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.
One more from Brussels’ Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in my lazy-blogging of single paintings.
I’d already blogged this museum heavily back in 2015 (Musée Oldmasters Museum, Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum, and the very popular Peter Paul Rubens’ Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor, among others), so I wasn’t really committed this visit to much more than staring at a few Bruegels, namely De val der opstandige engelen, along with Pieter Aertsen’s De Keukenmeid, and Gustaf Wappers’ Tafereel van de Septemberdagen 1830. And seeing I just mentioned almost all my posts on this museum, I can’t not mention the sublime Pieter Bruegel de Oude’s De Aanbiddung der Wijze, which is alone worth visiting the museum for.
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.
Continuing my blogging of single paintings from Brussels’ Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Gustaf Wappers’ massive Tafereel van de Septemberdagen 1830, op de Grote Markt te Brussel takes up one-third of a wall in the main atrium. It’s very Eugène Delacroix in size, composition, and themes, Romantic nationalism meets unnatural, formal arrangement.
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.
I didn’t make it to Ghent. All that missed opportunity for mediæval art. I did make a trip to Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique to gawp at the Bruegel stuff, which I thought was a special exhibition, but is in fact a kind of online / digital project, which nonetheless meant I made a round of The Art — quite a bit of it missing due to water damage (or that was my lazy translation).
I’d photographed the museum pretty heavily two years ago (Musée Oldmasters Museum, Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum, also the sublime pair of Pieter Bruegel de Oude’s De Aanbiddung der Wijze, and Peter Paul Rubens’ Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor) and didn’t really feel inspired to do the same again to paintings I’d already spent so much time on — the light in the museum is kinda horrific. But I do love Bruegel, and hadn’t basked in the Hieronymous Bosch freakery of his De val der opstandige engelen / La Chute des anges rebelles, which coincidentally is one of the works you can get way too close to on Google Cultural Institute’s Bruegel, Unseen Masterpieces, so I’m replicating some of that purely for my own pleasure. So here we go then, Bruegel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels in all its dog-licking-its-arse (I dunno, that’s what I remember seeing) glory.
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!