Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden: Zwinger mit Semperbau Porzellansammlung; Albertinum Skulpturensammlung; Residenzschloss Kupferstich-Kabinett, Rüstkammer, & Münzkabinett

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!

Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Absolution Gap

Lucky last of Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, the first getting me hooked enough to plough through the not-so-astounding second, but good enough to push on into the rather bloody good third, Absolution Gap. All because Ann Leckie has nothing new coming out, Iain Banks is dead (with or without an M.), China Miéville has nothing out either (though is alive), not Charles Stross (also alive), and because Reynolds’ novella, Slow Bullets was one of my favourites from last year.

Sci-fi. Skiffy. Apocalyptic Hard Space Opera. He does this stuff well. Almost as good as Banks. Almost. It’s not for lack of quantity of imagination, which Absolution Gap runs wild with – there’s plenty of similarities as well between the two writers. Maybe it’s just Banks affects me in a way no other writer does, as well as being pretty much the first writer I read when I returned to sci-fi, and so had my brain comprehensively transformed by his consummate virtuosity. I also know it’s not fair of me to compare every writer to Banks, and I’m reading this one at the expense of doing things like going to ballet (I know! I bunked off training to read a fucking book!).

Some of the things which bothered my in the Revelation Space remain here. It’s difficult for me to pin down exactly, to point at something concrete and go, “That, right there, is what I mean,” but it’s to do what I scare/air-quote as ‘diversity’. He gets it right with plenty of central roles for women (human baseline or otherwise) yet somehow they remain less imperative (in both senses: important and peremptory), that it’s the men who are driving the action – whether by weight of numbers in central roles, or by a subjective quality that first-person narrative induces. It may simply be in how Reynolds thinks about these characters as he writes them causes this inflection. A game to play then is changing one of the characters, let’s say Scorpio (a Pig, but I’m choosing him for his violent hypermasculinity rather than because he’s not human, and because he’s a main character in two of the three books), to female and seeing how that reads. Which I shall do for the remaining tenth of this book.

I’m pretty sure I’ll read at least one of the remaining works in the Revelation Space universe (but not part of this trilogy), and probably give at least the first of his recent Poseidon’s Children series a go, though for me Reynolds veers between a writer I want to read more of, and one whose stories simply don’t work for me. There’s something of a pervasive existential pessimism in his works that occasionally is too grim for even me (especially at several hundred pages a go); I’m nonetheless enjoying this one and him enough lately to keep throwing euros his way.

Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Redemption Ark

The sequel to Alastair Reynolds’ rather bloody good Revelation Space. He’s a dependably hit-and-miss for me: Pushing Ice I seem to have found deplorable (pre-book blogging, and only vague, obnoxious references in a couple of old posts); Slow Bullets I loved everything except its too short length; and Revelation Space, well that had much to do with the chronological format, and reminded me of Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons, with narrative streams spliced together actually in chronological order but accounting for slower than light travel, without such a device the story would have probably had me not so committed to the very small type of the mass-market print; got enthusiastic enough to order the sequels before I was finished.

Redemption Ark, then. Not as good. If Reynolds had kept the subjectively non-linear narrative order, I’d have liked it more. As it was, the linearity didn’t give me a sense of uncertainty, of not knowing what was going on. Things marched predictably towards the inescapable end—which was jumped over and merely in the epilogue summarised, a better choice than pages of planetary destruction—an end which marked the conclusion of the dark Act II, setting up things for Absolution Gap. (Yes, ordered. At least I want to know how it ends.) Plenty of morally ambiguous female characters I was happy to see a return of; a bit of a tendency for heteromonotony; no denying the civilisation-chewing billion year old robots swarm’s stated justification for said chewing doesn’t make sense: is it to annihilate all interstellar life to prevent war (or something) or to save life when Andromeda and the Milky Way merge in 4 billion years. The former is the claimed reason for a dandruff of extinguished cultures across the galaxy, but the latter, a subsequent rationale that never seemed plausible, took over somewhere in this novel.

I unpacked all my books a couple of weeks ago, re-boxed a tenth of them to send off to the book slave markets and exchange for a better class of book. I’m keeping this one for now but can easily imagine sending it off also. I’m not used to reading an author who goes from absolute fave in one book to wtf in the next, but Alastair Reynolds dependably manages that.

Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Revelation Space

Ooohyess, thank you very much. Exactly what I was looking for, a bit of hard skiffy space opera with solid astrophysical underpinnings. As usual written by one of those British Isles dwellers, and as usual not of England. Iain Banks, Charles Stross, both of Scotland, and now Alastair Reynolds of Wales.

His Slow Bullets was one of my faves from last year. Could have been longer. Well, Frances, here’s Revelation Space. Is that long enough for you? Why yes, it is. Little bit on the tiny side though. Really not a fan of mass market books, and yes, I’m fucking snobby about it. I like the bigger size, better paper and printing of trade paperbacks. (Incidentally, either/or for hardbacks. For non-fiction, sure, it goes with the territory, but for fiction, a well-organised large format paperback kinda thrills me.) This one was both small and thick, and maybe my eyes have reached peak-buggered but I swear I could not read that shit when I was in bed at midnight, all squinty and whuuh?

Finished it though, all 576 pages or something. And it kept it together ’til the end. I was about half-way through and thinking, “Where exactly is this going, Mr Reynolds? ’Cos you’re doing a fine job of leading me by the nose through all manner of strangeness.” Usually if I get halfway through having those thoughts, it’s not gonna work for me. This time it was reasonably clear where things would end up, classic Chekhov, Hell Class Cache Weapons all set up, but getting to that, and what happened when everyone did. Most satisfying.

Reynolds was an astronomer with the ESA, and one of his things is space operatic plausibility—unless the plot demands faster than light travel. So things like colonising and travelling in local neighbourhood planetary systems happens over decades rather than popping in for tea and bikkies at Epsilon Eridani then back to Delta Pavonis for dinner. Of course we also get the wonders of neutron star-appearing atemporal computational black holes, plus mad physics skillz to explain it all. It’s the good space opera porn.

One of the other things: This was his first novel. It’s grandiose like Banks’ The Wasp Factory or Consider Phlebas or Stross’ Iron Sunrise or Singularity Sky, fully-formed, sophisticated, smart (ok a little repetitious on adjectives at times, but that’s my own personal irritation), and, and!

Written in 2000, it passes the (spectacularly low) bar of the Bechdel-Wallace Test so comprehensively it’s not even worth talking about it in those terms. I’m forever blabbing on about representation and ladidah, and here’s a sci-fi work from fifteen years ago—a good ten years prior to when all the current discussions and ‘progress’ around these issues began—that is so exemplary it’s like it wasn’t even trying. It’s like Trudeau being asked why is his Cabinet is half women and he’s all, “Dude, because it’s 2015, duh!” Of course Revelation Space is the way it is, because that’s the self-evident future if we don’t wipe ourselves out and get to interstellar planet-hopping.

Contra all that, the primary relationship is straight, the character the events revolve around a hetero male, and a contemporary reading might see him as the embodiment of obnoxious white male entitlement, which is unambiguously how Reynolds writes him. Besides him though the other three of the central quartet are women, who spend plenty of time talking with each other, saving each other’s lives, generally being fantastically interesting, complex, nuanced individuals, without the unnecessary mediation of a male character. (By which I mean the various ways contemporary speculative fiction in all mediums requires a white, hetero male front and centre for the audience to ‘identify with’ to experience the story through his eyes. Mainly because the story is boring as old shit.) And when they do interact with Sylveste, it’s again as equals, first and third person perspectives shift between each of them.

Sure I would have loved some of the brazen fuckery of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy
in how identity is presented. (Let’s be clear here, it caused a lot of people to throw a sad tantrum, even self-proclaimed feminists and queers. WTF, Frances? I know!) I also know that’s a bit of a stretch, even for say Iain M. Banks who I think had a far more cognisant understanding of corporeality and identity than even most theorists of gender and identity, there was an impulsion towards reductive ‘he’ and ‘she’ appellations. It’s fucking hard to use language outside that framework, and it’s undeniably easier to create diverse biologically and technologically augmented and evolved human species than it is to do the same to gender.

And I’ve already ordered the remaining two in the trilogy.


Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes — 2: Rotonda & salon Carpeaux

When you enter Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes the central Rotonda atrium and salon Carpeaux behind it are the first thing you see. It’s all symmetrical here, old stuff to the right; new to the left.

After my jaunt through the right side (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes — 1: salles XVe–XVIIIe, & salle Rubens), I span through this. The Rotunda is for sculpture, the salon for painting, and both almost exclusively for Valenciennes’ Own Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.

Never heard of him either. But! If you’ve been in the Napoleon III apartments in the Louvre, and I have, then you’re in the right era, and probably seen some of his works there too. And if you’ve seen the Fontaine de l’Observatoire in Paris’ 6e arrondissement Jardin du Luxembourg, you’ve seen his work.

Of which, the busts here of La Négresse and Le Chinois are two of the quartet who make up the monumental fountain. I was considering blogging the former separately, but I gotta keep things under control here, so: the fountain is also known as Fontaine des Quatre-Parties-du-Monde, which is a theme since the Baroque of four individuals representing Asia, Europe, Africa, and America—though often it seems to me that quartet is Asia, Persia, Africa, and the New World—usually holding up something large and heavy, either a white man, or something signifying the unifying force of science, reason, European stuff.

This work is from 1874, barely preceding the Scramble for Africa, New Imperialism, the Great Game in Central Asia, and the woman of La Négresse is bound with rope. (In a surprising verisimilitude of a Takate Kote, with one breast pulled bare. It’s very Japanese shibari porn.) Representing Africa as a bound wild slave isn’t outside what I’ve seen in art from the 17th to 20th centuries. A bust of a woman though, is the first I can recall.

Presumption led me astray. Another name for this bust is Pourquoi naître esclave! (Variously punctuated on the base inscription as Pourquoi! naître esclave! or Pourquoi naître esclave? and so on), which can be translated as “Why? Born a slave” and refers to both France’s history of slavery (abolished in its occupied colonies 1848) and the United States’ Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, three years before Carpeaux began work on the fountain.

It’s still a difficult portrait to look at, despite her strong, defiant, loathing gaze. Comparing with the fountain itself helps to reframe though obviously not erase what was going on at the time. And on that, at the opposite end of the long plinth with a small model of the quartet in the middle is the figure representing Asia: Le Chinois. He has a queue. In the fountain, he’s a woman, still with the queue. Well disconcerting. Carpeaux, do you understand hair?

One of the only non-Carpeaux sculptures is Scipione Tadolini’s orientalist piece, L’Esclave. Behind that are Carpeaux’s paintings, his interpretation of Rubens’ Le martyre de saint-Etienne, the highly proto-expressionist Deux études d’une jeune Transtévérine at a time the rest of France was going mad for impressionism, the Jeunes gens dansant la Tarentelle just for dancing, and then …

Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes finishes in the XVIIIe-XXe salles & L’exposition temporaire.

Reading: Amy Shira Teitel — Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA

Yes, I was reading during, before, and after all that museuming. My last year’s reading was missing some of that oomph of previous years, which was pretty bloody obvious when I compared 2014 with 2015. October to October actually, so not one of these tired End of Year list bollocks; purely arbitrary end point. I was missing Science. Yup, needs a capital. Also missing other stuff, but definitely slim on the science.

Amy Shira Teitel is one of my favourite bloggers, science or otherwise. Science-wise, she’s one of the best (I read enough to make that kind of subjective statement) and in all things space and astronomy she’s—I’m a pretty big fan and I’m not going all hyperbole when I say she and Emily Lakdawalla at, you don’t get better writing on science than these two. Ok, also Sabine Hossenfelder. Three different writers on astro stuff, writing in three different disciplines, Titel on the history of space flight, Lakdawalla on planetary science, Hossenfelder on astrophysics, all of them blogging regularly and all of them I will absolutely read and read first.

So, in need of reading science, and how convenient, Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA, exactly the kind of combination of history, engineering, 20th century Euro-American-Soviet politics, Germany at the start of it all in a story that would kick the knees off of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (new, old, doesn’t matter) and any other spy/action/Cold War film you can think of. Gripping drama and tension, cars going off cliffs, subterfuge, double-crossing, race against time to beat the Soviets to the prize, testing the limits of human endurance while using miles and pounds (seriously, America, really?). Also slave labour, concentration camps, Nazis, and all the nasty stuff that got pushed under the carpet to get to “One small step for a man.”

This is Titel’s first book, an entirely different thing to a series of thousand-word posts, where much of the heavy research and writing she’d previously done on her blog Vintage Space. There’s a lot of crossover between the two, the book going into more detail on the entire history of pre-NASA United States space programmes; her blog covering specific subjects within that as well as broadly the history of going fast enough to throw yourself off the planet. It’s also—or obviously—aimed at a general, science-interested audience, which has quite a bit to do with why I like what she writes. Her serious research abilities and love of the subject means she’s quite capable of writing extremely dense and academic histories, yet she makes it accessible to a reader who might not know anything about spaceflight, without dumbing the topic down. Excellent first book. If the next ten are as good as this, I will have eleven of her books on my shelves.


Neues Museum: Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung

After a quick clip through the Alte Nationalgalerie’s Impressionismus – Expressionismus exhibition (a museum-touristy afternoon for Ms. V., visiting from VNS-Matrix-land) we headed west to the Neues Museum. This is entirely incomplete. We had less than an hour, were already worn out from the usual Staatliche Museen zu Berlin approach to art (Quantity? Jawohl!) and no fixed plan of what to do once through the doors.

Mostly gawp open-mouthedly at one of the most beautiful—and certainly most haunting—museums I’ve ever been in. As I’m intending to go back and wander the floors properly, this is sort of a note to myself. I no nothing of Egyptology, except any and all messing with Pharaonic stuff leads to visits from the Blackness Outside Time—that includes museum visits. My run through the Neues Museum was largely, “Ooo! Old Stuff! I have no context for these things!” and likely will stay that way for the coming decade (mediæval art has priority). The building is an archaeological monument in itself and I spent as much time photographing that as the objects it encases—objects it was made one with during the last days of World War II.

Reading: Alastair Reynolds — Slow bullets

i. Best title of the year.
ii. Not enough pages.

I whined a little when Jamie at St. George’s pulled it off the shelf for me. So small! So thin! Such large margins and font size. It’s a novella, Frances. Well, so? I finished it over breakfast Saturday morning.

The cover. I’d almost forgotten I used to have lengthy cover conversations with myself. This one, crescent pair of planets filling the lower half, small glare of sun in the upper left corner, the three-rings of a rotating space station, author’s name in lowercase at the top, consistent design over more than a decade of works. It’s an accurate illustration of the story, though the station is a skipship, capable of faster than light travel—though no artificial gravity more sophisticated than that generated by centripital force.

Slow Bullets is one of the few fiction works I’ll read this year written by a guy. Alastair Reynolds I’ve read once before: Pushing Ice, when I was in Zürich. Good, but didn’t compel me to read his Revelation Space series—it takes a lot for me to agree to read a series. After Slow Bullets I am leaning heavily towards reading the first of his Poseidon’s Children trilogy, Blue Remembered Earth. Yes, Slow Bullets is a good as its title.

I imagine him coming up with the title and going, “Faaaarrrkkyess!!” It’s his best title. If I came up with a title that good, I’d be off to the Kneipe for a beer. It’s worthy of an Iain M. Banks Rapid Offensive Unit. It’s doubly good cos it’s not bullshit, ‘look at me, I’m clever’; it refers to an object at the core of the story.

…much slowness here when it comes to writing about reading lately. What’s above, I wrote at the start of July. It’s still going to be high on my list of what I’ve read this year. Still I feel it’s a sketch, and I’d love for Reynolds to go back and write it into its fullness, rework some of the less interesting stuff (particularly the on-station stuff with the other war criminal, Orvin). Will read again.