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.
Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself made it onto my reading list because of another theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, who reviewed it mid-2016. I’m reading it now because I need my regular fix of sciencey, astrophysics stuff and it seemed to compliment the other stuff I’m reading at the moment (also all the other science books on my list are textbook affairs with commensurate eye-bleeding price).
I have to say from the outset I’m not the imaginary audience for The Big Picture, nor am I especially enjoying it. I wish I was because I enjoy the hell out of what he writes about, and appreciate he can do hard science without pissing all over philosophy and the humanities, unlike quite a few popular atheist science bros. He manages to rope in Wittgenstein (who is always wholly relevant and informative in any situation), my dear favourite Leibniz gets a go for calculus, as well as best of all possible worlds, and principle of sufficient reason; he even manages to have an entire chapter on gender and identity and I’m showing my age here but I’m still pleasantly surprised when I see how unremarkable these matters have become — even in the last decade, in fields not explicitly feminism/queer/gender studies/etc.
So why am I not enjoying it so much? It could be the recurrence of disproving Laplace’s and/or Descartes’ demons, or explaining from extrapolations of different parts of physics the impossibility of (or at least extremely unlikely) things like mind-body duality, having a soul, life after death, god. Which makes it an invaluable book for people who themselves have questions and doubts about these subjects, but from my personal experience kinda useless in persuading even the most casual of ‘spiritual’ types to give up their astrology.
I used to be a much more diligent atheist, until atheism was taken over by white hetero bro New Atheism colonialism and ruined it for the rest of us. I like Caroll in this regard because he isn’t absolutist. Paraphrasing here, he says while nothing we see or know about the universe requires a god, nonetheless that does not preclude one (or many), just that if there was a god or gods, they would have to adhere to the laws of physics like the rest of us do — as far as we can tell by the current, pretty bloody good state of our understanding of physics. He also says that irrespective of the existence or not of god or gods, religion serves a cultural purpose spanning millennia that saying “God doesn’t exist, because physics” isn’t going to miraculously cause mass conversion to atheism.
For a white, hetero male writing on the Big Questions — historically the domain of self-congratulatory alpha males — he’s done a banger of a job of steering through all that anachronistic baggage. But steer through that he does, stopping off along the way to describe then disabuse us of what’s fundamentally a Christian, or Christian-derived view of the universe.
Maybe it’s because he tries to cover so much that it feels to me he paraphrases philosophers’ and scientists’ ideas so they read like, “close enough”, as with describing Lucretius’ concept of the clinamen (which I don’t think he actually named, but was what he was describing), or Leibniz’ ideas. Or maybe it’s that he holds on somewhere to an uncritical belief that physics is above all this and is the one neutral — as well as correct — way of viewing and understanding the world. The correct part, sure, as far as we can tell now, but neutral? I wonder if some of the hostility directed at 20th century philosophers by scientists (which again, he isn’t doing) is because the logic in pointing out that language creates the world is pretty solid. Whether it’s Wittgenstein, Derrida, or others, even after throwing out whatever bollocks they wrote, we’re left with this. And to have a bunch of soft humanities academics repeatedly and in various ways tell the hard scientists their rationality and neutrality is dubious at best, because language is a limit on describing and experiencing the world, is going to get messy.
It’s not even a question of agreeing or not with him. Newtonian physics? Yup, same for Einstein’s relativity, general or special. Quantum mechanics also. It might be that I find the experimental side of things lacking by comparison to the theoretical. For example observations of cosmic microwave background by COBE, WMAP, and Planck observatories currently provide the best evidence for, and more or less confirm the Big Bang theory, specifically the inflationary model. Questions such as “What is the universe?” “Where did it come from?” “What was there before it existed?” while not definitively answered are comprehensively narrowed down. The discovery of the predicted Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider and concurrent lack of discovery of new particles also set limits on possibilities, or at least pushed various other competing theories to do some heavy re-theorising. But mentions of these experiments seem sparse compared to Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. More of the former and less of the latter would have moved things along far more enjoyably.
But maybe all this, multiverses, the Planck era, macroscale quantum theory are too advanced for the intended reader, like introducing all the exceptions to the rules before explaining why the rules as are they are and where they came from. For my imagined intended audience, then: it’s comprehensive and brings together a lot of threads of physics from the history of Western science and philosophy that make it a good general introduction. It’s kinda boring though. I’d rather read Sabine Hossenfelder or Ethan Siegel, whenever they get around to writing a book.
Finally, the history of Western science since the Enlightenment has been one marked by arrogance, overreach and the worst of humanity given legitimacy through its declaration of rationalism. And one marked by frequent declarations of , “Yeah, we learnt our ethical lesson, we’ve got it right this time,” before cocking it up again. I’m not sure there can be a grand Theory of Everything, which is what Carroll is proposing. Like Mark Zuckerberg imagining he can reduce people and their desires to code, or transhumanists imagining they can upload their minds, it speaks of a smallness in understanding the world and a meanness in how they value it. There is always something that remains, that cannot be assimilated, a residue this reductionism cannot account for and cannot consume.
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.
Thursday before last, I took the day off and biked over to the Gemäldegalerie for El Siglo de Oro: Die Ära Velázquez, their new special exhibition of ‘the golden age’ of Spanish art and sculpture in the 17th century. As with previous large temporary exhibitions, the Gemäldegalerie’s massive central atrium was converted into a meandering series of rooms and aisles, and for this one also spilling over into some of the chambers of the permanent collection.
And as usual, photos weren’t permitted, which is a wry experience seeing how many of the works come from the gallery’s own collection and I’ve photographed before. Nonetheless, I timed one of the attendants walking between rooms and snuck off a few of Gregorio Fernández’ Camino del Calvario, or Gang zum Kalvarienberg as it’s known here, a splendid Baroque piece that reminded me of a similar work I saw in the Muzeum Narowode we Wrocławiu (still one of my favourite museums in Europe).
I also bought the catalogue because I suspect I won’t try and persuade the Gemäldegalerie to let me photograph the exhibition as I usually do (high probability of a sour “No.”), so I’ll probably just blab on about the catalogue in my usual parochial manner shortly.
If you’re in Berlin, it’s totally worth seeing, really nicely put together (could do with a few more earlier works of the seriously fucking marvellous El Greco Immaculata Oballe type); consistently high quality lighting; audio guide up there with the best — and if you take the audio guide allow for at least three hours to get through; it’s definitely one of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s finest exhibitions, though predictably on the slim side when it comes to exactly what Imperial Spain was up to (and that was under the Austro-Germanic House of Habsburg) with all their colonising and empiring. Context. Art is not outside it.
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!
I forgot to mention the buzzers. Braaaaaap! every time I got too close to a painting. Which was often. And hearing it echo through the halls and chambers as others stuck their greasy noses too close to art. I started making “Braaaa!” sounds when I heard it, which caused a few weird looks. Probably was talking to myself also. Fuck it, if art doesn’t cause an emotional response, you’re dead inside. Shout at paintings or get the fuck out.
I’m calling the second part of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in the Zwinger mit Semperbau ‘Baroque & Enlightenment Art’, even though it crosses over with the previous works or at least there’s no explicit divider between the edges of say Mannerism and Baroque.
Another Die Anbetung der Könige, this time from French artist Nicolas Poussin. A really beautiful piece with soft light, openness, animation, horribly difficult to look at or photograph thanks to glass and glare. There’s so much movement from the figures in this, they’re all running or pointing or falling to their knees, and Mary’s just sitting there wrapped in a huge swathe of blue. It’s as much, maybe more about her as the small, almost inconsequential Jesus. I was overjoyed with this one.
Nearby, and with Baroque we’re leaving religious art proper for the goings on of fantastically wealthy people, there’s Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem’s Ein Handelsherr, am Hafenpalast einen Mohren empfangend. Another difficult one to photograph, but wow it’s awesome. The scudding clouds cutting diagonally across an evening sky, the peacock, musician, the woman in the canary yellow dress, the stacked architecture beneath which sits a total pirate of a merchant, all eyeliner and huge feathers in his hat who’s engaging two merchants equally opulent in their dress. I’d thought they were African at first, because the painting caption calls them ‘Mohren’ but I was wondering if they might be Indian. That’s all a conversation about captioning anyway. Many of these works never had captions, and what we presently hold as the canonical title is best described as a placeholder text from a later period. So with all our current forensic abilities allowing old works of art to divulge more of themselves, now’s a good time to reconsider these captions. And maybe not caption them at all. One more thing about this piece which only seemed obvious when actually looking at it: the peacock is a mirror of the merchant on the left.
Rubens! I fukken love me some Rubens! When I arrive at a Rubens it’s like meeting an old friend, and in his Dianas Heimkehr von der Jagd, my first thought was that I totally know the guy up the back playing Bacchus. Completely convinced. Then I doubted myself. Then I dug up my photos of his Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor. The fourth photo, that smile. But his studies are from around 1640, and this is from 1616. Still the same smile. A bit later is his Bathseba am Springbrunnen, which is not such an impressive piece, except for the boy. Ruben’s character studies are simply exceptional. If you want to understand why he’s deservingly one of the greats, look at his studies. Dude is a magician.
More Rubens, a Tintoretto, then Francisco de Zurbarán’s Gebet des heiligen Bonaventura um die Wahl des neuen Papstes. This was in the same room as the wildly famous Die Sixtinische Madonna of Raffael, which like the Mona Lisa is kinda unremarkable, and makes me think many people are fooled by the naïve simplicity of the two. Ok, it’s got the pair of pensive angels at the bottom, subjects of bookmarks the world over, but right next to it is Correggio’s Die Madonna des heiligen Franziskus, and if you want to talk about formidable pieces of renaissance religious art, this is the one. Forget everyone else, just look at the woman on the left, staring directly at you (sure, it’s supposed to be the Holy Antonius, but I’m definitely reading this as a chick). And Catherine on the right. Why would you even want to spend time with Raffael when you’ve got this kind of brilliance?
But I was talking about Zurbarán. This is a solid thump to the face of a work. It’s not going to elicit that effect in a photo, the way light works on its surface and into the pigment is something you need to see by standing in front of it. Or quite a way back cos it needs the appreciation of a little distance. It verges on colour field abstract expressionism. There’s this slab of darkness, off-black ebony broken with a quarter circle of sunset orange in the top left corner, and slabs of muted darkening reds in the lower left half. On the right though, it’s cut and gouged from top to half-way down, an abrupt slicing from darkness to light greys, and occupying the lower half of this is this flat blast of scarlet and coquelicot. It’s an aesthetic I’ve seen even in early mediæval art, the fact it’s the robes and caps of the Cardinals doesn’t refute the acutely abstract composition happening here. Look at the closeup, all this wash and torrent of red, in the centre of which a single hand.
Rushing on again. Bernado Bellotto, otherwise known as Canaletto. There’s half a dozen of his pieces in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and I have to admit I’m attracted to his formalism. It’s pre-photographic but photographic in the way Ansel Adams is. Comparing Adams’ The Tetons and the Snake River with Der Canal Grande in Venedig vom Palazzo Balbi aus or Die ehemalige Kreuzkirche in Dresden, I’m totally sticking with this comparison. Normally I’d be put off by such a style and technique, call it fussy, or worse, see in it the 18th and 19th century self-aggrandising imperialism, but for some reason Canaletto just makes me smile. He goes too far, the perspective is too much, yet somehow unassuming and, yeah, he was just looking out the window one afternoon and snapped off a photo. There’s a guy pissing in the corner to prove how spontaneous it is. Or the two on the gondola wearing masks and I dunno, about to drown a baby?
There’s a lot of him in Dresden, quite a lot inadequately lit. His stuff is just too subtle for direct light. I could imagine a space with only indirect overhead light, none of it pointing at the paintings so the room itself rather was illuminated, with pale walls and floor so the light almost churns into an even diffuseness. An interesting remark in the gallery though was his use of an unstable Prussian Blue pigment, which over time has deteriorated to a silvery sheen. I always thought he’d painted the sky as if it was on one of those summer days in Australia when the sky goes beyond blue, not a glare, just this fullness of brilliance.
I diligently avoided all that 19th century imperial bollocks. I can’t look at it. Everyone gets so white it’s terrifying, like they’ve been drained of blood and painted in lead oxide. And they’re all so pompous and self-satisfied. There’s an absence of joy or humour or life that’s only rediscovered in impressionism and expressionism.
A quick mention of Johann Alexander Thiele’s »Caroussel Comique« Aufzug im Zwinger 1722 and »Caroussel Comique« Rennen im Zwinger 1722 which show the Zwinger where the Gemäldegalerie is, the first from (I think) where the Porzellansammlung is looking west, the second from the south looking north with possibly Residenzschloss being the tower on the right. The perspective is highly exaggerated.
Finished with the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, it’s off the the Porzellansammlung, though I’m going to combine that collection with some of Albertinum and Residenzschloss as I didn’t photograph so much in any of them. It was about 1pm, I was feeling rather smug with my progress. I had no idea.
I went to Dresden yesterday. Very impromptu. Decided Wednesday evening I needed some art. And travel. A quick adventure. I’ve only ever passed through the Hauptbahnhof in Dresden, and it’s 2 1/2 hours away by bus — less by train, though quadruple the price, and my current collecting of places I’ve never been is determined by places I can get to and from in a long day.
So, up at 5:30am, off to Südkreuz for the 7:15 bus, slight dozing mid-trip, mostly enjoying the scenery which evolves from the smooth former sea bed of the north into rolling hills very reminiscent of Vienna, and into Dresden Neustadt half an hour before the museums open. Enough time to walk — like I won’t be doing much of that today — across Marienbrücke so I can have the full experience of architecture lining the Elbe.
It’s seriously beautiful. I don’t have words for how stirringly picturesque it is, how utterly baroquely Europe. Dirty also. Like almost all German cities it had its teeth kicked out in 1945 for being a mouthy prick, and between the rubble of the remaining stumps lies the typical barren former-East German depression. Think of any big city you’ve lived in, Sydney, Melbourne, Toronto, Paris, and imagine on every city block there’s at least one empty wasteland, sometimes several grown together. Where you’d expect a thriving, vibrant inner city, seventy years after the Second World War, in Dresden, Magdeburg, even Berlin, these dead spaces remain. Nothing that some immigration couldn’t fix — ah, yes, that’s the problem, isn’t it?
The inner city, the Altstadt — so like Vienna. There’s even streets using Gasse, which I associate entirely with Austria. One even used Gässchen! Places like the Semperoper I’ve heard of for years, suddenly I’m gawking at it. I’m here for the museums though. Museums! Plural! The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden has quite a few. There’s the Zwinger mit Semperbau which has the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, and is where I’m heading first; across the road is the incredible, gorgeous Residenzschloss with the Grünes Gewölbe; a skip past Frauenkirche is the Albertinum with the Galerie Neue Meister; there’s the Kunsthalle im Lipsiusbau, Jägerhof, Japanisches Palais, and all the way in the next city over in Chemnitz is the Gotische Skulptur in Sachsen in the Schloßbergmuseum.
Two-thirds of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister is closed. The Zwinger had been Baroquely imploding for some time. Currently it’s about 2 years off completion. The Historisches Grünes Gewölbe I didn’t make it to, nor any of the aforementioned last quartet. Nor either the Daniel Libeskind-ed Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr, which curiously has a rather nice bunch of Mediæval and Renaissance art. Obviously I’ll have to go back. It’s times like these I wish I had a driver’s licence and a car to use it in (WRX, yes please).
Museum people: super-friendly and helpful, young and old, facial piercings and all. Nice! Art: I took 580 photos so that’s a yes! And narrowed that down to around 280 — across seven collections mind, so not unduly excessive for first round of selecting. So so so very many brilliant works, the vast majority not mediæval art because that’s the collection that got the chop when the Gemäldegalerie had to partly close.
I’m going with Birgit Deiker’s 2007 work, Kleine Diva which I found in the Albertinum’s Skulpturensammlung in a dark chamber among shelves of heads and busts as my “This was Dresden Museum!” piece. So out of place, so inchoately horrifying and seductive.
I made it until just before 18h, camera battery dying as closing time veered in as toes, feet, body protested. “Frances, but isn’t going to see art supposed to be enjoyable?” Enjoyable? Museums and art are objects of endurance, acts of physical labour. To come out the other side, 9 hours later flattened and exhausted having enjoyed beyond satiety is the experience of a museum.
Very infrequently when I’m reading sci-fi I’ll forget it’s not Iain Banks. (Excluding here Charles Stross and China Miéville, who I’ve been reading since the beginning of my return to sci-fi.) Only once have I read a book where I’ve been so seduced I could believe it was one of the many works Banks would have written if he’d not be killed by cancer. That one was Ann Leckie and her profound Ancillary Justice. Then I started Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, and here was a second.
That fucking good. Seriously huge, and just like Leckie, her first novel. With Lucretius, and sliding through Baroque and Renaissance and Age of Reason (pretty sure Leibniz was omitted though) in a twenty-nth century post-nation state future. There’s stacks to like about this, and like it I did. Until I didn’t like it so much.
It’s half a story. If you want to read the second half, you have to wait, then pay. A bit like The Hunger Games — Mockingjay or The Hobbit getting split into two and three pieces. Without knowing the second half, I can’t say whether it could have been all fitted into one large-ish volume. Even if there’s no way, I wanted a proper, non-cliffhanger conclusion, something Leckie managed to do in Justice. I’m feeling coerced to buy Part II and find out what happens, even though with a couple of issues I had with Lightning I’m not sure I want to.
As with Leckie, the conversations that got me into buying this were around language and gender—ok, it was the sci-fi and the cover—the use of standard personal pronouns to usurp identity. Leckie did this phenomenally well by having the entire cast use ‘she’ and ‘her’, and provide scant identifying characteristics to nail down her mob. Some people hated it. I can’t understand why they are incapable of basic comprehension, but I am the one whose favourite Banks is Feersum Endjinn (Reading it 6+ times confirms that).
Palmer attempts something similar, but rather than all bodies and identities accruing to one set of third person singulars, pronouns were applied according to public role. I think. Which is why I say attempts. Towards the latter quarter of the book, when a hidden Parisian world of resolute gender heteronormatives come to light, I considered that contra Leckie’s quite radical (in the sense of revolutionary or even militant) gender fuckery, Palmer was kind of a crypto-conservative—or that her engagement with elusive and slippery banged headfirst into binary. The only way I could be sure would be if I drew a giant chart of every character and their nomenclature (a very Enlightenment thing to do), and see if it’s internally consistent. Ain’t gonna happen. I also trust my “I smell bollocks” sense, even when I can’t immediately say what those bollocks smell of.
The other uncomfortably fitting identity aspect was visual signifiers of ethnicity. Which I’m not going to talk about here. Maybe only to say that as with binary gender signifiers, there isn’t a one to one relationship.
I’m reminded of two somewhat opposing remarks on gender – paraphrasing here – the first from Judith Butler, who said gender is a useful generalisation; the second Deleuze (maybe with Guattari) who said there are as many genders as there are bodies. Both those statements can have gender replaced by ethnicity, and in doing so reveals the pragmatic approach of Butler, and the superficial individuality of Deleuze.
So more than any narrative – and with the story being split into two volumes, I’m feeling hazy on what the actual plot or endgame is – Lightning is a structuring of identity. Which I am hell yes down with. I just think it says more about Palmer’s own thinking of this, and her place in a specific culture and period in history, that it does about a hypothetical human future. And nothing convinced me more of this than when this half a millennium in the future global culture used United States date format.