Three months ago, during Ramadan, I decided I needed more art goals. This morning I got up early and rode the Berliner Mauerweg for eight hours. 173 kilometres of cobblestones, gravel, deteriorating single lane concrete roads, forest trails (mixed with gravel and more cobbles, or sand), single track, sand everywhere, plus some rather luxurious roads and bike paths for the other slightly more than half. I’ve been thinking of this and other not-quite-art / definitely-art as Solo Endurance Works. Emma Pooley has been a big (remote / unaware) mentor for this, particularly the work I do on a bike, however it might (or might not) make itself as art. Either way, I’m pretty fucking tired, sore, exhausted, space out, possibly rather pleased with myself in the wash of all that raked over-ness. And there’s so much to say about history, the Berlin Wall (along which Germans should have to walk each year, like performing the Hajj), my own selfhood and my struggles with, which is the reason for this in the first place. Another time.
Embrace the Suffering.
Accept it and Suffer.
Make the pain your choice, and be happy about it.
Practice to ride like you care.
You have to really care about it, you have to really suffer. — Emma Pooley
That’s what one of the pair of old, white-haired German women said across the gallery to the other while standing before the pink and blue scribbling of Zwei Badende. Shortly after, she snorted at Max Liebermann in seinem Atelier, offered the faintest of praise for Sängerin am Piano, and as we tacked our separate ways through the exhibition continued her derision, as if she was a good jury member for Entartete Kunst. I’d like to think she was unaware of the irony, but this is Germany at the end of 2016 and even in the heart of Berlin there are Nazis who tell themselves and each other they’re not Nazis.
So, me at Neuen Galerie im Hamburger Bahnhof seeing Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen, and also my first museum visit where I arranged to bring my camera. Most of the special exhibitions in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are No Cameras Allowed. Without photographing plus subsequent blogging there isn’t much point to my museum trips, thanks then to the Kommunikation department for making it easy (even though it turned out cameras were anyway allowed).
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner: Hieroglyphen presents the 17 works in Berlin’s currently closed for renovations Neue Nationalgalerie collection, plus works from Kirchner Museum Davos, Brücke Museum, and private collections. Besides the core paintings, there are sketches and works on paper, wood sculptures, photographs from Kirchner’s various ateliers, books, and some dancing. It’s not a huge exhibition, if you were slamming Hamburger Bahnhof you could whip through in 15 minutes. I spent an hour there and could have easily used up another. These works and the accompanying text deserve contemplation.
Kirchner used the word Hieroglyph himself in articles published under the pseudonym Louis de Marsalle, to describe how he worked with a symbolic language in his work as part of “the radical abbreviation and reduction of his imagery.” The exhibition starts with this text, and an essay in a book, accompanied by the sketch Tanzduo. Which I thought looks exactly like Dasniya, down to the face and bloomers under tutu.
In this first section are works I’m most familiar with of his, Haus unter Bäumen, Badende am Strand, both from Fehmarn, up on the Ostsee north-east of Hamburg. It then returns to dance. He, like many artists then, frequently painted dancers, possibly the influence of Ballets Russes who blew away the ballet world in 1909.
Opposite the dance section is Davos, where he moved after having a breakdown and while dealing with drug addition and alcoholism. There was a beautiful, huge tapestry hanging on the wall, unfortunately under perspex and unphotographable — the only work to suffer this, all the other artworks were under that magical unreflective glass — and probably the pick of the exhibition. His style changes here too, the late-’20s, early-’30s of Wiesenblumen und Katze or Sängerin am Piano flatter and with Cubist elements, almost alien to his earlier frenzy.
Berlin forms its own section, with some of my favourite pieces I would love to steal. The incredible Potsdamer Platz is here, as is Rheinbrücke in Köln and Der Belle-Alliance-Platz in Berlin. These form yet another distinct style, at first glance not different from the Fehmarn works, but they’re far lighter, faster, almost like watercolour on paper. Erna Schilling also arrives, his life partner from then on. These aren’t easy works. Kirchner populates the cityscape with what he called ‘Kokotte’, coquettes, sex workers, and the men, always diminished figures on the sides carry an anonymous menace.
Around the next corner, and one of the contextually most interesting for me. But first, Sitzender Akt mit erhobenen Armen, which I cannot help look at and see a nice plate of two fried eggs, sunny side up beside the naked woman. I know they’re supposed to be flowers in vases, but it’s all eggs to me. What’s more pertinent here is his use of colour on the shadows outlining her body. They’re a turquoise that contrasts the apricots and light salmon colours of her skin. When I look at this and compare it to Zwei weibliche Akte in Landschaft, with the hallucinogenic greens, yellows, pinks, blues of their bodies, it becomes clear how the latter in no way denotes a non-natural skin colour, nor do the greens and yellows of the Potsdamer Platz women or other portraits.
This painting was in the section called “Signs of Other Worlds” and discusses the influence of non-European art and culture on his and other Brücke artists’ work and life. Both African and Oceania form influences, and both were sites of German Colonialism until the end of World War I. It’s difficult for me to know where Kirchner sits in this. On one side he was horrified by the treatment of Jewish Germans even in the early-’30s, and was expelled by the Nazis from the Prussian Academy of Arts when they came to power in 1933, yet he also saw what he and the Brücke artists were doing as encouraging “truly German art, made in Germany”. So there’s this tension between radical aspirations and uncritical nationalism and colonialism.
Carl Einstein’s (a German Jewish writer, art historian, anarchist and critic) book Negerplastik is described as an important influence, and two copies are presented alongside Kirchner’s work. This influence is immediately apparent in his sculpture, even without prompting, but I like that this connection was explicitly made.
There’s also one photo that achieved the glorious down-the-rabbit-hole I love about museums. All the photos are postcard-sized, and being a hundred years old, not sharp or clean at all. This one, from Kirchner Museum Davos was captioned “Die Artisten Milly und Sam in Kirchners Atelier, Berliner Straße 80, Dresden” from circa 1910/11. It’s set in a chaotic room, artworks, hangings, and sculpture propped up against walls, littering the floor. There are two naked figures, Milly, in the bottom-left corner, and Sam, standing, one arm on his hip, the other stretched along the top of a painting. Both of them are black. They have names, are called ‘artists’ (Artisten), so what were they doing in Berlin in 1910?
For a start, this isn’t the only work they appear in. Milly is the subject of Kirchner’s Schlafende Milly in Kunsthalle Bremen, both were the subjects of numerous sketches by Kirchner, and Milly probably appears in more than one work without being named. Both of them are said to have also modelled for Erich Heckel. An alternate title for the photo is “Sam und Millie vom ‘Zirkus Schumann’”, and they are variously described as ‘circus’, ‘jazz dancer’, and ‘Black American’ artistes in sources cited in Face to Face? An Ethical Encounter with Germany’s Dark Strangers in August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century. So there’s this whole history of early-20th century Afro-Germans, colonialism, immigration in this one small, easily missed photo, which is a lot to put on a naked man and woman, about whom not much is known. It’s these traces though that history is all about. A single photo, a name, and a world opens up.
A little note on the nudity: Kirchner and friends were all down with getting naked and running around. Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture) was and is a deeply German thing. There were several photos of “naked but for a cigarette” in the exhibition. It might be this one was only one of a series, though how comfortable they were with nudity, whether they felt objectified, how Kirchner and the other artists regarded them, I can’t speculate.
A final note: Shortly after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss, Kirchner, living in Switzerland and fearing a similar invasion, killed himself.
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:
Six times (that I count) I’ve been to the Gemäldegalerie. Am I bored with it? Is that even a question? Do you know how huge it is? It takes me 3 hours just to get through the mediæval art – Northern European and Italian that is – which leaves around 2/3rds of the place unseen. Not that I cared, I really was just antsy for some old shit to stare at, and did it disappoint? Hell no!
It gets better every time, partly because there’s so many favourites of mine – Hans Baldung’s (gen. Grien) Der Dreikönigsaltar, Meister des Aachener Altars’ Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige, I’m talking about, but oh so many others. I gave St. Mauritius in Baldung’s alter a wink, “Saw you in Magdeburg, dude!” “Awesooome! You know St. Katharina’s over there?” “Fuck no, I didn’t! St. Katharina!” “Hey Frances! You’ve been ignoring me!” I’d been walking past her every time cos she’s on a separate wing and not part of the main altarpiece. Saving photographing her for my next visit.
Speaking of not paying attention, I didn’t really want to photograph much, but also knew I kinda needed to: it’s part of the deal. So I’m looking at Albrecht Dürer’s one, the famous one of Hieronymus Holzschuher, and beside that there’s this small, matt black rectangle of I dunno, never looked at it too closely cos it’s not very impressive – until you look at it closely. It’s the sliding cover for Dürer’s portrait, and has the coat of arms of both Holzschuher and Dorothea Müntzer, to whom he was married. It’s indeed as dark as in the photos below.
Then there was Die Madonna als Apokalyptische Frau, which I like just for the title (and sorted out a little more why she’s occasionally rolling in a slammed crescent moon). It’s next to Diptychon mit der Kreuzigung und dem Schmerzensmann, which is near the top of my, “Oh yes, I will steal you one day,” list, and just over from Maria am Spinnrocken, which I love because Maria’s there spinning (& yes, she does have a creepy old man perving on her through the window).
Die Kreuzigung Christi (Kaufmannsche Kreuzigung) I’ve photographed before, but in the two years since I’ve been heavily photographing art, I’ve got a lot better (or I convince myself I have) and a lot of the earlier stuff is frankly shitful. As well, I love this one for the arrangement of people on both sides of the crucifixion. I’ve noticed recently that these group portraits can be seen at the subject of the work, rather than the obvious dude bleeding everywhere who is needed so they have an excuse to be all present. It’s striking to hold my hand up blotting him out, and see just how prominent and crucial these clusters of the public are.
As usual, there’s a few Die Anbetung der Könige. The one after Jacques Daret wasn’t in my St. Mauritius & Companions post, which shows you how much I miss even after half a dozen visits. What’s interesting here – besides being a truly beautiful work – is how representation of blackness in mediæval art isn’t explicitly tied to skin tone. Or that’s what I’m thinking lately. These three Magi look not so different from Mary or the old geezer slobbering on baby Jesus’ hand, but knowing how they are frequently—predominately represented in mediæval art, it’s enough to interpret signifiers like the slightly different skin tone of each of the three, their headdresses, the colour of their hair and say who Balthazar here is (and Caspar and Melchior for that matter).
On to Maria Magdalene, im Hintergrund Christus bei Martha, which is a marvel, her dressed in furs with a lute (or an oud if you like), and the detail in her apartment: the pale azure cups and plate high on one wall, the backgammon board left mid-game, her with a sheet music book that’s entirely legible, much more going on here than simply Mary Magdalene.
Here I reversed out of the right wing of the Gamäldegalerie and crossed over into the left wing where the Italian collection lives. Giotto di Bondone’s Die Kreuzigung Christi is another one of those crucifixions with a lively public gathered below. I’ve seen this one before, and no, I did not notice the back of his head, in 3/4 reverse profile. Then there’s Giovanni di Paolo’s Zwei Tafeln einer Predella – Die Einkleidung der hl. Klara durch den hl. Franziskus, which is St. Klara of Assis joining the church after hearing St. Francis of Assisi preach. I’d not heard of her before, but she’s contemporaneous with Mechthild von Magdeburg and that mob and a bit of an Italian sister in similarity.
I was finding it strange to be looking at Italian mediæval art, being so involved in Northern European stuff. The differences are not so pronounced before the mid-1400s, in fact the east-west differences are the most obvious – that and the differences in pigments and colour choices. It’s only when Italy gets into using perspective that things change. And even then for much of the duration of the 15th century, it’s only the backgrounds that display this shift; the groupings and arrangements of people remain relatively flat within themselves. Along with this, there’s an obvious move to more naturalistic, softer styles. Look at Ferraresisch’s Die Muse Polyhymnia, it could be an early 20th century work if not for the obviously mediæval background.
Francisco Ubertini’s Die Taufe Christi, almost 100 years after perspective was first used in Florence still retains a kind of static, pseudo-perspective tableau approach, small clustered groups that decrease in size and move higher up the landscape the further they are from the viewer, more two-dimensional than actual perspective. Oh and a quite excellent work I spent my last minutes oogling. There’s so many different people and clothing here, plus it has White Angels Throwing Up Gang Signs.
Two hours and a bit. Then a sharp bike ride to Hasenheide for Sarah-Jane’s barfday on a warm Berlin Sunday.
Tuesday, I hauled self off to the Gemäldegalerie for The Botticelli Renaissance exhibition. I … eeeeh … let’s save that for another time. Once in though, obviously I couldn’t say no to a little perving at mediæval art. I have a major crush on Hans Baldung’s awesome Der Dreikönigsaltar but couldn’t devote my empty reel of (SD card) film to that alone, so I decided to look at all the glorious detail—which turned into some portraiture, and ended up getting well carried away in the Germanic, Flemish, and Netherlands sections (I made it to the Italian but for some reason my camera battery thinks around the 350th image is a good time to go flat.)
I appreciate this collection more and more each time I see it (fifth or sixth time in the last 18 months now). The older works by unnamed artists and workshops, the works by Hans Holbein the Elder, Hans Baldung, Hans Multscher, Der Meister des Aachener Altars, as well as better-known artist like Lucas Cranach and Peter Paul Rubens, so many I love and get stupidly happy every time I see them in their flesh and bones again. So, here’s not a complete dump (extenuating circumstances of flat battery, out of focus images, need to not edit and upload hundreds of images) of works I particularly like.
The first, on the right in the first room, is the Kölnisch Christus am Kreuz mit Heiligen from ~1430. The delicate, tiny angels in black robes collecting Jesus’ blood, levitating with filigree wings on gold, it’s a joyous start to the collection. The Türingisch Auferstehungsaltar aus Arnstadti, nearby and also from around the same time is a mass of detail across its three panels. From the diversity of the saints in the left panel, to the women in the right, the curling speech scrolls winding madly across and around everyone, the sleeping guards at the feet of Jesus arisen in the central panel, the stunning use of colour, blues and golds, reds, oranges, how it’s both artificial in its staging yet bursting with life and movement and individuality.
Another one I’ve photographed before—well, most of these I have—the Meister des Gereon-Altars Marienaltar aus St. Gereon, again from Köln around the same time. This one has a brilliant St. Mauritius in green and gold wearing a red cape, but it was the poor footless child on wooden clogs being clothed by a female saint in the right wing that I noticed this time, a motif once seen turning up frequently.
The workshop of Konrad Witz’ Der Ratschluß der Erlösung I just liked for the portrayal of a woman who is old and wrinkled, yet clearly highly regarded. This is something I notice in mediæval art which attracts me: the representation of difference and diversity; a representation that diminishes after the renaissance until by the 19th century, it’s wall-to-wall stuffy old white men.
Hans Multscher’s Die Flügel des Wurzacher Altars, an eight-panel work with an excellent Adoration of the Magi packed with people from everywhere, has beneath it the Death of Mary, and the faces, heads with hair and balding patés, beards and teeth and headdresses, actually I could almost call this collection of photos “Headdress of the Mediæval.” I’ve been reading Aloïs Riegl’s Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, and one thing he says about Northern European mediæval art is that the representation of the world is not one attempting perfection, trying to outdo nature, rather it is one of imperfection in its fullness and completeness. I’d look at this stuff any day over the mediocre ‘perfection’ of Botticelli.
The robes in Thronende Maria mit dem Kind (Glatzer Madonna) are worth commenting on. First, the strong blankets of cobalt blue, crimson, and vermillion for the robes of Mary block out the lower central part of the panel. While the blue, visible on Mary’s chest and around her feet denotes royalty, it’s the vermillion spilling from under the green and gold clad baby Jesus’ and from the lining of Mary’s robes which denotes blood and sacrifice.
The Altarretabel mit der Kreuzigung Christi, (Westfälisch, from the Kirche St. Maria zur Weise in Soest, ~1230/40) is one of the first altarpieces north of the alps. Sometimes I wonder if the Gemäldegalerie slip in new works every so often. I love the linework and detailed colour in this, it seems almost crude on first glance, but it’s an incredibly articulate work. In the centre is Jesus crucified, but what’s going on on either side is the true story here: On the left, from his spear wound (always a black, negative space rimmed with red, a portal out of the world) a stream flows and leaps horizontally into a chalice; behind the bearer the word, “ecclesia”. On the right, an angel with a spear pushes a blindfolded figure away, crown flying off their head. Behind this figure, the word “synagoga.”
Next to this is the similarly aged Altarretabel in drei Abteilung mit dem Gnadenstuhl (Westfälisch, from the Kirche St. Maria zur Weise in Soest, after 1250), which has a similar but much stronger style and angularity, more like a mosaic than painting. I feel such stark design didn’t return in art until the 20th century, and that comic book and graphic novel art are probably the greatest inheritors of this.
Back in the 1400s, Meister LCz (Meister des Strache-Altars) Christus vor Pilatus is all about faces and headwear again, then about hands; Meister der Darmstädter Passion’s altar wing is definitely about the head gear, it’s a furry hat party.
The Meister des Aachener Altars is one of my favourite artists, and Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige one of my favourite works in the gallery. I’ve photographed the crap out of it, but this is a figure I’d overlooked, up in the background, carrying a spear, pierced ears with heavy rings, a pearl headdress with a fine, white feather. I like also how so many people look beatific in mediæval art, it reminds me of buddhist art—when it’s not all demons and torture.
Some more portraits, Hans Holbein the Elder’s Maria mit dem schlafenden Christuskind with the cherub and its magnificent plumage (I could do a whole series on angel wings and not repeat myself). Also the baby Jesus fully sated and passed out on Mary’s breast. Then there’s Die Kreuzigung Christi (Kaufmannsche Kreuzigung), fairly standard in its interpretation of the Crucifixion, all the players are accounted for, blood is spritzing, but the contorted bodies, faces, hands, the mass of bodies shoved together, how the work is split into upper (the crucified against a plain gold background) and lower (the crowd of bodies and robes) elevates it to something other.
A new favourite! A Mitteldeutscher Meister, Diptychon mit der Kreuzigung und dem Schmerzensmann, from around 1400. It’s two not-large panels, a trio in each. The Crucifixion with Mary and Magdalena on the left, and Jesus risen (in the Holy Vagina) with an apostle and Mary on the right. The spare use of colour and form is remarkable, and I feel sure there is an Islamic influence here, with the geometric background and the solid blue shapes of the robes. The second panel is stranger still, with Jesus in the Iris-shaped aperture, it and him radiating golden shards, and above, part of a huge blue orb which only when looking closely is full with lighter blue angels. It’s a really unusual piece, more like abstract Persian art than mediæval European.
Soon after is a follower of Jan van Eyck, Christus am Kreuz, one of the first naturalistic works, and only 40 years later. Again, an older Mary, eyes red-rimmed (like she had chilli rubbed in), face contorted with tears and anguish, and with the distinct interlaced fingers with palms downturned, a gesture that starts recurring.
More works, then Hans Baldung (Grien or Grün, so-named because of his green clothes and his strong use of the colour green): Der Dreikönigsaltar. Really one of my all-time favourites, and one of the most spectacular representations of St. Mauritius, fully clad in armour, jaunty as all fuck. I’ve photographed this piece to its knees, so was hugely surprised to see in the background of the central panel a group of knights on horses, one with a white banner on which is a silhouette of St. Mauritius in the exact same pose. I should have said that some of these photos are parts of paintings covering only a few centimetres, like this one; it’s difficult to convey size in photos, but the smallest of these works are around 40cm on the longest side, while the largest run for 3 or more metres.
Rogier van der Weyden starts turning up now as the action drifts out of the Germanic area and into the Low Countries—though still often with artists coming from Germanic areas. Der Johannesaltar, for the peculiar and highly symbolic pastel-red God appearing out of the blue sky with a thread of speech woven around a white dove. Next, not van der Weyden, but excellent headgear: Die Anbetung der Könige, after Jacques Daret (perhaps), though excellent headwear also from van der Weyden in Die Kreuzigung Christi and Bildnis einer Jungen Frau—we’re still in the mid-1400s, but portraits and non-religious art is starting to appear (though I could argue that the religious art is all about the secular mob gathered in frame).
More strange red deities in Johan Maelwael’s (attributed) Madonna mit Kind, Engeln und Schmetterling. The butterflies didn’t make the cut, all the glaze on darkness is not photographically possible for me with my camera. But the vermillion angels with golden hair? Awesome! And sometimes, like in the Thronende Maria mit dem Kind from Hans Memling, I just like the tiled floor and carpets.
Hugo van der Goes’ Die Anbetung der Hirten, I just love these two, they’re so happy and bounding in, all a bit wonky and clumsy but “We’re here!” Yup, this is a great one.
Solidly into the 1500s, Goswijn van der Weyden’s (grandson of Rogier!) Maria mit dem Kind und Stiftern just for the heraldry and for She with the Tree. Look, this whole piece is sensational, so much detail in tapestries and clothing, Maria alone for her almost black silk robes, I have no idea who the benefactors are but clearly they’re wealthy and of significant standing. And I just like the tree she holds, like it’s been plucked from a miniature forest.
Getting near the end and to some oddities, bits and pieces. Meister der Mansi-Magdalena’s Die hl. Maria Magdalena (Mansi-Magdalena) from after 1525, I keep seeing her as an echo of the Mongol Empire, the brown of her voluminous clothes, the sparse landscape, the high symmetry of her face and the background, as well as her hat, more horsewoman than follower of Jesus.
A few from Peter Paul Rubens who for these works becomes another favourite. It’s like looking at Turner but 300 year previous, or the better chaos of impressionism, especially in the unfinished Die Eroberung von Tunis durch Karl V. And his Bildnis einer Frau looks like Tilda Swinton. His Maria mit dem Kind (1625/28) I think exemplifies what I adore in mediæval art, even though this is pushing 200 years after the fact. The centre of the work is a standing Mary with an infant Jesus also standing, head at breast-height thanks to a judiciously placed table. But all the attention is in the bottom right corner, the viewer’s eyes driven there by both Mary’s gaze and Jesus’ trailing interest. In an area not more than an eighth of the whole work, an intricate illuminated book, yellow floral borders, green and gold capitals, a basket of grapes, plums, peaches—it anticipates Dutch and Flemish still lifes as if he wanted to paint just that but wasn’t quite able to relinquish rest of the piece. It’s this detail I find throughout mediæval art, layers of unfolding meaning and story, or just a dog chasing its tail in the corner because something needed to go there.
Many more not even mentioned. I think I let myself get out of control here. Art! Mediæval art! Pictures of!
Tuesday. The delightful Ms. V. is once more in Berlin, this time without the other of the previous visit’s VNS Matrix duo. Three days only. Of those, only two full, and of those, only one not spent talking breakfast ’til past the witching hour. What to do then, on the one day when things can be done? Go lake wandering in Brandenburg? How about museums? Museuminsel! Virginia has never been there, and there is an exhibition I’ve decided I need to see. Better yet, a day card for all the museums on the island, and we can gorge ourselves on art.
The exhibition is split into twelve greater and lesser sections, each one filling one of the large halls or the smaller chambers which horseshoe around the central atrium: Bathing, Diversions (dancing, opera, theatre, cabaret…), Behind Closed Doors (portraits of private life), Artists (self-portraits and portraits of each other), Art Mediators (collectors, critics, dealers…), Animals, Still Lifes, Out of Doors, Country Homes, City, Premonitions of War, and where we ended, Relationships (they all sound less stiff in German). Many of the works I recognise from my previous visit—some even remaining where they usually hang, and the room’s theme built around them; others come from the museum’s archives; others from private collections, public and private galleries across Germany—Dresden, Düsseldorf, München … of course also Brücke-Museum in Berlin—from Paris, Brussels, London, New York, Madrid, Amsterdam … a surprising amount though from Berlin and the various galleries and institutions in the city. It’s massive, comprehensive, overwhelming in that way the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin excels at.
Context? I’m not so sure. I didn’t use the audio guide, which a) cost an extra four euros and b) I didn’t feel like going that deeply into something with such a narrow timeframe. I do know the audio from my previous visits, and for some works it is comprehensive—for this exhibition with the audio, it would take a minimum of four hours to get through. Many of the works I photographed didn’t have an audio accompaniment, and I don’t think I was especially favouring the odd or lesser works, in fact I photographed over half (not all of those are below), as well, the catalogue is in German, so I’ll put it out there that the SMB tripped itself up once again when it comes to context.
I—we: myself, Virginia, and Sarah-Jane–arrive in the Bathing room. Immediate conflict between the bourgeois Impressionism and the Punk’s Not Dead Expressionism. I appreciate the former, it’s all very nice and pretty and earnest, but it’s far more of a fantasy land than the brawling lascivious colour and porn of the latter. Impressionism is the art of colonial, racist, imperial Europe about to go to war and already busy with genocide. Expressionism exists in that world, yet it’s against everything Impressionism represents, even if it can’t articulate that without falling into the racist and misogynist language of the former. It’s telling that all the people of colour, all the queers, all the revolutionary politics happens in Expressionism (occasionally in Post-Impressionism). It’s a middle finger, and one that’s going to get stomped on.
Emil Nolde’s Papua-Jünglinge, three Papua kids sprawling on a beach before an emerald ocean. It’s almost ugly caricature, yet next to Max Pechstein’s Sitzendes Mädchen (Moritzburg) and Paul Gauguin’s Tahitianische Fischerinnen it looks far more believable and honest than the vapid Renoir.
Into the dance hall. First a bunch of works on paper from the Kupferstichkabinett. Ballet dancers, cabaret girls, really famous works like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s Der Loge mit der Goldmaske and Die sitzende Clownesse, Mademoiselle Cha-U-Kao, aus der Mappe Elles, or Edgar Degas’s Mademoiselle Bécat im Café des Ambassadeur. There’s also Lautrec’s Der Tanz im Moulin Rouge, which I looked at, looked at again, yes, it’s exactly that, two older women dancing and they are definitely in love. I would steal that.
On to the paintings, Emil Nolde’s Tanz II is a raw, harsh riot of colour and vicious brushwork shoved hard onto canvas. It’s glorious and I wish contemporary dance could be half as fucking useful and alive as this. Nearby is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Zwei Tänzerinnen, Kirchner who I saw over and over and adore, and this one just reminds me of Dasniya, all glaring yellow tutus and serious bedlam. And beside that … yup, the one I nearly cried over, Edgar Degas’ Tänzerinnen im Probensaal, which I gave it’s own post—and forgot to mention Degas is a nasty anti-semite.
Then there’s Auguste Chabaud’s explosive French Cancan, Georg Tappert’s Kreolin, which you can’t miss because it’s the first thing you see when you enter, and it’s huge and loud. On to portraits and still lifes like the beautiful Die Frau des Künstlers by August Macke, and Paul Cézanne’s Stillleben mit Blumen und Früchten—this time properly lit and placed so it wasn’t a glaring hell of glassy reflection, and was right beside Alex von Jawlensky’s Stillleben mit Blumen und Früchten, which is basically the same work on a week of LSD.
Kirchner returns with Gründe Dame im Gartencafé, then Nollendorfplatz followed by Potsdamer Platz, all highly political and scornful of monied Berlin social life, he’s more or less the Chris Morris of Expressionism. Kirchner also finished the exhibition (for me, as usual I wandered improperly) with what he passes off as Skizzierender Künstler mit zwei Frauen; Künstlergruppe, but is in fact a mid-way drawing pause during a romp with two naked babes. His work was labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis, and hundreds of pieces destroyed before he committed suicide, survived by his wife Erna, who is probably one of the two woman.
A few of the works are not to be photographed. The museum assistants are usually strict in enforcing this, yet inadvertently I photographed all but one, even taking closeups of Kirchner’s Künstlergruppe while an assistant was standing right beside. Something about both of us not paying attention. One work I was diligent in casing was Claude Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge, 1899 which no photograph can even approximate. It’s like a portal out of this universe. It hangs on the wall looking altogether alien, present but not belonging. I’m not a fan of Monet, it’s a whole lot of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the eyes, but this one, to see it here, ok, I get it, I get this. He makes everyone, Impressionist, Post- or otherwise, Expressionist, Die Brücke, the Fauvists, all of them look like tiny, insular variations on a single argument, and Charing Cross Bridge lands in the middle, a total Outside Context Problem. The image below, any image isn’t going to convince anyone of this, only this, hanging inappropriately like it’s pulled its pants down and is flashing the other works in this exhibition will do that. I still don’t really like it, just can’t deny it’s fucking uncanny.
What else? A few works by women, Maria Slavona’s Häuser am Montmartre, Marie Braquemond’s Die Teestunde are two that made it below. It’s mad popular, 100 000 visitors so far. It needs a proper half-day with audio guide, and supplies air-dropped. Probably going again (anyway, I have the Neues Museum to see also, and it’s right next door.)
My third trip to the Gemäldegalerie, this time to make my way through the final third in the basement Studiengalerie, and to have a quick glimpse at some ink works on paper from the Plaisante Plaetsen – Arcadia in Holland exhibition. My previous visits to the gallery, Part 1 and Part 2 cover about half each of the upper, main floor. To be honest, the best and most famous works are in the upper section, though there are quite a few among the 400 or so (slightly less than half what is upstairs) that are the equal of their upper peers, and one or two that really don’t deserve to be hidden where the majority of patrons don’t go.
The Studiengalerie runs in a low-ceilinged corridor most of the length of the gallery, with rooms opening off on one side collecting variously works of Dutch masters, German Renaissance-era religious art, smaller works by well-known artists and many works from schools and movements covering roughly 14th to 18th centuries. When you can see them.
The Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – at least in the galleries and museums I’ve been in – has a predilection for bad lighting which reaches its finest form in the Studiengalerie. The side rooms have windows. The windows are covered with an opaque, white diffusion layer, which on sunny days outside does little or nothing to reduce massive amounts of glare and bouncy light. Many of the paintings are behind glass; many are lacquered, shellaced, or otherwise glossy; some are both. Some are both and then hung facing the windows. Of the 400 or so paintings here, around a third of them suffer from this, and some are simply unviewable. A reasonable example of this is Bartolet Flemael’s (?) Die Großmut des Scipio, which hangs in the corridor just to the side of the entrance to the first room. It’s the second image below, and this is from my camera with no adjustments, me trying to capture the uselessness of looking at this painting from the most ideal viewing position, i.e. standing in front of it. (As an aside, this is an extreme example of the barrelling, false colour and other image atrocities that I deal with between camera and blog.)
Oh, and none of the paintings have an audio guide accompaniment. I feel a bit petty to mention it, but without shelling out 39€ for the definitive Gemäldegalerie coffee table book there’s a lot of lack of context going on.
Ja, so, there were some truly beautiful early-Renaissance German religious works, all gold-leafed and with the very particular line-work for draping fabric that’s almost like contemporary comic book art, and I think is my current favourite style. There were also many Flemish and Dutch works (quite a few done in Berlin during the early-mid 17th century), still-lifes of food on tables, birds and game hanging, glassware, almost photographic in detail yet never to be mistaken, as if it’s more real than a photograph could possibly describe.
I ended up taking mostly closeups, as a way to get around the limitations of the lighting – which I often do anyway, just not so often blogging them. Sometimes it was a choice of colour, other times the unfinished or worn quality in the line-work and delicate colour, sometimes the expression on the face or the detail in the fabric and embroidery. The furthest room, approximately under the English art section above, and mercifully walled in light blue covering the windows had two works I particularly enjoyed.The first, Georg David Matthieu’s large Kammerrätin Sophie Elisabeth von Giese, geb. von Schwerin (one of a pair, the other being her husband), for her eyes and expression, which is why I’m always more drawn to the portraits (especially after a heavy bout of religious and mythical figurative art), perhaps she was a monster (though it seems entirely the opposite from what I’ve read: “eine der schönsten und gebildetsten Frauen, allgemein geliebt und geehrt”), but in this moment, looking up as if unexpectedly called, there is such warmth and gentle humour there.
The other, across from Sophie, is more interesting for who painted it. The subject matter, the three children of a Marshall, is nothing spectacular in itself, though the execution is the equal of many works by well-known artists upstairs. What’s special here is the artist was a woman, Marie Eléonore Godefroid, and yes, she was well-known and respected in her time, and yes, she vanished from view almost completely after her death. It seems strange and not a little sad that this painting is literally in the room furthest from anywhere in the gallery, the last room, and not upstairs where it deserves a place because the talent of the artist is worthy of such a place and that she is a woman makes this work exceptional.
I’ve come to the end of my Gemäldegalerie journey, three days in there, much thinking before and after, writing, looking, of all the galleries in Berlin I’ve visited, it’s by far the best. It’s a pity then that the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin manage to shoot themselves in the foot and what is genuinely one of the very few exceptional museum galleries in the world is let down by the details. Let down also by almost complete absence of female artists (which is something I’ve noticed in all their museums – Hamburger Bahnhof I remember particularly). Sure, the Masterplan Museuminsel is radically restoring, updating the museums, adding new ones, connecting and unifying the island and surrounds (or at least it claims in that direction), and sure also, a lot of the museum visitors just hurtle through the rooms waving cameras like drunks looking for a refill and the ‘doing’ of the museums is all that’s important (particularly for tourists with only a few days to see it all), yet these things are also equally, fundamentally important: lighting that allows for the works to be seen; descriptions and audio guides that allow for contextualisation of what’s being seen; representation of women artists who were evidently there throughout all the eras and ages and schools and movements and evidently also the equal of their male peers, and evidently also currently almost entirely absent.
Having only got through a third of the Gamäldegalerie two Sundays ago, and having completely fallen in love with the Renaissance religious art, I couldn’t imagine going to any other museum or gallery this weekend. I also knew I wasn’t going to try and see all the remaining two-thirds, and that I was going to plonk down €100 and get a Jahreskarte. There’s three different Jahreskarten, from €25 for the Basic to the Classic Plus, which is what I got, which gives me access to all the permanent and temporary exhibitions with bonus “jump to the head of the queue” special powers (if you saw the photo of me on the card, you’d want to get me away quick as possible also) — very necessary for Museuminsel on the weekend.
I decided to walk through the first third again, to remind myself what I’d seen and where I was up to, and yes, my heart did indeed leap with joy on entering the first room. It’s fucking phenomenal; there’s no superlatives that can convey the quality and breadth of the works on display, nor the endlessness of it, more rooms, bigger and smaller, yet more again, and more further still. So, starting where I got up to last time, with Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Das Martyrium der hl. Agathe from 1755.
If the first third was transcendent, the second was … well, even better. I was over half-way through before I realised I was going back in time, from the late-18th century, working my way room by room back to the 13th, each side of the double horseshoe mirroring the other, rather than a linear progression, which pleased me no end, to finish with a sublime number of rooms of heavily gilded altarpieces. The coda to all that was a room of Botticelli. There’s no point wasting insufficient words on it.
Unlike last time, I remembered to turn off the filter on my camera, so it actually worked, though the glare from the atrium ceiling in the larger rooms smeared everything. Most of the paintings have a highly glossy finish, or are protected with glass, and many of them suffer from glare, particularly the darker ones, where any detail is lost from the unsympathetic light gushing down. What sucks for camera is just sad and disappointing for viewing. As for the glass, a couple looked like visitors had been rubbing their greasy heads against it. Some of the works are so massive, 4 or 5 metres high, you really need a ladder to appreciate them, or just grasp their vastness.
So, whereas the first third (which I previously saw) was German, Netherlands, and Flemish art from 13th to 17th centuries, followed by the several rooms of 17th century Netherlands art, the entire left side (ok, it’s not really a horseshoe, more of a ‘Q’ with a hole where the tail should be) is Italian art from 13th to 18th centuries across 23 exhibition spaces. There were many, many Mary with Childs, Hieronymouses, various martyrdoms, Jesuses (alive, dead, reborn), important and not so important apostles and holy people, so many more Marys it’s like that’s the only chance they got to see and be near a woman. Yes, they are beautiful, and seeing them all together helps me understand the monumental shift in art and culture over a few hundred years, but I was often far more attracted to the unknown portraits of men and women, real people with distinct faces, bodies, postures, the gazes of some of them, like Diego Veláquez’ Bildnis einer Dame, Charles Mellin’ Bildnis eines Mannes, Giovanni Battista Moroni’s Don Gabriel de la Cueva, Herzog von Alburquerque spanischer Gouverneur von Mailand, or Georges de la Tour’s Erbsen essendes Bauernpaar which is so magnificent I would steal it in an instant — actually I’d steal pretty much all of the ones I photographed if I had somewhere big enough to put them — the beauty and profundity of them makes me ache; let there never be an end to such art.
I am now two-thirds of the way through, more really, four-fifths, with ‘only’ the temporary exhibitions to go. I got a bit carried away with photos; I couldn’t decide which to show, so I end up with about half of them here. They do the paintings no justice. The depth of the light, the pigments, the brushwork, the frames also, the shift and change when moving closer or further away, the actual colours, hues, tones, shadows, the direction of the light especially, all this is only partially and incompletely, inadequately captured and seen in a photograph. The Gemäldegalerie, yes, worth going three times in a month. It’s going to be very difficult to see a museum better than this (yes, I have no critical perspective when it comes to museums, I love them all, but still …)
Oh yes, the audio guide! Brilliant! It’s why it takes so long to get through all the rooms. I only wish there was more. And the shop is rather good also, though it didn’t have many posters and I was hoping for at least a half dozen of various works to take home.