The beautiful tall ones, Gala Moody and Michael Carter, are finally performing together in Germany. In Wuppertal, as in home of Pina Bausch and Tanztheater Wuppertal, or Wuppi as the locals seem to call it (dunno if that’s a local thing or Aussie local thing. Strayans would probably call it Wuppo.). Trailer on Vimeo, and I’m debating with myself whether to bike some of the way over.
Cie.OFEN is delighted to invite you to the german premier of The Vase, the latest work by Cie.OFEN which premiered at Wim Vandekeybus’ ‘Ulti’mates’ festival in Kortrijk, Belgium.
Based on the theater work Purgutorio by Ariel Dorfman, The Vase shows the clash between Medea and Jason, who are trying to repair a broken love. Condemned to their own reckoning, they find their fates are entwined.
All the Victoria & Albert Museum. Well, all the mediæval stuff. That I could find. Plus some renaissance stuff, and a couple of other nice pieces. Masses of art from a Sunday afternoon with the awesome Jennifer Evans for company. Shared hangover also. In the sun in the courtyard garden. Romping the halls and galleries.
I saw: half of Level 0; less than a third of Level 1; a bit under half of Level 2; not much more than a quarter of Level 3; nothing of Levels 4 and 5; dunno if Level 6 even exists. All that in five hours until I got kicked out. I get booted from museums at closing time like most people get booted from bars, pubs, and clubs.
I missed: The brilliant Würzburg St. Maurice wooden statue because … I dunno. Was the room closed? Did I think there was nothing in the next room? Like many museums, incompleteness is a reason to return, to the city and the museum.
Best thing: It’s free! Blimey! So was the National Gallery. What kind of witchcraft is that where museums are free? Other best thing: It’s organised by material as well as chronologically. Which is frankly awesome. Another best thing: It was packed. And I mean packed. They must get millions of visitors a year. Yay, art! (Good estimate based on a single day, Frances: 3.5 million in 2015.)
How many photos did you take, Frances? A shade over 300, including captions. And how many have you blogged? This is the bit that always embarrasses me when I’ve finished editing them all: 111. The number’s kinda like an objective remark on my tendency towards excessive fun. I mean it’s not like I’m banging heroin anymore, is it? Museums it is, then.
New Tires! I coughed up for some Challenge Strada Biancas ’cos I’m riding more cobbles and less cyclocross lately. Plus my current gravel tires are thrashed to bits. They arrived folded up; I thought they were open tubulars they’re so light. I really wanted the Paris-Roubaix ones, because Paris-Roubaix, but they’re 27mm and I like a bit of width for off-road bashing. So, Strada Bianca. Giro d’Italia, Strade Bianche, these are my favourite races along with the Cobbled Classics. Which start in less than a week!
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.
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.
It’s a few minutes before 10am. I’m wondering where the entry is. Back at the entry, Frances, that’s where the entry is, the door on the side where there’s a queue. I’m fourth in and sorted with ticket plus stashed my gear in the locker and have no idea where to go. Ah, that way and up. I tend to get museums wrong, walk the wrong way, enter the wrong door, go around the room backwards. This museum, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in the Zwinger mit Semperbau, is undergoing massive renovations, which means my purpose for being here — mediæval art — is as truncated as the collection. About 1/3 of the floor space is open, and it’s the oldest stuff that takes the biggest loss.
Does it matter? No. By the time I’m done, I’ve thrashed three museum buildings and eight or more collections and it’s closing time 9 hours later. Back here at the beginning in the old stuff, I think I visited the three floors in non-sequential order, though moving through history roughly in a forward direction.
Old stuff! We start in the late-1400s, debatably Middle Ages, definitely crossing into Renaissance in various locations. Mostly it’s a mix of German and Netherlands artists on one side, Italian on the other, all squashed into a makeshift hall. For the purposes of showing of a selection of their works, I’m not going to find fault in that. I did get sulky about the crap glass in front of the majority of paintings, which threw off a vile cyan-green hue from the searchlight overhead glare, itself heavily tinged into an indescribable yellow. Not the best lighting, forgivable because it’s temporary. The glass though, it’s like this: if I take a photo and it’s mostly glass glare and colour cast, that’s exactly what your museum visitors are seeing with their eyes.
One of the first works I got really excited about is Albrecht Dürer’s Dresdener Altar. It’s a fantastic piece, large, dominated by a trio painted only from the waist up, so they fill the wings and centre panel to the edges. It’s painted in a light technique, you can see the canvas weave, often the tempura is simply dry-brushed, and the contrasting detail of line work and shading is phenomenally delicate. The palette is dominated by mute, cool greys, blues and desaturated reds, with browns, golds, jade and turquoise greens for highlighting. When you look at it closely, there’s this beautiful movement between rapid, almost expressionist sketch-like brushwork and strokes, and fine shading, layering, line work, two completely different approaches. And then it’s populated with a mob of cherubic angels, busy cleaning and flying around, holding Mary’s crown. The wings were added around ten years after the wide-angle central panel was completed, and do look structurally and technically dissimilar, their background full with small angels, and with little architectural framing. I photographed the crap out of it, as you can see by the fifteen images of it below.
Shortly later is Lucas Cranach der Älter’s Katharinenaltar (the central panel). I’m totally into Saint Katharina of Alexandria because she was a stone cold scholar and had an incredible mind and ability for learning, as well as being a killer orator, all while being a woman who was martyred for being a better philosopher than any of her debaters. It’s important to count her as a philosopher and not just eject her from the history of philosophy by calling her a Christian Saint. There’s very little difference between the intellectual tools she was using and what we’ve been calling philosophy since the Enlightenment. I also like Cranach the Elder, maybe not as much as Dürer, but I would happily steal this painting.
Then there’s two pieces by Antwerpen painter Joos van Cleve: Die kleine Anbetung der Könige and Die große Anbetung der Könige, both early 1500s works. These are part of a recognisable thematic tradition across northern Europe in late-mediæval and renaissance art of the Magi, that occurs so consistently and is kind of an essay in representation, coming as they do from Africa, Persia, Central Asia. Presuming a little here, maybe reading in too much from the present world, but it must have been profound for people in Northern Europe, in towns and cities who travelled little if at all, to be in Church and see these figures of a much larger world, who as individuals stand in for their country or land or people. Especially: here is an African king in finest green and gold robes with furs and ropes of precious metal, wearing spurs over his tooled leather boots so obviously he also rides a horse — everyone is well-dressed in these paintings, but Balthasar is always the finest, down to his prominent earrings, and he was there at the birth of Christ.
I always look for these paintings when I’m trawling mediæval art, and would be extraordinarily disappointed to not find one in any museum I visit. They are canonical.
Running on a bit now. A few Cranach the Younger works, he’s not his father, but he did paint Der schlafende Herkules und die Pygmäen (one half of a diptych, the lighting on the second one was impossible) full of dwarfs who are going the hack on Hercules. One other work in the mediæval and renaissance collections was Parmigianino’s Die Madonna mit der Rose which I loved for the globe showing Europe, Central Asia, northern Africa, the Arabia, and a rather small Indian subcontinent, and which has enough signifiers to be as easily Venus and Cupid as Mary and Jesus.
All that done, up and down some stairs and onto what I’m calling the baroque and enlightenment collections.
I think I’ve been more than six times to the Gemäldegalerie, but a couple of those visits were without camera – though with friend! So we all don’t get lost, here they all are, along with 300 or more photos:
Six times (that I count) I’ve been to the Gemäldegalerie. Am I bored with it? Is that even a question? Do you know how huge it is? It takes me 3 hours just to get through the mediæval art – Northern European and Italian that is – which leaves around 2/3rds of the place unseen. Not that I cared, I really was just antsy for some old shit to stare at, and did it disappoint? Hell no!
It gets better every time, partly because there’s so many favourites of mine – Hans Baldung’s (gen. Grien) Der Dreikönigsaltar, Meister des Aachener Altars’ Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige, I’m talking about, but oh so many others. I gave St. Mauritius in Baldung’s alter a wink, “Saw you in Magdeburg, dude!” “Awesooome! You know St. Katharina’s over there?” “Fuck no, I didn’t! St. Katharina!” “Hey Frances! You’ve been ignoring me!” I’d been walking past her every time cos she’s on a separate wing and not part of the main altarpiece. Saving photographing her for my next visit.
Speaking of not paying attention, I didn’t really want to photograph much, but also knew I kinda needed to: it’s part of the deal. So I’m looking at Albrecht Dürer’s one, the famous one of Hieronymus Holzschuher, and beside that there’s this small, matt black rectangle of I dunno, never looked at it too closely cos it’s not very impressive – until you look at it closely. It’s the sliding cover for Dürer’s portrait, and has the coat of arms of both Holzschuher and Dorothea Müntzer, to whom he was married. It’s indeed as dark as in the photos below.
Then there was Die Madonna als Apokalyptische Frau, which I like just for the title (and sorted out a little more why she’s occasionally rolling in a slammed crescent moon). It’s next to Diptychon mit der Kreuzigung und dem Schmerzensmann, which is near the top of my, “Oh yes, I will steal you one day,” list, and just over from Maria am Spinnrocken, which I love because Maria’s there spinning (& yes, she does have a creepy old man perving on her through the window).
Die Kreuzigung Christi (Kaufmannsche Kreuzigung) I’ve photographed before, but in the two years since I’ve been heavily photographing art, I’ve got a lot better (or I convince myself I have) and a lot of the earlier stuff is frankly shitful. As well, I love this one for the arrangement of people on both sides of the crucifixion. I’ve noticed recently that these group portraits can be seen at the subject of the work, rather than the obvious dude bleeding everywhere who is needed so they have an excuse to be all present. It’s striking to hold my hand up blotting him out, and see just how prominent and crucial these clusters of the public are.
As usual, there’s a few Die Anbetung der Könige. The one after Jacques Daret wasn’t in my St. Mauritius & Companions post, which shows you how much I miss even after half a dozen visits. What’s interesting here – besides being a truly beautiful work – is how representation of blackness in mediæval art isn’t explicitly tied to skin tone. Or that’s what I’m thinking lately. These three Magi look not so different from Mary or the old geezer slobbering on baby Jesus’ hand, but knowing how they are frequently—predominately represented in mediæval art, it’s enough to interpret signifiers like the slightly different skin tone of each of the three, their headdresses, the colour of their hair and say who Balthazar here is (and Caspar and Melchior for that matter).
On to Maria Magdalene, im Hintergrund Christus bei Martha, which is a marvel, her dressed in furs with a lute (or an oud if you like), and the detail in her apartment: the pale azure cups and plate high on one wall, the backgammon board left mid-game, her with a sheet music book that’s entirely legible, much more going on here than simply Mary Magdalene.
Here I reversed out of the right wing of the Gamäldegalerie and crossed over into the left wing where the Italian collection lives. Giotto di Bondone’s Die Kreuzigung Christi is another one of those crucifixions with a lively public gathered below. I’ve seen this one before, and no, I did not notice the back of his head, in 3/4 reverse profile. Then there’s Giovanni di Paolo’s Zwei Tafeln einer Predella – Die Einkleidung der hl. Klara durch den hl. Franziskus, which is St. Klara of Assis joining the church after hearing St. Francis of Assisi preach. I’d not heard of her before, but she’s contemporaneous with Mechthild von Magdeburg and that mob and a bit of an Italian sister in similarity.
I was finding it strange to be looking at Italian mediæval art, being so involved in Northern European stuff. The differences are not so pronounced before the mid-1400s, in fact the east-west differences are the most obvious – that and the differences in pigments and colour choices. It’s only when Italy gets into using perspective that things change. And even then for much of the duration of the 15th century, it’s only the backgrounds that display this shift; the groupings and arrangements of people remain relatively flat within themselves. Along with this, there’s an obvious move to more naturalistic, softer styles. Look at Ferraresisch’s Die Muse Polyhymnia, it could be an early 20th century work if not for the obviously mediæval background.
Francisco Ubertini’s Die Taufe Christi, almost 100 years after perspective was first used in Florence still retains a kind of static, pseudo-perspective tableau approach, small clustered groups that decrease in size and move higher up the landscape the further they are from the viewer, more two-dimensional than actual perspective. Oh and a quite excellent work I spent my last minutes oogling. There’s so many different people and clothing here, plus it has White Angels Throwing Up Gang Signs.
Two hours and a bit. Then a sharp bike ride to Hasenheide for Sarah-Jane’s barfday on a warm Berlin Sunday.
My combination book unpacking / book selling (fuck yes, I sell books sometimes too!) led to the discovery of a few books I’d never blogged – or for that matter finished reading. David Nicholas’ The Northern Lands: Germanic Europe, c.1270-c.1500 is one of those, unfinished because it’s kinda boring; rereading cos it’s informative and enlightening in a broad, generalist, undergrad way, heavy on the facts and light on poetry, a bit like reading contract law or health insurance.
Who is David Nicholas and why does start sentences with ‘but’ so much? Professor Emeritus at Clemson University until he retired a decade ago, and yes, if there’s a distinct style of, white, anglo-euro-american male academic writing (and have I read a trunkload of them), he’s it (reminds me of Central Asian scholar Christopher I. Beckwith, or Aloïs Riegl). Around once every sentence I notice I’ve vagued out into mediæval fantasy land (me in central role saviour-ing or slaughtering, either/or), before returning to one of his regular and unintentionally hilarious sentences or clauses. (Such as – paraphrasing here: “Austrians always regarded the Swabians as aliens.”)
Yes. I have been learning things. No. Not quite sure what. Ignoring entirely the awkward-ish ‘Germanic’ in the title, no, he’s not tromping down the well-worn racist path of pure German identity, in fact he makes it quite clear without making it the central thesis that whatever constitutes ‘Germanic’ was throughout the period he covers conditional and contextual, and often incomprehensible: Swabians, Slavs, Wends, Frisians, Flems, Danish, Scandinavians all at various times and places both were and were not Germanic, even moving back and forth depending on where they were, whom they were speaking to or who was speaking of them. It’s the -ic in Germanic that’s important, an attribute of language, thinking, culture that moved back and forth between lands and regions, rather than an identity or nation that existed as a fixed object. But it’s the German that’s at issue, and while Nicholas broadly divides regions into England, Flanders, Netherlands, Denmark and Scandinavia, and Germanic regions (contemporary Germany, Austria), along with forays into Poland, Czech and those parts of the Holy Roman Empire, he nonetheless prioritises ‘German’. Probably would have been better to leave the title at “The Northern Lands” and move his focus to the interactions between these regions. Professor Len Scales’ review is far more eloquent on this than I can be.
My criticism is predominately on the boringness of the writing (ok, and on the substantial absence of women, art, culture, Jewish communities …). Dry, dry, dry enumeration of facts and names, which I can stodge through if it weren’t for baffling jumps back and forth across hundreds of years, frequently in the same paragraph. I’m sure for Nicholas this makes sense, but fuck me sometimes I’m at a loss to understand his line of reasoning or his point. If I was twenty, considering a life in mediæval history and was assigned this for coursework, I’d probably go off and become a tradie, spending the rest of my life thinking it was because I was stupid, and not that for all its density of information this work fundamentally uninterested in communicating – and I’m saying this as someone who reads Caroline Walker Bynum for pleasure (repeatedly).
For a more realistic comparison, trundling through Wikipedia pages on the Hanseatic League, Magdeburg, Sachsenspiegel, (all of which he’s written about), and various other labyrinths of mediæval gloriousness (plus following links out into the wilds of the internet) is far more informative, rewarding, and enjoyable. Weirdly, I keep hoping the next page he’ll break from his interminable introduction style and get down to some substantial writing. Not bloody likely.
If you’re at university and being made to read this, go somewhere else. Mediæval northern european history is mad fun, alternate history levels of science-fiction strangeness, it’s addictive as all shit, and it’s a living thing you can walk into any old church and see, it has philosophical debates and ideas as wonderful as Deleuze or Serres or Butler, art that thrashes contemporary stuff for levels of intensity (imagine walking into church and it was 5 hours of Volksbühne: that’s mediæval art), in all seriousness whatever workable future Europe has – politically, socially, culturally – it’s going to find more possibilities 800 years ago than in the last couple of hundred years of contagious bollocks, and if you’re reading The Northern Lands you’re going to experience approximately none of this. Fuck’s sake, go and read Bynum.