Reading: Charles Stross — Empire Games

I’d been waiting for this for so long. I’d read Stross’ notes on his blog for the sequels (which might have been in the long piece he wrote when The Trade of Queens was published early-2010, or the Crib Sheet), and somehow never thought they would happen. He’s been more than busy with The Laundry Files series this decade (plus a sequel to Saturn’s Children), so I was resigning myself to not seeing this world continued — just like the Eschaton series.

The original Merchant Princes series was six books, which I started reading in Zürich when I’d plundered the English bookshop for all available skiffy. In fact reading Charles Stross in the first place was because I’d dealt to the other writers. I kept picking up Accelerando and putting it back down, convinced by the first couple of pages it was a second-rate Neuromancer. I was joyously wrong on that, it turned out to be mental. I’ve read it at least four times. The Merchant Princes though. I wasn’t even sure it was the same Stross. It looked all … fantasy romance novel or something. Eventually I gave it a whirl, and thought it was enough of alright to keep going with the series. And like Accelerando, I’ve read them I think four times.

Early-2013, they got repackaged and edited into a trilogy. For the better with the editing. For the covers … well, they fit into what seems to be Stross’ current demographic, which is pretty hetero bro-ish, whatever he might like to think. The original covers were kinda embarrassing. It’s not so much the thematic elements of fantasy romance cover art that I cringe over (but they did provoke a few “WTF are you reading, Frances?”), more that they weren’t done very well. But they were explicitly directed at women, and that’s what was missing in the 2013 Omnibus and in the new Empire Games cover. Which makes me worry that this deceptively thoughtful and dramatic multiple universe espionage series is — even with the best intentions of the author — going to slowly slip away.

I’m not sure on this. Whoever might be Stross’ most vocal fan base, and whoever he might write for in, say, The Laundry series of late, I do think he has a long-term commitment to writing stories about women and prioritising them as characters. Besides The Laundry, almost all his other novels either have women as the main character, or as equals in an ensemble. And yet, some of the recent Laundry novels have become tiresome techno-bro fests of battles and hardware, and his poor handling of a trans woman character played for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks … if I hadn’t have read him for so long would have been enough for me to throw him the fuck out. All of which leaves me a bit conflicted. I really, really want to like Empire Games, and coming to it from reading Stross for ten years, I know why I like him and I also know what whatever it is that’s left me frustrated with his more recent books is not superficial.

So finally, here’s the continuation to my third favourite series of Stross. Third? Why, yes. Eschaton and Saturn’s Children are tied for first, probably with the former edging the latter out. I don’t know why I loved Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise so much and might not if I read them again now, but he set a phenomenal standard with all these four novels. Empire Games. Yes, it gives everything promised and hoped for. Stross also (I think retroactively, sometime around Book 4 of the original series) establishes Earth 1 as definitively not this earth. Which makes sense considering he nuked Washington, and Anglo-Euro-American politics has become so bizarre in the last couple of years it’s better to preemptively avoid getting bitten by them.

We’ve firmly left the world of fantasy here, a shift that started sometime mid-series from memory, but was tempered by the non-Christian north-east coast Medieval/Renaissance Earth 2 world (Viking knights with assault rifles and a penchant for castle-based, early 21st century nouveau riche lifestyle). In Empire Games, that part of North America was comprehensively nuked, and the faction which escaped are now refugees in an early-20th century steampunk North American Commonwealth on Earth 3. It’s set a little in our future, so around 17 years after the original series, meaning the original main cast are all grown up and are now middle-aged women. And then there’s the new cast: Miriam’s daughter Rita, who was adopted out, her former East-German dissident/sleeper grandfather, the intrigues of the Family holding her in its grasp. And Rita is openly, unremarkably queer.

Empire Games is the first of a projected trilogy. Based on the synopsis I read (which might be linked to in one of those above posts), some of the general large-scale action he’d planned is being hinted at already. It definitely goes into the hard sci-fi worlds of Stross I love, potentially in a direction like Alasdair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. A lot of the book was devoted to both set-up for those events and catch-up for the last 17 years. It reads coherently enough as a single novel to not leave me awkwardly hanging — a habit of several authors lately which feels like their book has been ripped in half and I’ve paid for the whole — and does a good job of balancing the competing demands of past and future with telling the actual story. As much as I enjoy the silly romps of The Laundry universe, I’m overjoyed Stross has returned to The Merchant Princes. I think it’s less demanding for him to write the pop-culture novels, but his tougher, less-accessible books have both that pop-culture side and a depth of thinking that is his brilliance.

Charles Stross — Empire Games
Charles Stross — Empire Games

Quote

The scale of the Third Front was staggering, as ab…

The scale of the Third Front was staggering, as about 1,800 factories were set up in the hinterland to prepare for war. As one scholar has noted, since about two-thirds of the state’s industrial investment went to the project between 1964 and 1971, it constituted the main economic policy of the Cultural Revolution. […] It is probably the biggest example of wasteful capital allocation made by a one-party state in the twentieth century. In terms of economic development, it was a disaster second only to the Great Leap Forward.

The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976, Frank Dikötter

Reading: Steph Swainston — Above the Snowline

I read these in the wrong order. Mainly because they arrived out of order. So I read Fair Rebel first, which is Steph Swainston’s most recent Castle novel, the first after her return to writing after a few years retirement, and then jumped back to her last before, Above the Snowline.

This is something of a minor work next to the gigantic, continent-shaping events of the original Castle trilogy and Fair Rebel. Her concern here is the life of Jant, the Messenger, also known as Comet. If we see anything of the world of the Castle through someone’s eyes, it’s through his, yet he is also deliberately reticent in sharing much of himself. It is up to the events of Above the Snowline to rectify that, but even here he — by which I mean Steph — does a fine job of keeping private private.

I’m not much of a reviewer. I’m not writing a carefully structured synopsis, methodical analysis and criticism; there’s a world where I do, but it’s not this one.

I spent the novel convinced the action took place over the peaks of the Darkling Mountains on the west coast, when it in fact took place barely on the shoulders of the eastern flanks. It’s nonetheless a pitiless world of vast glaciers, peaks, and alpine forests, where winter, snow and darkness collapse the action in on itself. Just as Steph writes warfare and battle with the dispassionate attention of a sniper at the side of a commander, so does she write mountains like a climber on the wrong end of a rope and a storm.

I’m curious why she writes hetero males (long-limbed, winged, and drug-addicted ones) as main characters, and the binary pairings that seem especially pronounced here. I think she can justify it to herself, the world of the Castle is her lifelong fantasy world, and probably as real and familiar as this world. Yet it always jars me when an author has such familiar and recognisable romantic or gendered relationships in a world so very much not ours, as though the base reality for the multiverse was a 20th century European historical revisionism of its imagined self. Not that I’d throw it down and refuse to read it. Swainston is currently very much on my Will Always Read list.

So, Above the Snowline, I probably wouldn’t read more of Swainston if I’d started with this, even though it chronologically precedes the first Castle novel, The Year of Our War, and would make an interesting order to read. It’s like a novella exploring the main character of her other novels, yet somehow he remains elusive, as though she doesn’t really want to share him with us. As for Shira Dellin, the Rhydanne who sets off the novel when her partner is murdered by colonialists, she is and remains an enigmatic Noble Savage, the object of Jant’s immature infatuation, too blinded by his imagined superiority to see she is fighting for her and her people’s lives. I’d like to think the current world of fantasy and sci-fi is grown up enough to not actually be seriously writing this, but then I remember Avatar is getting four sequels. I’m a little iffy about some of this.

Worth reading? If you’re like me and get a kick out of reading everything from an author, then sure. Otherwise the Castle trilogy followed by Fair Rebel is a hugely accomplished quartet, starting with The Year of Our War. If that one doesn’t do it the rest probably won’t.

Steph Swainston — Above the Snowline
Steph Swainston — Above the Snowline

Reading: May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz (eds.) — Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out

The short last section of Deutsches Historisches Museum‘s Deutscher Kolonialismus exhibition covered Afro-Germans in the Cold War and Reunification periods. ISD (Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland), ADEFRA (Schwarze Frauen in Deutschland), Neuen Schwarzen Bewegung, all began in the ’80s in Berlin, centred around Freie Universität where Dagmar Schultz was professor. She invited Audre Lorde as a visiting professor from 1984, where May Opitz (from 1992 May Ayim) and Katharina Oguntoye attended her seminars. Out of this came Black History Month in Germany in 1991, and Farbe bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte, published in 1986, and translated in 1992 as Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out.

Me being all “Books!” and having spent the last few years digging through representation of Middle East and African people in mediæval and Renaissance Germanic history, when I saw Farbe bekennen, I was quite prepared to hunt down a copy and read it in German. Lucky for all of us it had been translated and was unremarkable to get hold of. Reading it reminds me of Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin, and Ruth Mandel’s Cosmopolitan Anxieties: Turkish Challenges to Citizenship and Belonging in Germany, and the history of colonisation and genocide in Australia.

When I saw the exhibition, I felt it was comprehensive, yet reading Showing Our Colour I find again Germany — like all colonial and colonised countries — hides post-war and recent history, as though 1945 marked the moment when the fugue lifted and from that moment on there’s not much to report. Instead, Germany’s history of eugenics and racism continued unbroken. Perhaps not as explicit, but that is a function of systematic oppression, to put the onus on the victims to prove the crime, whereas the truth is it’s fundamental and pervasive.

A dear friend was visiting me this week and we were talking about this. She said, “So there was a Stolen Generation here.” There isn’t a more succinct or accurate way to describe it. While on a much smaller scale than in Australia (and while I don’t want to appropriate a specific term that describes a part of an ongoing genocide), the mechanisms and underlying logic are identical. Children removed from their mothers, families broken, forced sterilisation, cultural ‘whitening’ in orphanages and the adoption/foster home system; a unified, systematic project from the top of the government down to individuals to erase any trace of contamination in the white race.

This is a history of Germany throughout the 20th century that is barely mentioned, let alone recognised. It’s a history I would expect to find variations of in earlier history also, such as with the African-American soldiers who returned with the Hessian soldiers after the American Revolution. Post-World War I, Rhineland was occupied by French forces using soldiers from the colonies, just as after World War II, US African-American soldiers were in the American Sector. In both periods, male soldiers and local women got together and thousands of ‘Brown Babies’, or ‘Mischlingskinder’ (the derogatory Nazi-era term) were born. It was these children and their mothers (and fathers if they happened to be immigrants from the colonies) who were subject to medical, jurisprudential, social, and religious abuse and control. The children and grandchildren of these children are women like May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, coming of age in the ’80s, writing a history that remains contemporary.

Sometimes I’m reminded that it was published thirty years ago. These days I more or less expect if I’m reading a black or brown woman on racism and oppression in the Anglo-Euro-American-Australasian worlds, she’ll — or they’ll be queer and/or a trans woman. In Showing Our Colours, none of the women explicitly identify as lesbian (as far as I’ve read, though May Ayim was), and often describe their heterosexual lives. As for Afro-deutsch trans women, it’s a different world now. ADEFRA has a monthly get-together where trans and inter sisters are explicitly welcome, and ISD has a Black LGBTIQ* group.

I want to stop here, say something like, this is a critical history of Afro-Germans, it’s an unfinished history because colonialism still defines us, because Germany and Europe’s ability to critically regard its history is so inadequate; things have got better but they’re still same old shit, thirty years on Germany needs another book like this translated into English. Read it if you can.

May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz (eds.) — Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out
May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz (eds.) — Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out

Gallery

Deutsches Historisches Museum — Deutscher Kolonialismus: Fragmente Seiner Geschichte Und Gegenwart

My last big exhibition visit for 2016, and one I’d been waiting to see for most of the year: Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum’s sprawling Deutscher Kolonialismus: Fragmente Seiner Geschichte Und Gegenwart, covering Germany’s colonial, imperial, genocidal, and post-colonial history from the late-17th century till the present in Africa, Papua New Guinea, and the Pacific Islands.

It’s not an easy exhibition to see — I went twice and both times felt well deeply disturbed at humanity during and after — and not an easy exhibition to blog about. I took around 350 photos, half of those of the lengthy captions, and cutting the 175 potentially bloggable images down to a feasible 87 meant diverging from the coherent narrative of the exhibition. So there are gaps; only seeing the exhibition or buying the hefty catalogue can give a proper account. And giving an account, firstly I need to thank Boris Nitzsche in the press department who arranged my visit and for me to take photos, as DHM special exhibitions are camera-free zones.

Secondly: a content warning. The exhibition contains images and documentation of genocide. Some of my photos are of this and of people who were murdered. I back-and-forthed with myself constantly over whether to include these images at all, but it felt like an erasing to only write of this and not include them. Yet these people who were murdered have no say in how they are represented, indeed for many if not all the only photographs and documentation of them ever made is of their suffering and death. And unlike the Jewish holocaust, it was only in 2015 that Germany officially called their extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in German South-West Africa (Namibia) genocide, yet still refuse reparations. Besides that genocide, massacres and atrocities were commonplace in all of Germany’s colonies.

Besides the difficulty in choosing which images to blog, there was the issue of context. This exhibition has it. All of the pieces require context, and it’s a first for me to say an exhibition was not lacking in this regard. Most of the images or image sets had at least a paragraph accompanying the caption giving the work a frame of reference. Additionally, exhibition sections and sub-sections all had long introductory texts and frequently booklets. And then there was the audio guide, which would turn a three-hour visit into a full day endeavour. There was a massive amount of work put into preparing and translating this. And with this need for context here also, I’ve been struggling with what to write, to explain what these images are showing.

While there are plenty of works of art, this exhibition primarily functions as a documentation of history, and in this art is turned to further the purposes of propaganda and imperialism. There are very few paintings, but coinciding with the arrival of film photography gives an abundance of photographs throughout the colonial period. The central piece for me is not art. It’s nothing much to look at. A large, hardcover parchment with a mess of red wax seals pinning down a red, black and white thread forming columns on the left sides of the facing pages; to their right, a scrawl of signatures. This is the General Record of the Berlin Africa Conference (image 33, below) on February 26th, 1885, signed by the state representatives of the 13 European nations (and the United States) formalising the dividing up the continent of Africa into colonies.

The German colonial empire: German West Africa, now Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Central African Republic, Ghana, and Togo; German East Africa, now Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda; German South-West Africa, now Namibia; German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa. Prior to the German Empire, there were Brandenburg-Prussian colonies from the late-1600s til early-1700s; Habsburg colonies of the 1700s in Ghana, Mauritania, Bénin, the Caribbean and Americas, Nicobar islands; and concessions in China in Tianjin, Jiaozhou, and Yantai. By the standards of France or Britain, Germany was a minor player, coming late to the party and lasting barely thirty years (excluding merchant companies prior to the conference, which began in the 1850s). I listed all the colonies and current nations, some of which became colonies of other empires before achieving independence so it would be clear what is meant by German colonialism. It is a daunting list. But it helps to be reminded the extent of European colonisation: All or nearly all of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific. It requires less space to simply list the few countries and regions never colonised.

January 26th was Invasion Day, what the National Day of Australia is properly called, marking as it does the arrival of the First Fleet. In the discussion of colonies, whether German, British, or other, I noticed the onus was on providing evidence genocide or systematic massacre occurred; lesser-known colonies with comparatively lesser-known histories seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in wavering between did it or didn’t it happen. So German South-West Africa is now unequivocally, officially the site of genocide. Yet the same practices occurred in all of Germany’s colonies to some degree — as if genocide has degrees. Rather than have to prove this in each individual case, it seems more honest to say the fundamental aim and purpose of all colonies wherever they were was and is extermination.

I don’t have a transition into the less grim aspects of the exhibition, so I’ll bash on.

Photographs and biographies of multiethnic marriages, and of couples and families living in Germany back to the mid-late-19th century; Portraits of figures as far back as the early 1700s who came to Europe often as slaves yet went on to study and have careers and lives in Europe — even when they remain morally unadmirable, like Jacobus Capitein who defended slavery. Post-World War II, it’s notable how involved East Germany was in anti-imperialism and solidarity with what was then called the Third World. Afro-deutsche in West-Berlin, and Black History Month in reunified Berlin.

I’m not sure I’m doing this justice. It’s an extremely relevant exhibition, one that the museum have done a careful job of preparing and presenting, and one that both times I visited was packed. It’s a little too massive for me to be able to make coherent thoughts or criticisms about. Perhaps my primary criticism or question is of what value it has. Germany is adept at regarding its past and admitting guilt. Yet Germany’s awareness in specific instances does not seem to easily translate into understanding the repetition of behaviour or thinking in others. The ongoing struggle for recognition and compensation in Namibia is the most obvious example, but similar valid claims in other former colonies are far less likely to make even that progress. Indeed, would likely provoke a racket in Germany of the “Just how much do we have to be guilty for?” kind. Which is the point: The inability to see the unbroken line between the racist ideology of Kant and other still esteemed German philosophers, 19th century imperialism leading to genocide in the 20th century in colonies and then across Europe, the current failure to accept Germany is already multicultural, and the increasingly pervasive anti-Muslim / anti-brown people rhetoric.

While the exhibition is about Germany’s own colonial history, and I’ve been talking specifically about Germany, as that signed and sealed document demonstrates, all of Europe was involved, and Europe along with all the former colonies remain infected with this ideology. Each country in Europe has its own unique variation on this identical form of white supremacism. I would like to hope for an exhibition in a hundred years where this 500 year chapter of European history and its effect on the rest of us is forever closed, but I suspect we’re not going to make it.

An addendum: I bought and read Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out a couple of months after seeing this. In part it documents the inter- and post-war eugenics, sterilisations, and removal of children from their mothers in Germany, something the exhibition didn’t cover, which made me question what I wrote above about the ‘careful job’ done in presenting Germany’s colonial history. It seems even now, some history is less amenable to museum exhibitions and curators than others.

Reading: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization

Around the time I started dancing, living in Auckland, shortly before moving to Australia, I fell in with a rough crowd of philosophers and academics. Or rather, I skirted the edges of their world in Auckland and then in Melbourne as they en masse crossed the ditch; and then they were students, working their way through Masters and Phds. As with almost everyone, I lost contact, lives diverging, names hazily remembered.

Perhaps I’m inventing a fictional history, perhaps also the bright memories I have are of the enthusiasm of first discoveries rather than any significant shift in paradigms, nonetheless there was a raw thrill for new philosophy and theory. There were names that have stuck with me: Deleuze, Butler. I tried on Serres, Derrida, Kristeva, Iragaray; newer names still, like offspring of those first names, Rosi Braidotti, Keith Ansell-Pearson, Slavoj Žižek; felt like a fifth columnist going to lectures on Habermas and Lyotard. Perhaps it was because Deleuze and Guattari’s 1000 Plateaus had only recently been translated into English — by recently I mean this mob were the first generation of university students to be exposed to it, and it was certainly far outside the mainstream of university curricula; and Butler’s Gender Trouble was similarly new and far out.

Anyway, I found myself in Sydney one summer, in Gleebooks, and there on the shelves were both 1000 Plateaus and Gender Trouble. I bought both without a second thought. I read them over and over. (There was another book there, I forget the name, but it was about trans identities, I remember the rush of finding that, reading possibilities for living. I mention that so as not to compartmentalise these interwoven moments, one side joy, the other, shame.)

As with seeing Frankfurt Ballet and knowing my life belonged in dance (I still trust that decision however precarious my life has been because of it), Bridget telling me to read Deleuze and Butler is one of those monumental instances in my life. I’d call it an epiphany, but like the word ‘genius’ she’d probably hate it. Sitting in Black Cat Café in Fitzroy one day she also said, “You’re lucky. You get to live what we only theorise about.” So now I’m doubly lucky ’cos I live and theorise this shit.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to other words and names from then: Subaltern, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. Perhaps it was only these couple of people from this small group who were really into all this, and a proper history of ’90s New Zealand and Australian academic life would barely rate them a footnote. For me though, I got booted onto a course I’m still riding the momentum of. Curiously, I never read Spivak then, or never the way I did Butler and Deleuze. Spivak seemed and seems to be everywhere, when I see her name it’s like an old friend, or a friend of a friend I’ve heard so much about.

I wonder how common this is, to be able to trace vast paths and directions through a life back to single moments. Seeing Frankfurt Ballet, Bridget telling me to read Butler and Deleuze; more recently maybe, Erik telling me to read Caroline Walker Bynum. I’m sure there are others, though those moments on the cusp of teens and twenties have determined much of my life.

So I’ve returned to that name: Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak. I’ve been reading around migration, human rights, Islam, colonialism, these subjects in Europe, Seyla BenhabibKathryn Babayan, Afsaneh NajmabadiRuth MandelKatherine Pratt Ewing, and more recently with the current precarious state of democracy and human rights in Europe having a need to focus on this. I’m not sure why Spivak’s name occurred to me, maybe I read about her somewhere, or just decided she was the right choice for now.

I went through all her published works before deciding on An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. There’s other works that are probably more essential Spivak, ones that I remember from student days, but this was published in 2012 and I thought reading her newer stuff would be a pertinent choice.

What’s it like then? It’s a well proper slab of a book. Almost 600 pages (about 100 of which are notes) with wide spaces for marginalia, and a small typeface that’s making my eyes apprehensive. I started reading it a week ago, then went off to read some fiction, so I might have to start it again. I’ve read the preface, where she describes each essay in the collection as “looking for a distracted theory of the double bind.” She finishes with, “Gender is the last word. Figure out the double binds there, simple and forbidding.”

I think it’s common when reading philosophy or critical theory to read people without having actually read them. Quotes, lengthy discussions, analyses, criticisms, notes, all these over time can result in a feeling for an author, a familiarity, at the very least enough to know if I actually want to read them or not. I can’t think of another writer who’s been as large in my consciousness as Spivak without me actually reading them. I’m also desperate for direction at the moment. Spivak, writing on post-colonialism, globalisation, and most importantly aesthetics (I’m reminded of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory here), somehow it feels right to be reading Spivak now. As an artist making political work (like there’s any art possible without being political?) maybe to quote the back cover: “aesthetic education is the last available instrument for implementing global justice.”

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak — An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization

Gallery

„Neuen Galerie” im Hamburger Bahnhof: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner — Hieroglyphen

“Scheiße!”

That’s what one of the pair of old, white-haired German women said across the gallery to the other while standing before the pink and blue scribbling of Zwei Badende. Shortly after, she snorted at Max Liebermann in seinem Atelier, offered the faintest of praise for Sängerin am Piano, and as we tacked our separate ways through the exhibition continued her derision, as if she was a good jury member for Entartete Kunst. I’d like to think she was unaware of the irony, but this is Germany at the end of 2016 and even in the heart of Berlin there are Nazis who tell themselves and each other they’re not Nazis.

So, me at Neuen Galerie im Hamburger Bahnhof seeing Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen, and also my first museum visit where I arranged to bring my camera. Most of the special exhibitions in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are No Cameras Allowed. Without photographing plus subsequent blogging there isn’t much point to my museum trips, thanks then to the Kommunikation department for making it easy (even though it turned out cameras were anyway allowed).

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner is one of my favourite artists. Maybe an easy choice, but my favourites tend to be six hundred years or so earlier. Twentieth century art, particularly the earlier part, and the pervasive white male bias doesn’t hold so much attraction for me. I’m happy to write off entire movements (Impressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, several other –isms, for example), but Expressionism, I keep coming back to this and him. I’ve seen him in Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, at the huge Alte Nationalgalerie exhibition Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende, in Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister where I was mad for his Eisenbahnüberführung Löbtauer Straße in Dresden. Works like Potsdamer Platz I never tire of seeing; others like Nackte Mädchen unterhalten sich (Zwei Mädchen) or Unterhaltung; Liegende Frau (both in Dresden) stun me every time with their colour and movement, it’s so fucking radical. Oddly I haven’t made it out to the Brücke Museum yet.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen presents the 17 works in Berlin’s currently closed for renovations Neue Nationalgalerie collection, plus works from Kirchner Museum Davos, Brücke Museum, and private collections. Besides the core paintings, there are sketches and works on paper, wood sculptures, photographs from Kirchner’s various ateliers, books, and some dancing. It’s not a huge exhibition, if you were slamming Hamburger Bahnhof you could whip through in 15 minutes. I spent an hour there and could have easily used up another. These works and the accompanying text deserve contemplation.

Kirchner used the word Hieroglyph himself in articles published under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle, to describe how he worked with a symbolic language in his work as part of “the radical abbreviation and reduction of his imagery.” The exhibition starts with this text, and an essay in a book, accompanied by the sketch Tanzduo. Which I thought looks exactly like Dasniya, down to the face and bloomers under tutu.

In this first section are works I’m most familiar with of his, Haus unter BäumenBadende am Strand, both from Fehmarn, up on the Ostsee north-east of Hamburg. It then returns to dance. He, like many artists then, frequently painted dancers, possibly the influence of Ballets Russes who blew away the ballet world in 1909.

Opposite the dance section is Davos, where he moved after having a breakdown and while dealing with drug addition and alcoholism. There was a beautiful, huge tapestry hanging on the wall, unfortunately under perspex and unphotographable — the only work to suffer this, all the other artworks were under that magical unreflective glass — and probably the pick of the exhibition. His style changes here too, the late-’20s, early-’30s of Wiesenblumen und Katze or Sängerin am Piano flatter and with Cubist elements, almost alien to his earlier frenzy.

Berlin forms its own section, with some of my favourite pieces I would love to steal. The incredible Potsdamer Platz is here, as is Rheinbrücke in Köln and Der Belle-Alliance-Platz in Berlin. These form yet another distinct style, at first glance not different from the Fehmarn works, but they’re far lighter, faster, almost like watercolour on paper. Erna Schilling also arrives, his life partner from then on. These aren’t easy works. Kirchner populates the cityscape with what he called ‘Kokotte’, coquettes, sex workers, and the men, always diminished figures on the sides carry an anonymous menace.

Around the next corner, and one of the contextually most interesting for me. But first, Sitzender Akt mit erhobenen Armen, which I cannot help look at and see a nice plate of two fried eggs, sunny side up beside the naked woman. I know they’re supposed to be flowers in vases, but it’s all eggs to me. What’s more pertinent here is his use of colour on the shadows outlining her body. They’re a turquoise that contrasts the apricots and light salmon colours of her skin. When I look at this and compare it to Zwei weibliche Akte in Landschaft, with the hallucinogenic greens, yellows, pinks, blues of their bodies, it becomes clear how the latter in no way denotes a non-natural skin colour, nor do the greens and yellows of the Potsdamer Platz women or other portraits.

This painting was in the section called “Signs of Other Worlds” and discusses the influence of non-European art and culture on his and other Brücke artists’ work and life. Both African and Oceania form influences, and both were sites of German Colonialism until the end of World War I. It’s difficult for me to know where Kirchner sits in this. On one side he was horrified by the treatment of Jewish Germans even in the early-’30s, and was expelled by the Nazis from the Prussian Academy of Arts when they came to power in 1933, yet he also saw what he and the Brücke artists were doing as encouraging “truly German art, made in Germany”. So there’s this tension between radical aspirations and uncritical nationalism and colonialism.

Carl Einstein’s (a German Jewish writer, art historian, anarchist and critic) book Negerplastik is described as an important influence, and two copies are presented alongside Kirchner’s work. This influence is immediately apparent in his sculpture, even without prompting, but I like that this connection was explicitly made.

There’s also one photo that achieved the glorious down-the-rabbit-hole I love about museums. All the photos are postcard-sized, and being a hundred years old, not sharp or clean at all. This one, from Kirchner Museum Davos was captioned “Die Artisten Milly und Sam in Kirchners Atelier, Berliner Straße 80, Dresden” from circa 1910/11. It’s set in a chaotic room, artworks, hangings, and sculpture propped up against walls, littering the floor. There are two naked figures, Milly, in the bottom-left corner, and Sam, standing, one arm on his hip, the other stretched along the top of a painting. Both of them are black. They have names, are called ‘artists’ (Artisten), so what were they doing in Berlin in 1910?

For a start, this isn’t the only work they appear in. Milly is the subject of Kirchner’s Schlafende Milly in Kunsthalle Bremen, both were the subjects of numerous sketches by Kirchner, and Milly probably appears in more than one work without being named. Both of them are said to have also modelled for Erich Heckel. An alternate title for the photo is “Sam und Millie vom ‘Zirkus Schumann’”, and they are variously described as ‘circus’, ‘jazz dancer’, and ‘Black American’ artistes in sources cited in Face to Face? An Ethical Encounter with Germany’s Dark Strangers in August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century. So there’s this whole history of early-20th century Afro-Germans, colonialism, immigration in this one small, easily missed photo, which is a lot to put on a naked man and woman, about whom not much is known. It’s these traces though that history is all about. A single photo, a name, and a world opens up.

A little note on the nudity: Kirchner and friends were all down with getting naked and running around. Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture) was and is a deeply German thing. There were several photos of “naked but for a cigarette” in the exhibition. It might be this one was only one of a series, though how comfortable they were with nudity, whether they felt objectified, how Kirchner and the other artists regarded them, I can’t speculate.

A final note: Shortly after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss, Kirchner, living in Switzerland and fearing a similar invasion, killed himself.

Deutsches Historisches Museum: Deutscher Kolonialismus

One of the big exhibitions I’ve been waiting months for: Deutsches Historisches Museum’s Deutscher Kolonialismus: Fragmente seine Geschichte und Gegenwart. An especially pertinent exhibition as Germany only earlier this year resolved to officially describe the occupation of German South-West Africa (now Namibia) as genocide. It’s a big statement for Germany, and perhaps an indication that the country is becoming more nuanced in thinking of itself. Perhaps.

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.

Both this and the companion exhibition Kamerun und Kongo: Eine Spurensuche und Phantom Geographie von Andréas Lang are very worth seeing, probably an afternoon’s worth if you use the audio guide — and best not on the weekend, it was packed.

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.

Deutsches Historisches Museum: Deutscher Kolonialismus. Banner with Deutsche-Reichs-Colonial-Uhr. Um 1905
Deutsches Historisches Museum: Deutscher Kolonialismus. Banner with Deutsche-Reichs-Colonial-Uhr. Um 1905
Deutsches Historisches Museum: Deutscher Kolonialismus. Freiheit für Namibia. Solidarität mit der SWAPO Edoardo Di Muro. 1976
Deutsches Historisches Museum: Deutscher Kolonialismus. Freiheit für Namibia. Solidarität mit der SWAPO Edoardo Di Muro. 1976

Deutsches Historisches Museum: Emil Doerstling — Preußisches Liebesglück

First museum in a while. Sunday I schlepped to Deutsches Historisches Museum to see the newly-opened Deutcher Kolonialismus and companion Kamerun und Kongo exhibitions. More on those later — much more if I can persuade the museum to let me photograph it.

Not being permitted to photograph special exhibitions is a ‘feature’ of Berlin museums, which doesn’t stem at all the liberal use of phone cameras, but there you go. For me, photographing enables me to engage far longer and deeper with the art — as well of course blogging them here. So, absence of camera and with a prior commitment of an evening performance I was to film, I fairly bolted through these two. Both are highly worth seeing and with audio guide deserve a full afternoon.

In the meantime, I remembered there was a painting I really, really wanted to see. My previous visit to the museum had not revealed it to me. This time I found it near the end of the collection (going up the left-hand stairs and u-turn to the right to cut back into the 19th century part, rather than going through the whole building).

Emil Doerstling’s Preußisches Liebesglück painted in Berlin in 1890. It’s on the cover of Germany and the Black Diaspora: Points of Contact, 1250-1914, and is beautiful portrait of a young man in army uniform and a young woman, arms around each other, totally doing Liebesglück. The remarkable thing in this otherwise well-executed but not especially unusual imperial-era portrait is the army man is Afro-German. He’s bandmaster Gustav Sabac-el-Cher. His father was August Sabac el Cher, born in Kurdufan (then Egypt, today Sudan) and valet to Prinz Albrecht in Berlin.

I’ve included the full image caption in both German and English. A couple of additional points: The city of Königsberg is now the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania, about as far east as you could get and still be in Prussia and the German Empire. Königsberg was the capital of Prussia from 1525–1701, when the capital moved to Berlin. Senzig, where he opened a beer garden with his wife and two children is a community, now part of the town of Königs Wusterhausen in Dahme-Spreewald about 40km south-east of Berlin.

As is typical for the Deutsches Historisches Museum, the painting is under glass — and not of the new, non-reflective stuff used in the German Colonialism which I seriously had to provoke a reflection from. And as usual the lighting is bestial. It’s flanked by two wall lamps and hit from overhead by a spotlight, all throwing a jaundiced cast on a painting already yellowing. I’d forgotten how ghastly the lighting is in this museum. So my photos have had more work than usual to balance colour, salvage Gustav’s hair from a putrid  cyan glaze — I think the closeup is a little nearer to what it would look like under neutral light but maybe split the difference (and I think the main difference in her skin tone comes from losing some of that yellow tint, rather than simply taking on a paler/bluer cast in the closeup). Apologies made for my bollocks photography.

I also wanted to say his skin tone in the painting really is that dark, it’s not just the lighting or age of the painting or anything else, nor does it read as an exaggeration of Emil Doerstling: this painting is about as naturalistic as you can get. Though compared to the one photo I’ve seen of and older Gustav, he might be taking some artistic licence. Either way, I’m kinda enthralled by the idea of rolling up to the family beer garden in Brandenburg, or the café at Oranienburger 39 (guessing in Mitte and still a café, just down the road from Neue Synagoge Berlin) they subsequently opened.

Preußisches Liebesglück — Prussian Joy of Love
Emil Doerstling
Berlin 1890
Öl, Leinwand — Oil, Canvas

Gustav Sabac-el-Cher wurde 1868 in Berlin geboren. 1885 begann er seine Militärmusiklaufbahn in der preußischen Armee. Bereits 1889 bekleidete er den Rang eines Unteroffiziers. Von 1895 bis 1909 übernahm er die Dirigentenstelle beim Ersten Grenadier-Regiment in Königsberg. Danach arbeitete er als ziviler Kapellmeister und betrieb ein Gartenlokal in Senzig bei Königs Wusterhausen. Er starb 1934 in Berlin.

Gustav Sabac-el-Cher was born in Berlin in 1868. In 1885 he began his career as a military musician in the Prussian army, already gaining the rank of sergeant in 1889. From 1895 to 1909 he was bandmaster of the First Grenadier Regiment in Königsberg. He then worked as a civilian conductor and ran a beer garden in Senzig near Königs Wusterhausen. He died in Berlin in 1934.

Deutsches Historisches Museum: Emil Doerstling — Preußisches Liebesglück. Berlin, 1890
Deutsches Historisches Museum: Emil Doerstling — Preußisches Liebesglück. Berlin, 1890
Deutsches Historisches Museum: Emil Doerstling — Preußisches Liebesglück. Berlin, 1890 (detail)
Deutsches Historisches Museum: Emil Doerstling — Preußisches Liebesglück. Berlin, 1890 (detail)