Another De Aanbidding der Wijzen then. This one from Peter Paul Rubens and Atelier around early-1600s — no date on the caption and it seems to be one of his lesser known Adoration of the Magis. It’s in the Rubens Room, a massive, high-ceilinged chamber with natural light pouring in from above. Really one of the few rooms in the museum capable of the dimensions to display his epic works. I always have trouble remembering how large a piece was, but the figures are larger than life, and I dredged up 384 × 280 cm from the internet. And this room had walls of the stuff.
I blame the light. When it hits the top of a painting 2 metres above me and bounces down, I don’t know what to do. Yes, post-processing, but you can still see the upper half is blown out, and has an awkward blue colour cast. So my editing skills also suck. It’s the main reason I only photographed a couple of works this time. Sure I can take hundreds of photos, but the editing takes multiples of the time I spent actually in the museum, and it’s gotten a little out of hand — one of the main reasons I didn’t go to Ghent. These photos, then, don’t do the painting any favours, but it’s Rubens and it’s the Adoration of the Magi, and it makes me smile.
I had thought MedievalPOC had Twitted/tumbled this recently, but it was rather John Singleton Copley’s The Death of Major Peirson at the Battle of Jersey (here on Twit, and tumblr) with the Black Scottish auctioneer’s assistant to James Christie front-and-centre doing the business with the flintlock. When I last visited the museum, I blogged Wappers’ painting, but — as is my tendency — it’s kinda under-exposed and dim, and the photos I took last week are far more detailed. As for whether under- or over-exposed or -contrasted, I dunno, this museum has some fucking abysmal lighting, both natural and artificial, and I’m only slightly competent at point-and-click.
So, seeing Twit is shite to search, and it doesn’t seem that MPOC tumbled it, I thought I’d throw this one up, for the shoeless Drummer Boy who’s at the centre of history, keeping one foot dainty on a woman’s dress. Very compositional.
One last thing. The dickwad bro with his shirt open, last person on the right in the foreground light, is totally pushing over a woman carrying a baby with a hearty face shove. No idea what this is supposed to represent or signify, but guy’s spreading all over where the women are, and the third woman (the one lending her dress to Drummer Boy) in this triangle around the other shirtless guy, who’s busy dying, is giving Mr. ’Scuse Me, Bitch, Must Spread a nasty stink eye. So obvs means something, perhaps that the women here are around a hundred years off getting the vote, slightly before Blacks in the Belgian Congo could.
One other from Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Pieter Aertsen’s De Keukenmeid / Le Cuisinière from 1559. I think there’s a similar one in Gemäldegalerie or some other museum I’ve been to more than once — he painted the same work more than once — but I really love this one, her expression and posture; I reckon she’d be good value for post-work hanging out. I would say yes to a beer at Le Fontainas any night of the week.
Thursday before last, I took the day off and biked over to the Gemäldegalerie for El Siglo de Oro: Die Ära Velázquez, their new special exhibition of ‘the golden age’ of Spanish art and sculpture in the 17th century. As with previous large temporary exhibitions, the Gemäldegalerie’s massive central atrium was converted into a meandering series of rooms and aisles, and for this one also spilling over into some of the chambers of the permanent collection.
And as usual, photos weren’t permitted, which is a wry experience seeing how many of the works come from the gallery’s own collection and I’ve photographed before. Nonetheless, I timed one of the attendants walking between rooms and snuck off a few of Gregorio Fernández’ Camino del Calvario, or Gang zum Kalvarienberg as it’s known here, a splendid Baroque piece that reminded me of a similar work I saw in the Muzeum Narowode we Wrocławiu (still one of my favourite museums in Europe).
I also bought the catalogue because I suspect I won’t try and persuade the Gemäldegalerie to let me photograph the exhibition as I usually do (high probability of a sour “No.”), so I’ll probably just blab on about the catalogue in my usual parochial manner shortly.
If you’re in Berlin, it’s totally worth seeing, really nicely put together (could do with a few more earlier works of the seriously fucking marvellous El Greco Immaculata Oballe type); consistently high quality lighting; audio guide up there with the best — and if you take the audio guide allow for at least three hours to get through; it’s definitely one of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s finest exhibitions, though predictably on the slim side when it comes to exactly what Imperial Spain was up to (and that was under the Austro-Germanic House of Habsburg) with all their colonising and empiring. Context. Art is not outside it.
Awesome book arrival yesterday. Two in fact! Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice is the one I’m talking about here.
Ever since I discovered The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II, Part 1, and that the deservedly famous cover image was of the 13th century Saint Maurice sculpture residing to this day in Magdeburg (in Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina, yes I went there), a mere 90 minutes south-west of Berlin, and Mechthild von Magdeburg, Gertrude von Helfta, you know, all this mediæval Germanic stuff I seem to have gotten rather preoccupied with in recent years, ever since all of that, and when I discovered this book, I’ve wanted to have it.
And now I do.
Cheap as chips. A mere 14,-€, ex-library copy with the dust jacket, in remarkable good condition, save for the flouro-green highlighting of someone (sometimes I love people’e highlighting and marginalia; often though I just think, “You’re kinda picking the simple bits, no?”). Not so big either, Slightly larger than trade paperback size, hardcover, nicely bound with good paper stock, so despite its cheap price it’s a score.
I started reading it over breakfast — well, dinner really, but I was cross-eyed and started again this morning. I did not know it was sponsored by the Menil Foundation, responsible for The Image of The Black in Western Art, and it’s something of a companion work to Volume II, Part 1, which is probably the most accessible and in-depth work currently available on representations of Saint Maurice in mediæval European art.
The book is split into facing pages of German and English, the latter translation by Genoveva Nitz, Given German’s tendency to run on and use half a dozen words where English gets away with abbreviation, the two keep remarkably good pace, making comparison easy.
Highly pertinent is the publication date: 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall came down, and when the majority of churches, museums, historical records, people consulted were in East Germany. On this point alone, I think it’s important to see this work within that historical context. When I was reading The Image of the Black, and comparing there to what I saw in Wrocław, Kraków, Budapest, Prague, I noticed a marked lack of works from the former Eastern Bloc.
Along with that, some of the language choices sound awkward and dated, like the use of words such as Mohr/Moor, Neger/Negro (that’s German/English), though equally and contextually in certain cases they might be the most accurate choice, for example referencing historical documents. Making broad generalisations here, I find German language lags by comparison to English on diction and semantics when it comes to issues of representation, equality, language reclamation, which is often in contrast to the tendency of the language to be intellectual and precise on these same issues. I started writing this paragraph thinking I could make a fairly simple, easy to understand summary of word choice, but turns out I can’t. An addendum here after finishing reading it: I rewrote some of this as I thought maybe I came across a little flippant when in fact I’d written multiple paragraphs trying to get to what was bothering me here. I think it comes down to context — which is often a subject I return to when discussing museums. My discomfort with the language is a question of how would the word choice have sounded thirty years ago; would it have read as awkward or old-fashioned then, in the context of an art-historical work. in museums, in broader society? And that language changes, not over the course of a millenium, but in decades or years.
Beyond the introduction and a bit of the first chapter, The Black St. Maurice of Magdeburg and its Historical Background I haven’t read much; enough anyway to say this is one of the clearest and most succinct summaries to the history of black representation in European mediæval art, in Christianity, in the 13th century shift which led to that sculpture of Saint Maurice in Magdeburg (and its accompanying Saint Katharina), to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal written between 1200 and 1215, the preceding images of the Queen of Sheba in the early 12th century, the subsequent representation in the Adoration of the Magi, and the loss of Saint Mauritius from the canon of Saints — despite still having his day on September 22nd.
I’ve read enough back and forth to know the idea of Saint Maurice and his Thebian Legion being martyred in Switzerland in the 3rd century is a contested one, even before the idea he was black. Suckale-Redlefsen does a good synopsis of this and if we’re going to be all ‘balance of evidence’ and ‘objective’ about it, then Saint Maurice as at least North African (if not North-East African, given the proximity of Thebes to Sudan along the Nile route, or east to the Red Sea) is a reasonable conclusion to make. And she documents the presence of Africans in the courts of Frederick II in Mainz in the 13th century, so it’s not as though Saint Maurice in Magdeburg came from nowhere.
There’s a lot of excellent images of works from across central Europe, plus a small selection of colour plates, of which I’ve personally gawked at two, and which naturally get me all excited about what strange little towns in this part of Germany I can bolt to for more. The second half of the work is a catalogue, arranged approximately chronologically, so it starts with that sculpture in Dom zu Magdeburg. This section is all in German, though if anyone had gone so far as to buy this, running the text through Google Translate scrubs up fine. It’s also — I want to say lavishly illustrated, black and white photographs on most pages, sometimes three or four even.
Suckale-Redlefsen I haven’t found out much of, presuming she’s around the same generation as Caroline Walker Bynum, though Bynum is a superior writer (fully partisan here), and I believe is based in Berlin. One of the few (and incomplete thanks to academic journal paywalls) reviews I’ve come across calls this a “less than satisfactory treatment” compared to Jean Devisse’s work in The Image of the Black, which is a not invalid criticism. But let’s remember The Image of the Black costs at a minimum 50,-€ if you were lucky like me and my favourite bookseller happened to snag a complete unopened set, and more usually Volume II, Part 1 sells for around US$100 or 90,-€. So honestly, who can afford that? And Suckale-Redlefsen’s The Black Saint Maurice? Amazon UK has it for £16. Even me as a poor student could scrape that up if I really had to, and for the price it’s worth far more than that. If this kind of thing’s your gear — and it’s totally mine — irrespective of its shortcomings it’s worth it.
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.
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!
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.
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.