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.
Last stop on my Landesmuseum Oldenburg visit, the Oldenburger Schloß, where I was looking forward to a whole stack of medieval and Baroque applied arts and design, and wouldn’tcha know it? All that was closed. Lucky for me of the three it was by far the most massive, three and an half floors of a possible four open and only an hour before I had to get back to the theatre. And straight into mediæval wooden sculpture I land.
I was reminded of Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, which remains one of the finest collections I’ve seen, and for a small town frankly shames big city museums with the care and pleasure taken in displaying art. So I land in the exhibition room Kirche im Mittelalter and am totally giddy with joy. It’s the way museums should be: a visceral, emotional effect. I’m quite aware of being manipulated by the curators, how they’ve arranged a wall of standing Marias and Katharinas and Barbaras, and how I want to run past them all to see what else is there. This is small museums’ strength, so far from the overwhelming endurance of say, the Louvre or London’s V&A (which I’m yet to blog, but it’s coming) where there’s an expectation of quantity and size; it’s like in Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes, walking into a hall and seeing floor to ceiling colossal Rubens, and having no idea this was about to happen, and suddenly I’ve got to deal with being slammed by art.
Two of my favourites here are Hl. Katharina and Hl. Barbara, probably a pair flanking a central figure or tableau, like the Hl. Maria mit dem Kind between them, given how they’re leaning like they’re both well stoned. Katharina’s all, “Nah, I’m good—no wait, just a little toke, cheers,” can barely focus her eyes.
In another room there’s the weirdest Pennyfarthing-ish bike I’ve ever seen, the Hochrad ‘Xtraordinary’, which coincidentally I’ve seen recently revisited in crossfit-extreme-bro-fixie-distruption-Kickstarter land, except with moving handles. There’s a reason why this engineering design is a bicycling evolutionary dead-end.
Next room over, more of a chamber or hall, all white and gold, chandeliers, refined opulence, is a tapestry in its home. In all my museuming I’ve seen a stack of tapestries, but never hanging as it would have done, a part of the environment, an extension of architecture and design. Despite sun bleaching and fading on the lower third, water stains, and generally ‘needs restoration’ it was beautiful. The colours when it was new must have been overpowering, as must have the power and wealth it signified.
There were other, similar rooms in the top floor and throughout which I never saw, being closed for renovations and new exhibitions. Some of them are on the museum website, along with a virtual tour. And with that, I split. Another brilliant museum joyride. Out the door, around the road on the former city wall, back to Exerzierhalle for the second evening of theatre and festival.
Landesmuseum Oldenburg’sPrinzenpalais Galerie Neue Meister has many more rooms than the Augusteum I’d just visited. Mostly 19th and 20th century painting, a bit of German Impressionism, Classicism, Romanticism, and Cubism, all of which I barrelled through — I like my Expressionism and the there’s not much before it until we’re back in the Baroque that I get excited about. But there was a period when German landscape painting was kinda awesome, naturalistic yet stark, with subtle elements of all those movements making imposing, large-scale works. There was also Fritz Machensen’s Die Ziege, and I love goats. I’d probably even be ok with a Cubist goat.
As for the Expressionists, Max Pechstein! Two works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Der Wanderzirkus and Bube mit Bonbons, neither of which I’ve seen before. And women Expressionists, who get shafted in the history of the movement — even in the big Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende I didn’t see any women Expressionists, and I’m pretty sure I’d photograph them if I had. Here we have Gabriele Münter, one of the founders of Der Blaue Reiter, and her work Puppe, Katze, Kind; Emma Ritter (who doesn’t get an English Wikipedia page, just like so many other women) and her works Stillleben mit Äpfeln, and Ziegelei; and early-Expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker and her Stillleben mit Orangen und Fayencehund. While I’m talking about women artists in the early-20th century, Paula Modersohn-Becker died of a post-childbirth embolism at age 31.
Two other works I really liked are of women. Willy Jaeckel’s Damenbildnis because there’s something really Weimar Republic queer about this woman. Jaeckel was yet another Expressionist labelled Degenerate by the Nazis who didn’t make it to the end of their rule. Jan Oeltjen’s Bildnis der Schauspielerin Else York als Heilige Johanna because it was jammed in a corner and deserves to hang somewhere far better, and after that, because whoever Else York was, she has left no trace I can find.
Finished with the Prinzenpalais, I realised I had more than enough time and no excuses for schlepping over the road and into the Oldenburger Schloß.
When I saw the exhibition, I felt it was comprehensive, yet reading Showing Our Colour I find again Germany — like all colonial and colonised countries — hides post-war and recent history, as though 1945 marked the moment when the fugue lifted and from that moment on there’s not much to report. Instead, Germany’s history of eugenics and racism continued unbroken. Perhaps not as explicit, but that is a function of systematic oppression, to put the onus on the victims to prove the crime, whereas the truth is it’s fundamental and pervasive.
A dear friend was visiting me this week and we were talking about this. She said, “So there was a Stolen Generation here.” There isn’t a more succinct or accurate way to describe it. While on a much smaller scale than in Australia (and while I don’t want to appropriate a specific term that describes a part of an ongoing genocide), the mechanisms and underlying logic are identical. Children removed from their mothers, families broken, forced sterilisation, cultural ‘whitening’ in orphanages and the adoption/foster home system; a unified, systematic project from the top of the government down to individuals to erase any trace of contamination in the white race.
This is a history of Germany throughout the 20th century that is barely mentioned, let alone recognised. It’s a history I would expect to find variations of in earlier history also, such as with the African-American soldiers who returned with the Hessian soldiers after the American Revolution. Post-World War I, Rhineland was occupied by French forces using soldiers from the colonies, just as after World War II, US African-American soldiers were in the American Sector. In both periods, male soldiers and local women got together and thousands of ‘Brown Babies’, or ‘Mischlingskinder’ (the derogatory Nazi-era term) were born. It was these children and their mothers (and fathers if they happened to be immigrants from the colonies) who were subject to medical, jurisprudential, social, and religious abuse and control. The children and grandchildren of these children are women like May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, coming of age in the ’80s, writing a history that remains contemporary.
Sometimes I’m reminded that it was published thirty years ago. These days I more or less expect if I’m reading a black or brown woman on racism and oppression in the Anglo-Euro-American-Australasian worlds, she’ll — or they’ll be queer and/or a trans woman. In Showing Our Colours, none of the women explicitly identify as lesbian (as far as I’ve read, though May Ayim was), and often describe their heterosexual lives. As for Afro-deutsch trans women, it’s a different world now. ADEFRA has a monthly get-together where trans and inter sisters are explicitly welcome, and ISD has a Black LGBTIQ* group.
I want to stop here, say something like, this is a critical history of Afro-Germans, it’s an unfinished history because colonialism still defines us, because Germany and Europe’s ability to critically regard its history is so inadequate; things have got better but they’re still same old shit, thirty years on Germany needs another book like this translated into English. Read it if you can.
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.
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.
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.