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, and Habsburg colonies 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 initially 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 very careful job on 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.
That’s what one of the pair of old, white-haired German women said across the gallery to the other while standing before the pink and blue scribbling of Zwei Badende. Shortly after, she snorted at Max Liebermann in seinem Atelier, offered the faintest of praise for Sängerin am Piano, and as we tacked our separate ways through the exhibition continued her derision, as if she was a good jury member for Entartete Kunst. I’d like to think she was unaware of the irony, but this is Germany at the end of 2016 and even in the heart of Berlin there are Nazis who tell themselves and each other they’re not Nazis.
So, me at Neuen Galerie im Hamburger Bahnhof seeing Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen, and also my first museum visit where I arranged to bring my camera. Most of the special exhibitions in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are No Cameras Allowed. Without photographing plus subsequent blogging there isn’t much point to my museum trips, thanks then to the Kommunikation department for making it easy (even though it turned out cameras were anyway allowed).
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen presents the 17 works in Berlin’s currently closed for renovations Neue Nationalgalerie collection, plus works from Kirchner Museum Davos, Brücke Museum, and private collections. Besides the core paintings, there are sketches and works on paper, wood sculptures, photographs from Kirchner’s various ateliers, books, and some dancing. It’s not a huge exhibition, if you were slamming Hamburger Bahnhof you could whip through in 15 minutes. I spent an hour there and could have easily used up another. These works and the accompanying text deserve contemplation.
Kirchner used the word Hieroglyph himself in articles published under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle, to describe how he worked with a symbolic language in his work as part of “the radical abbreviation and reduction of his imagery.” The exhibition starts with this text, and an essay in a book, accompanied by the sketch Tanzduo. Which I thought looks exactly like Dasniya, down to the face and bloomers under tutu.
In this first section are works I’m most familiar with of his, Haus unter Bäumen, Badende am Strand, both from Fehmarn, up on the Ostsee north-east of Hamburg. It then returns to dance. He, like many artists then, frequently painted dancers, possibly the influence of Ballets Russes who blew away the ballet world in 1909.
Opposite the dance section is Davos, where he moved after having a breakdown and while dealing with drug addition and alcoholism. There was a beautiful, huge tapestry hanging on the wall, unfortunately under perspex and unphotographable — the only work to suffer this, all the other artworks were under that magical unreflective glass — and probably the pick of the exhibition. His style changes here too, the late-’20s, early-’30s of Wiesenblumen und Katze or Sängerin am Piano flatter and with Cubist elements, almost alien to his earlier frenzy.
Berlin forms its own section, with some of my favourite pieces I would love to steal. The incredible Potsdamer Platz is here, as is Rheinbrücke in Köln and Der Belle-Alliance-Platz in Berlin. These form yet another distinct style, at first glance not different from the Fehmarn works, but they’re far lighter, faster, almost like watercolour on paper. Erna Schilling also arrives, his life partner from then on. These aren’t easy works. Kirchner populates the cityscape with what he called ‘Kokotte’, coquettes, sex workers, and the men, always diminished figures on the sides carry an anonymous menace.
Around the next corner, and one of the contextually most interesting for me. But first, Sitzender Akt mit erhobenen Armen, which I cannot help look at and see a nice plate of two fried eggs, sunny side up beside the naked woman. I know they’re supposed to be flowers in vases, but it’s all eggs to me. What’s more pertinent here is his use of colour on the shadows outlining her body. They’re a turquoise that contrasts the apricots and light salmon colours of her skin. When I look at this and compare it to Zwei weibliche Akte in Landschaft, with the hallucinogenic greens, yellows, pinks, blues of their bodies, it becomes clear how the latter in no way denotes a non-natural skin colour, nor do the greens and yellows of the Potsdamer Platz women or other portraits.
This painting was in the section called “Signs of Other Worlds” and discusses the influence of non-European art and culture on his and other Brücke artists’ work and life. Both African and Oceania form influences, and both were sites of German Colonialism until the end of World War I. It’s difficult for me to know where Kirchner sits in this. On one side he was horrified by the treatment of Jewish Germans even in the early-’30s, and was expelled by the Nazis from the Prussian Academy of Arts when they came to power in 1933, yet he also saw what he and the Brücke artists were doing as encouraging “truly German art, made in Germany”. So there’s this tension between radical aspirations and uncritical nationalism and colonialism.
Carl Einstein’s (a German Jewish writer, art historian, anarchist and critic) book Negerplastik is described as an important influence, and two copies are presented alongside Kirchner’s work. This influence is immediately apparent in his sculpture, even without prompting, but I like that this connection was explicitly made.
There’s also one photo that achieved the glorious down-the-rabbit-hole I love about museums. All the photos are postcard-sized, and being a hundred years old, not sharp or clean at all. This one, from Kirchner Museum Davos was captioned “Die Artisten Milly und Sam in Kirchners Atelier, Berliner Straße 80, Dresden” from circa 1910/11. It’s set in a chaotic room, artworks, hangings, and sculpture propped up against walls, littering the floor. There are two naked figures, Milly, in the bottom-left corner, and Sam, standing, one arm on his hip, the other stretched along the top of a painting. Both of them are black. They have names, are called ‘artists’ (Artisten), so what were they doing in Berlin in 1910?
For a start, this isn’t the only work they appear in. Milly is the subject of Kirchner’s Schlafende Milly in Kunsthalle Bremen, both were the subjects of numerous sketches by Kirchner, and Milly probably appears in more than one work without being named. Both of them are said to have also modelled for Erich Heckel. An alternate title for the photo is “Sam und Millie vom ‘Zirkus Schumann’”, and they are variously described as ‘circus’, ‘jazz dancer’, and ‘Black American’ artistes in sources cited in Face to Face? An Ethical Encounter with Germany’s Dark Strangers in August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century. So there’s this whole history of early-20th century Afro-Germans, colonialism, immigration in this one small, easily missed photo, which is a lot to put on a naked man and woman, about whom not much is known. It’s these traces though that history is all about. A single photo, a name, and a world opens up.
A little note on the nudity: Kirchner and friends were all down with getting naked and running around. Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture) was and is a deeply German thing. There were several photos of “naked but for a cigarette” in the exhibition. It might be this one was only one of a series, though how comfortable they were with nudity, whether they felt objectified, how Kirchner and the other artists regarded them, I can’t speculate.
A final note: Shortly after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss, Kirchner, living in Switzerland and fearing a similar invasion, killed himself.
Friday was our day off, day after première. Melanie and I decided on Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, the opaque glass monolith just inside the ring road near the Hauptbahnhof. I was there for the mediæval art. Was disappointed. Maybe I missed some rooms or floors, maybe that part was closed. Either way, I saw exactly zero Cranach the Elder, Michel Erhart, Rogier van der Weyden, Meister Francke, Hans Baldung, or anything prior to early-16th century.
Perhaps I was spoilt by the Grassi Museum — ok, I was totally spoilt — but I left MDBK in under two hours unimpressed and went back to the Grassi. This morning, I was eating breakfast thinking about writing this and a simile for the museum came to me: A couple of weeks ago Mark Webber finished his motorsport career, in the World Endurance Championship Porsche LMP1 at Bahrain International Circuit. It’s a dog of a circuit. One of those generic strip malls of a track designed by Hermann Tilke, the Forza gaming engine of architecture. These tracks are the finest expression of no-consequence racing and bland geometry, the antithesis of tracks like Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps, Circuit de la Sarthe, Macao street circuit.
To me, the architecture of MDBK embodies the contemporary neo-liberal politic and aesthetic of a museum, one that doesn’t have much use for either people or art, one that impels the viewer (or ‘customer’ as museum visitors are now) through the circuit with no consequences. It’s not a Bilbao Guggenheim (in terms of architectural mayhem), but does conform to the same misplaced consumer aesthetic, just as every city must now have its own London Eye. A week ago when I blogged some images of the architecture, I said I wasn’t sure if it embodied the architectural sublime of public spaces, or was hatefully depersonalised. As I was editing these images and looking at them in context of that vast space, it became obvious the space is designed to seduce the customer into believing it is sublime, but in fact it is a crematorium for art.
The MDBK is like the Holocaust Tower in Daniel Liebeskind’s Jüdisches Museum Berlin, the voids and axes pushing the visitor inexorably into the empty, cold, lightless shard of a part-buried tower, only a slit at the very top letting in weak light and making it bitterly cold in winter. But there is no meaning or context here, just seeking to replicate the thrill of that architecture without understanding or caring for the consequences. It’s exactly the kind of ‘space’ that will get filled with “conceptual dance in museums” of the Mette Ingvartsen, Tino Seghal type. I fucking hate it.
The art then, when I could find it, and it was not lost in a glare of overhead natural lighting. I feel kinda uninspired to write about much of it, especially after the glorious ride that was Grassimuseum. There was stacks of Jugenstil, the German Art Nouveau. I love the architecture and design, but the art is fixated on dodgy and fetishising imaginings of women, plus a gratuitous European Christian whiteness I can’t look at without seeing where that led to a couple of decades later.
Elsewhere, there was one, small El Greco. I love him, his strange, soft oval faces, the blunt, expressionist use of colour, brushwork and movement. I’d love to see a whole exhibition of him. There’s also Frans Hals’ Der “Mulatte” which while given that title, looks to be a match for Peeckelhaeringh. Neither were easy to photograph, with light glare and glass obstacles.
As much as I just ragged on Jugenstil, Max Klinger was … well, he was a Symbolist. But there’s so much crossover between the two, and Romanticism, even Impressionism, it’s a bit like only listening to country music and then being asked to differentiate between Chicago House, Detroit Techno, NY Garage. Of course they’re different, but they also share plenty of artistic and cultural similarities. And an illiterate hick like me can’t tell my Jugendstil from Symbolism.
After visiting Muzeul de Artă Timișoara, similarly uninspiring, I said, “Get rid of all the generic European art history stuff first. People aren’t going to Timișoara for that.” Same applies here. People aren’t going to Leipzig for Rubens, but make the whole MDBK about Leipzig and surrounding artists (and don’t even try to tell me there weren’t mediæval artists doing brilliant work in Sachsen region). It’s almost that anyway, with multiple rooms of Klinger. The light in Die Blaue Stunde is transfixing, just stare at it for a while; Der Tod am Wasser has a skeletal Death pissing in a lake; Christus im Olymp takes up an entire room, something photos seldom capture, the figures are life-size; Eine Gesandtschaft reminds me of Max Slevogt; the pair of double doors, Türflügelpaar mit Raub des Ganymed Melanie wants to steal for her bathroom.
Then the collection moves into later artists, Max Beckmann, Max Pechstein, Otto Mueller, Karl Hofer, Oskar Kokoschka, Hans Grundig, Conrad Felixmüller, members of expressionism, Die Brücke or Neue Sachlichkeit movements, and all called Degenerate Artists by the Nazis and persecuted for this. I’m down with expressionism, living here, and going to cities in this part of Germany, it’s so clear what an important break it was with artistic and cultural history, and why it’s no surprise so many of the artists were persecuted.
Which makes it curious why an artist like Elisabeth Voigt is among them. When I saw Fallschirmjäger I, and the date, 1941, I thought, “There’s someone jumping on the ‘War is Hell’ bandwagon.” Unlike the other artists, no mention of persecution, or much Nazi or wartime goings on beyond her Berlin atelier being bombed twice in 1945, information I gleaned from around the internet. Some of the other artists spent much of the war in concentration camps, or fled Germany. For me, these things are important, and an integral part of contextualising art and artists. Otherwise it’s just colourful wallpaper.
One last thing, in a stairwell: Marian Luft’s Funtasies (Tumblr Transparent), a flashing LED lightbox of hallucinogenic colour. I tried to film it, which caught Melanie’s voice reading bits of text.
@medievalpoc said, “This has gotta be in the top ten ugliest arts I’ve ever seen and I love it.” Robert and I thought it was pretty freaky also. When we visited the Grassi Museum für Angewandte Kunst last Thursday it was unchallenged as the most wtf? of anything we saw. It’s deeply entrancing with its sheer strangeness.
So, with all the attention Der Kaminbehang got, I started to poke a little deeper. Turns out the Grassmuseum appreciates its weirdness, devoting an entire Digital Kinderkatalog (digital children’s catalogue) to the work. I can totally see kids going bonkers over it.
I’m not sure the Kaminbehang.pdf answers all questions being asked, but anyway, I slapped up a quick and rough translation. I also did a number on the text above each figure. I think it’s in Frühneuhochdeutsch, but there’s some words that are either Süddeutsch, imports from other Germanic languages, or possibly (in the case of the Roma figure) not German at all.
A couple of notes: These translations are on the literal side, not trying to dress them up beyond getting the meaning across. For the Kaminbehang, all characters are in uppercase, which can lend vastly different translations based on whether a word is noun or verb (e.g. herkommen/Herkommen). I presume this would be easier to differentiate for a German speaker, but even Robert had trouble teasing out the meaning. Words are separated with small stars. But not always. There are no umlauts, ‘V’ is used for ‘U’; ‘I’ is used for both ‘I’ and ‘J’ and sometimes ‘L’; some of the letters are so worn it took a while to work out what was what; there are both standard-ish Early New High German spellings (from what I can tell — not my thing at all), plus variations that seem according to how much space there was. I’m giving the original text (as close as I could work it out) plus a flat translation to English. I also did a translation to Standard German, but not including it.
First, the text above each figure, in original Frühneuhochdeutsch followed by my English translation:
Der weise Mor bin ich vorogen
alle ins Vien bin ich durch Zogen
mit meinem Pfeile und Bogen in meiner Hant
The white Moor I am before others’ eyes
all in my veins can I be seen through to
with my arrow and bow in my hand
So bin ich der Unger geant 1571
an meiner Kleidung wol bekant
durch deutsch und welsch Lant
So am I the Hungarian named 1571 (date of manufacture)
by my clothing well-known
through german and foreign lands
So bin ich der Zegeuner vor Hant
den deutschen nihi bkat als voe Jaren
da sie an uns kein Gelt deten sparenn
So am I the Gypsy before hand
the Germans are not generous as years before
since they no longer spare money on us
Ein Welscher bin ich bei zimlichen Jaren
und bin von Welschen genomenn
trag Kleidung nach unserm Herkomen
A Welsh am I for quite a few years
and am from foreign lands come
I wear clothing according to our tradition
So bin ich von schwartzen More genom
kein Kleidung drag ich in meinem Lant
von der sonnen Hitz die mich vorbrant
So am I known as the black Moor
no clothes do I wear in my country
from the sun’s heat am I burnt
Ich bin Frantzose wol bekant
meinem Herrn dem diene ich
bei meiner Kleidung bleibe ich
I am French, well known
my Lord do I serve
by remaining in my apparel
Einen langen Spies fur ich vor mich
ein Schweitzer und trever Helt
meine Kleidung mir also wol gefelt
A long spear for me before myself
a Swiss and loyal hero
my clothing pleases me indeed
So bin ich der Turck gezelt
kombt ein Christen meine Hant
er mus mir lasen ein teur speant
So am I the Turk tented (i.e. enveloped in a tent-like cloak)
a Christian comes to my hand
to leave he must make an expensive donation
So bin ich der hohe Deutsche genan
aller Nation Kleidung gefelt mir wol
weis doch nicht wie ich machen sol
mir doch ein bas dan die ander gefelt
damit ich ein Ansehen hab als ein Helt
so will ich hin zum Werckman gan
und im die Sache selber zeigen an
So am I the High German named
all nations’ clothing pleases me greatly
but I have no idea how I should wear them
first one then another enjoyed
thus I have the reputation of a hero
I will go to the artisan
and in these items display myself
And then the text from the Kaminbehang.pdf. This is intended for children or school groups, not sure what age range, but presuming pre-teens. It includes each of the figures, but their text does not correspond entirely or at all to the actual text on the Kaminbehang. It does provide additional information to its history, as well as elaborating on the figures, for example describing the first figure as Albino. I’ve also translated the figures’ nationalities or ethic groups literally. Some, like Moor or Gypsy or Turk are pejorative, either within their use context here or generally. German — the language as well as the thinking, people, country — still has ‘issues’ with both words used as well as concepts behind them. Let’s just say it’s late-’70s here.
The fireplace hanging
The fireplace curtain on display probably originates from southern Germany and was manufactured in 1571. It is 40cm high and 284cm wide. Previously it was used to decorate a fireplace in summer, when it was too warm for heating. It belonged to the old art collection of the Leipzig Town Hall (Leipziger Rathaus), the so-called Leipzig Council Treasure (Leipziger Ratsschatz). This work of art which we will look at in more detail together dates back to the Renaissance era.
It is meticulously made of precious materials such as silk, velvet and linen. Gilded metal wires along with real gold and silver thread were also used in the process. The figures’ weapons are comprised of metal or carved from wood.
It consists of nine alternating yellow, white, and black fields, on each of which a male figure is identifiable. The embroidered figures were stuffed with linen and paper, and are semi-sculptural in shape — that is, they lie like bisected puppets on the cloth.
Shown are different nations in their country’s traditional clothing. As early as the 16th century, people in Germany were interested in knowing how other peoples lived. In addition the artist was making fun of the vanity of the people of the time.
What is important is:
The individual figures are representations of how foreign peoples and cultures were imagined in the 16th century.
The European peoples are depicted as very rich and progressive; the Africans however, as a wild and impoverished people.
Today we are fortunate to know much more about other nations and the similarities or differences between our lives. Have you ever thought about this?
The White Moor
“Although I am an African, I have a fair complexion. They call me Albino. Not only in the 16th century were there often people like me on the west coast of Africa. I am depicted half-naked, like a wild hunter, clothed only with a hat and loincloth. In my left hand I carry a bow, and in the right an arrow.
“My clothes are a long, colourful coat, a scarf around my neck, white trousers and short boots. In my hand I have a war hammer.”
”I wear a pointed cap, a striped cloak, short trousers, and shoes. With my hands I open my cloak a little — can you see my naked belly?”
“I prefer to dress myself very elegantly — according to the latest fashion, all in black with a flat hat and long hose. To this attire also belongs a long dagger, which I hold in my hand.”
The Black Moor
“I am also an African and on my naked body wear nothing but armlets and a torc. In my hands I have two arrows. The white blemishes do not mean I am wearing a leopard skin, rather the black fabric is worn out in these places. Now the light linen base shines through.”
”Like the Italian, I am very fashionably dressed. On my head sits a beret. In addition, I wear a ruffle at my neck, slit trousers, and dainty shoes. My bright hose are especially striking. My left hand rests on the hilt of a sword.”
“With a long, forked beard, I have been depicted in the colourful garb of a mercenary. This includes a beret, doublet, funny knickerbockers, decorated hose, and elegant flat shoes. Sword, dagger, and a long spear are my weapons.”
“I wear a moustache and a cap, a wide collar over my coat, long hose and ankle boots. In my left hand I hold a small, naked baby by one leg. The scimitar is my weapon.”
“I am still naked, but over one arm I carry many items of colourful clothing. But for which of the different fashions should I decide upon? Best for me to go to a tailor and avail myself of him for advice. After all, I will not get warm by looking at the clothing!”
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.
Thursday, the day of the première of Melanie Lane’sWonderwomen at LOFFT in Leipzig, I go museuming with Robert. To Grassimuseum for Angewandte Künste and Völkerkunde (that’s applied arts and design, and ethnology). Weimar Era Art Deco / Neue Sachlichkeit, stained glass, zinc and brass roofing, and warm, pink Rochlitz porphyritic tuff cut with lighter intrusions and grey phenocrysts (took me bloody ages to find out what the masonry is, and where it’s from: Rochlitzer Berg). It’s far from the blank solids and volumes of Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, full of detail and movement through unfolding verticals and diagonals, long, low and light, human-scaled, tactile and sensory. It’s meant for touch, brushing past, close up, not for overwhelming and insurmountability.
Friday, the day off after the première of Melanie Lane’sWonderwomen at LOFFT in Leipzig, we go museuming. First, Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, then back to Grassimuseum in Leipzig, me to finish seeing the Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig, and Melanie, joined by Florian, for the exquisite joy of Museum für Angewandte Kunst. A hundred and fifty-something images from both of those about to go through the editing line. In the meantime, late-20th / early-21st century neo-brutalist architecture. Concrete, limestone, glass, oak. I’m not sure if it’s an embodiment of the idea of the architectural sublime of public spaces or hateful depersonalised neo-liberalism. There’s for sure something of the latter in the vast planes of unvandalised naked concrete and stone, an arrogance that knows it will remain untouched, unless by sanctioned artists. It wouldn’t last a night outside.
Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara is in the basement of the Catedrala Mitropolitană, accessed by a small door on the far right inside the cathedral. I almost missed it, until I was exiting and saw the sign pointing back the way I came. The church itself is overwhelming, walls of gold icons, a colossal gold chandelier, frescos, all dimly lit with candlelight and what pale exterior light made it through the tall, narrow windows and cupola high above. Into the museum. Having been burned by the other museum’s “No Photography!” policy, I went at it with my camera just in case the voices I could hear were going to similarly ruin my experience when we met. Turns out it was exactly the opposite.
A woman comes running up to me, fully in a black habit and apostolnik, some light grey hair visible at her temples and the kind of gaze you really don’t want to be admitting your proclivities to. It’s Timișoara’s own Sister Wendy! She was most surprised I came all the way from Australia to see her museum (“You speak English, where are you from?” “err … Australia?” “Ah! You come all the way from Australia to see our museum!”), and dragged me through for twenty minutes explaining about half the works before an Italian guy came in and she was off to give him the same reception.
The museum takes up maybe 120 square metres of low-ceilinged basement in a fat T-shape, not especially well lit, certainly not ‘museum’ lighting, fluorescent stript lighting mostly, and works simply crammed onto every available wall, pillar, into cabinets and display cases, propped up against blocked off doors, probably at least 150 painted works, and scores of manuscripts, books, and documents. And by the time I got to photographing, I had just on twenty minutes before I had to split.
A brief diversion into photographing, first.
As usual, I used my beautiful Panasonic LX7 with the mad glass up front. I can’t afford something like a Canon 5D Mark III, nor would the weight, size, and loudness allow me the kind of unobtrusive flexibility I have with a high-end compact. Normally I’d take a couple of hours to photograph so many works, this time I was averaging 2-3 a minute under not great light overall, and plenty of garish reflection on the highly lacquered surfaces. Quite a few works I photographed at an angle to reduce this glare. As usual, I was shooting RAW.
All of the works have some post-processing done in Photoshop. Generally this is dealing with lens and shooting distortion (from the above shooting at an angle), a tiny bit of colour, tone, and contrast work, plus a bit of sharpening to compensate for the destructive nature of all this. I think most if not all the works would look more brilliant and colourful under proper lighting and photographing conditions, and I could probably approximate what they ‘actually’ look like, but I treat these images as what my camera saw rather than some fantasy version. Many of these works are not exactly quadrilateral, some exceedingly so. Because I’m often photographing on an angle, and even if I think I’m exactly front-on the camera has its own ideas of geometry, I’ve evened this all out. I don’t have the original to compare with so can’t say what’s the image and what’s camera, so it’s less distracting to not have wonky angles. Also for some, where the frames don’t finish cleanly (a lot of the images and frames are not in the best of condition) I clean up the corners a bit, again to reduce the distraction of glary white bits on the image edges.
And what did I see? A whole bunch of stuff I barely can comprehend. This Romanian Orthodox art is so far from the central-northern European stuff I’m used to, or even the Italian and western European. I was confused at first to the age of it, as the styles look a few hundred years or more older than I’d expect, but was all between 17th and 19th centuries with the majority being 18th century. Then there was the medium. The first works are all on glass, the size of an average illustrated book. Many others were on wood, dotted with the holes of woodworms. Thematically many of them came in pairs, one of Mother of God (Maica Domnului), the other of Christ Pantocrator (Iisus Hristos Pantocrator).
I’m regretting I didn’t have more time, though in truth there was no more time, the museum wasn’t open on Sunday, and that barely an hour was all there was. I’d have loved to spend a little more time with Sister Wendy, or at least take notes, particularly on a couple of the works she said were either Syrian and Egyptian in style or actually came from there (these are 20: Autor necunoscut, sec. XVIII. Sfinta Parascheva. provine de la biserica din Temeresti, Timiș and 28: Autor necunoscut, sec XVIII-XIX. Adormirea Maicii Domnului. provine de la biserica din ? Timiș below).
And then there’s the brown and black Marys and Jesuses. The first of these, 3 and 4: Icoana Maicii Domnului was to the left of the cathedral entrance immediately on entering, then there was the many Maica Domnuluis, (images 17, 29, 38, 41, 51, 52, and 62 below), Sfinta Parascheva (image 20), and Iisus Hristos Pantocrator (image 64, the companion to image 62). Dispelling all bollocks here, it’s unambiguously clear the artists intended the skin colour in the representations here, you only have to compare with works often right beside where Mary or Jesus is paler. In Constantin din Corița’s Maica Domnului, both Mary and Jesus are a deep, dark brown, and the light from above on her cheek and forehead gives a warm, golden glow. In E. Simiolovici’s Maica Domnului, the entire work comes from an bright embossed gilt background; Mary and Jesus’ skin is only a slightly lighter than the brown robe she wears. I’ve seen one or two works like this last year when I was travelling in Budapest and Poland, and read enough to know this representation is common, but to see a whole museum full with multiple variations, it’s glorious and beautiful beyond what I can write or photograph.
There’s other works with Ottoman or Turkish and Muslim figures; sometimes the figures remind me of Greco-Indian or Serindian art, the particular curve of eyebrows and wide, high forehead. It’s all new to me, outside of seeing examples in passing, and basically I don’t know what I’m talking about.
The whole experience was unexpectedly deeply moving. From the almost scary Sister Wendy when she explained to me how the works function for her in her faith, to having her briefly elaborate on what appeared to be a less remarkable piece which in fact was entirely remarkable (to me at least), and the sheer volume of works. And the fact this is entirely European. It’s European I can recognise in art farther west and north, yet carries more than that. Entire additional styles, cultures, histories are present which inextricably tie Europe with Asia, and which unequivocally demonstrate there is no border or line where ‘Europe’ starts or ends, it just blurs in multiple washes from different directions across geography and time with ‘Asia’. This exists also in art from further north and west, like in Saint Mauritius in Magdeburg, and maybe it’s simply I need to pay closer attention to what I’m looking at in art from further north and west, to know how to read and understand what I’m seeing.
Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara, an absolute, unexpected delight in a city likewise a joy. Here’s a ridiculous number of photos of art:
Saturday morning. We have a relaxed start at midday, so I have museums on my agenda. Exactly two. Muzeul de Artă Timișoara is the first, in Palatul Baroc on the south-east corner of Piaţa Unirii.
I got through in a bit under an hour. Not sure if I missed sections or if parts were closed, but generally was disappointed after the promise the museum’s website held. And there was that issue of “Photography Prohibited.” Yeah, I’m not gonna stick around long if you’re hitching your fortune to that missed bus. It’s over. It’s been over for the better part of a decade. Everyone has cameras, everyone’s going to use them, and frankly, if the Louvre is all Just Ain’t Care about mobs snapping Mona Lisa, then your museum could do with being a little less precious about ‘your’ art.
’Cos I would have loved to photograph the Corneliu Baba collection.
I did sneak a few of the Banat Collections, mostly of the 19th century and interwar periods, I think Pictura Bănăţeană Sec. XIX and Pictura Bănăţeană Interbelică collections respectively. Compared to the website though, what I saw was kinda sparse. Afterwards I had a conversation with the main attendant like this:
Her: “Did you like our museum?”
Me: (Being diplomatic) “Yeah, especially the Baba works.”
Her: “Yes, he is very important. I saw you on the cameras.”
Me: “Ah. So you saw me taking photos. It’s a pity it’s not allowed.”
Her: (With sad resignation in the face of rules she can’t change) “Yes, photography is prohibited.”
So, the collection. A bit patchy, not great quality works, except for the Baba — both as a collection and in quality. I often think museums feel they must be a a microcosm of the Ur-museum, a Louvre or Rijksmuseum in miniature, so every regional city replicates this basic itinerary, plodding through the centuries, a bit of Mediæval, a splatter of Renaissance, a woo! through Neoclassical, methodically completing the task like an earnest term paper. It can be unexpectedly brilliant, like Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes, but more often than not it’s a mournful trip.
I had that with Muzeul de Artă Timișoara, and I think the lack of visitors shows I’m not the only one who feels that way. Trying to be constructive here, if I had free rein what would I do? Get rid of all the generic European art history stuff first. People aren’t going to Timișoara for that; I have no idea of the locals/tourists split but suspect it’s heavily towards the latter. Concentrate on Banat region first, Romania second, then Hungarian, Ottoman and so on third (cos it’s been passed around by occupiers for most of the last millennium, plus it’s been a centre through which people have passed for all that time). That would mean expanding the works in the 19th and 20th century collections, some of which I photographed below, and really making it geographically and temporally specific; and expanding the earlier collections. It’s not like there’s a paucity of Banat art, as I discovered in the Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara. After all that, arrange with other museums in Romania and further afield for rotating general European art through temporary exhibitions. Equally, doing museums is hard, a lot of competing agendas and unrelenting pressure on curators and others can push art far down the list of priorities.
Art. There was something so specific here I haven’t seen elsewhere. I want to say it’s the presence of Muslims in European art who are present as locals rather than exotic others, though I’m not sure if the women are Muslim or Romanian Orthodox, or if wearing scarfs over their hair is just part of the general fashion. Either way, I love seeing all the loose scarfs and brown skin. I’d love to see a museum comparable to the big ones I’ve visited so I could actually make some informed remarks about this. About all I can say is this art is definitely European, yet unlike north-west European or even Italian. I need to see more. Such a great adventure gawking at art.
Leaving the warm Sunday of Timișoara, into the grey, rain and cold of Münich, heading north, skimming above the clouds as the sun gutters, an inferno radiating across the hemisphere etching the stories and layers, we descend as it does into night in Berlin.