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„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 Bäumen, Badende 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.

The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden Blog Posts

To keep all my posts and the 236 images of my trip to Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden orderly, here’s a list of them:

  1. Dresden & the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen
  2. Löbtauer Straße in Dresden
  3. Zwinger mit Semperbau Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister: Mediæval & Renaissance Art
  4. Zwinger mit Semperbau Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister: Baroque & Enlightenment Art
  5. Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister: Expressionism & Impressionism
  6. Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister: Max Slevogt
  7. Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister: Contemporary Art
  8. Zwinger mit Semperbau Porzellansammlung; Albertinum Skulpturensammlung; Residenzschloss Kupferstich-Kabinett, Rüstkammer, & Münzkabinett
  9. Residenzschloss Neues Grünes Gewölbe

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Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Residenzschloss Neues Grünes Gewölbe

The last museum and the last collection for the day! Seriously I thought I’d whizz through here in 30 minutes and be off to Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr (cos they have good art there I’m told). It was 16:30. I still had no idea. Sure, I got through in under an hour, but more than 9 hours of stomping on three bananas and two coffees left me a little fragile — not to mention head implosion from art.

Let’s start with head explosion. This deserves a What The Fuck? I have no idea either. What exactly were Wenzel Jamnitzer and Abraham Jamnitzer thinking in Nürnberg in the late-1500s when they conceived and created Daphne als Trinkgefäß? I thought of Charles Stross and his Laundry Files series. It’s hilarious and simultaneously disturbing. Nearby is Trinkgefäß in Gestalt eines Basilisken built around a large melon shell perhaps acquired from a trip to the South Pacific. Unlikely used for drinking from, but imagine the kind of party where you’d get hammered quaffing from the neck of a basilisk.

A large part of the collection, and indeed the room I photographed most (and last as my battery died around 570 images in) are the works of Balthasar Permoser in collaboration with jeweller Johann Melchior Dinglinger. Almost all of these feature African people, on camels, elephants, horses, towing sleighs, with massive chests inlaid with precious stones, gold and rare metals everywhere, multicoloured feathers and headdresses, inlaid enamel, generally wondrous and overwhelming. Totally Late Baroque excess. There’s a lot going on here as Europe shifts fully into slavery mode, as the arguments for racial superiority take a turn for the worse (and which Kant himself is responsible for a few short decades later), as European colonialism and imperialism ramps up. You can’t look at these works, and their difference from — opposition to — the humanity of say, Rubens and not see how they serve to diminish whole peoples and continents. Simultaneously, they stand as an embarrassment. Look at Rubens, his vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor, then look at these. For whatever their richness and opulence, they speak loudly of a narrowing of European culture, of smallness, of choices made we’re all still paying for. They’re still amazing works of art. It’s kinda like listening to Burzum though, really good black metal but part of your brain is always going, “You know what he is.”

So I finish with Der Thron des Großmoghuls Aureng-Zeb, again by Johann Melchior Dinglinger und Werkstatt made in Dresden between 1701-1708 at the cost of no small fortune. For all I’ve just said, there’s no mistaking the revelling in a larger world here. It’s fucking berserk. Imagine dropping LSD and staring at this for an afternoon. I especially like the nonsensical but very convincing Chinese calligraphy. Or maybe it isn’t gibberish. I keep seeing recognisable characters, then followed by weird scratching. I was just pointing and snapping at this point, battery flashing red, no time for composing a shot, but somehow it captures the chaos, the noise, the fantastic procession of people and clothes and animals and just in case that wasn’t enough, mirrors to reflect it all back on itself. And it’s huge, almost 2 metres wide. It’s the kind of thing that would bankrupt a city, and I’m so glad there’s a history where excessive works of art were part of the deal.

Then I’m done. No camera, feet worn out, brain trashed and fried. 9 hours with barely a stop. Museums and collections unseen. Enough. Why am I doing this? I can’t even answer that. The physical labour of experiencing a museum, of looking at art. I’m done.

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

I’m mixing up a few different collections and museums from the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden here. None of these collections I photographed enough of to want to write a whole post, and at 236 images plus unfettered word count, I’m trying for a little restraint here.

So, After I left the Zwinger mit Semperbau’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister I toddled over the the Porzellansammlung. It’s row after row of Chinese and Japanese ceramics, Ming Dynasty vases large enough to bury a corpse in. A little difficult to grasp what I was looking at, more like a second hand shop than a museum collection. Over the other side, split as the collection is by the east entrance, is more of the same, with the addition of some really beautiful figures from Dehua Fujian. And the excess of Dresden baroque porcelain, rows and walls of birds from all over. I was expecting an Australian Cockatoo and did not leave disappointed. One other piece deserving a mention is from the Werkstatt der Madame Gravant: Blumenstrauß, a beguilingly detailed floral arrangement that messes with reality. Yes, it’s porcelain.

Midway through the Albertinum, I pass through the Skulpturensammlung. It’s somewhat truncated, one wing is closed as they set up a new collection — and here I’ll mention again how cool and friendly and helpful the staff were, pierced lips and all, reminds me a bit of the museum in Stockholm. It’s almost archaeological, dark rooms of cabinets lined with heads and busts. And to see Birgit Dieker’s Kleine Diva in that. Mind-blowing. I could spend a whole post writing on the references to mediæval dress and armour and black metal from that one piece alone.

Jumping ahead now to the Residenzschloss. There’s multiple rooms and sub-rooms and collections, and largely I didn’t photograph any of it. But if you’re into mediæval and renaissance warfare, armour, mounted fighting and all that, or just Game of Thrones levels of excessive opulence, this is your gear. The Rüstkammer also has the Türckische Cammer, with its comparable collection of Ottoman art and objects. It’s nice to see this in Dresden, what feels like so far north and east of Turkey, but it in fact underlines the close history of European empires and peoples stretching back millennia. I’m not so into armour and swords and guns and shit right now, so I did a runner. The Münzkabinett, just breezed through looking for Saint Mauritius (nope) or Adoration of the Magi (yup) in coin form.

Lastly in this ill-fitting post of collections and exhibitions, the Residenzschloss Kupferstich-Kabinett which had a rather splendid series of prints by Jan van der Straet from 1591 called Nova Reperta. I was going to blog these all, but screwed up the focus a few times, so these were the ones that has specific meaning to me. Like America. Americen Americus retexit, & Semel vocauit inde semper excitam, with the Native Americans chowing down on a couple of roast human legs in the background. It’s pretty obnoxious, but the point of these works is a series of world-changing — explicitly here for Europe, but by extension the globe — discoveries or inventions. Staphæ, Sive Stapedes, the use of stirrups on horse saddles; Oleum Olivarum, olive oil; Conspicilla, lenses and optics; Orbus Longitudines Repertæ è Magnetis à Polo Declinatione, navigation by the magnetic poles and longitude; Astrolabium, Astrolabes, and more of the same, together it makes for a convincing argument of world-changing technological development in the renaissance.

A little out of order here, you could easily devote half a day to these collections if that was what you were into. Though I did wonder about the arrangement of museums in the Zwinger and Albertinum. For me it would make more sense to turn over the entire Zwinger to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister and move the Porzellansammlung into Residenzschloss (yeah I dunno where either! Just throwing ideas out) where it would fit better with the Neues Grünes Gewölbe collection; and do the same for the Galerie Neue Meister in the Albertinum taking out the Skulpturensammlung. These location decisions seem to me decisions of exigency that don’t do any of the collections great favours. Which is a much larger conversation I’m not having here. Off to the Neues Grünes Gewölbe!

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Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister: Contemporary Art

The last of the Albertinum. I’d been at it 5 hours by the time I was through. I thought I was doing well. No idea, Frances, no idea.

The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Galerie Neue Meister (the bits I’m calling the contemporary collection) in the Albertinum I didn’t photograph so much, and I’m wondering if it was complete. Certainly parts of the museum were closed, and there seemed to be plenty of construction going on in various buildings. Of all the museums though, the Albertinum got its lighting right. Mostly it was natural light, diffused in such a way that there was very little reflected glare on the art. Of course art since the late-19th century was way less infatuated with lashings of glaze, or acres of darkness, nor suffering from centuries of light damage. Which is not to say my camera was all nonplused about what it saw.

We start with Dresden’s own Gerhard Richter. High abstract expressionism, one of the big men of art. I’m generally not so interested in big men. I’ve had a lifetime of art study where it’s big men with big names and big art and it’s a little too easy and unreflective. But we all know that, we all know Frances and her didactic positions on everything from art to car racing. And I’ve been looking at and walking through art for 5 hours straight now so I’m slightly more receptive to just taking in what I see as it enters my field of view. And look, it’s impressive, these hallucinogenic horizontal lines in Strip (927-9) or the neutral grey of Grau (401), which is difficult to truly focus on (my camera had a fit trying to understand what I was asking of it). Some of the other works, like März (807) or Abstract Painting (865-2) I feel I’ve seen multiple variations by multiple artists, and as much as I accept here I’m in the city of Richter in the Richter collection, I don’t find them especially compelling. But those horizontal lines, at that moment, priceless.

Likewise with Günter Fruhtrunk or Sigmar Polke or Frank Nitsche, they’re all big names and it’s good to experience the history of 20th century art, particularly in a city with such a history of artists, and I do love the eyeburn caused by Fruhtrunk’s flourescent orange, yellow, green Die Illusion vom Grund, but. But. There’s one woman artist I saw in all this (maybe others, just only noticed only one), as if the history of art was only male, with a rare, unremarkable exception. Katharina Sieverding is an exception though, her Deutschland wird deutscher is the only explicitly political work in all these. I also like it because it’s punchy and in your face. It looks like a bunch of knives in a masked face. It’s deeply unfriendly, the underside of Germany that remains unaddressed. It kicks the shit out of the noodling geometric doodles of Nitsche and the others and really forces the question at them, “What are you doing?” I have this argument occasionally with German artists where they claim they’re not political, and I tell them they’re lucky they can choose not to be, the rest of us don’t have that luxury. That’s what Deutschland wird deutscher is.

Finally, before I exit into the afternoon, there’s two works by Valérie Favre, they’re unclean Lovecraftian My Little Pony horror, oozing and dribbling pustules of colour that don’t belong together on backgrounds that suck the light out of the room the more you look at them. You really wouldn’t want to find yourself awake in that world. Probably my second favourite of the contemporary artists after Birgit Dieker, who also does a good line in corporeal horror.

Albertinum done, last stop for the day is Residenzschloss, though I don’t know it. I thought I’d get to the Libeskindian Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr. Wrong. 9 hours will barely get you through the three museums in the Altstadt.

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Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister: Max Slevogt

Max Slevogt! I’m devoting an entire post to him! And why wouldn’t I when the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister gave him a whole room? If you go onto their website and have a perv at the virtual tour for Galerie Neue Meister, you see something quite different. Ungrouped paintings, Degas next to Slevogt all over the place. Now, you leave one room having correctly fallen in love with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Eisenbahnüberführung Löbtauer Straße in Dresden and you’re thrown across into North Africa.

All but one of these paintings comes from his trip to Egypt in 1914, and together in one room, what a treat. The odd one out is Bildnis der Tänzerin Anna Pawlowa from 1909, but who cares? It’s Pavlova! I love paintings of dancers! And anyway, she’s dead jaunty in a costume that looks like it’s from Petipa’s The Pharaoh’s Daughter or one of Ballet Russes’ pieces, like Cléopâtre from the same year. And you have to look at her facial expression. Also the brushwork. Closeup, her torso and hips merge into the background without any clear boundary. For an impressionist painter, there’s a lot that resembles expressionism.

All around are these dozen or more works with bright sky and land. It’s not the full set of 21 works, and I’m also not sure I successfully photographed them all, but it’s a rare display. I’m torn a little between liking these too much and the awareness this kind of orientalism came at the peak of European imperial colonialism, after centuries of slavery, and when the colonies of Africa, the Middle East, … all the colonies, Australia, Canada, all of them were sites of genocide. And there’s no way I can look at these works and know how a European audience in 1914 regarded them, whether they saw these people as their equals in some way, or whether it fed and confirmed their belief in their own superiority, culturally, racially.

Not long before this, from 1891 until his death in 1903, Gauguin was in Tahiti. It’s useful to compare the two, their similarities and differences. Both of them seem to have a sympathy for their subjects, but whereas Gauguin’s works are unequivocally those of a person who knew these women (much like I think of Rubens and the person of his Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor), Slevogt’s are more like holiday snapshots, or memories. He never gets close to them, either physically or in the intangible way I see in Rubens and Gauguin. I think you can see this clearly in Bildnis der Tänzerin Anna Pawlowa, it’s staged, she’s pulling moves, giving him what he wants, though he doesn’t really comprehend what a dancer is; it’s his idea of a dancer rather than the person themself. So in Egypt we see ideas of people who when he is absent live lives that have little to do with the tourist who passed them by.

Contradicting all that, to see two muslim women standing side by side, or the interior of a mosque or madrasa during class, or a group of men sitting outside a café, these images are more than what they might be reduced to. They’re representations, and like photographs, like ethnology or anthropology or musicology or … artists also document history and culture and it’s possible for people now to see themselves here, to see their own history.

They’re also mad impressive altogether in one room. Photographs on a blog simply can’t explain that. You walk into a room, leaving Germany, leaving expressionism, and you’re in North Africa. And to put them in a single room without other works to diminish this, that’s very good museuming.

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Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Albertinum Galerie Neue Meister: Expressionism & Impressionism

From Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Zwinger it’s a quick cross-town stroll to the Albertinum past Residenzschloss and Frauenkirche, through the rebuilt and touristic old inner city, where lanes use the cute diminutive Gässchen, all having been rebuilt (or rebuilding continues) after the firebombing of the city in 1945.

Once again, I fail to find the entrance. Museums. How do they work? I’m inside, in the colossal roofed inner courtyard where some manner of ghastly conceptual museum dance is being rehearsed and have a moment of relief that I ditched being a dance audience for museums and art. I keep returning to an essay I read recently which ranged far beyond dance, but its core was an unrelenting criticism of two decades of conceptual dance and the current fashion for dance in museums, “…when the labouring body is erased by (white, male, of European origin) philosophical constructs, we are complicit in devaluing human lives …” Dance proper is physical labour.

The first painting I see is a Degas. Two ballerinas. It doesn’t have the emotional impact his work in Berlin did in the Impressionismus – Expressionismus exhibition, nor does his famous Vierzehnjärige Tänzerin sculpture, but I’m happy to see them both. To be honest, I find his fixation on young female ballet dancers creepy, and could well imagine even at that time he was an old-fashioned presence in the room.

Whipping through a few rooms I stopped at Gotthardt Kuehl’s Die Augustusbrücke zu Dresden im Schnee. It’s a habit for me lately when I visiting museums in other cities to photograph paintings of that city. It wasn’t winter or evening, but that’s what Dresden looks like from near the Albertinum looking west along the Elbe, probably from the front of Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden.

Then we get into Expressionism. Not infrequently indistinguishable from Impressionism, particularly when nose prods painting. Of course aesthetically and philosophically the former is opposed to the latter, and the former also I associate with Germany and particular groups of artists around Die Brücke und Der Blaue Reiter in the early 20th century, whereas impressionism sits almost a generation earlier in France. Still, they’re inextricable from today’s perspective, which is why they’re often displayed side by side.

The first big work, and by big I mean wall-spanning, is Otto Dix’ major Der Krieg – Das Dresden Tryptichon painted between 1929 and ’32. Not even half a decade before Germany would be going for a repeat performance. It’s a traumatic piece in the form of a mediæval altarpiece, a central square panel flanked by two narrow wings and sitting on top of a coffin-like lower tier. On the left where the broken wooden wheel would signify Saint Katharina, there’s just the backs of soldiers marching off through and into fog; on the right, a tree and figure like Saint Sebastian instead is a blasted post-battle landscape with a hellish tornado of fire in the background. The lower tier is simply a box of sleeping bodies stacked lying in their dugout. And the central panel, where you’d expect to find Adoration of the Magi, or Mary with Jesus, is a gaping wound around their empty central location. Instead of an angel flying above, there’s a ruined corpse of a body hanging in the bones of a house.

Writing about it like this, I find myself appreciating it more. It’s a work I feel I’ve seen often in passing, which has little effect on me. Perhaps because it signifies nothing. As a bloody warning of the horror a Christian country was jack-booting towards once again, it failed utterly. It seems almost too didactic now, even though this is exactly what a nominally Christian society — Europe has been inflicting on the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa for fifteen years.

So I move onto proper expressionism, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and others in an outer ring around a central room full of Carl Lohse. Lohse I didn’t like so much on first look. I was taken enough by his Sie to photograph it, all Mars Attacks! green alien face, despite the blah mediocrity of the title — the male dominance in museums of artists from any period gets tiring pretty quickly, along with the embarrassingly crude displays of gender they attempt — and got a kick out of his monstrous Kleine Stadt, which must have enraged small town Germans nationwide. His Frühling in Bischofswerda is nothing other than an expressionist interpretation of van Gogh’s The Starry Night.

van Gogh himself makes an appearance with a plate of quinces, and if you get a chance to see any work of his, it’s worth it if you can ignore the hype around him. He really was doing something different, which is often hard to realise when contemporary representation of an art movement, be it impressionism, post-impressionism, expressionism, baroque, whatever, depends on differentiating as absolutely as possible between the individual artists in the movement, so we get the poles of Monet and Manet and van Gogh and impressionism against expressionism but it was far more diffuse than that. So when you look at the rows of long, parallel brush strokes of van Gogh, it’s sometimes good to forget all that and the expectation of awe you’re supposed feel in his presence and simply look at what he was doing. That cluster of nine red strokes on the far middle-left, or their more bold correlates mid-bottom. Rather than see these as indicators of genius, you can see in this an example of how both impressionism and expressionism understood light. That’s enough to take from this.

One of my absolute favourites, as an artist and a single painting is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Eisenbahnüberführung Löbtauer Straße in Dresden. I loved his Berlin works I’ve seen in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s collection, like Nollendorfplatz or Potsdamer Platz, and this one, more understated and simple than those two, almost like a different artist in the uncomplicated brush strokes and blocks of colour, I kept returning to it, running back for one more gawk. And I even gave it its own post, having discovered the house in the painting still stands in Dresden.

Let’s finish with a Gauguin: Parau Api. Gibt’s was Neues? I just like Gauguin, as an artist and in the care he takes with his subjects. Maybe it’s only his work reminds me of living in Auckland.

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Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Zwinger mit Semperbau Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister: Baroque & Enlightenment Art

I forgot to mention the buzzers. Braaaaaap! every time I got too close to a painting. Which was often. And hearing it echo through the halls and chambers as others stuck their greasy noses too close to art. I started making “Braaaa!” sounds when I heard it, which caused a few weird looks. Probably was talking to myself also. Fuck it, if art doesn’t cause an emotional response, you’re dead inside. Shout at paintings or get the fuck out.

I’m calling the second part of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in the Zwinger mit Semperbau ‘Baroque & Enlightenment Art’, even though it crosses over with the previous works or at least there’s no explicit divider between the edges of say Mannerism and Baroque.

Another Die Anbetung der Könige, this time from French artist Nicolas Poussin. A really beautiful piece with soft light, openness, animation, horribly difficult to look at or photograph thanks to glass and glare. There’s so much movement from the figures in this, they’re all running or pointing or falling to their knees, and Mary’s just sitting there wrapped in a huge swathe of blue. It’s as much, maybe more about her as the small, almost inconsequential Jesus. I was overjoyed with this one.

Nearby, and with Baroque we’re leaving religious art proper for the goings on of fantastically wealthy people, there’s Nicolaes Pietersz Berchem’s Ein Handelsherr, am Hafenpalast einen Mohren empfangend. Another difficult one to photograph, but wow it’s awesome. The scudding clouds cutting diagonally across an evening sky, the peacock, musician, the woman in the canary yellow dress, the stacked architecture beneath which sits a total pirate of a merchant, all eyeliner and huge feathers in his hat who’s engaging two merchants equally opulent in their dress. I’d thought they were African at first, because the painting caption calls them ‘Mohren’ but I was wondering if they might be Indian. That’s all a conversation about captioning anyway. Many of these works never had captions, and what we presently hold as the canonical title is best described as a placeholder text from a later period. So with all our current forensic abilities allowing old works of art to divulge more of themselves, now’s a good time to reconsider these captions. And maybe not caption them at all. One more thing about this piece which only seemed obvious when actually looking at it: the peacock is a mirror of the merchant on the left.

Rubens! I fukken love me some Rubens! When I arrive at a Rubens it’s like meeting an old friend, and in his Dianas Heimkehr von der Jagd, my first thought was that I totally know the guy up the back playing Bacchus. Completely convinced. Then I doubted myself. Then I dug up my photos of his Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor. The fourth photo, that smile. But his studies are from around 1640, and this is from 1616. Still the same smile. A bit later is his Bathseba am Springbrunnen, which is not such an impressive piece, except for the boy. Ruben’s character studies are simply exceptional. If you want to understand why he’s deservingly one of the greats, look at his studies. Dude is a magician.

More Rubens, a Tintoretto, then Francisco de Zurbarán’s Gebet des heiligen Bonaventura um die Wahl des neuen Papstes. This was in the same room as the wildly famous Die Sixtinische Madonna of Raffael, which like the Mona Lisa is kinda unremarkable, and makes me think many people are fooled by the naïve simplicity of the two. Ok, it’s got the pair of pensive angels at the bottom, subjects of bookmarks the world over, but right next to it is Correggio’s Die Madonna des heiligen Franziskus, and if you want to talk about formidable pieces of renaissance religious art, this is the one. Forget everyone else, just look at the woman on the left, staring directly at you (sure, it’s supposed to be the Holy Antonius, but I’m definitely reading this as a chick). And Catherine on the right. Why would you even want to spend time with Raffael when you’ve got this kind of brilliance?

But I was talking about Zurbarán. This is a solid thump to the face of a work. It’s not going to elicit that effect in a photo, the way light works on its surface and into the pigment is something you need to see by standing in front of it. Or quite a way back cos it needs the appreciation of a little distance. It verges on colour field abstract expressionism. There’s this slab of darkness, off-black ebony broken with a quarter circle of sunset orange in the top left corner, and slabs of muted darkening reds in the lower left half. On the right though, it’s cut and gouged from top to half-way down, an abrupt slicing from darkness to light greys, and occupying the lower half of this is this flat blast of scarlet and coquelicot. It’s an aesthetic I’ve seen even in early mediæval art, the fact it’s the robes and caps of the Cardinals doesn’t refute the acutely abstract composition happening here. Look at the closeup, all this wash and torrent of red, in the centre of which a single hand.

Rushing on again. Bernado Bellotto, otherwise known as Canaletto. There’s half a dozen of his pieces in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and I have to admit I’m attracted to his formalism. It’s pre-photographic but photographic in the way Ansel Adams is. Comparing Adams’ The Tetons and the Snake River with Der Canal Grande in Venedig vom Palazzo Balbi aus or Die ehemalige Kreuzkirche in Dresden, I’m totally sticking with this comparison. Normally I’d be put off by such a style and technique, call it fussy, or worse, see in it the 18th and 19th century self-aggrandising imperialism, but for some reason Canaletto just makes me smile. He goes too far, the perspective is too much, yet somehow unassuming and, yeah, he was just looking out the window one afternoon and snapped off a photo. There’s a guy pissing in the corner to prove how spontaneous it is. Or the two on the gondola wearing masks and I dunno, about to drown a baby?

There’s a lot of him in Dresden, quite a lot inadequately lit. His stuff is just too subtle for direct light. I could imagine a space with only indirect overhead light, none of it pointing at the paintings so the room itself rather was illuminated, with pale walls and floor so the light almost churns into an even diffuseness. An interesting remark in the gallery though was his use of an unstable Prussian Blue pigment, which over time has deteriorated to a silvery sheen. I always thought he’d painted the sky as if it was on one of those summer days in Australia when the sky goes beyond blue, not a glare, just this fullness of brilliance.

I diligently avoided all that 19th century imperial bollocks. I can’t look at it. Everyone gets so white it’s terrifying, like they’ve been drained of blood and painted in lead oxide. And they’re all so pompous and self-satisfied. There’s an absence of joy or humour or life that’s only rediscovered in impressionism and expressionism.

A quick mention of Johann Alexander Thiele’s »Caroussel Comique« Aufzug im Zwinger 1722 and »Caroussel Comique« Rennen im Zwinger 1722 which show the Zwinger where the Gemäldegalerie is, the first from (I think) where the Porzellansammlung is looking west, the second from the south looking north with possibly Residenzschloss being the tower on the right. The perspective is highly exaggerated.

Finished with the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, it’s off the the Porzellansammlung, though I’m going to combine that collection with some of Albertinum and Residenzschloss as I didn’t photograph so much in any of them. It was about 1pm, I was feeling rather smug with my progress. I had no idea.

Gallery

Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Zwinger mit Semperbau Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister: Mediæval & Renaissance Art

It’s a few minutes before 10am. I’m wondering where the entry is. Back at the entry, Frances, that’s where the entry is, the door on the side where there’s a queue. I’m fourth in and sorted with ticket plus stashed my gear in the locker and have no idea where to go. Ah, that way and up. I tend to get museums wrong, walk the wrong way, enter the wrong door, go around the room backwards. This museum, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in the Zwinger mit Semperbau, is undergoing massive renovations, which means my purpose for being here — mediæval art — is as truncated as the collection. About 1/3 of the floor space is open, and it’s the oldest stuff that takes the biggest loss.

Does it matter? No. By the time I’m done, I’ve thrashed three museum buildings and eight or more collections and it’s closing time 9 hours later. Back here at the beginning in the old stuff, I think I visited the three floors in non-sequential order, though moving through history roughly in a forward direction.

Old stuff! We start in the late-1400s, debatably Middle Ages, definitely crossing into Renaissance in various locations. Mostly it’s a mix of German and Netherlands artists on one side, Italian on the other, all squashed into a makeshift hall. For the purposes of showing of a selection of their works, I’m not going to find fault in that. I did get sulky about the crap glass in front of the majority of paintings, which threw off a vile cyan-green hue from the searchlight overhead glare, itself heavily tinged into an indescribable yellow. Not the best lighting, forgivable because it’s temporary. The glass though, it’s like this: if I take a photo and it’s mostly glass glare and colour cast, that’s exactly what your museum visitors are seeing with their eyes.

One of the first works I got really excited about is Albrecht Dürer’s Dresdener Altar. It’s a fantastic piece, large, dominated by a trio painted only from the waist up, so they fill the wings and centre panel to the edges. It’s painted in a light technique, you can see the canvas weave, often the tempura is simply dry-brushed, and the contrasting detail of line work and shading is phenomenally delicate. The palette is dominated by mute, cool greys, blues and desaturated reds, with browns, golds, jade and turquoise greens for highlighting. When you look at it closely, there’s this beautiful movement between rapid, almost expressionist sketch-like brushwork and strokes, and fine shading, layering, line work, two completely different approaches. And then it’s populated with a mob of cherubic angels, busy cleaning and flying around, holding Mary’s crown. The wings were added around ten years after the wide-angle central panel was completed, and do look structurally and technically dissimilar, their background full with small angels, and with little architectural framing. I photographed the crap out of it, as you can see by the fifteen images of it below.

Shortly later is Lucas Cranach der Älter’s Katharinenaltar (the central panel). I’m totally into Saint Katharina of Alexandria because she was a stone cold scholar and had an incredible mind and ability for learning, as well as being a killer orator, all while being a woman who was martyred for being a better philosopher than any of her debaters. It’s important to count her as a philosopher and not just eject her from the history of philosophy by calling her a Christian Saint. There’s very little difference between the intellectual tools she was using and what we’ve been calling philosophy since the Enlightenment. I also like Cranach the Elder, maybe not as much as Dürer, but I would happily steal this painting.

Then there’s two pieces by Antwerpen painter Joos van Cleve: Die kleine Anbetung der Könige and Die große Anbetung der Könige, both early 1500s works. These are part of a recognisable thematic tradition across northern Europe in late-mediæval and renaissance art of the Magi, that occurs so consistently and is kind of an essay in representation, coming as they do from Africa, Persia, Central Asia. Presuming a little here, maybe reading in too much from the present world, but it must have been profound for people in Northern Europe, in towns and cities who travelled little if at all, to be in Church and see these figures of a much larger world, who as individuals stand in for their country or land or people. Especially: here is an African king in finest green and gold robes with furs and ropes of precious metal, wearing spurs over his tooled leather boots so obviously he also rides a horse — everyone is well-dressed in these paintings, but Balthasar is always the finest, down to his prominent earrings, and he was there at the birth of Christ.

I always look for these paintings when I’m trawling mediæval art, and would be extraordinarily disappointed to not find one in any museum I visit. They are canonical.

Running on a bit now. A few Cranach the Younger works, he’s not his father, but he did paint Der schlafende Herkules und die Pygmäen (one half of a diptych, the lighting on the second one was impossible) full of dwarfs who are going the hack on Hercules. One other work in the mediæval and renaissance collections was Parmigianino’s Die Madonna mit der Rose which I loved for the globe showing Europe, Central Asia, northern Africa, the Arabia, and a rather small Indian subcontinent, and which has enough signifiers to be as easily Venus and Cupid as Mary and Jesus.

All that done, up and down some stairs and onto what I’m calling the baroque and enlightenment collections.