I feel like one of the very few queers in Berlin who’s never been for a night, let alone a weekend at Berghain. Charlene said, “I got a ticket to the exhibition at Berghain, wanna go?” Obviously yah, ’cos when else am I ever going to see inside that luscious body.
The group exhibition was that mix of terrible, uninteresting, kinda interesting, not bad actually, that’s rather good, and, like most group shows, a single one I would want for my hypothetical, ‘I’m mad rich, me’ collection. That kind of good. Monira Al Qadiri’sHoly Quarter, irregular vitreous globes of slippery iridescent black on the floor of the Lab.Oratory dark room.
And Berghain. The concrete and metal waxy soft with generations of physical contact and heavy drug fucking energy. No mirrors, no cameras, and that sound system. I’m not at all one for clubbing these days, but a night there — if I got past the door — I wouldn’t leave that space surrounded by that sound.
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.
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.
I didn’t know where else to put this. It’s far more beautiful standing before it than in my photo. I didn’t photograph much of the NGV’s Asian (or, Not European) collections, and if I’m going to give a whole post to their mediæval art, then this Jizō Bosatsu Bodhisattva from the Kamakura period, 1185–1333 in Japan is contemporary to that.
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.
A few more pieces of art from Naarm / Melbourne’s NGV National Gallery of Victoria, which I saw on my very wrecked, post-season, post-bumpout afternoon at the end of March. I wasn’t photographing much by this point, mainly grabbing a few I thought Medieval POC would get a kick out of, and very much not trying to document the museum itself. Bits and pieces. And Anguish. I thought of Onyx when I saw that. “Why? Because I’m raked over and bleeding out?” “Nah, ’cos you’re a murder of black crows about to feast on some dainty white lamb flesh.” Or something like that. We’re supposed to identify with the sheep. Fuck that.
A few pieces of European mediæval art I saw on my very wrecked, post-season, post-bumpout afternoon in the NGV National Gallery of Victoria. Considering how long I lived in Naarm / Melbourne, and considering I spent five years across the road at Victorian College of the Arts, I’m pretty sure I went inside a total of maybe once, and that for a special exhibition which I can’t remember — the permanent collection and the building itself I never wandered through. Mainly ’cos I wasn’t into museums then.
So, mediæval European stuff, ’cos I am into it. Weird to go to Australia to see bits and pieces of back home. I was looking for Saint Mauritius (of course), because somehow I got it in my head they have a rather nice painting of him. Didn’t find it. Might not be on display. Didn’t find it on their website either, but that’s a horror to search so … Did find exactly one Biblical Magi / Heilige Drei Könige / Aanbidding der Wijzen (it’s from Antwerpen, let’s go with that last one), very buried in the bottom right corner of a retable, which I shone my phone light on to get some illumination to photograph (then butchered it in Photoshop — is not my best work).
The first room, with the wooden sculptures reminded me of Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu (still one of the best mediæval collections and museums I’ve seen), but the dissonance of German next to Spanish next to Italian next to Flemish made for an odd journey. A small collection, lack of space, prioritising newer art and temporary exhibitions can justify the jumble somewhat, yet it proposes a strange, fantastical idea of the history of Europe, a Europe that is monolithic, singular, consistent. Yeah, I’m spoilt here. I can go to small cities like Magdeburg and see a thousand years of history from just that region of central, northern, Germanic Europe all in the original church, and the depth and detail imparted shapes a massively different reality for Europe’s history.
But still, they have a Hans Memling, some Dürer etchings, and a pile of other works that are pretty solid examples of what was going on in Western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. The German pieces are solid and heavy and dark; the French all flowing in International Gothic style; the Italian ramping up for the Renaissance. Most of the pieces aren’t brilliant, though pretty much all are solid pieces by renowned artists, and nothing is of the poor, regional copies that litter museums over here. And occasionally there’s a work I’m frankly surprised got out of Europe, which speaks of the kind of money backing the NGV.
Favourite piece? Jaume Cascalls’ St Catherine, from around 1350 in Spain. Not just because she’s my favourite saint, patron of unmarried girls, spinsters, archivists, jurists, librarians, mechanics, scholars, and fucking knife sharpeners.