The only thing I’m not enjoying about this book is its high expectations on my reading list. Twenty pages in and I’ve ordered four books mentioned in the notes.
Where did I hear about Olivette Otele’s African Europeans: An Untold History? No idea. Maybe someone on Twitter, or, more likely what I’d been reading circulates around this subject and one of the authors mentioned it.
Obviously very much here for her writing on Saint Mauritius, and shoutout to Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina and that statue of him. And for the bibliography, ’cos there’s been a heap of new stuff specifically on Germany / German-ish regional history that is totes my jam. Probably going to be one of my Books of the Year. If I was still doing that. And it’s making me miss my rando trips to small German cities to gawp at mediæval art something huge.
Last Thursday at the press conference for Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s new exhibition in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Fighting for Visibility – Women Artists in the Nationalgalerie before 1919. Best thing: free entry and waved through with my fancy ‘Presse’ sticker on my left boob, also leisurely photographing of Art. Not so good thing: real journalists have a ‘Press’ card — like everything in Germany, authenticity through official validation — I have a blog. Much hilarity ensured trying to get to the press table. Not great at all: an exhibition on women artists, and the panel was two men who talked for almost half an hour before letting the sole woman, who was the curator, have a word. She reclaimed her time, was heaps more relevant, and let’s pretend I didn’t notice the menz not paying attention to her.
It’s been a while since I went to a museum. I got burnt out on editing too many images, and from July last year was working 60+ hours a week (which, had I not been getting paid 70% of what men do, could have worked 42 hours for the same euros — actually I was getting paid even less, keeping the narrative simple here), and been in slow time recovery since June, so … art. It’s a thing I remember.
I have a lot of issues with this exhibition. I want to be all cheerleading from the sidelines, buuut … problems. Problems I think are structural in the museum and SMB and Germany, which, had I seen this same exhibition in London or Melbourne or New York, would have been twenty or thirty years ago in its current context and appearance, or a contemporary version that had built on three decades of representation that Germany’s national museums have yet to have. As it was, it felt hella anachronistic and patronisingly “something for the ladies also #MeToo”.
None of that is a criticism of curator Yvette Deseyve, however. What is a criticism though (which may or may not have been covered in the catalogue, but bitch here is poor and isn’t throwing around 30€ right now) is structural intersections of gender, femininity, heteronormativity, class, whiteness, racism, colonialism, imperialism, which were well in play by the time even the youngest artists were born, and shaped all of them across the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a missed opportunity, and one I continually question whether white, heteronormative feminism is ever going to recognise. This really struck me with the replacement of one of my favourite works in the museum, Osman Hamdi Bey’s Der Wunderbrunnen (Ab-ı Hayat Çeşmesi) with Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Kniende Mutter mit Kind an der Brust. Choosing a painting of a naked white woman nursing a baby as the figurehead of the exhibition in the entrance hall, without critically engaging (again, outside of whatever is in the catalogue) with Germany’s history of motherhood, family, race, and religion reads as a tacit condoning or passive acceptance of this cultural history, as well as one of those, ‘this wouldn’t have happened if there was real, working diversity in the room’ type situations. And seeing how many young women were working around the exhibition … yeah, awkward.
Go and see it? If it’s included in the ticket price for the whole Alte Nationalgalerie, then yeah but don’t expect to be blown away. But if you gotta pay extra to see women artists who should be hanging in the permanent collection since — at the latest — the early ’90s, when the previous two decades’ demands for representation had filtered into these big, old, slow institutions and there was no valid excuse for them not being there besides entrenched misogyny? Fuck that noise. Let’s have 100 years of only women artists in the SMB museums and 100 years of men getting paid 30% of what women get. Also let’s have a conversation about what ‘woman’ denotes in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and now.
When I was in Krakow a few winters ago, I went to Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie and was slapped for pointing a camera at the paintings in the Olga Boznańska exhibition. I was thinking of that when I walked through this one, and the previous large one I saw in the same place, which took up the whole floor instead of what felt like a few side rooms and one main room, Alte Nationalgalerie: Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende. The Olga Boznańska exhibition took up about the same space as Impressionismus – Expressionismus. For one woman.
Anyway, art. Art I liked (and some I didn’t but here we are), art I could photograph, art it transpired I’d photographed adequately enough to be able to edit into something passable.
Das Helmi on tour, all the way out east to Lichtenberg, in the shallow parabola of northern Rummelsberg right by S-Nöldnerplatz, where the rails form a curved triangle around the old railway workshops backing onto the roundhouse and railway turntable to the east, now typically Berlin ateliers and halfway to forest of the B.L.O. Ateliers.
Festival time. Wagner festival time. Berlin is not Bayreuth. Vol. 1. Six hours of Tannhäuser spread across at least four stages, meandering through the dishevelled brick and concrete buildings and fastigiate black poplars charging thirty metres into the dark, cloudless evening sky. Peter Frost wrecking it singing dodgy Schlagermusik, Cora Frost doing the same as a Pope to ruin The Young Pope. glanz&krawell (I think) working their way through the long shouty bits with proper opera singing. Das Helmi with their always always glorious, monstrous, chaotic stagings, scaring off people who though it was going to be, y’know, opera, culture and shit, instead of what the fuck is happening here, how did I find myself on stage slapping a stranger’s arse with twelve other people doing the same I should’a left when the Pope started kissing people’s feet kinda thing.
Mad thanks to Dasniya Sommer for getting me in, reminding me of a Berlin I utterly love, deeply pagan and animist, rough as guts and no intention of ever changing.
Distracting myself from a quartet of books I’ve been struggling with for an age (thanks, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), I “accidentally” picked up Edward Said’s Orientalism again. It’s been a while since I blearily (and slowly) read an academic book over breakfast; I am well out of practice. I don’t remember how awkwardly his gendered language sat with me in the past as this time around, though he was almost exclusively writing about white European men, nonetheless, Orientalism remains a depressingly relevant and critical read.
Last night, buoyed with a tub of vanilla ice cream and post-ride fuzzies, I finally got around to watching the last, movie-length episode of the gloriously weird Sense8. Yes, I cried.
I stuck around for the credits, and post all of that deep emotion, saw the logo for Venus Castina Productions, the company of Lana Wachowski and her wife, Karin Winslow, and thought, “I know that arse. I’d recognise that arse anywhere. I saw that arse in the Louvre.” I didn’t photograph her from that side though, but she was on my ticket when I visited, and I spent a long time with her, five hours into my nine-hours of getting done by the Louvre. Hermaphrodite endormi, 2nd century Rome with the bedding done in the 17th century when the fashion was to go all Baroque on Classic sculpture.
This year I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write about what I’m reading. Maybe that’s because I haven’t had much enthusiasm to write long blog posts in general, or because I’ve been a little too negative lately and tend to emphasise the things I haven’t enjoyed in a work over what I have. Some of these books I’ve enjoyed hugely, but can’t muster enough of a cheer to write a whole post about. Perhaps it’s habit. After years of writing about everything I read, my impulse is to say, nah fuck it, that’s enough. Who am I writing this for anyway, besides myself?
So, a small pile of books I read between February and April, alphabetically.
Two from Alastair Reynolds, he of the madness of Revenger, which I also read again during these months. He also of Slow Bullets. He’s best when he writes women as main characters. Chasm City is one of his Revelation Space novels, and I got a kick out of those. Elysium Fire is a sequel to The Prefect. I like Reynolds, in specific instances. Neither of these two really got me. See what I mean about negative?
Barbara Newman’s Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine I’m still plodding through. (like I’m still plodding through Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak’s An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Capitalism, 18 months later). Good stuff here, of that dense, Germanic mediæval stuff. Not easy reading, hence the plod.
Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate in the World: How Aborigines Made Australia, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? I read immediately post-Naarm. They cover similar ground but are complimentary rather than duplicating. They should be compulsory reading for all Australians, and I felt fucking ashamed at my ignorance reading these. Fucking ashamed. Another reason why I haven’t been writing about reading is if I did on these two, it’d be a long piece of anger against white invasion and genocide and erasing history. And I feel like so much of my life and the lives of friends and acquaintances is full with anger and fear these last years, ’cos it’s far from being over.
Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shikhandi and Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You is a rather sweet short collection of reading Hindu mythology for queer and trans stories. I have absolutely no way to evaluate the scholarship of Pattanaik, but still, one of the barely begun tasks is re-finding the diversity of selfhoods in pre-colonised cultures; we’ve always been here.
Fred Grimm’s »Wir wollen eine andere Welt« Jugend in Deutschland 1900-2010: Eine private Geschichte aus Tagebüchern, Briefen, Dokumenten. Zusammengestellt. has been on my shelves for ages. Katrin gave it to me as a present, and I’ve read bits and pieces of it. I’ve a heap of books I’ve never blogged that I didn’t read in the conventional start-to-finish way like this.
JY Yang. I think I read about them on io9, or maybe on one of the Asia-Pacific blogs I read. It was definitely in the context of an article or two on Singapore sci-fi / fantasy / speculative fiction, and coming off reading The Sea Is Ours: Tales from Steampunk Southeast Asia (which was awesome) so I was vaguely paying attention. I read these in the wrong order, ’cos I liked the cover of The Red Threads of Fortune more than The Black Tides of Heaven. I also liked the former more than the latter, but that’s partly my particular preferences. I seriously love JY Yang and will read anything they write.
I’ve got a whole ’nother stack of books I’ve read since then and not blogged. Maybe doing it like this is the way for me to go for now.
It’s International Museum Day in Germany. And I’ve spent much of it in die grüne Hölle, ’cos this weekend it’s 24 Hours Nürburgring. Which is also art. And there’s the ring°werk museum there, so we’re sorted for museums.
But MedievalPOC has been Twitting some of my photographs from 4 ½ years of museum-ing and I’m kinda shocked at how much art I saw and photographed (and the hours I spent in Photoshop prepping, hours spent blogging), and how much I’ve forgotten until I’m reminded again. And embarrassed by my earlier photographs, so many of which I wish I could go back and retake.
Hans Baldung Grien’s Der Dreikönigsaltar was one of the very first works I saw, four years ago on my first visit to Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and returned to many times. The best photos I took of it was in 2015, in Gemäldegalerie — St Mauritius and Companions, which was for MedievalPOC, and I said, “This is for @mediavalpoc. I look at art far more closely because of them.” I look at the world far more closely because of her.
One last thing: I’ve never photographed the exterior wings of this altarpiece. St Katharina is on one, she who is the patron saint of scholars, spinsters, and knife sharpeners, and who has appeared alongside St Mauritius all the way back to the earliest extant work of him, the sculptures in Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina.
Giving St. George Hare’s The Victory of Faith (Miserere Domini!) its own special post ’cos it’s lezzie as fuck. Funny how 120 years can turn a piece of racist Orientalism into something ripe with intersectional feminist power. “Yeah, dunno about that, Frances, reckon it’s just 19th century white man porn.”
A few pieces of European Baroque and Rococo art I saw on my very wrecked, post-season, post-bumpout afternoon in the NGV National Gallery of Victoria. Saw out of chronology, ’cos I saw this stuff before the Mediæval art.
Dispensing with my whinging first, the NGV is one of those difficult museums to photograph in, heaps of light bouncing of old glaze, plates of glass between artwork and mob, all the usual. The works I ended up blogging are the ones I could both photograph reasonably easily and scrubbed up ok in Photoshop.
Art I’m surprised got out of Europe: Giambattista Tiepolo’s The Finding of Moses and The Banquet of Cleopatra. Mattia Preti’s Sophonisba receiving the poison. Especially when there were tiny, not very good Canalettos and tiny, not very good Rubens. I’m spoilt for both of them, pretty much every large-ish museum in north-west Europe has a few Canalettos, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin alone has a quartet of huge ones, and Rubens, after the surprise of Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes I’m a snob. Rounding out the stash was Derby Porcelain’s The Four Continents.
As usual, a lot of what I photographed was with Medieval POC in mind, and not having much time or energy meant I’m really not representing the NGV so well. It’s not Louvre-sized, probably more like Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België in Brussels. There’s a lot more there than old European art, just that’s it’s also a strange place, and trying to make sense of how Australia sees itself in relation to Europe — not just England or historically to the British Empire, but Europe as a single entity wherein ‘Europe’ in fact denotes the western half only, and how Australia uses the art from that peninsula-continent to create a historical identity for itself … Australia has little to nothing in common with this. It’s part of Asia-Pacific, South-East Asia, Pasifika; it’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land. The idea of the museum, imported from Europe as it was, doesn’t seem capable of acknowledging that.