Me messing around with mediæval art, Photoshopping it until it’s far from the 3/4 of a millennium ago of its origin. It started as a visit to the Gemäldegalerie when I decided to do closeups of some of my favourite works. This is part of the Altarretabel in drei Abteilung mit dem Gnadenstuhl, from after 1250. Last night, feeling unexpectedly inspired around midnight, I realised I could mash another few score of layers into an image I was working on six months ago, and increase the density in ways that somehow appeal to my brain and eyes and emotions. I always zoom in on these images, like there’s myriad possible paintings in each. This time I took screenshots of those, and wanting to know what they might look like animated, threw them into Final Cut X and spat out 48 seconds of video.
I was asking myself if this is art. I know art and make art, but still. Maybe they’re sketches of possibilities. I like the artefacts generated from the process. I have no control over this. I have some control in which direction to push an image, but a lot of the detail is only minimally editable. Things happen, I make decisions, other things happen, possibilities open and close, I try and steer it towards a particular satisfaction, but each individual line and gradient and tone, no, that’s the software making its own decisions based on what I ask it to do. And as always, the further I get from using software as it was intended, the more interesting it becomes to me.
When I saw the exhibition, I felt it was comprehensive, yet reading Showing Our Colour I find again Germany — like all colonial and colonised countries — hides post-war and recent history, as though 1945 marked the moment when the fugue lifted and from that moment on there’s not much to report. Instead, Germany’s history of eugenics and racism continued unbroken. Perhaps not as explicit, but that is a function of systematic oppression, to put the onus on the victims to prove the crime, whereas the truth is it’s fundamental and pervasive.
A dear friend was visiting me this week and we were talking about this. She said, “So there was a Stolen Generation here.” There isn’t a more succinct or accurate way to describe it. While on a much smaller scale than in Australia (and while I don’t want to appropriate a specific term that describes a part of an ongoing genocide), the mechanisms and underlying logic are identical. Children removed from their mothers, families broken, forced sterilisation, cultural ‘whitening’ in orphanages and the adoption/foster home system; a unified, systematic project from the top of the government down to individuals to erase any trace of contamination in the white race.
This is a history of Germany throughout the 20th century that is barely mentioned, let alone recognised. It’s a history I would expect to find variations of in earlier history also, such as with the African-American soldiers who returned with the Hessian soldiers after the American Revolution. Post-World War I, Rhineland was occupied by French forces using soldiers from the colonies, just as after World War II, US African-American soldiers were in the American Sector. In both periods, male soldiers and local women got together and thousands of ‘Brown Babies’, or ‘Mischlingskinder’ (the derogatory Nazi-era term) were born. It was these children and their mothers (and fathers if they happened to be immigrants from the colonies) who were subject to medical, jurisprudential, social, and religious abuse and control. The children and grandchildren of these children are women like May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, coming of age in the ’80s, writing a history that remains contemporary.
Sometimes I’m reminded that it was published thirty years ago. These days I more or less expect if I’m reading a black or brown woman on racism and oppression in the Anglo-Euro-American-Australasian worlds, she’ll — or they’ll be queer and/or a trans woman. In Showing Our Colours, none of the women explicitly identify as lesbian (as far as I’ve read, though May Ayim was), and often describe their heterosexual lives. As for Afro-deutsch trans women, it’s a different world now. ADEFRA has a monthly get-together where trans and inter sisters are explicitly welcome, and ISD has a Black LGBTIQ* group.
I want to stop here, say something like, this is a critical history of Afro-Germans, it’s an unfinished history because colonialism still defines us, because Germany and Europe’s ability to critically regard its history is so inadequate; things have got better but they’re still same old shit, thirty years on Germany needs another book like this translated into English. Read it if you can.
I put off buying Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction for a long time because it’s ridiculously expensive. And because the last ridiculously expensive volume on Banks, Martyn Colebrook’s and Katharine Cox’s The Transgressive Iain Banks: Essays on a Writer Beyond Borders was kinda unimpressive. I’m getting this bit out the way first: The Culture Series is one of those academic publications that’s needlessly expensive}. Chumps like me, living in a country with relatively cheap access to books, buy them anyway. I’m in a continual internal debate whether to scan them and upload to an audience that is denied access.
Caroti’s book-length essay reminded me why I love Banks, with or without an M., Culture or not, and reminded me I’ve not had a full Banks binge for a couple of years. Breaking the flow here, I feel I always need to point out here me writing on books I’m reading, am about to read, have read, is not a review. Sometimes it becomes that, but if you’re looking for a review of The Culture Series or a coherent set of thoughts, this isn’t the place. Unlike The Transgressive Iain Banks, which was frankly disappointing, Caroti did the research, brings together almost forty years of a writer spanning thirty works, comes up with a bunch of interesting analysis and criticism, and competently keeps it all rolling for almost 300 pages.
Much of how Caroti interprets Banks is through the lens of John Clute’s term Fantastika. While working on the Tiptree website, amid conversations around categorising works from a more technical perspective, Debbie Notkin said they (the Motherboard) preferred the term Speculative Fiction over Sci-Fi/Fantasy or other terms which delineated between the sometimes disparate and sometimes analogous twins of the genre. Caroti’s choice of the term might represent the (Eastern) European traditions of Skiffy he’s engaging in, contra Speculative Fictions very Anglo-American leanings. Still, I don’t recall him addressing Banks on the the latter terms, even as a comparison with Fantastika. Perhaps I’m missing something that Caroti’s erudition makes clear to himself, but I didn’t find the argument for calling Banks’ work — or even reading it as — Fantastika particularly compelling.
As a needlessly picky aside, I’ve long had a thing for Derrida, and make no claims to understanding more than the mere shallows fringing his vast oceans of incomprehensibility, but any form of “deconstruction then reconstruction” is not a thing. I know it’s a lost battle, but words and meaning matter. Whatever process a writer means by preparing the scene for ‘reconstruction’, it isn’t deconstruction, indeed is a fundamental misunderstanding of what deconstruction is and can do, which even Derrida was gloriously gnomic on. I think at times Caroti is engaging with Banks’ work consciously in a kind of deconstructive process, which makes it all the more annoying for me to have him undermine the rich possibilities in such a reading by pairing those two words.
Which leads me off into a couple general ramblings and criticisms of Caroti’s work — some of which he addresses himself.
I’ve been reading Banks since 2004 when a friend gave me the Culture novels Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, and the non-Culture Against a Dark Background, and Feersum Endjinn. Anyone who’s persevered with me blabbing here for the last almost 13 years knows I think Feersum Endjinn is Banks’ best work; I’m also well fond of The Algebraist (Archimandrite Luseferous of the Starveling Cult is his superior villain), Transition, and The Business. Another aside: while in Leipzig working with Melanie Lane, I met her partner, Chris Clark (the musician). Opening night drinking led to a long Banks conversation in which we got onto what an excellent book The Bridge is, and him saying obviously I’d read Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books, to which I replied I’d not even heard of it. Much incredulity and astonishment! It’s now on the top of my To Read list. I mention this in part to underline my often egregious gaps in ‘self-evident’ knowledge, and to point out that just because a connection may seem self-evident, doesn’t presuppose a clear path from one to another. Also to point out that reading an author’s influences doesn’t necessarily add anything to the experience. With the exception of Jo Walton, who writes her influences into profound and clever stories, I’m more likely to be bemused, like say, Iain Banks being influenced by Jane Austin.
The received separation of Banks’ works lies on either side of the M. Sci-fi with, and proper literature without. Caroti elaborates on this throughout his work, making it clear how poorly Banks’ genre work is critically regarded. Caroti though makes another division: Culture and non-Culture. If he hadn’t his book would be several hundred pages and unaffordable. But still, it’s an arbitrary division that obscures the singular thematic structure of Banks’ work. This is one of the points Caroti makes at the end, and in Banks fandom is a ripe subject for contentious debate.
Caroti describes some of Banks’ works as the Scottish series (The Crow Road, The Steep Approach to Garbadale, among others). Excluding the space opera component, there’s little that separates these from Against a Dark Background or Use of Weapons, particularly in setting. Equally the railway of The Bridge returns in a form in Feersum Endjinn; the levels of the Shellworld in Matter in the Dweller wormhole network in The Algebraist; The Concern of Transition in The Business in the eponymous novel; the politics in Complicity return throughout the Culture’s Special Circumstances and disaffected individuals who populate main character roles; not even including the hints and mentions of the Culture in supposedly non-Culture and non-genre works. My reading of Banks has always seen all his works as variations on the same story. It’s not so much that the Culture appears as say, a variation on The Business, or that characters in Transition could be read as Use of Weapons’ Cheradenine Zakalwe, Complicity’s Andy, or from The Business or Walking on Glass, rather that Banks had a comprehensive, unified framework upon which he built his novels out, and from which major ideas like the Culture emerged. Repetition and variation of these thematic constants occur in almost all his novels. Whether his novels were space opera or Scottish landscape is integral to this, but not primary, like scenery being changed on stage. Which is to say, by concentrating on the differences, be they M. or no-M. Banks, Culture or non-Culture, we’re missing reading Banks as a forty-year, philosophical, political project.
One idea he worked with from first to almost last novel, which is very much part of that framework, and for which he seems to get little credit, is identity. His opinion on identity and gender was well-formed even before his first novel, The Wasp Factory. Caroti discusses this, specifically the Culture understanding of sex, gender, identity through going back and forth between male and female as a normal, indeed expected part of life. It’s maybe here that the rupture between Banks as one of the queerest authors I’ve read and his pretty heteronormative audience crops up. Banks was a hoon, totally enjoyed booze and drugs, was publicly hetero, a bit of a lad, all of which appeals to a cisgender, hetero male demographic, be they reader or critic. And yet, unlike other cis-male writers of what we currently call trans and/or intersex characters (Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is a good example here), Banks wasn’t writing these characters to represent say, ‘the alienation we all feel’ or ‘so sad, how tragic’.
A diversion on The Wasp Factory and the protagonist with whom I share a name. I think trans/intersex criticism of the novel is valid, though less so than Middlesex or a lot of that ’70s / ’80s feminist-ish stuff like Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. Maybe I’m biased, but it sits for me more in the camp of say Laura Jane Grace calling her biography Tranny. It comments in an excessive way on the ideology of gender as it was at the time, of which Dr John Money’s beliefs and experiments serve as a real-life mirror. The horror and disgust at what is done to Frank as a work of fiction might be better read as an allegory on real life and be directed into the real world at doctors and theorists who still carry out violence on trans and intersex bodies little different from what Frank’s father did.
Nonetheless it makes a reading of Banks’ understanding of gender less than simplistically utopian. What Banks proposes isn’t a ’70s/’80s radical feminist destroying of gender and androgynous utopia, much like his Culture utopia isn’t a Communist one. I still find this surprising since there was little outside these dominant and ubiquitous theories at the time to provide alternatives, and Banks’ thinking on gender and identity still reads as contemporary and relevant. A way of illustrating this is in the ending of Excession, where Genar-Hofoen, as a condition for having provided services, is given the body of an Affront, the buffoonish and sadistic alien tentacle monsters. If transposing yourself into an alien species is both possible and unremarkable, how mundane must identity of self bound to gender and sex be? Banks proposes both a kind of Butlerian ‘gender as a useful generalisation’ and Deleuzean ‘as many genders as there are identities’ while on one side resisting collapsing identity to compulsory androgyny and the other validating and celebrating difference. It’s dead fucking sexy.
As I was reading The Culture Series, the chapter on The Player of Games, I remembered reading somewhere that the main character, Jernau Morat Gurgeh, was written as brown or black — which flies in the face of the mid-’90s Orbit print with Mark Salwowski cover where he’s so white he’s pink. I had to reread to confirm, but there it is. Early in the novel he’s described as having a “dark-curled head”, “black locks of hair”, “dark beard”; compared to the Culture ambassador, “Shohobohaum Za was a little lighter in colour than Gurgeh, but still much darker than the average Azadian”, and his partner, Yay having “gold-dark skin”. So with Player of Games, we have a novel where the main character is a person of colour, and it’s indicated the Culture is a whole lot more brown than might be expected in the history of Anglo-American Sci-Fi and space opera, and a whole lot more than it’s still discussed as. And as with gender, reading ethnicity in Banks is critical to understanding if not his entire body of work, then certainly the Culture.
One final thing to finish with, Caroti mentions a few times the work on Banks’ opus by Moira Martingale, Gothic Dimensions: Iain Banks, Timelord, which I’d (naturally) never heard of, and is now obviously on my list.
Despite my hostility to labels, be they social, cultural, medical, legal, it’s obvious that most people define and reduce people only to labels and categories. And knowing that I can appear to those people as not belonging to those categories they desire to annihilate, and thus seem to be “one of them”; and knowing that despite my own definition of self being seldom and very much ambivalently on those terms — terms which are some of the least interesting parts of me — nonetheless for them this is what I am, this is all I am.
So this is me putting my arse on the line and being counted:
Here’s one more woman, here’s one more bi, here’s one more trans, here’s one more queer, here’s one more — as they like to say in Germany — of Muslim immigrant background.
Because even though I want to have a private life, and don’t want to be the object of public scrutiny, and I’m afraid of the discrimination and dehumanisation that comes with being such an object, for many there isn’t this choice. And irrespective of the fact I am not public about this, I’ve nonetheless had to live through it, live through being this.
Because my grandmother was Muslim and Turkish, and every time I see another Muslim woman treated like shit I think of her, of that being done to her.
It’s not an easy exhibition to see — I went twice and both times felt well deeply disturbed at humanity during and after — and not an easy exhibition to blog about. I took around 350 photos, half of those of the lengthy captions, and cutting the 175 potentially bloggable images down to a feasible 87 meant diverging from the coherent narrative of the exhibition. So there are gaps; only seeing the exhibition or buying the hefty catalogue can give a proper account. And giving an account, firstly I need to thank Boris Nitzsche in the press department who arranged my visit and for me to take photos, as DHM special exhibitions are camera-free zones.
Secondly: a content warning. The exhibition contains images and documentation of genocide. Some of my photos are of this and of people who were murdered. I back-and-forthed with myself constantly over whether to include these images at all, but it felt like an erasing to only write of this and not include them. Yet these people who were murdered have no say in how they are represented, indeed for many if not all the only photographs and documentation of them ever made is of their suffering and death. And unlike the Jewish holocaust, it was only in 2015 that Germany officially called their extermination of the Herero and Namaqua in German South-West Africa (Namibia) genocide, yet still refuse reparations. Besides that genocide, massacres and atrocities were commonplace in all of Germany’s colonies.
Besides the difficulty in choosing which images to blog, there was the issue of context. This exhibition has it. All of the pieces require context, and it’s a first for me to say an exhibition was not lacking in this regard. Most of the images or image sets had at least a paragraph accompanying the caption giving the work a frame of reference. Additionally, exhibition sections and sub-sections all had long introductory texts and frequently booklets. And then there was the audio guide, which would turn a three-hour visit into a full day endeavour. There was a massive amount of work put into preparing and translating this. And with this need for context here also, I’ve been struggling with what to write, to explain what these images are showing.
While there are plenty of works of art, this exhibition primarily functions as a documentation of history, and in this art is turned to further the purposes of propaganda and imperialism. There are very few paintings, but coinciding with the arrival of film photography gives an abundance of photographs throughout the colonial period. The central piece for me is not art. It’s nothing much to look at. A large, hardcover parchment with a mess of red wax seals pinning down a red, black and white thread forming columns on the left sides of the facing pages; to their right, a scrawl of signatures. This is the General Record of the Berlin Africa Conference (image 33, below) on February 26th, 1885, signed by the state representatives of the 13 European nations (and the United States) formalising the dividing up the continent of Africa into colonies.
The German colonial empire: German West Africa, now Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Guinea, Central African Republic, Ghana, and Togo; German East Africa, now Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda; German South-West Africa, now Namibia; German New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, Marshall Islands, and Samoa. Prior to the German Empire, there were Brandenburg-Prussian, and Habsburg colonies in Ghana, Mauritania, Bénin, the Caribbean and Americas, Nicobar islands, and concessions in China in Tianjin, Jiaozhou, and Yantai. By the standards of France or Britain, Germany was a minor player, coming late to the party and lasting barely thirty years (excluding merchant companies prior to the conference, which began in the 1850s). I initially listed all the colonies and current nations, some of which became colonies of other empires before achieving independence so it would be clear what is meant by German colonialism. It is a daunting list. But it helps to be reminded the extent of European colonisation: All or nearly all of the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific. It requires less space to simply list the few countries and regions never colonised.
January 26th was Invasion Day, what the National Day of Australia is properly called, marking as it does the arrival of the First Fleet. In the discussion of colonies, whether German, British, or other, I noticed the onus was on providing evidence genocide or systematic massacre occurred; lesser-known colonies with comparatively lesser-known histories seemed to get the benefit of the doubt in wavering between did it or didn’t it happen. So German South-West Africa is now unequivocally, officially the site of genocide. Yet the same practices occurred in all of Germany’s colonies to some degree — as if genocide has degrees. Rather than have to prove this in each individual case, it seems more honest to say the fundamental aim and purpose of all colonies wherever they were was and is extermination.
I don’t have a transition into the less grim aspects of the exhibition, so I’ll bash on.
Photographs and biographies of multiethnic marriages, and of couples and families living in Germany back to the mid-late-19th century; Portraits of figures as far back as the early 1700s who came to Europe often as slaves yet went on to study and have careers and lives in Europe — even when they remain morally unadmirable, like Jacobus Capitein who defended slavery. Post-World War II, it’s notable how involved East Germany was in anti-imperialism and solidarity with what was then called the Third World. Afro-deutsche in West-Berlin, and Black History Month in reunified Berlin.
I’m not sure I’m doing this justice. It’s an extremely relevant exhibition, one that the museum have done a very careful job on preparing and presenting, and one that both times I visited was packed. It’s a little too massive for me to be able to make coherent thoughts or criticisms about. Perhaps my primary criticism or question is of what value it has. Germany is adept at regarding its past and admitting guilt. Yet Germany’s awareness in specific instances does not seem to easily translate into understanding the repetition of behaviour or thinking in others. The ongoing struggle for recognition and compensation in Namibia is the most obvious example, but similar valid claims in other former colonies are far less likely to make even that progress. Indeed, would likely provoke a racket in Germany of the “Just how much do we have to be guilty for?” kind. Which is the point: The inability to see the unbroken line between the racist ideology of Kant and other still esteemed German philosophers, 19th century imperialism leading to genocide in the 20th century in colonies and then across Europe, the current failure to accept Germany is already multicultural, and the increasingly pervasive anti-Muslim / anti-brown people rhetoric.
While the exhibition is about Germany’s own colonial history, and I’ve been talking specifically about Germany, as that signed and sealed document demonstrates, all of Europe was involved, and Europe along with all the former colonies remain infected with this ideology. Each country in Europe has its own unique variation on this identical form of white supremacism. I would like to hope for an exhibition in a hundred years where this 500 year chapter of European history and its effect on the rest of us is forever closed, but I suspect we’re not going to make it.
Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself made it onto my reading list because of another theoretical physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, who reviewed it mid-2016. I’m reading it now because I need my regular fix of sciencey, astrophysics stuff and it seemed to compliment the other stuff I’m reading at the moment (also all the other science books on my list are textbook affairs with commensurate eye-bleeding price).
I have to say from the outset I’m not the imaginary audience for The Big Picture, nor am I especially enjoying it. I wish I was because I enjoy the hell out of what he writes about, and appreciate he can do hard science without pissing all over philosophy and the humanities, unlike quite a few popular atheist science bros. He manages to rope in Wittgenstein (who is always wholly relevant and informative in any situation), my dear favourite Leibniz gets a go for calculus, as well as best of all possible worlds, and principle of sufficient reason; he even manages to have an entire chapter on gender and identity and I’m showing my age here but I’m still pleasantly surprised when I see how unremarkable these matters have become — even in the last decade, in fields not explicitly feminism/queer/gender studies/etc.
So why am I not enjoying it so much? It could be the recurrence of disproving Laplace’s and/or Descartes’ demons, or explaining from extrapolations of different parts of physics the impossibility of (or at least extremely unlikely) things like mind-body duality, having a soul, life after death, god. Which makes it an invaluable book for people who themselves have questions and doubts about these subjects, but from my personal experience kinda useless in persuading even the most casual of ‘spiritual’ types to give up their astrology.
I used to be a much more diligent atheist, until atheism was taken over by white hetero bro New Atheism colonialism and ruined it for the rest of us. I like Caroll in this regard because he isn’t absolutist. Paraphrasing here, he says while nothing we see or know about the universe requires a god, nonetheless that does not preclude one (or many), just that if there was a god or gods, they would have to adhere to the laws of physics like the rest of us do — as far as we can tell by the current, pretty bloody good state of our understanding of physics. He also says that irrespective of the existence or not of god or gods, religion serves a cultural purpose spanning millennia that saying “God doesn’t exist, because physics” isn’t going to miraculously cause mass conversion to atheism.
For a white, hetero male writing on the Big Questions — historically the domain of self-congratulatory alpha males — he’s done a banger of a job of steering through all that anachronistic baggage. But steer through that he does, stopping off along the way to describe then disabuse us of what’s fundamentally a Christian, or Christian-derived view of the universe.
Maybe it’s because he tries to cover so much that it feels to me he paraphrases philosophers’ and scientists’ ideas so they read like, “close enough”, as with describing Lucretius’ concept of the clinamen (which I don’t think he actually named, but was what he was describing), or Leibniz’ ideas. Or maybe it’s that he holds on somewhere to an uncritical belief that physics is above all this and is the one neutral — as well as correct — way of viewing and understanding the world. The correct part, sure, as far as we can tell now, but neutral? I wonder if some of the hostility directed at 20th century philosophers by scientists (which again, he isn’t doing) is because the logic in pointing out that language creates the world is pretty solid. Whether it’s Wittgenstein, Derrida, or others, even after throwing out whatever bollocks they wrote, we’re left with this. And to have a bunch of soft humanities academics repeatedly and in various ways tell the hard scientists their rationality and neutrality is dubious at best, because language is a limit on describing and experiencing the world, is going to get messy.
It’s not even a question of agreeing or not with him. Newtonian physics? Yup, same for Einstein’s relativity, general or special. Quantum mechanics also. It might be that I find the experimental side of things lacking by comparison to the theoretical. For example observations of cosmic microwave background by COBE, WMAP, and Planck observatories currently provide the best evidence for, and more or less confirm the Big Bang theory, specifically the inflationary model. Questions such as “What is the universe?” “Where did it come from?” “What was there before it existed?” while not definitively answered are comprehensively narrowed down. The discovery of the predicted Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider and concurrent lack of discovery of new particles also set limits on possibilities, or at least pushed various other competing theories to do some heavy re-theorising. But mentions of these experiments seem sparse compared to Descartes and his cogito ergo sum. More of the former and less of the latter would have moved things along far more enjoyably.
But maybe all this, multiverses, the Planck era, macroscale quantum theory are too advanced for the intended reader, like introducing all the exceptions to the rules before explaining why the rules as are they are and where they came from. For my imagined intended audience, then: it’s comprehensive and brings together a lot of threads of physics from the history of Western science and philosophy that make it a good general introduction. It’s kinda boring though. I’d rather read Sabine Hossenfelder or Ethan Siegel, whenever they get around to writing a book.
Finally, the history of Western science since the Enlightenment has been one marked by arrogance, overreach and the worst of humanity given legitimacy through its declaration of rationalism. And one marked by frequent declarations of , “Yeah, we learnt our ethical lesson, we’ve got it right this time,” before cocking it up again. I’m not sure there can be a grand Theory of Everything, which is what Carroll is proposing. Like Mark Zuckerberg imagining he can reduce people and their desires to code, or transhumanists imagining they can upload their minds, it speaks of a smallness in understanding the world and a meanness in how they value it. There is always something that remains, that cannot be assimilated, a residue this reductionism cannot account for and cannot consume.
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.
@medievalpoc said, “This has gotta be in the top ten ugliest arts I’ve ever seen and I love it.” Robert and I thought it was pretty freaky also. When we visited the Grassi Museum für Angewandte Kunst last Thursday it was unchallenged as the most wtf? of anything we saw. It’s deeply entrancing with its sheer strangeness.
So, with all the attention Der Kaminbehang got, I started to poke a little deeper. Turns out the Grassmuseum appreciates its weirdness, devoting an entire Digital Kinderkatalog (digital children’s catalogue) to the work. I can totally see kids going bonkers over it.
I’m not sure the Kaminbehang.pdf answers all questions being asked, but anyway, I slapped up a quick and rough translation. I also did a number on the text above each figure. I think it’s in Frühneuhochdeutsch, but there’s some words that are either Süddeutsch, imports from other Germanic languages, or possibly (in the case of the Roma figure) not German at all.
A couple of notes: These translations are on the literal side, not trying to dress them up beyond getting the meaning across. For the Kaminbehang, all characters are in uppercase, which can lend vastly different translations based on whether a word is noun or verb (e.g. herkommen/Herkommen). I presume this would be easier to differentiate for a German speaker, but even Robert had trouble teasing out the meaning. Words are separated with small stars. But not always. There are no umlauts, ‘V’ is used for ‘U’; ‘I’ is used for both ‘I’ and ‘J’ and sometimes ‘L’; some of the letters are so worn it took a while to work out what was what; there are both standard-ish Early New High German spellings (from what I can tell — not my thing at all), plus variations that seem according to how much space there was. I’m giving the original text (as close as I could work it out) plus a flat translation to English. I also did a translation to Standard German, but not including it.
First, the text above each figure, in original Frühneuhochdeutsch followed by my English translation:
Der weise Mor bin ich vorogen
alle ins Vien bin ich durch Zogen
mit meinem Pfeile und Bogen in meiner Hant
The white Moor I am before others’ eyes
all in my veins can I be seen through to
with my arrow and bow in my hand
So bin ich der Unger geant 1571
an meiner Kleidung wol bekant
durch deutsch und welsch Lant
So am I the Hungarian named 1571 (date of manufacture)
by my clothing well-known
through german and foreign lands
So bin ich der Zegeuner vor Hant
den deutschen nihi bkat als voe Jaren
da sie an uns kein Gelt deten sparenn
So am I the Gypsy before hand
the Germans are not generous as years before
since they no longer spare money on us
Ein Welscher bin ich bei zimlichen Jaren
und bin von Welschen genomenn
trag Kleidung nach unserm Herkomen
A Welsh am I for quite a few years
and am from foreign lands come
I wear clothing according to our tradition
So bin ich von schwartzen More genom
kein Kleidung drag ich in meinem Lant
von der sonnen Hitz die mich vorbrant
So am I known as the black Moor
no clothes do I wear in my country
from the sun’s heat am I burnt
Ich bin Frantzose wol bekant
meinem Herrn dem diene ich
bei meiner Kleidung bleibe ich
I am French, well known
my Lord do I serve
by remaining in my apparel
Einen langen Spies fur ich vor mich
ein Schweitzer und trever Helt
meine Kleidung mir also wol gefelt
A long spear for me before myself
a Swiss and loyal hero
my clothing pleases me indeed
So bin ich der Turck gezelt
kombt ein Christen meine Hant
er mus mir lasen ein teur speant
So am I the Turk tented (i.e. enveloped in a tent-like cloak)
a Christian comes to my hand
to leave he must make an expensive donation
So bin ich der hohe Deutsche genan
aller Nation Kleidung gefelt mir wol
weis doch nicht wie ich machen sol
mir doch ein bas dan die ander gefelt
damit ich ein Ansehen hab als ein Helt
so will ich hin zum Werckman gan
und im die Sache selber zeigen an
So am I the High German named
all nations’ clothing pleases me greatly
but I have no idea how I should wear them
first one then another enjoyed
thus I have the reputation of a hero
I will go to the artisan
and in these items display myself
And then the text from the Kaminbehang.pdf. This is intended for children or school groups, not sure what age range, but presuming pre-teens. It includes each of the figures, but their text does not correspond entirely or at all to the actual text on the Kaminbehang. It does provide additional information to its history, as well as elaborating on the figures, for example describing the first figure as Albino. I’ve also translated the figures’ nationalities or ethic groups literally. Some, like Moor or Gypsy or Turk are pejorative, either within their use context here or generally. German — the language as well as the thinking, people, country — still has ‘issues’ with both words used as well as concepts behind them. Let’s just say it’s late-’70s here.
The fireplace hanging
The fireplace curtain on display probably originates from southern Germany and was manufactured in 1571. It is 40cm high and 284cm wide. Previously it was used to decorate a fireplace in summer, when it was too warm for heating. It belonged to the old art collection of the Leipzig Town Hall (Leipziger Rathaus), the so-called Leipzig Council Treasure (Leipziger Ratsschatz). This work of art which we will look at in more detail together dates back to the Renaissance era.
It is meticulously made of precious materials such as silk, velvet and linen. Gilded metal wires along with real gold and silver thread were also used in the process. The figures’ weapons are comprised of metal or carved from wood.
It consists of nine alternating yellow, white, and black fields, on each of which a male figure is identifiable. The embroidered figures were stuffed with linen and paper, and are semi-sculptural in shape — that is, they lie like bisected puppets on the cloth.
Shown are different nations in their country’s traditional clothing. As early as the 16th century, people in Germany were interested in knowing how other peoples lived. In addition the artist was making fun of the vanity of the people of the time.
What is important is:
The individual figures are representations of how foreign peoples and cultures were imagined in the 16th century.
The European peoples are depicted as very rich and progressive; the Africans however, as a wild and impoverished people.
Today we are fortunate to know much more about other nations and the similarities or differences between our lives. Have you ever thought about this?
The White Moor
“Although I am an African, I have a fair complexion. They call me Albino. Not only in the 16th century were there often people like me on the west coast of Africa. I am depicted half-naked, like a wild hunter, clothed only with a hat and loincloth. In my left hand I carry a bow, and in the right an arrow.
“My clothes are a long, colourful coat, a scarf around my neck, white trousers and short boots. In my hand I have a war hammer.”
”I wear a pointed cap, a striped cloak, short trousers, and shoes. With my hands I open my cloak a little — can you see my naked belly?”
“I prefer to dress myself very elegantly — according to the latest fashion, all in black with a flat hat and long hose. To this attire also belongs a long dagger, which I hold in my hand.”
The Black Moor
“I am also an African and on my naked body wear nothing but armlets and a torc. In my hands I have two arrows. The white blemishes do not mean I am wearing a leopard skin, rather the black fabric is worn out in these places. Now the light linen base shines through.”
”Like the Italian, I am very fashionably dressed. On my head sits a beret. In addition, I wear a ruffle at my neck, slit trousers, and dainty shoes. My bright hose are especially striking. My left hand rests on the hilt of a sword.”
“With a long, forked beard, I have been depicted in the colourful garb of a mercenary. This includes a beret, doublet, funny knickerbockers, decorated hose, and elegant flat shoes. Sword, dagger, and a long spear are my weapons.”
“I wear a moustache and a cap, a wide collar over my coat, long hose and ankle boots. In my left hand I hold a small, naked baby by one leg. The scimitar is my weapon.”
“I am still naked, but over one arm I carry many items of colourful clothing. But for which of the different fashions should I decide upon? Best for me to go to a tailor and avail myself of him for advice. After all, I will not get warm by looking at the clothing!”
Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig was out on Thursday, not open till midday and we had plans to be museum-ing when doors opened at the proper time of 10am. Second on my list Grassimuseum it was then.
Curious how the ones that aren’t the top on my list turn out to be so bloody good. The architecture! Not looking as good on that first visit beneath a grey haze of fog and mist as it did the second in warm sun, but did I ever want to fondle that stone and glasswork. Robert and I walked in circles looking for a temporary exhibition that turned out to be kinda average, so we did my — and his — favourite: to the top floor and work your way down. First stop: Museum für Völkerkunde, which got very intense and emotional very quick with an unexpected and beautiful collection of Australian Aboriginal art and ethnology (north-east and central-east coast), followed by a smaller one of Aotearoa, a much bigger one of Polynesia including photographic works on glass reminding me of the Gottfried Lindauer exhibition in Berlin, then North American First Nations, going backwards along my own personal timeline through these places.
From that collection to Museum für Angewandte Kunst. 30 rooms. One giant circle of the first floor. 2000 years of applied arts and design. The closer we get to now, the more works. The first millennium wrapped up in barely two rooms with a special inner room for delicate fabric works from pre-Islamic Levant, then zipping through the first trio of second millennium centuries to get properly going in the 1400s.
I was looking for Saint Mauritius, and would have been most disappointed to not find him. I did! On a beer stein! But before that, I think he turned up in the red wax of a Magdeburg town seal (or I think that’s what it was, stupid me didn’t photograph the caption). Beer stein! The happiest St. Mauritius is a beer-y one.
I’m not exactly certain what makes the works here ‘applied art’ and not ‘fine art’. In the later periods, say Gründerzeit and on, and especially in the 20th century collections, a riot of Jugendstil, Neu-Sachlichkeit, post-Bauhaus modernism, DDR and BRD ’50s to ’70s to contemporary, it’s obviously ‘design’: furniture, lighting, jewellery, ceramics, though so rich and careful in design as to be works of art. But in the earlier stuff, this I’m used to seeing in museums as fine art. And how this fine / applied European art is distinct from non-European ethnological art, that’s a question to cause whole museums to collapse. Especially with the chinoiserie and porcelain that was all about adopting and imitating Chinese techniques and doing European things with them.
The earlier rooms, stained glass, wooden sculptures and altarpieces, tapestries, I was pointing my camera indiscriminately. A trio of massive, early 16th century retables, Late Gothic gold, filigree, and polychrome; opposing that, an armless, footless, and bald Jesus suspended from a vanished cross, his beard somehow rendering his face skeletal. Sprinkled amongst these, smaller single works of Mary, Saint Katharina, as solitary sculptures or wall reliefs. Another inner room with Romanesque works in metal, enamel, ivory. Up till here it was a solid collection, really nicely put together, the way the rooms and architecture moved us forward made spending far too much time on individual pieces too easy. Yet so far not exceptional.
And then the weirdness kicked in.
Probably around the place where the donkey-headed, fish-scaled armed and legged, cloven hoofed and bird footed (one of each), and very naked Mönchskalb turned up. Just after drunk St. Mauritius. Nearby, another dimly lit room with a Kaminbehang that was plain disturbing. Doing rough translations here: a “black Moor who wears no clothes and is burnt by the sun’s heat”; a “white Moor crossed with my arrow and my bow in hand”; a “Turk” with a naked Christian baby in one hand and a scimitar in the other. But it’s all a joke. At the end is the “High German who likes all national clothes” but has no idea how to wear them, who imagines he looks like a hero, but he’s naked looking like an idiot. This 2 1/2 metre tapestry hangs above your fireplace. We said, “What the fuck?” about it for some time.
Shortly after we depart the Renaissance for Baroque and Rococo. But stay firmly in Orientalism. There’s the heating oven capped off with the cartoon-like bust of a Turk. Beside this though is a huge and detailed, naturalistic wall tapestry of a village fair by Rococo artist Étienne Jeaurat. On the far right, a travelling merchant bearing the same Turkish signifiers as the guy atop the stove, a turban, curling moustache, rich jewellery and embroidered clothes. Both he and his assistant are on horseback, he on a flirtatious white mare, the assistant on a dark old nag. His assistant is equally lavishly dressed, turban with feathers, a cloak with massive precious stone clasp, earrings and a solid band of probably a slave collar, silver against his dark brown skin.
Further on, in another small side room is a simply massive work of Rococo chinoiserie, three of the room’s walls are filled floor to ceiling and end to end with it. Fantastic scenes mashing European Baroque and Chinese Qing Dynasty together. Months of work by many hands represented in the opulence of these two pieces.
After this, the works become more furniture and object based. Porcelain and ceramics everywhere, like the five glorious figurines of Ballets Russes in their costumes for the ballet, Carnaval by Paul Scheurich, who turns out was a right Nazi. Another Nazi was Joseph Wackerle, who did the beautiful Indianerin. Robert and I only noticed the complete absence of works from the Nazi period after we’d left and come down from our art euphoria. There are plenty of artists whose work in various movements pre- or post- that period is on display, but those twelve years are erased, as are the Nazi tendencies of the artists.
Running on through DDR and GDR periods, into our 4th hour and knowing we need food, coffee, energy for the première that evening. I didn’t take many photos in these rooms, simply so many works all deserving of attention and awe. We emerged out of those thirty rooms a bit delirious, and for me seriously impressed. I hadn’t expected a museum this good to be in Leipzig, nor an applied arts / design museum to be make me want to see all the design museums everywhere. It reminded me of the brilliant Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, so unexpected and unknown and yet I will rave for years about Leipzig and Grassimuseum. It’s even better with the audio guide (which I didn’t use but Mel did the next day). And super friendly. I dunno if this is a Leipzig thing, but they put every other city in Germany to shame with their relaxed friendliness. How friendly? The woman in the museum café bails past me sitting outside, pulls up, looks at me yawning, backtracks and comes back with an espresso and a wink.