged out of those thirty rooms a bit delirious, and for me seriously impressed. I hadn’t expected a museum this good to be in Leipzig, nor an applied arts / design museum to be make me want to see all the design museums everywhere. It reminded me of the brilliant Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, so unexpected and unknown and yet I will rave for years about Leipzig and Grassimuseum. It’s even better with the audio guide (which I didn’t use but Mel did the next day). And super friendly. I dunno if this is a Leipzig thing, but they put every other city in Germany to shame with their relaxed friendliness. How friendly? The woman in the museum café bails past me sitting outside, pulls up, looks at me yawning, backtracks and comes back with an espresso and a wink.