Me messing around with mediæval art, Photoshopping it until it’s far from the 3/4 of a millennium ago of its origin. It started as a visit to the Gemäldegalerie when I decided to do closeups of some of my favourite works. This is part of the Altarretabel in drei Abteilung mit dem Gnadenstuhl, from after 1250. Last night, feeling unexpectedly inspired around midnight, I realised I could mash another few score of layers into an image I was working on six months ago, and increase the density in ways that somehow appeal to my brain and eyes and emotions. I always zoom in on these images, like there’s myriad possible paintings in each. This time I took screenshots of those, and wanting to know what they might look like animated, threw them into Final Cut X and spat out 48 seconds of video.
I was asking myself if this is art. I know art and make art, but still. Maybe they’re sketches of possibilities. I like the artefacts generated from the process. I have no control over this. I have some control in which direction to push an image, but a lot of the detail is only minimally editable. Things happen, I make decisions, other things happen, possibilities open and close, I try and steer it towards a particular satisfaction, but each individual line and gradient and tone, no, that’s the software making its own decisions based on what I ask it to do. And as always, the further I get from using software as it was intended, the more interesting it becomes to me.
Two and an half years ago, I asked a historian friend for recommendations on northern European mediæval history, preferably written by a women. He replied that last qualifier was going to thin the herd considerably. Shortly after he emailed me a list, the last name on that list being Caroline Walker Bynum and her Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond. He said, “Definite thematic focus, but it is an interesting focus, and one that is helpful in explaining much of late medieval (and modern Western) society; also more limited chronological range. That notwithstanding, the best book on this list, plus: written by a woman.”
I read that book. It was my Book of the Year in 2014. I went on to read everything I could of her: Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, all of them challenging, profound works, among my most beloved reads. I still have two to go of hers, besides this one, which I’m reading now.
Caroline Walker Bynum is always a tough read, dense, like tapestry, ideas and themes threaded together over hundreds of pages; footnotes often consume a third of the book and often impart critical additional elaboration. Hers are slow works to read, contemplative and demanding. I suppose it’s an uncommon approach to introduce myself to northern European mediæval history by going for the least forgiving of the lot, but there’s something glorious in drowning in such writing.
I started Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe a few weeks ago, it’s been in my reading pile since late-July, and I’ve been reading it around a rapidly circulating mob of new arrivals. Of all her works, this is the most accessible, also the broadest in subject. And like all her works, almost a third is devoted to extensive notes. It’s beautifully bound, plenty of margin space, many illustrations of works she discusses, one of those books that’s a pleasure to be holding. I love it. I love her writing.
@medievalpoc said, “This has gotta be in the top ten ugliest arts I’ve ever seen and I love it.” Robert and I thought it was pretty freaky also. When we visited the Grassi Museum für Angewandte Kunst last Thursday it was unchallenged as the most wtf? of anything we saw. It’s deeply entrancing with its sheer strangeness.
So, with all the attention Der Kaminbehang got, I started to poke a little deeper. Turns out the Grassmuseum appreciates its weirdness, devoting an entire Digital Kinderkatalog (digital children’s catalogue) to the work. I can totally see kids going bonkers over it.
I’m not sure the Kaminbehang.pdf answers all questions being asked, but anyway, I slapped up a quick and rough translation. I also did a number on the text above each figure. I think it’s in Frühneuhochdeutsch, but there’s some words that are either Süddeutsch, imports from other Germanic languages, or possibly (in the case of the Roma figure) not German at all.
A couple of notes: These translations are on the literal side, not trying to dress them up beyond getting the meaning across. For the Kaminbehang, all characters are in uppercase, which can lend vastly different translations based on whether a word is noun or verb (e.g. herkommen/Herkommen). I presume this would be easier to differentiate for a German speaker, but even Robert had trouble teasing out the meaning. Words are separated with small stars. But not always. There are no umlauts, ‘V’ is used for ‘U’; ‘I’ is used for both ‘I’ and ‘J’ and sometimes ‘L’; some of the letters are so worn it took a while to work out what was what; there are both standard-ish Early New High German spellings (from what I can tell — not my thing at all), plus variations that seem according to how much space there was. I’m giving the original text (as close as I could work it out) plus a flat translation to English. I also did a translation to Standard German, but not including it.
First, the text above each figure, in original Frühneuhochdeutsch followed by my English translation:
Der weise Mor bin ich vorogen
alle ins Vien bin ich durch Zogen
mit meinem Pfeile und Bogen in meiner Hant
The white Moor I am before others’ eyes
all in my veins can I be seen through to
with my arrow and bow in my hand
So bin ich der Unger geant 1571
an meiner Kleidung wol bekant
durch deutsch und welsch Lant
So am I the Hungarian named 1571 (date of manufacture)
by my clothing well-known
through german and foreign lands
So bin ich der Zegeuner vor Hant
den deutschen nihi bkat als voe Jaren
da sie an uns kein Gelt deten sparenn
So am I the Gypsy before hand
the Germans are not generous as years before
since they no longer spare money on us
Ein Welscher bin ich bei zimlichen Jaren
und bin von Welschen genomenn
trag Kleidung nach unserm Herkomen
A Welsh am I for quite a few years
and am from foreign lands come
I wear clothing according to our tradition
So bin ich von schwartzen More genom
kein Kleidung drag ich in meinem Lant
von der sonnen Hitz die mich vorbrant
So am I known as the black Moor
no clothes do I wear in my country
from the sun’s heat am I burnt
Ich bin Frantzose wol bekant
meinem Herrn dem diene ich
bei meiner Kleidung bleibe ich
I am French, well known
my Lord do I serve
by remaining in my apparel
Einen langen Spies fur ich vor mich
ein Schweitzer und trever Helt
meine Kleidung mir also wol gefelt
A long spear for me before myself
a Swiss and loyal hero
my clothing pleases me indeed
So bin ich der Turck gezelt
kombt ein Christen meine Hant
er mus mir lasen ein teur speant
So am I the Turk tented (i.e. enveloped in a tent-like cloak)
a Christian comes to my hand
to leave he must make an expensive donation
So bin ich der hohe Deutsche genan
aller Nation Kleidung gefelt mir wol
weis doch nicht wie ich machen sol
mir doch ein bas dan die ander gefelt
damit ich ein Ansehen hab als ein Helt
so will ich hin zum Werckman gan
und im die Sache selber zeigen an
So am I the High German named
all nations’ clothing pleases me greatly
but I have no idea how I should wear them
first one then another enjoyed
thus I have the reputation of a hero
I will go to the artisan
and in these items display myself
And then the text from the Kaminbehang.pdf. This is intended for children or school groups, not sure what age range, but presuming pre-teens. It includes each of the figures, but their text does not correspond entirely or at all to the actual text on the Kaminbehang. It does provide additional information to its history, as well as elaborating on the figures, for example describing the first figure as Albino. I’ve also translated the figures’ nationalities or ethic groups literally. Some, like Moor or Gypsy or Turk are pejorative, either within their use context here or generally. German — the language as well as the thinking, people, country — still has ‘issues’ with both words used as well as concepts behind them. Let’s just say it’s late-’70s here.
The fireplace hanging
The fireplace curtain on display probably originates from southern Germany and was manufactured in 1571. It is 40cm high and 284cm wide. Previously it was used to decorate a fireplace in summer, when it was too warm for heating. It belonged to the old art collection of the Leipzig Town Hall (Leipziger Rathaus), the so-called Leipzig Council Treasure (Leipziger Ratsschatz). This work of art which we will look at in more detail together dates back to the Renaissance era.
It is meticulously made of precious materials such as silk, velvet and linen. Gilded metal wires along with real gold and silver thread were also used in the process. The figures’ weapons are comprised of metal or carved from wood.
It consists of nine alternating yellow, white, and black fields, on each of which a male figure is identifiable. The embroidered figures were stuffed with linen and paper, and are semi-sculptural in shape — that is, they lie like bisected puppets on the cloth.
Shown are different nations in their country’s traditional clothing. As early as the 16th century, people in Germany were interested in knowing how other peoples lived. In addition the artist was making fun of the vanity of the people of the time.
What is important is:
- The individual figures are representations of how foreign peoples and cultures were imagined in the 16th century.
- The European peoples are depicted as very rich and progressive; the Africans however, as a wild and impoverished people.
- Today we are fortunate to know much more about other nations and the similarities or differences between our lives. Have you ever thought about this?
The White Moor
“Although I am an African, I have a fair complexion. They call me Albino. Not only in the 16th century were there often people like me on the west coast of Africa. I am depicted half-naked, like a wild hunter, clothed only with a hat and loincloth. In my left hand I carry a bow, and in the right an arrow.
“My clothes are a long, colourful coat, a scarf around my neck, white trousers and short boots. In my hand I have a war hammer.”
”I wear a pointed cap, a striped cloak, short trousers, and shoes. With my hands I open my cloak a little — can you see my naked belly?”
“I prefer to dress myself very elegantly — according to the latest fashion, all in black with a flat hat and long hose. To this attire also belongs a long dagger, which I hold in my hand.”
The Black Moor
“I am also an African and on my naked body wear nothing but armlets and a torc. In my hands I have two arrows. The white blemishes do not mean I am wearing a leopard skin, rather the black fabric is worn out in these places. Now the light linen base shines through.”
”Like the Italian, I am very fashionably dressed. On my head sits a beret. In addition, I wear a ruffle at my neck, slit trousers, and dainty shoes. My bright hose are especially striking. My left hand rests on the hilt of a sword.”
“With a long, forked beard, I have been depicted in the colourful garb of a mercenary. This includes a beret, doublet, funny knickerbockers, decorated hose, and elegant flat shoes. Sword, dagger, and a long spear are my weapons.”
“I wear a moustache and a cap, a wide collar over my coat, long hose and ankle boots. In my left hand I hold a small, naked baby by one leg. The scimitar is my weapon.”
“I am still naked, but over one arm I carry many items of colourful clothing. But for which of the different fashions should I decide upon? Best for me to go to a tailor and avail myself of him for advice. After all, I will not get warm by looking at the clothing!”
Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig was out on Thursday, not open till midday and we had plans to be museum-ing when doors opened at the proper time of 10am. Second on my list Grassimuseum it was then.
Curious how the ones that aren’t the top on my list turn out to be so bloody good. The architecture! Not looking as good on that first visit beneath a grey haze of fog and mist as it did the second in warm sun, but did I ever want to fondle that stone and glasswork. Robert and I walked in circles looking for a temporary exhibition that turned out to be kinda average, so we did my — and his — favourite: to the top floor and work your way down. First stop: Museum für Völkerkunde, which got very intense and emotional very quick with an unexpected and beautiful collection of Australian Aboriginal art and ethnology (north-east and central-east coast), followed by a smaller one of Aotearoa, a much bigger one of Polynesia including photographic works on glass reminding me of the Gottfried Lindauer exhibition in Berlin, then North American First Nations, going backwards along my own personal timeline through these places.
From that collection to Museum für Angewandte Kunst. 30 rooms. One giant circle of the first floor. 2000 years of applied arts and design. The closer we get to now, the more works. The first millennium wrapped up in barely two rooms with a special inner room for delicate fabric works from pre-Islamic Levant, then zipping through the first trio of second millennium centuries to get properly going in the 1400s.
I was looking for Saint Mauritius, and would have been most disappointed to not find him. I did! On a beer stein! But before that, I think he turned up in the red wax of a Magdeburg town seal (or I think that’s what it was, stupid me didn’t photograph the caption). Beer stein! The happiest St. Mauritius is a beer-y one.
I’m not exactly certain what makes the works here ‘applied art’ and not ‘fine art’. In the later periods, say Gründerzeit and on, and especially in the 20th century collections, a riot of Jugendstil, Neu-Sachlichkeit, post-Bauhaus modernism, DDR and BRD ’50s to ’70s to contemporary, it’s obviously ‘design’: furniture, lighting, jewellery, ceramics, though so rich and careful in design as to be works of art. But in the earlier stuff, this I’m used to seeing in museums as fine art. And how this fine / applied European art is distinct from non-European ethnological art, that’s a question to cause whole museums to collapse. Especially with the chinoiserie and porcelain that was all about adopting and imitating Chinese techniques and doing European things with them.
The earlier rooms, stained glass, wooden sculptures and altarpieces, tapestries, I was pointing my camera indiscriminately. A trio of massive, early 16th century retables, Late Gothic gold, filigree, and polychrome; opposing that, an armless, footless, and bald Jesus suspended from a vanished cross, his beard somehow rendering his face skeletal. Sprinkled amongst these, smaller single works of Mary, Saint Katharina, as solitary sculptures or wall reliefs. Another inner room with Romanesque works in metal, enamel, ivory. Up till here it was a solid collection, really nicely put together, the way the rooms and architecture moved us forward made spending far too much time on individual pieces too easy. Yet so far not exceptional.
And then the weirdness kicked in.
Probably around the place where the donkey-headed, fish-scaled armed and legged, cloven hoofed and bird footed (one of each), and very naked Mönchskalb turned up. Just after drunk St. Mauritius. Nearby, another dimly lit room with a Kaminbehang that was plain disturbing. Doing rough translations here: a “black Moor who wears no clothes and is burnt by the sun’s heat”; a “white Moor crossed with my arrow and my bow in hand”; a “Turk” with a naked Christian baby in one hand and a scimitar in the other. But it’s all a joke. At the end is the “High German who likes all national clothes” but has no idea how to wear them, who imagines he looks like a hero, but he’s naked looking like an idiot. This 2 1/2 metre tapestry hangs above your fireplace. We said, “What the fuck?” about it for some time.
Shortly after we depart the Renaissance for Baroque and Rococo. But stay firmly in Orientalism. There’s the heating oven capped off with the cartoon-like bust of a Turk. Beside this though is a huge and detailed, naturalistic wall tapestry of a village fair by Rococo artist Étienne Jeaurat. On the far right, a travelling merchant bearing the same Turkish signifiers as the guy atop the stove, a turban, curling moustache, rich jewellery and embroidered clothes. Both he and his assistant are on horseback, he on a flirtatious white mare, the assistant on a dark old nag. His assistant is equally lavishly dressed, turban with feathers, a cloak with massive precious stone clasp, earrings and a solid band of probably a slave collar, silver against his dark brown skin.
Further on, in another small side room is a simply massive work of Rococo chinoiserie, three of the room’s walls are filled floor to ceiling and end to end with it. Fantastic scenes mashing European Baroque and Chinese Qing Dynasty together. Months of work by many hands represented in the opulence of these two pieces.
After this, the works become more furniture and object based. Porcelain and ceramics everywhere, like the five glorious figurines of Ballets Russes in their costumes for the ballet, Carnaval by Paul Scheurich, who turns out was a right Nazi. Another Nazi was Joseph Wackerle, who did the beautiful Indianerin. Robert and I only noticed the complete absence of works from the Nazi period after we’d left and come down from our art euphoria. There are plenty of artists whose work in various movements pre- or post- that period is on display, but those twelve years are erased, as are the Nazi tendencies of the artists.
Running on through DDR and GDR periods, into our 4th hour and knowing we need food, coffee, energy for the première that evening. I didn’t take many photos in these rooms, simply so many works all deserving of attention and awe. We emerged out of those thirty rooms a bit delirious, and for me seriously impressed. I hadn’t expected a museum this good to be in Leipzig, nor an applied arts / design museum to be make me want to see all the design museums everywhere. It reminded me of the brilliant Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, so unexpected and unknown and yet I will rave for years about Leipzig and Grassimuseum. It’s even better with the audio guide (which I didn’t use but Mel did the next day). And super friendly. I dunno if this is a Leipzig thing, but they put every other city in Germany to shame with their relaxed friendliness. How friendly? The woman in the museum café bails past me sitting outside, pulls up, looks at me yawning, backtracks and comes back with an espresso and a wink.
Last Saturday, after my quick and disappointing run through Muzeul de Artă Timișoara, and with one hour to spare before tech rehearsals in Teatrul Maghiar De Stat “Csiky Gergely” for Isabelle Schad’s Fugen, I decided to see how much of Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara I could see. All of it, apparently.
Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara is in the basement of the Catedrala Mitropolitană, accessed by a small door on the far right inside the cathedral. I almost missed it, until I was exiting and saw the sign pointing back the way I came. The church itself is overwhelming, walls of gold icons, a colossal gold chandelier, frescos, all dimly lit with candlelight and what pale exterior light made it through the tall, narrow windows and cupola high above. Into the museum. Having been burned by the other museum’s “No Photography!” policy, I went at it with my camera just in case the voices I could hear were going to similarly ruin my experience when we met. Turns out it was exactly the opposite.
A woman comes running up to me, fully in a black habit and apostolnik, some light grey hair visible at her temples and the kind of gaze you really don’t want to be admitting your proclivities to. It’s Timișoara’s own Sister Wendy! She was most surprised I came all the way from Australia to see her museum (“You speak English, where are you from?” “err … Australia?” “Ah! You come all the way from Australia to see our museum!”), and dragged me through for twenty minutes explaining about half the works before an Italian guy came in and she was off to give him the same reception.
The museum takes up maybe 120 square metres of low-ceilinged basement in a fat T-shape, not especially well lit, certainly not ‘museum’ lighting, fluorescent stript lighting mostly, and works simply crammed onto every available wall, pillar, into cabinets and display cases, propped up against blocked off doors, probably at least 150 painted works, and scores of manuscripts, books, and documents. And by the time I got to photographing, I had just on twenty minutes before I had to split.
A brief diversion into photographing, first.
As usual, I used my beautiful Panasonic LX7 with the mad glass up front. I can’t afford something like a Canon 5D Mark III, nor would the weight, size, and loudness allow me the kind of unobtrusive flexibility I have with a high-end compact. Normally I’d take a couple of hours to photograph so many works, this time I was averaging 2-3 a minute under not great light overall, and plenty of garish reflection on the highly lacquered surfaces. Quite a few works I photographed at an angle to reduce this glare. As usual, I was shooting RAW.
All of the works have some post-processing done in Photoshop. Generally this is dealing with lens and shooting distortion (from the above shooting at an angle), a tiny bit of colour, tone, and contrast work, plus a bit of sharpening to compensate for the destructive nature of all this. I think most if not all the works would look more brilliant and colourful under proper lighting and photographing conditions, and I could probably approximate what they ‘actually’ look like, but I treat these images as what my camera saw rather than some fantasy version. Many of these works are not exactly quadrilateral, some exceedingly so. Because I’m often photographing on an angle, and even if I think I’m exactly front-on the camera has its own ideas of geometry, I’ve evened this all out. I don’t have the original to compare with so can’t say what’s the image and what’s camera, so it’s less distracting to not have wonky angles. Also for some, where the frames don’t finish cleanly (a lot of the images and frames are not in the best of condition) I clean up the corners a bit, again to reduce the distraction of glary white bits on the image edges.
And what did I see? A whole bunch of stuff I barely can comprehend. This Romanian Orthodox art is so far from the central-northern European stuff I’m used to, or even the Italian and western European. I was confused at first to the age of it, as the styles look a few hundred years or more older than I’d expect, but was all between 17th and 19th centuries with the majority being 18th century. Then there was the medium. The first works are all on glass, the size of an average illustrated book. Many others were on wood, dotted with the holes of woodworms. Thematically many of them came in pairs, one of Mother of God (Maica Domnului), the other of Christ Pantocrator (Iisus Hristos Pantocrator).
I’m regretting I didn’t have more time, though in truth there was no more time, the museum wasn’t open on Sunday, and that barely an hour was all there was. I’d have loved to spend a little more time with Sister Wendy, or at least take notes, particularly on a couple of the works she said were either Syrian and Egyptian in style or actually came from there (these are 20: Autor necunoscut, sec. XVIII. Sfinta Parascheva. provine de la biserica din Temeresti, Timiș and 28: Autor necunoscut, sec XVIII-XIX. Adormirea Maicii Domnului. provine de la biserica din ? Timiș below).
And then there’s the brown and black Marys and Jesuses. The first of these, 3 and 4: Icoana Maicii Domnului was to the left of the cathedral entrance immediately on entering, then there was the many Maica Domnuluis, (images 17, 29, 38, 41, 51, 52, and 62 below), Sfinta Parascheva (image 20), and Iisus Hristos Pantocrator (image 64, the companion to image 62). Dispelling all bollocks here, it’s unambiguously clear the artists intended the skin colour in the representations here, you only have to compare with works often right beside where Mary or Jesus is paler. In Constantin din Corița’s Maica Domnului, both Mary and Jesus are a deep, dark brown, and the light from above on her cheek and forehead gives a warm, golden glow. In E. Simiolovici’s Maica Domnului, the entire work comes from an bright embossed gilt background; Mary and Jesus’ skin is only a slightly lighter than the brown robe she wears. I’ve seen one or two works like this last year when I was travelling in Budapest and Poland, and read enough to know this representation is common, but to see a whole museum full with multiple variations, it’s glorious and beautiful beyond what I can write or photograph.
There’s other works with Ottoman or Turkish and Muslim figures; sometimes the figures remind me of Greco-Indian or Serindian art, the particular curve of eyebrows and wide, high forehead. It’s all new to me, outside of seeing examples in passing, and basically I don’t know what I’m talking about.
The whole experience was unexpectedly deeply moving. From the almost scary Sister Wendy when she explained to me how the works function for her in her faith, to having her briefly elaborate on what appeared to be a less remarkable piece which in fact was entirely remarkable (to me at least), and the sheer volume of works. And the fact this is entirely European. It’s European I can recognise in art farther west and north, yet carries more than that. Entire additional styles, cultures, histories are present which inextricably tie Europe with Asia, and which unequivocally demonstrate there is no border or line where ‘Europe’ starts or ends, it just blurs in multiple washes from different directions across geography and time with ‘Asia’. This exists also in art from further north and west, like in Saint Mauritius in Magdeburg, and maybe it’s simply I need to pay closer attention to what I’m looking at in art from further north and west, to know how to read and understand what I’m seeing.
Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara, an absolute, unexpected delight in a city likewise a joy. Here’s a ridiculous number of photos of art:
Saturday morning. We have a relaxed start at midday, so I have museums on my agenda. Exactly two. Muzeul de Artă Timișoara is the first, in Palatul Baroc on the south-east corner of Piaţa Unirii.
I got through in a bit under an hour. Not sure if I missed sections or if parts were closed, but generally was disappointed after the promise the museum’s website held. And there was that issue of “Photography Prohibited.” Yeah, I’m not gonna stick around long if you’re hitching your fortune to that missed bus. It’s over. It’s been over for the better part of a decade. Everyone has cameras, everyone’s going to use them, and frankly, if the Louvre is all Just Ain’t Care about mobs snapping Mona Lisa, then your museum could do with being a little less precious about ‘your’ art.
’Cos I would have loved to photograph the Corneliu Baba collection.
I did sneak a few of the Banat Collections, mostly of the 19th century and interwar periods, I think Pictura Bănăţeană Sec. XIX and Pictura Bănăţeană Interbelică collections respectively. Compared to the website though, what I saw was kinda sparse. Afterwards I had a conversation with the main attendant like this:
Her: “Did you like our museum?”
Me: (Being diplomatic) “Yeah, especially the Baba works.”
Her: “Yes, he is very important. I saw you on the cameras.”
Me: “Ah. So you saw me taking photos. It’s a pity it’s not allowed.”
Her: (With sad resignation in the face of rules she can’t change) “Yes, photography is prohibited.”
So, the collection. A bit patchy, not great quality works, except for the Baba — both as a collection and in quality. I often think museums feel they must be a a microcosm of the Ur-museum, a Louvre or Rijksmuseum in miniature, so every regional city replicates this basic itinerary, plodding through the centuries, a bit of Mediæval, a splatter of Renaissance, a woo! through Neoclassical, methodically completing the task like an earnest term paper. It can be unexpectedly brilliant, like Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes, but more often than not it’s a mournful trip.
I had that with Muzeul de Artă Timișoara, and I think the lack of visitors shows I’m not the only one who feels that way. Trying to be constructive here, if I had free rein what would I do? Get rid of all the generic European art history stuff first. People aren’t going to Timișoara for that; I have no idea of the locals/tourists split but suspect it’s heavily towards the latter. Concentrate on Banat region first, Romania second, then Hungarian, Ottoman and so on third (cos it’s been passed around by occupiers for most of the last millennium, plus it’s been a centre through which people have passed for all that time). That would mean expanding the works in the 19th and 20th century collections, some of which I photographed below, and really making it geographically and temporally specific; and expanding the earlier collections. It’s not like there’s a paucity of Banat art, as I discovered in the Muzeul catedralei mitropolitane Timișoara. After all that, arrange with other museums in Romania and further afield for rotating general European art through temporary exhibitions. Equally, doing museums is hard, a lot of competing agendas and unrelenting pressure on curators and others can push art far down the list of priorities.
Art. There was something so specific here I haven’t seen elsewhere. I want to say it’s the presence of Muslims in European art who are present as locals rather than exotic others, though I’m not sure if the women are Muslim or Romanian Orthodox, or if wearing scarfs over their hair is just part of the general fashion. Either way, I love seeing all the loose scarfs and brown skin. I’d love to see a museum comparable to the big ones I’ve visited so I could actually make some informed remarks about this. About all I can say is this art is definitely European, yet unlike north-west European or even Italian. I need to see more. Such a great adventure gawking at art.
Between the the Opera Națională Română where we were and Catedrala Mitropolitană at the southern end of Piața Victoriei is a solitary Ionic column upon which a bronze wolf stands, two babies suckling at its teats. Dead famous this, the Capitoline Wolf. I was majorly surprised to see it in Timișoara. Turns out it’s one of five copies made in Italy in the early-20th century (cheers, probably Mussolini) and donated to cities in Romania; the original’s in Rome since the 15th century.
The classic shot of this is zooming lengthwise down the plaza, filling the background with the cathedral or theatre. Not for my camera. Both sides of the plaza are lined with early-20th century apartment buildings, kind of a Romanian / Austro-Hungarian / Banat equivalent of Gründerzeit or Victorian architecture, massive solidity and 2-3 story cambered roofs wrapped in Art Nouveau and Deco balconies and stonework. Except, that is, for the south-east corner, which has a pair of International Brutalist apartment blocks that fit in beautifully — well, to my taste anyway. Love me some proper Brutalism.
So for me, there’s a really nice interplay between a 11th or 12th century Mediæval wolf, 15th century Renaissance twins, on a Classical column with a backdrop of two opposing styles of 20th century architecture.
It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.
What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!
Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.
Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.
On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.
Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).
Books! I have read them!
Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings; Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.
I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.
This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.
Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.
Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.
All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)
I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.
I tried to broaden my non-fiction reading a little again, move outside the clag of mediæval history. So I read Amy Shira Teitel’s Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA, Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, and Jo Walton’ What Makes This Book So Great. All excellent works in completely different ways, and which remind me I need to read more astronomy, astrophysics, and geology this year.
The Book of the Year though — and I’m forcing myself to pick only one — comes from another trio: Kathryn Babayan and Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire; Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens; and Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.
Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.
Other books well worth reading: Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Mediæval of course: Miri Rubin’s Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures, and Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice.
And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.
Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.
My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
Miri Rubin’s Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures is one of my most recent bunch of northern European mediæval art / history that are somewhat of a continuation from my reading of the works of Caroline Walker Bynum — who also has a work in this bunch. Rubin was one of several historians on a list given to me by an actual mediæval historian. I was looking for fresh reading of the calibre of Bynum (which for any of you who’ve been reading supernaut for a while know I’m mad fond of her brilliance) and popped the question to him. He passed it on, and the contact replied, “CWB is quite wonderful, so it’s not easy to find another like her in any discipline. […] The best women writing in medieval art right now are probably Jacqueline Jung, Aden Kumler, and Beate Fricke. Miri Rubin and Barbara Newman are also great; not art historians but both women are widely read by art historians and end up discussing art in useful ways.”
So I’m reading Miri Rubin. I’m also reading Beate Fricke. Jacqueline Jung translated Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts which I eventually had to say “No!” to, there’s only so much 19th century Euro-nationalist bollocks I can stomach. The primary difficulty I have with all these writers is many if not most of their published works cost in the mid- to high- double figures, and some even hurtle into triple-figure territory. I know I have a reputation to uphold of profligate book aquiring but there are limits.
Rubin then, I’ve just started reading. It’s a small work, a collection of her lectures presented “in the framework of the Natalie Zemon Davis Annual Lecture Series at the Central European University, Budapest.” So far it’s very nice, particularly when she talks about the global nature of the development of Mary and Christianity, its interconnection with the Near- and Middle East, North Africa, Judaism, and while the part I’m reading is pre-Islam, nonetheless also pre-Islamic religions of the region. As with Bynum, I suspect Rubin’s name is going to appear here in the near future.