The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
It’s not an easy exhibition to see — I went twice and both times felt well deeply disturbed at humanity during and after — and not an easy exhibition to blog about. I took around 350 photos, half of those of the lengthy captions, and cutting the 175 potentially bloggable images down to a feasible 87 meant diverging from the coherent narrative of the exhibition. So there are gaps; only seeing the exhibition or buying the hefty catalogue can give a proper account. And giving an account, firstly I need to thank Boris Nitzsche in the press department who arranged my visit and for me to take photos, as DHM special exhibitions are camera-free zones.
Secondly: a content warning. The exhibition contains images and documentation of genocide. Some of my photos are of this and of people who were murdered. I back-and-forthed with myself constantly over whether to include these images at all, but it felt like an erasing to only write of this and not include them. Yet these people who were murdered have no say in how they are represented, indeed for many if not all the only photographs and documentation of them ever made is of their suffering and death. And unlike the Jewish holocaust, it was only in 2015 that Germany officially called their extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in German South-West Africa (Namibia) genocide, yet still refuse reparations. Besides that genocide, massacres and atrocities were commonplace in all of Germany’s colonies.
Besides the difficulty in choosing which images to blog, there was the issue of context. This exhibition has it. All of the pieces require context, and it’s a first for me to say an exhibition was not lacking in this regard. Most of the images or image sets had at least a paragraph accompanying the caption giving the work a frame of reference. Additionally, exhibition sections and sub-sections all had long introductory texts and frequently booklets. And then there was the audio guide, which would turn a three-hour visit into a full day endeavour. There was a massive amount of work put into preparing and translating this. And with this need for context here also, I’ve been struggling with what to write, to explain what these images are showing.
While there are plenty of works of art, this exhibition primarily functions as a documentation of history, and in this art is turned to further the purposes of propaganda and imperialism. There are very few paintings, but coinciding with the arrival of film photography gives an abundance of photographs throughout the colonial period. The central piece for me is not art. It’s nothing much to look at. A large, hardcover parchment with a mess of red wax seals pinning down a red, black and white thread forming columns on the left sides of the facing pages; to their right, a scrawl of signatures. This is the General Record of the Berlin Africa Conference (image 33, below) on February 26th, 1885, signed by the state representatives of the 13 European nations (and the United States) formalising the dividing up the continent of Africa into colonies.
The German colonial empire: German West Africa, now Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Central African Republic, Ghana, and Togo; German East Africa, now Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda; German South-West Africa, now Namibia; German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa. Prior to the German Empire, there were Brandenburg-Prussian colonies from the late-1600s til early-1700s; Habsburg colonies of the 1700s in Ghana, Mauritania, Bénin, the Caribbean and Americas, Nicobar islands; and concessions in China in Tianjin, Jiaozhou, and Yantai. By the standards of France or Britain, Germany was a minor player, coming late to the party and lasting barely thirty years (excluding merchant companies prior to the conference, which began in the 1850s). I listed all the colonies and current nations, some of which became colonies of other empires before achieving independence so it would be clear what is meant by German colonialism. It is a daunting list. But it helps to be reminded the extent of European colonisation: All or nearly all of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific. It requires less space to simply list the few countries and regions never colonised.
January 26th was Invasion Day, what the National Day of Australia is properly called, marking as it does the arrival of the First Fleet. In the discussion of colonies, whether German, British, or other, I noticed the onus was on providing evidence genocide or systematic massacre occurred; lesser-known colonies with comparatively lesser-known histories seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in wavering between did it or didn’t it happen. So German South-West Africa is now unequivocally, officially the site of genocide. Yet the same practices occurred in all of Germany’s colonies to some degree — as if genocide has degrees. Rather than have to prove this in each individual case, it seems more honest to say the fundamental aim and purpose of all colonies wherever they were was and is extermination.
I don’t have a transition into the less grim aspects of the exhibition, so I’ll bash on.
Photographs and biographies of multiethnic marriages, and of couples and families living in Germany back to the mid-late-19th century; Portraits of figures as far back as the early 1700s who came to Europe often as slaves yet went on to study and have careers and lives in Europe — even when they remain morally unadmirable, like Jacobus Capitein who defended slavery. Post-World War II, it’s notable how involved East Germany was in anti-imperialism and solidarity with what was then called the Third World. Afro-deutsche in West-Berlin, and Black History Month in reunified Berlin.
I’m not sure I’m doing this justice. It’s an extremely relevant exhibition, one that the museum have done a careful job of preparing and presenting, and one that both times I visited was packed. It’s a little too massive for me to be able to make coherent thoughts or criticisms about. Perhaps my primary criticism or question is of what value it has. Germany is adept at regarding its past and admitting guilt. Yet Germany’s awareness in specific instances does not seem to easily translate into understanding the repetition of behaviour or thinking in others. The ongoing struggle for recognition and compensation in Namibia is the most obvious example, but similar valid claims in other former colonies are far less likely to make even that progress. Indeed, would likely provoke a racket in Germany of the “Just how much do we have to be guilty for?” kind. Which is the point: The inability to see the unbroken line between the racist ideology of Kant and other still esteemed German philosophers, 19th century imperialism leading to genocide in the 20th century in colonies and then across Europe, the current failure to accept Germany is already multicultural, and the increasingly pervasive anti-Muslim / anti-brown people rhetoric.
While the exhibition is about Germany’s own colonial history, and I’ve been talking specifically about Germany, as that signed and sealed document demonstrates, all of Europe was involved, and Europe along with all the former colonies remain infected with this ideology. Each country in Europe has its own unique variation on this identical form of white supremacism. I would like to hope for an exhibition in a hundred years where this 500 year chapter of European history and its effect on the rest of us is forever closed, but I suspect we’re not going to make it.
An addendum: I bought and read Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out a couple of months after seeing this. In part it documents the inter- and post-war eugenics, sterilisations, and removal of children from their mothers in Germany, something the exhibition didn’t cover, which made me question what I wrote above about the ‘careful job’ done in presenting Germany’s colonial history. It seems even now, some history is less amenable to museum exhibitions and curators than others.
Sadly the exhibition was one of those “No Cameras Allowed”. I did sneak one of Edoardo Di Muro’s Freiheit für Namibia. Solidarität mit der SWAPO (from the Antiimperialistisches Solidaritätskomitee für Afrika, Asien und Lateinamerika, Frankfurt am Main, 1976) because SWAPO. I don’t know they were something my father mentioned, or just because he was South African I would see them mentioned in the news and pay attention, but SWAPO is definitely a name I remember from Apartheid.
There’s a couple of other special exhibitions on right now that are likely Kameras verboten! so now’s a good time for me to start pestering the museums for special privileges, which might mean a future proper blogging of both these exhibitions.
It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.
What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!
Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.
Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.
On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.
Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).
Books! I have read them!
Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings; Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.
I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.
This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.
Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.
Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.
All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)
I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.
Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.
And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.
Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.
My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
I am getting such a kick out of reading this. Definitely going to be on my Book of the Year list.
The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng was published last year, so it’s been on my Want List for, I dunno, pushing a year, I guess. And I have no idea where I heard about it. Not io9 with its monthly list of what’s new (and what will I do for skiffy if io9 vanishes — any more than it already has?); not on Islam and Science Fiction, so that rules out the obvious ones; possibly on Twitter, but searching social networks is the 4Chan of the internet, so, no idea. Whoever brought it to my attention, and into my grubby mitts, well done!
Funny thing is, I’m not much into either steampunk or short stories, yet here am I blabbing about both. My ambivalence for short stories I have a feeling I’ve mentioned recently; it’s primarily that I like sinking deep into a story and the characters, for at least a day, ideally much longer, though my reading speed nixes the latter. Short stories at 15 minutes a pop leave me wanting more, it’s like reading the first chapter and being denied the novel.
Steampunk on the other hand, in its typical form, there’s no ambivalence: I find it contrived, a literary and cultural cul-de-sac dangerously uncritical of itself. And this is me talking about context again. The signifiers steampunk plays with are rooted in high industrial colonialism, sliding between mid-19th century Age of Steam proper, and early 20th century post-steam final years of the European imperialism. In fact while technologically rooted in a non-internal combustion engine alternate timeline, steampunk often sits firmly in pre-war 1914 in cultural, social, political signifiers. And I’m basing this on a rather small population of books read, but of those I have, and of my other reading, this is my impression. I also just don’t get the brass, clockwork, steam aesthetic. Partly because the era it fetishises sits atop colonialism and genocide in the real world, and partly because for me it’s even less plausible than dragons and magic.
So, we’ve established my hostility to short stories and steampunk, and yet here we are, me saying this is an excellent collection, I’m loving reading it, I want another, Volume 2: The Sea is Still Ours (2 Sea 2 Furious, or something). I love it because of the list of countries I’ve categorised and tagged this post under, countries I don’t mention enough these days, and though I never lived in any of them, I passed through most at one time or another when Guangzhou was my home. There’s a familiarity in the writing and stories, it’s like coming out of Hong Kong airport into the glorious damp heat on Chek Lap Kok and physically remembering where I am.
There’s another thing in the stories I’ve read so far (about half), which is requisitioning the signifiers of steampunk for use by the other side. It’s another alternate timeline, where the colonised got their hands on the technology of the European empires, merged it with their own technology, culture, world, and turned it against the aggressors. A world where the Maya civilisation resisted the Spanish empire enough to trade with the Philippines, where the Philippines themselves charted a different course. When I’m reading these stories, I keep thinking steampunk was made for this, using the technology of the age of colonialism to imagine other potential histories. It’s a far more satisfying genre written like this.
I was also thinking — and this is thanks to the work of editors Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng — how refreshing it is to read stories that aren’t coming out of the United States (putting aside that it was published there, by an American publisher, and that a couple of the writers live there). Dasniya and I spent an afternoon on the grass in front of the Reichstag yesterday soaking in the warm sun, the conversation moved — as it usually does — to those awkward words, inclusion, diversity, how to talk about one’s work while avoiding the reductionism of these terms yet also needing to make clear that the concerns these terms signify is central. And this is where this collection succeeds for me: certainly within the domestic situation in the States it would be categorised using these terms, but the stories themselves, it’s like a chorus of an entire world from somewhere else, and in this world these words — if they even appear — are framed on their terms. It’s like when I made the fantastic shift from reading feminism coming from Anglo-Euro-American countries to that coming from Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Chinese writers and never looked back.
Bill Campbell, Jaymee Goh, Joyce Chng: more please! And I’d love one with Taiwanese, Cantonese (Jihng Yāt and steampunk pirates!), the sea-facing countries of the north.
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!
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.