It’s not an easy exhibition to see — I went twice and both times felt well deeply disturbed at humanity during and after — and not an easy exhibition to blog about. I took around 350 photos, half of those of the lengthy captions, and cutting the 175 potentially bloggable images down to a feasible 87 meant diverging from the coherent narrative of the exhibition. So there are gaps; only seeing the exhibition or buying the hefty catalogue can give a proper account. And giving an account, firstly I need to thank Boris Nitzsche in the press department who arranged my visit and for me to take photos, as DHM special exhibitions are camera-free zones.
Secondly: a content warning. The exhibition contains images and documentation of genocide. Some of my photos are of this and of people who were murdered. I back-and-forthed with myself constantly over whether to include these images at all, but it felt like an erasing to only write of this and not include them. Yet these people who were murdered have no say in how they are represented, indeed for many if not all the only photographs and documentation of them ever made is of their suffering and death. And unlike the Jewish holocaust, it was only in 2015 that Germany officially called their extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in German South-West Africa (Namibia) genocide, yet still refuse reparations. Besides that genocide, massacres and atrocities were commonplace in all of Germany’s colonies.
Besides the difficulty in choosing which images to blog, there was the issue of context. This exhibition has it. All of the pieces require context, and it’s a first for me to say an exhibition was not lacking in this regard. Most of the images or image sets had at least a paragraph accompanying the caption giving the work a frame of reference. Additionally, exhibition sections and sub-sections all had long introductory texts and frequently booklets. And then there was the audio guide, which would turn a three-hour visit into a full day endeavour. There was a massive amount of work put into preparing and translating this. And with this need for context here also, I’ve been struggling with what to write, to explain what these images are showing.
While there are plenty of works of art, this exhibition primarily functions as a documentation of history, and in this art is turned to further the purposes of propaganda and imperialism. There are very few paintings, but coinciding with the arrival of film photography gives an abundance of photographs throughout the colonial period. The central piece for me is not art. It’s nothing much to look at. A large, hardcover parchment with a mess of red wax seals pinning down a red, black and white thread forming columns on the left sides of the facing pages; to their right, a scrawl of signatures. This is the General Record of the Berlin Africa Conference (image 33, below) on February 26th, 1885, signed by the state representatives of the 13 European nations (and the United States) formalising the dividing up the continent of Africa into colonies.
The German colonial empire: German West Africa, now Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Central African Republic, Ghana, and Togo; German East Africa, now Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda; German South-West Africa, now Namibia; German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa. Prior to the German Empire, there were Brandenburg-Prussian, and Habsburg colonies in Ghana, Mauritania, Bénin, the Caribbean and Americas, Nicobar islands, and concessions in China in Tianjin, Jiaozhou, and Yantai. By the standards of France or Britain, Germany was a minor player, coming late to the party and lasting barely thirty years (excluding merchant companies prior to the conference, which began in the 1850s). I initially listed all the colonies and current nations, some of which became colonies of other empires before achieving independence so it would be clear what is meant by German colonialism. It is a daunting list. But it helps to be reminded the extent of European colonisation: All or nearly all of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific. It requires less space to simply list the few countries and regions never colonised.
January 26th was Invasion Day, what the National Day of Australia is properly called, marking as it does the arrival of the First Fleet. In the discussion of colonies, whether German, British, or other, I noticed the onus was on providing evidence genocide or systematic massacre occurred; lesser-known colonies with comparatively lesser-known histories seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in wavering between did it or didn’t it happen. So German South-West Africa is now unequivocally, officially the site of genocide. Yet the same practices occurred in all of Germany’s colonies to some degree — as if genocide has degrees. Rather than have to prove this in each individual case, it seems more honest to say the fundamental aim and purpose of all colonies wherever they were was and is extermination.
I don’t have a transition into the less grim aspects of the exhibition, so I’ll bash on.
Photographs and biographies of multiethnic marriages, and of couples and families living in Germany back to the mid-late-19th century; Portraits of figures as far back as the early 1700s who came to Europe often as slaves yet went on to study and have careers and lives in Europe — even when they remain morally unadmirable, like Jacobus Capitein who defended slavery. Post-World War II, it’s notable how involved East Germany was in anti-imperialism and solidarity with what was then called the Third World. Afro-deutsche in West-Berlin, and Black History Month in reunified Berlin.
I’m not sure I’m doing this justice. It’s an extremely relevant exhibition, one that the museum have done a very careful job on preparing and presenting, and one that both times I visited was packed. It’s a little too massive for me to be able to make coherent thoughts or criticisms about. Perhaps my primary criticism or question is of what value it has. Germany is adept at regarding its past and admitting guilt. Yet Germany’s awareness in specific instances does not seem to easily translate into understanding the repetition of behaviour or thinking in others. The ongoing struggle for recognition and compensation in Namibia is the most obvious example, but similar valid claims in other former colonies are far less likely to make even that progress. Indeed, would likely provoke a racket in Germany of the “Just how much do we have to be guilty for?” kind. Which is the point: The inability to see the unbroken line between the racist ideology of Kant and other still esteemed German philosophers, 19th century imperialism leading to genocide in the 20th century in colonies and then across Europe, the current failure to accept Germany is already multicultural, and the increasingly pervasive anti-Muslim / anti-brown people rhetoric.
While the exhibition is about Germany’s own colonial history, and I’ve been talking specifically about Germany, as that signed and sealed document demonstrates, all of Europe was involved, and Europe along with all the former colonies remain infected with this ideology. Each country in Europe has its own unique variation on this identical form of white supremacism. I would like to hope for an exhibition in a hundred years where this 500 year chapter of European history and its effect on the rest of us is forever closed, but I suspect we’re not going to make it.
Two and an half years ago, I asked a historian friend for recommendations on northern European mediæval history, preferably written by a women. He replied that last qualifier was going to thin the herd considerably. Shortly after he emailed me a list, the last name on that list being Caroline Walker Bynum and her Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond. He said, “Definite thematic focus, but it is an interesting focus, and one that is helpful in explaining much of late medieval (and modern Western) society; also more limited chronological range. That notwithstanding, the best book on this list, plus: written by a woman.”
Caroline Walker Bynum is always a tough read, dense, like tapestry, ideas and themes threaded together over hundreds of pages; footnotes often consume a third of the book and often impart critical additional elaboration. Hers are slow works to read, contemplative and demanding. I suppose it’s an uncommon approach to introduce myself to northern European mediæval history by going for the least forgiving of the lot, but there’s something glorious in drowning in such writing.
I started Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe a few weeks ago, it’s been in my reading pile since late-July, and I’ve been reading it around a rapidly circulating mob of new arrivals. Of all her works, this is the most accessible, also the broadest in subject. And like all her works, almost a third is devoted to extensive notes. It’s beautifully bound, plenty of margin space, many illustrations of works she discusses, one of those books that’s a pleasure to be holding. I love it. I love her writing.
Friday was our day off, day after première. Melanie and I decided on Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, the opaque glass monolith just inside the ring road near the Hauptbahnhof. I was there for the mediæval art. Was disappointed. Maybe I missed some rooms or floors, maybe that part was closed. Either way, I saw exactly zero Cranach the Elder, Michel Erhart, Rogier van der Weyden, Meister Francke, Hans Baldung, or anything prior to early-16th century.
Perhaps I was spoilt by the Grassi Museum — ok, I was totally spoilt — but I left MDBK in under two hours unimpressed and went back to the Grassi. This morning, I was eating breakfast thinking about writing this and a simile for the museum came to me: A couple of weeks ago Mark Webber finished his motorsport career, in the World Endurance Championship Porsche LMP1 at Bahrain International Circuit. It’s a dog of a circuit. One of those generic strip malls of a track designed by Hermann Tilke, the Forza gaming engine of architecture. These tracks are the finest expression of no-consequence racing and bland geometry, the antithesis of tracks like Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps, Circuit de la Sarthe, Macao street circuit.
To me, the architecture of MDBK embodies the contemporary neo-liberal politic and aesthetic of a museum, one that doesn’t have much use for either people or art, one that impels the viewer (or ‘customer’ as museum visitors are now) through the circuit with no consequences. It’s not a Bilbao Guggenheim (in terms of architectural mayhem), but does conform to the same misplaced consumer aesthetic, just as every city must now have its own London Eye. A week ago when I blogged some images of the architecture, I said I wasn’t sure if it embodied the architectural sublime of public spaces, or was hatefully depersonalised. As I was editing these images and looking at them in context of that vast space, it became obvious the space is designed to seduce the customer into believing it is sublime, but in fact it is a crematorium for art.
The MDBK is like the Holocaust Tower in Daniel Liebeskind’s Jüdisches Museum Berlin, the voids and axes pushing the visitor inexorably into the empty, cold, lightless shard of a part-buried tower, only a slit at the very top letting in weak light and making it bitterly cold in winter. But there is no meaning or context here, just seeking to replicate the thrill of that architecture without understanding or caring for the consequences. It’s exactly the kind of ‘space’ that will get filled with “conceptual dance in museums” of the Mette Ingvartsen, Tino Seghal type. I fucking hate it.
The art then, when I could find it, and it was not lost in a glare of overhead natural lighting. I feel kinda uninspired to write about much of it, especially after the glorious ride that was Grassimuseum. There was stacks of Jugenstil, the German Art Nouveau. I love the architecture and design, but the art is fixated on dodgy and fetishising imaginings of women, plus a gratuitous European Christian whiteness I can’t look at without seeing where that led to a couple of decades later.
Elsewhere, there was one, small El Greco. I love him, his strange, soft oval faces, the blunt, expressionist use of colour, brushwork and movement. I’d love to see a whole exhibition of him. There’s also Frans Hals’ Der “Mulatte” which while given that title, looks to be a match for Peeckelhaeringh. Neither were easy to photograph, with light glare and glass obstacles.
As much as I just ragged on Jugenstil, Max Klinger was … well, he was a Symbolist. But there’s so much crossover between the two, and Romanticism, even Impressionism, it’s a bit like only listening to country music and then being asked to differentiate between Chicago House, Detroit Techno, NY Garage. Of course they’re different, but they also share plenty of artistic and cultural similarities. And an illiterate hick like me can’t tell my Jugendstil from Symbolism.
After visiting Muzeul de Artă Timișoara, similarly uninspiring, I said, “Get rid of all the generic European art history stuff first. People aren’t going to Timișoara for that.” Same applies here. People aren’t going to Leipzig for Rubens, but make the whole MDBK about Leipzig and surrounding artists (and don’t even try to tell me there weren’t mediæval artists doing brilliant work in Sachsen region). It’s almost that anyway, with multiple rooms of Klinger. The light in Die Blaue Stunde is transfixing, just stare at it for a while; Der Tod am Wasser has a skeletal Death pissing in a lake; Christus im Olymp takes up an entire room, something photos seldom capture, the figures are life-size; Eine Gesandtschaft reminds me of Max Slevogt; the pair of double doors, Türflügelpaar mit Raub des Ganymed Melanie wants to steal for her bathroom.
Then the collection moves into later artists, Max Beckmann, Max Pechstein, Otto Mueller, Karl Hofer, Oskar Kokoschka, Hans Grundig, Conrad Felixmüller, members of expressionism, Die Brücke or Neue Sachlichkeit movements, and all called Degenerate Artists by the Nazis and persecuted for this. I’m down with expressionism, living here, and going to cities in this part of Germany, it’s so clear what an important break it was with artistic and cultural history, and why it’s no surprise so many of the artists were persecuted.
Which makes it curious why an artist like Elisabeth Voigt is among them. When I saw Fallschirmjäger I, and the date, 1941, I thought, “There’s someone jumping on the ‘War is Hell’ bandwagon.” Unlike the other artists, no mention of persecution, or much Nazi or wartime goings on beyond her Berlin atelier being bombed twice in 1945, information I gleaned from around the internet. Some of the other artists spent much of the war in concentration camps, or fled Germany. For me, these things are important, and an integral part of contextualising art and artists. Otherwise it’s just colourful wallpaper.
One last thing, in a stairwell: Marian Luft’s Funtasies (Tumblr Transparent), a flashing LED lightbox of hallucinogenic colour. I tried to film it, which caught Melanie’s voice reading bits of text.
Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig was out on Thursday, not open till midday and we had plans to be museum-ing when doors opened at the proper time of 10am. Second on my list Grassimuseum it was then.
Curious how the ones that aren’t the top on my list turn out to be so bloody good. The architecture! Not looking as good on that first visit beneath a grey haze of fog and mist as it did the second in warm sun, but did I ever want to fondle that stone and glasswork. Robert and I walked in circles looking for a temporary exhibition that turned out to be kinda average, so we did my — and his — favourite: to the top floor and work your way down. First stop: Museum für Völkerkunde, which got very intense and emotional very quick with an unexpected and beautiful collection of Australian Aboriginal art and ethnology (north-east and central-east coast), followed by a smaller one of Aotearoa, a much bigger one of Polynesia including photographic works on glass reminding me of the Gottfried Lindauer exhibition in Berlin, then North American First Nations, going backwards along my own personal timeline through these places.
From that collection to Museum für Angewandte Kunst. 30 rooms. One giant circle of the first floor. 2000 years of applied arts and design. The closer we get to now, the more works. The first millennium wrapped up in barely two rooms with a special inner room for delicate fabric works from pre-Islamic Levant, then zipping through the first trio of second millennium centuries to get properly going in the 1400s.
I was looking for Saint Mauritius, and would have been most disappointed to not find him. I did! On a beer stein! But before that, I think he turned up in the red wax of a Magdeburg town seal (or I think that’s what it was, stupid me didn’t photograph the caption). Beer stein! The happiest St. Mauritius is a beer-y one.
I’m not exactly certain what makes the works here ‘applied art’ and not ‘fine art’. In the later periods, say Gründerzeit and on, and especially in the 20th century collections, a riot of Jugendstil, Neu-Sachlichkeit, post-Bauhaus modernism, DDR and BRD ’50s to ’70s to contemporary, it’s obviously ‘design’: furniture, lighting, jewellery, ceramics, though so rich and careful in design as to be works of art. But in the earlier stuff, this I’m used to seeing in museums as fine art. And how this fine / applied European art is distinct from non-European ethnological art, that’s a question to cause whole museums to collapse. Especially with the chinoiserie and porcelain that was all about adopting and imitating Chinese techniques and doing European things with them.
The earlier rooms, stained glass, wooden sculptures and altarpieces, tapestries, I was pointing my camera indiscriminately. A trio of massive, early 16th century retables, Late Gothic gold, filigree, and polychrome; opposing that, an armless, footless, and bald Jesus suspended from a vanished cross, his beard somehow rendering his face skeletal. Sprinkled amongst these, smaller single works of Mary, Saint Katharina, as solitary sculptures or wall reliefs. Another inner room with Romanesque works in metal, enamel, ivory. Up till here it was a solid collection, really nicely put together, the way the rooms and architecture moved us forward made spending far too much time on individual pieces too easy. Yet so far not exceptional.
And then the weirdness kicked in.
Probably around the place where the donkey-headed, fish-scaled armed and legged, cloven hoofed and bird footed (one of each), and very naked Mönchskalb turned up. Just after drunk St. Mauritius. Nearby, another dimly lit room with a Kaminbehang that was plain disturbing. Doing rough translations here: a “black Moor who wears no clothes and is burnt by the sun’s heat”; a “white Moor crossed with my arrow and my bow in hand”; a “Turk” with a naked Christian baby in one hand and a scimitar in the other. But it’s all a joke. At the end is the “High German who likes all national clothes” but has no idea how to wear them, who imagines he looks like a hero, but he’s naked looking like an idiot. This 2 1/2 metre tapestry hangs above your fireplace. We said, “What the fuck?” about it for some time.
Shortly after we depart the Renaissance for Baroque and Rococo. But stay firmly in Orientalism. There’s the heating oven capped off with the cartoon-like bust of a Turk. Beside this though is a huge and detailed, naturalistic wall tapestry of a village fair by Rococo artist Étienne Jeaurat. On the far right, a travelling merchant bearing the same Turkish signifiers as the guy atop the stove, a turban, curling moustache, rich jewellery and embroidered clothes. Both he and his assistant are on horseback, he on a flirtatious white mare, the assistant on a dark old nag. His assistant is equally lavishly dressed, turban with feathers, a cloak with massive precious stone clasp, earrings and a solid band of probably a slave collar, silver against his dark brown skin.
Further on, in another small side room is a simply massive work of Rococo chinoiserie, three of the room’s walls are filled floor to ceiling and end to end with it. Fantastic scenes mashing European Baroque and Chinese Qing Dynasty together. Months of work by many hands represented in the opulence of these two pieces.
After this, the works become more furniture and object based. Porcelain and ceramics everywhere, like the five glorious figurines of Ballets Russes in their costumes for the ballet, Carnaval by Paul Scheurich, who turns out was a right Nazi. Another Nazi was Joseph Wackerle, who did the beautiful Indianerin. Robert and I only noticed the complete absence of works from the Nazi period after we’d left and come down from our art euphoria. There are plenty of artists whose work in various movements pre- or post- that period is on display, but those twelve years are erased, as are the Nazi tendencies of the artists.
Running on through DDR and GDR periods, into our 4th hour and knowing we need food, coffee, energy for the première that evening. I didn’t take many photos in these rooms, simply so many works all deserving of attention and awe. We emerged out of those thirty rooms a bit delirious, and for me seriously impressed. I hadn’t expected a museum this good to be in Leipzig, nor an applied arts / design museum to be make me want to see all the design museums everywhere. It reminded me of the brilliant Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, so unexpected and unknown and yet I will rave for years about Leipzig and Grassimuseum. It’s even better with the audio guide (which I didn’t use but Mel did the next day). And super friendly. I dunno if this is a Leipzig thing, but they put every other city in Germany to shame with their relaxed friendliness. How friendly? The woman in the museum café bails past me sitting outside, pulls up, looks at me yawning, backtracks and comes back with an espresso and a wink.
Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara is in the basement of the Catedrala Mitropolitană, accessed by a small door on the far right inside the cathedral. I almost missed it, until I was exiting and saw the sign pointing back the way I came. The church itself is overwhelming, walls of gold icons, a colossal gold chandelier, frescos, all dimly lit with candlelight and what pale exterior light made it through the tall, narrow windows and cupola high above. Into the museum. Having been burned by the other museum’s “No Photography!” policy, I went at it with my camera just in case the voices I could hear were going to similarly ruin my experience when we met. Turns out it was exactly the opposite.
A woman comes running up to me, fully in a black habit and apostolnik, some light grey hair visible at her temples and the kind of gaze you really don’t want to be admitting your proclivities to. It’s Timișoara’s own Sister Wendy! She was most surprised I came all the way from Australia to see her museum (“You speak English, where are you from?” “err … Australia?” “Ah! You come all the way from Australia to see our museum!”), and dragged me through for twenty minutes explaining about half the works before an Italian guy came in and she was off to give him the same reception.
The museum takes up maybe 120 square metres of low-ceilinged basement in a fat T-shape, not especially well lit, certainly not ‘museum’ lighting, fluorescent stript lighting mostly, and works simply crammed onto every available wall, pillar, into cabinets and display cases, propped up against blocked off doors, probably at least 150 painted works, and scores of manuscripts, books, and documents. And by the time I got to photographing, I had just on twenty minutes before I had to split.
A brief diversion into photographing, first.
As usual, I used my beautiful Panasonic LX7 with the mad glass up front. I can’t afford something like a Canon 5D Mark III, nor would the weight, size, and loudness allow me the kind of unobtrusive flexibility I have with a high-end compact. Normally I’d take a couple of hours to photograph so many works, this time I was averaging 2-3 a minute under not great light overall, and plenty of garish reflection on the highly lacquered surfaces. Quite a few works I photographed at an angle to reduce this glare. As usual, I was shooting RAW.
All of the works have some post-processing done in Photoshop. Generally this is dealing with lens and shooting distortion (from the above shooting at an angle), a tiny bit of colour, tone, and contrast work, plus a bit of sharpening to compensate for the destructive nature of all this. I think most if not all the works would look more brilliant and colourful under proper lighting and photographing conditions, and I could probably approximate what they ‘actually’ look like, but I treat these images as what my camera saw rather than some fantasy version. Many of these works are not exactly quadrilateral, some exceedingly so. Because I’m often photographing on an angle, and even if I think I’m exactly front-on the camera has its own ideas of geometry, I’ve evened this all out. I don’t have the original to compare with so can’t say what’s the image and what’s camera, so it’s less distracting to not have wonky angles. Also for some, where the frames don’t finish cleanly (a lot of the images and frames are not in the best of condition) I clean up the corners a bit, again to reduce the distraction of glary white bits on the image edges.
And what did I see? A whole bunch of stuff I barely can comprehend. This Romanian Orthodox art is so far from the central-northern European stuff I’m used to, or even the Italian and western European. I was confused at first to the age of it, as the styles look a few hundred years or more older than I’d expect, but was all between 17th and 19th centuries with the majority being 18th century. Then there was the medium. The first works are all on glass, the size of an average illustrated book. Many others were on wood, dotted with the holes of woodworms. Thematically many of them came in pairs, one of Mother of God (Maica Domnului), the other of Christ Pantocrator (Iisus Hristos Pantocrator).
I’m regretting I didn’t have more time, though in truth there was no more time, the museum wasn’t open on Sunday, and that barely an hour was all there was. I’d have loved to spend a little more time with Sister Wendy, or at least take notes, particularly on a couple of the works she said were either Syrian and Egyptian in style or actually came from there (these are 20: Autor necunoscut, sec. XVIII. Sfinta Parascheva. provine de la biserica din Temeresti, Timiș and 28: Autor necunoscut, sec XVIII-XIX. Adormirea Maicii Domnului. provine de la biserica din ? Timiș below).
And then there’s the brown and black Marys and Jesuses. The first of these, 3 and 4: Icoana Maicii Domnului was to the left of the cathedral entrance immediately on entering, then there was the many Maica Domnuluis, (images 17, 29, 38, 41, 51, 52, and 62 below), Sfinta Parascheva (image 20), and Iisus Hristos Pantocrator (image 64, the companion to image 62). Dispelling all bollocks here, it’s unambiguously clear the artists intended the skin colour in the representations here, you only have to compare with works often right beside where Mary or Jesus is paler. In Constantin din Corița’s Maica Domnului, both Mary and Jesus are a deep, dark brown, and the light from above on her cheek and forehead gives a warm, golden glow. In E. Simiolovici’s Maica Domnului, the entire work comes from an bright embossed gilt background; Mary and Jesus’ skin is only a slightly lighter than the brown robe she wears. I’ve seen one or two works like this last year when I was travelling in Budapest and Poland, and read enough to know this representation is common, but to see a whole museum full with multiple variations, it’s glorious and beautiful beyond what I can write or photograph.
There’s other works with Ottoman or Turkish and Muslim figures; sometimes the figures remind me of Greco-Indian or Serindian art, the particular curve of eyebrows and wide, high forehead. It’s all new to me, outside of seeing examples in passing, and basically I don’t know what I’m talking about.
The whole experience was unexpectedly deeply moving. From the almost scary Sister Wendy when she explained to me how the works function for her in her faith, to having her briefly elaborate on what appeared to be a less remarkable piece which in fact was entirely remarkable (to me at least), and the sheer volume of works. And the fact this is entirely European. It’s European I can recognise in art farther west and north, yet carries more than that. Entire additional styles, cultures, histories are present which inextricably tie Europe with Asia, and which unequivocally demonstrate there is no border or line where ‘Europe’ starts or ends, it just blurs in multiple washes from different directions across geography and time with ‘Asia’. This exists also in art from further north and west, like in Saint Mauritius in Magdeburg, and maybe it’s simply I need to pay closer attention to what I’m looking at in art from further north and west, to know how to read and understand what I’m seeing.
Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara, an absolute, unexpected delight in a city likewise a joy. Here’s a ridiculous number of photos of art:
Saturday morning. We have a relaxed start at midday, so I have museums on my agenda. Exactly two. Muzeul de Artă Timișoara is the first, in Palatul Baroc on the south-east corner of Piaţa Unirii.
I got through in a bit under an hour. Not sure if I missed sections or if parts were closed, but generally was disappointed after the promise the museum’s website held. And there was that issue of “Photography Prohibited.” Yeah, I’m not gonna stick around long if you’re hitching your fortune to that missed bus. It’s over. It’s been over for the better part of a decade. Everyone has cameras, everyone’s going to use them, and frankly, if the Louvre is all Just Ain’t Care about mobs snapping Mona Lisa, then your museum could do with being a little less precious about ‘your’ art.
’Cos I would have loved to photograph the Corneliu Baba collection.
I did sneak a few of the Banat Collections, mostly of the 19th century and interwar periods, I think Pictura Bănăţeană Sec. XIX and Pictura Bănăţeană Interbelică collections respectively. Compared to the website though, what I saw was kinda sparse. Afterwards I had a conversation with the main attendant like this:
Her: “Did you like our museum?”
Me: (Being diplomatic) “Yeah, especially the Baba works.”
Her: “Yes, he is very important. I saw you on the cameras.”
Me: “Ah. So you saw me taking photos. It’s a pity it’s not allowed.”
Her: (With sad resignation in the face of rules she can’t change) “Yes, photography is prohibited.”
So, the collection. A bit patchy, not great quality works, except for the Baba — both as a collection and in quality. I often think museums feel they must be a a microcosm of the Ur-museum, a Louvre or Rijksmuseum in miniature, so every regional city replicates this basic itinerary, plodding through the centuries, a bit of Mediæval, a splatter of Renaissance, a woo! through Neoclassical, methodically completing the task like an earnest term paper. It can be unexpectedly brilliant, like Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes, but more often than not it’s a mournful trip.
I had that with Muzeul de Artă Timișoara, and I think the lack of visitors shows I’m not the only one who feels that way. Trying to be constructive here, if I had free rein what would I do? Get rid of all the generic European art history stuff first. People aren’t going to Timișoara for that; I have no idea of the locals/tourists split but suspect it’s heavily towards the latter. Concentrate on Banat region first, Romania second, then Hungarian, Ottoman and so on third (cos it’s been passed around by occupiers for most of the last millennium, plus it’s been a centre through which people have passed for all that time). That would mean expanding the works in the 19th and 20th century collections, some of which I photographed below, and really making it geographically and temporally specific; and expanding the earlier collections. It’s not like there’s a paucity of Banat art, as I discovered in the Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara. After all that, arrange with other museums in Romania and further afield for rotating general European art through temporary exhibitions. Equally, doing museums is hard, a lot of competing agendas and unrelenting pressure on curators and others can push art far down the list of priorities.
Art. There was something so specific here I haven’t seen elsewhere. I want to say it’s the presence of Muslims in European art who are present as locals rather than exotic others, though I’m not sure if the women are Muslim or Romanian Orthodox, or if wearing scarfs over their hair is just part of the general fashion. Either way, I love seeing all the loose scarfs and brown skin. I’d love to see a museum comparable to the big ones I’ve visited so I could actually make some informed remarks about this. About all I can say is this art is definitely European, yet unlike north-west European or even Italian. I need to see more. Such a great adventure gawking at art.
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.
Sarah-Jane, or Satan-Jam, my meeting of whom last year I’ve described in eloquent, sweary detail (it’s all true, I swear! It’s why I blog, external memory storage an’ all), is in Melbourne. Right now! How privileged are you, Melbz? Get over your smug selves and get to Dancehouse this weekend, or Friday if you’re down with premières, before 17h — that’s 5pm to youse — for 2 hours of harrowment.
To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s 17h for the installation and 19h for the performance, and if both works are on each day, or … mainly because Dancehouse and Melb Fest websites are making my brain bleed. Probably best to camp out on Princes St from Thursday, just to be safe.
In all non-hyperbolic seriousness, I can’t speak highly enough of them. For the past year — when they’ve been in Berlin — I’ve had crucial, on-going discussions with them around identity, selfhood, making performance, representation (as well as epic slamming of telly series), racism, colonialism, diaspora (geographical and within one’s own body), Australia in all its ambivalence; also “What’s the best music for Mad Gainz, Frances?” “That’d be ’80s speed and death metal, crossover and thrash.” type conversations about training and physicality. Really some of the best convos I’ve had in years. (They also stepped up and were on the sharp pointy rivet of the Marina Abramovic racism a couple of months ago.)
So, as if it’s not obvious enough, Frances “Hostile To Everything” d’Ath (seriously, that’s what another awesome Australian said about me, “… in a good way though …”) is a huge fan of SJ. Go see them, say hi from me.
It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.
What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!
Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.
Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.
On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.
Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).
Books! I have read them!
Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings; Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.
I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.
This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.
Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.
Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.
All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)
I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.
Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.
And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.
Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.
My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.