Reading: Caroline Walker Bynum — Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe

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 ReligionJesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle AgesHoly 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.

Reading: Caroline Walker Bynum — Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe
Reading: Caroline Walker Bynum — Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe

Gallery

Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig

Friday was our day off, day after première. Melanie and I decided on Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, the opaque glass monolith just inside the ring road near the Hauptbahnhof. I was there for the mediæval art. Was disappointed. Maybe I missed some rooms or floors, maybe that part was closed. Either way, I saw exactly zero Cranach the Elder, Michel Erhart, Rogier van der Weyden, Meister Francke, Hans Baldung, or anything prior to early-16th century.

Perhaps I was spoilt by the Grassi Museum — ok, I was totally spoilt — but I left MDBK in under two hours unimpressed and went back to the Grassi. This morning, I was eating breakfast thinking about writing this and a simile for the museum came to me: A couple of weeks ago Mark Webber finished his motorsport career, in the World Endurance Championship Porsche LMP1 at Bahrain International Circuit. It’s a dog of a circuit. One of those generic strip malls of a track designed by Hermann Tilke, the Forza gaming engine of architecture. These tracks are the finest expression of no-consequence racing and bland geometry, the antithesis of tracks like Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps, Circuit de la Sarthe, Macao street circuit.

To me, the architecture of MDBK embodies the contemporary neo-liberal politic and aesthetic of a museum, one that doesn’t have much use for either people or art, one that impels the viewer (or ‘customer’ as museum visitors are now) through the circuit with no consequences. It’s not a Bilbao Guggenheim (in terms of architectural mayhem), but does conform to the same misplaced consumer aesthetic, just as every city must now have its own London Eye. A week ago when I blogged some images of the architecture, I said I wasn’t sure if it embodied the architectural sublime of public spaces, or was hatefully depersonalised. As I was editing these images and looking at them in context of that vast space, it became obvious the space is designed to seduce the customer into believing it is sublime, but in fact it is a crematorium for art.

The MDBK is like the Holocaust Tower in Daniel Liebeskind’s Jüdisches Museum Berlin, the voids and axes pushing the visitor inexorably into the empty, cold, lightless shard of a part-buried tower, only a slit at the very top letting in weak light and making it bitterly cold in winter. But there is no meaning or context here, just seeking to replicate the thrill of that architecture without understanding or caring for the consequences. It’s exactly the kind of ‘space’ that will get filled with “conceptual dance in museums” of the Mette Ingvartsen, Tino Seghal type. I fucking hate it.

The art then, when I could find it, and it was not lost in a glare of overhead natural lighting. I feel kinda uninspired to write about much of it, especially after the glorious ride that was Grassimuseum. There was stacks of Jugenstil, the German Art Nouveau. I love the architecture and design, but the art is fixated on dodgy and fetishising imaginings of women, plus a gratuitous European Christian whiteness I can’t look at without seeing where that led to a couple of decades later.

Elsewhere, there was one, small El Greco. I love him, his strange, soft oval faces, the blunt, expressionist use of colour, brushwork and movement. I’d love to see a whole exhibition of him. There’s also Frans Hals’ Der “Mulatte” which while given that title, looks to be a match for Peeckelhaeringh. Neither were easy to photograph, with light glare and glass obstacles.

As much as I just ragged on Jugenstil, Max Klinger was … well, he was a Symbolist. But there’s so much crossover between the two, and Romanticism, even Impressionism, it’s a bit like only listening to country music and then being asked to differentiate between Chicago House, Detroit Techno, NY Garage. Of course they’re different, but they also share plenty of artistic and cultural similarities. And an illiterate hick like me can’t tell my Jugendstil from Symbolism.

After visiting Muzeul de Artă Timișoara, similarly uninspiring, I said, “Get rid of all the generic European art history stuff first. People aren’t going to Timișoara for that.” Same applies here. People aren’t going to Leipzig for Rubens, but make the whole MDBK about Leipzig and surrounding artists (and don’t even try to tell me there weren’t mediæval artists doing brilliant work in Sachsen region). It’s almost that anyway, with multiple rooms of Klinger. The light in Die Blaue Stunde is transfixing, just stare at it for a while; Der Tod am Wasser has a skeletal Death pissing in a lake; Christus im Olymp takes up an entire room, something photos seldom capture, the figures are life-size; Eine Gesandtschaft reminds me of Max Slevogt; the pair of double doors, Türflügelpaar mit Raub des Ganymed Melanie wants to steal for her bathroom.

Then the collection moves into later artists, Max Beckmann, Max Pechstein, Otto Mueller, Karl Hofer, Oskar Kokoschka, Hans Grundig, Conrad Felixmüller, members of expressionism, Die Brücke or Neue Sachlichkeit movements, and all called Degenerate Artists by the Nazis and persecuted for this. I’m down with expressionism, living here, and going to cities in this part of Germany, it’s so clear what an important break it was with artistic and cultural history, and why it’s no surprise so many of the artists were persecuted.

Which makes it curious why an artist like Elisabeth Voigt is among them. When I saw Fallschirmjäger I, and the date, 1941, I thought, “There’s someone jumping on the ‘War is Hell’ bandwagon.” Unlike the other artists, no mention of persecution, or much Nazi or wartime goings on beyond her Berlin atelier being bombed twice in 1945, information I gleaned from around the internet. Some of the other artists spent much of the war in concentration camps, or fled Germany. For me, these things are important, and an integral part of contextualising art and artists. Otherwise it’s just colourful wallpaper.

One last thing, in a stairwell: Marian Luft’s Funtasies (Tumblr Transparent), a flashing LED lightbox of hallucinogenic colour. I tried to film it, which caught Melanie’s voice reading bits of text.

More Dasniya. More Shibari. More Art.

You thought I was joking about Dasniya only being in Berlin on a Tuesday? Right now she’s in Oldenburg, then she’s off to Warsaw, then back to Berlin to perform, then I dunno — too far in the future to scry. Definitely in Berlin in December with Das Helmi though. Plenty of rope/shibari/bondage/yoga workshops in November too (and Wellness to Torture is still the best name for a workshop ever).

Dasniya says:

Dear Rope and Theatre Friends,

the must-be event of the month is the Porn Film Festival 2016, starting next week. Check out my first photo exhibition Moviemento cinema! For November there will be five morning classes, and a bondage gig for Arte.

Also back in November: Yoga Shibari, and Self-Suspension #2.

Oil–burn your ropes and stay warm,

Dasniya

Here’s everything. You can also keep up with her news on her blog, Zur Zeit; on Twitter, @dasniyasommer; or her mailing list.

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Reading: Gude Suckale-Redlefsen — Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice

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.

Gude Suckale-Redlefsen — Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice
Gude Suckale-Redlefsen — Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice

Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All My Visits to Gemäldegalerie Berlin

I think I’ve been more than six times to the Gemäldegalerie, but a couple of those visits were without camera – though with friend! So we all don’t get lost, here they all are, along with 300 or more photos: