The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
All the Victoria & Albert Museum. Well, all the mediæval stuff. That I could find. Plus some renaissance stuff, and a couple of other nice pieces. Masses of art from a Sunday afternoon with the awesome Jennifer Evans for company. Shared hangover also. In the sun in the courtyard garden. Romping the halls and galleries.
I saw: half of Level 0; less than a third of Level 1; a bit under half of Level 2; not much more than a quarter of Level 3; nothing of Levels 4 and 5; dunno if Level 6 even exists. All that in five hours until I got kicked out. I get booted from museums at closing time like most people get booted from bars, pubs, and clubs.
I missed: The brilliant Würzburg St. Maurice wooden statue because … I dunno. Was the room closed? Did I think there was nothing in the next room? Like many museums, incompleteness is a reason to return, to the city and the museum.
Best thing: It’s free! Blimey! So was the National Gallery. What kind of witchcraft is that where museums are free? Other best thing: It’s organised by material as well as chronologically. Which is frankly awesome. Another best thing: It was packed. And I mean packed. They must get millions of visitors a year. Yay, art! (Good estimate based on a single day, Frances: 3.5 million in 2015.)
How many photos did you take, Frances? A shade over 300, including captions. And how many have you blogged? This is the bit that always embarrasses me when I’ve finished editing them all: 111. The number’s kinda like an objective remark on my tendency towards excessive fun. I mean it’s not like I’m banging heroin anymore, is it? Museums it is, then.
Speaking of massive altarpieces, here we go. Level 1 of Victoria & Albert Museum, the ground floor entrance, lofty, airy ceilings and art stretching up to them. It’s a bit like the Bode Museum for scale of art and architecture. Unlike the Bode, it’s packed. People are promenading like it’s life’s greatest accomplishment to wander around mediæval art. Which it is.
I’m first taken by The Troyes Altarpiece. We’re getting into very Late Mediæval / Early Renaissance here, and it’s not the most virtuoso altarpiece I’ve seen, it’s in limestone so the finesse possible in wood isn’t here, but it has a solidity and depth, like exaggerated perspective between the foreground and background figures. It’s not even especially large compared to The Brixen Altarpiece, which is so huge it’s impossible to look up at without seeing converging lines. Because photographs turn everything, no matter how big or small, into objects of the same dimension and all scale is lost, my head is about level with the heads of the four saints in the predella of The Brixen Altarpiece.
There were also several works I couldn’t or didn’t photograph, either because they were under glass, or I was too hasty. The Brixen Altarpiece was only one of many similarly gigantic altarpieces; The St Margaret Altarpiece was another. An especially fine Northern Germanic piece of a saint I rarely see, and certainly never with her life and torture so disturbingly depicted. This was made around the same time as The Brixen Altarpiece, yet shows the style that continued to develop north of the Alps, distinct from the Renaissance in Italy.
And then there’s Andrea della Robbia’s The Adoration of the Kings, also around the same time and from Italy, in tin-glazed terracotta, and very much committed to Renaissance and even anticipating the Baroque. I think this is one of the V&A’s more famous pieces, and it’s gorgeous in real life. It exemplifies the character of the V&A collections. They’re concerned with materiality; the works on display emphasise the diversity of choice of materials, of techniques, of aesthetics, making the museum as much a place of science and technology as art.
Last piece in these rooms, Perino del Vaga’s The Raising of Lazarus I mention because I realised I’m attracted to works like this fresco, or some of the preparatory sketches or unfinished works (I’m thinking of Pieter Brueghel’s De Aanbiddung der Wijzen here) where there’s a softness and visible exploratory process.
From there, I went into the Cast Courts, where I knew I had no hope; the V&A had been playing with me up to then. It wasn’t quite Louvre scale of tiny people in epic architecture, but for sure reminded me of it. So I got lost trying to find the sculpture corridors, completely missed the St. Mauritius sculpture in the last room (I still have no idea if I was inattentive or if it wasn’t open), turned around, got lost in acres of the Asian collection (Persian miniatures are my thing and I almost put the brakes on the rest of my mediævaling for this and the Islamic collection), found the Raphael rooms—he’s really not my thing, I think people like him because they confuse their fascination with a kind of seductive, transfixing blandness for the sublime, a lot like how people do over the Mona Lisa—the altarpiece was impressive the way the megalith is in 2001—also not Raphael but the ‘Master of the Centenar’ (possible German painter Andrès Marçal de Sas)—sometimes I wish museums put multi-level viewing platforms (with binoculars) in front of these towering pieces, but that’s just because I love smearing my nose right up against the art. Then I’m off up the stairs to Levels 2 and 3.
Enter via the Tube. Any city where you get off the subway and there’s a direct entrance into a museum is a proper city. The Victoria & Albert Museum, or V&A was on my, ‘probably worth a quick perv’ list, but I had no idea what I was in for. Six massive floors of art, pilfered from around the world? Oh, yes! I turned up on a very sunny Sunday with Jenn, both squinting with a bit of a hangover. She works in the British Library, in the Asian and African Reading Rooms, full of stuff from the Dunhuang Buddhist caves — something for my next visit to London. We spent at least an hour not budging from the lawn of the courtyard before going down into mediæval land.
The rooms of the Medieval & Renaissance 300 – 1500 collection is quietly spectacular. What distinguishes V&A from other museums I’ve visited is how they understand the inseparable history of art and design. In Berlin’s Staatliche Museen you get paintings in the Gemäldegalerie, sculpture in Bode Museum, and arbitrary divisions putting a bunch of pieces that are too 3-dimensional to be painting but not enough to be sculpture in one or the other. By looking at the materiality of the works (and I’m thinking of Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe here) there’s not such a need to force arbitrary categories (though I’m aware the National Gallery is also full of altarpieces as paintings), and we get works in ivory, metal, wood, glass, stone, and any combination of these that seemed appropriate to the artist. Further, there’s a seamless flow from Early to High Middle Ages, where frequently I see Early split off into more archæological contexts, and High as art proper.
Many of the early works — from around 400 to 1100 — are small pieces in walrus ivory, with stone becoming more prevalent in the 1100s, and highly competent techniques in all materials developing in the following couple of hundred years. One of my favourite shifts happens with International Gothic, where the flat, verticality of bodies suddenly burst into movement, things flourish and flow everywhere as if caught in a fresh breeze, and the public begins to appear in the picture: individuals, groups, crowds arrive to fill the vision and comment on the main action. And I can’t choose between this or the styles they supersede. Or rather seem to swing between. When I look at The Deposition from the Cross (image 3) or Fragment from a Deposition (image 9), both from the mid-late-1100s, and compare them with The Symmachi Panel (image 1), Front Cover of the Lorsch Gospels (image 2), and Panel with the Adoration of the Kings (image 15) from 400, 800, and early-mid-1100 respectively, all from variously Germany, England, Italy, Spain, I see a shifting back and forth between ideas of representation that don’t strictly propose progressive development or evolution — at least maybe until the Late Middle Ages.
I mention those pieces also because I find them beautiful and even strange, like the popping eyes of Panel with the Adoration of the Kings, or the intricate opulence of the Tabernacle (images 4-8), which looks like it should unfurl with mechanical glory. One of my favourites is the small Portable Altarpiece (images 27 and 28) by the Master of the Louis XII Triptych, in painted enamel on copper, which the V&A describe at length. My photos are more faithful to the original, but still don’t do service to the sublime colours, shadows, movement. I also love the Tapestry (images 29-31), because it depicts a woman “in fashionable dress undertaking a spiritual journey … she finally enters a convent” and I imagine it’s the story of Hildegard of Bingen or Mechthild of Magdeburg. As well, it’s an entire work of art devoted to a woman’s life and story, which is something I love mediæval art for.
Master Bertram’s Triptych with Scenes from the Apocalypse (images 32-37) is frankly scary bonkers. The V&A have an excellent article on the decision whether to clean the altarpiece — in fact their entire journal archive is worth losing a week or two in. I’m not sure why Jesus has a green-black face, but that’s what he has. There’s so much to see in this triptych, it’s worth opening the images and scrolling around their vastness.
As usual there were plenty of pieces I didn’t or couldn’t photograph (even really good lighting and presentation doesn’t mean a photographable work will result), plus this was only one half of one floor and I had no idea how overwhelmed I was going to get. Up the stairs and into Level 1 for more mediæval awesomeness.
Last stop on my Landesmuseum Oldenburg visit, the Oldenburger Schloß, where I was looking forward to a whole stack of medieval and Baroque applied arts and design, and wouldn’tcha know it? All that was closed. Lucky for me of the three it was by far the most massive, three and an half floors of a possible four open and only an hour before I had to get back to the theatre. And straight into mediæval wooden sculpture I land.
I was reminded of Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, which remains one of the finest collections I’ve seen, and for a small town frankly shames big city museums with the care and pleasure taken in displaying art. So I land in the exhibition room Kirche im Mittelalter and am totally giddy with joy. It’s the way museums should be: a visceral, emotional effect. I’m quite aware of being manipulated by the curators, how they’ve arranged a wall of standing Marias and Katharinas and Barbaras, and how I want to run past them all to see what else is there. This is small museums’ strength, so far from the overwhelming endurance of say, the Louvre or London’s V&A (which I’m yet to blog, but it’s coming) where there’s an expectation of quantity and size; it’s like in Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes, walking into a hall and seeing floor to ceiling colossal Rubens, and having no idea this was about to happen, and suddenly I’ve got to deal with being slammed by art.
Two of my favourites here are Hl. Katharina and Hl. Barbara, probably a pair flanking a central figure or tableau, like the Hl. Maria mit dem Kind between them, given how they’re leaning like they’re both well stoned. Katharina’s all, “Nah, I’m good—no wait, just a little toke, cheers,” can barely focus her eyes.
In another room there’s the weirdest Pennyfarthing-ish bike I’ve ever seen, the Hochrad ‘Xtraordinary’, which coincidentally I’ve seen recently revisited in crossfit-extreme-bro-fixie-distruption-Kickstarter land, except with moving handles. There’s a reason why this engineering design is a bicycling evolutionary dead-end.
Next room over, more of a chamber or hall, all white and gold, chandeliers, refined opulence, is a tapestry in its home. In all my museuming I’ve seen a stack of tapestries, but never hanging as it would have done, a part of the environment, an extension of architecture and design. Despite sun bleaching and fading on the lower third, water stains, and generally ‘needs restoration’ it was beautiful. The colours when it was new must have been overpowering, as must have the power and wealth it signified.
There were other, similar rooms in the top floor and throughout which I never saw, being closed for renovations and new exhibitions. Some of them are on the museum website, along with a virtual tour. And with that, I split. Another brilliant museum joyride. Out the door, around the road on the former city wall, back to Exerzierhalle for the second evening of theatre and festival.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.