All the Victoria & Albert Museum. Well, all the mediæval stuff. That I could find. Plus some renaissance stuff, and a couple of other nice pieces. Masses of art from a Sunday afternoon with the awesome Jennifer Evans for company. Shared hangover also. In the sun in the courtyard garden. Romping the halls and galleries.
I saw: half of Level 0; less than a third of Level 1; a bit under half of Level 2; not much more than a quarter of Level 3; nothing of Levels 4 and 5; dunno if Level 6 even exists. All that in five hours until I got kicked out. I get booted from museums at closing time like most people get booted from bars, pubs, and clubs.
I missed: The brilliant Würzburg St. Maurice wooden statue because … I dunno. Was the room closed? Did I think there was nothing in the next room? Like many museums, incompleteness is a reason to return, to the city and the museum.
Best thing: It’s free! Blimey! So was the National Gallery. What kind of witchcraft is that where museums are free? Other best thing: It’s organised by material as well as chronologically. Which is frankly awesome. Another best thing: It was packed. And I mean packed. They must get millions of visitors a year. Yay, art! (Good estimate based on a single day, Frances: 3.5 million in 2015.)
How many photos did you take, Frances? A shade over 300, including captions. And how many have you blogged? This is the bit that always embarrasses me when I’ve finished editing them all: 111. The number’s kinda like an objective remark on my tendency towards excessive fun. I mean it’s not like I’m banging heroin anymore, is it? Museums it is, then.
Speaking of massive altarpieces, here we go. Level 1 of Victoria & Albert Museum, the ground floor entrance, lofty, airy ceilings and art stretching up to them. It’s a bit like the Bode Museum for scale of art and architecture. Unlike the Bode, it’s packed. People are promenading like it’s life’s greatest accomplishment to wander around mediæval art. Which it is.
I’m first taken by The Troyes Altarpiece. We’re getting into very Late Mediæval / Early Renaissance here, and it’s not the most virtuoso altarpiece I’ve seen, it’s in limestone so the finesse possible in wood isn’t here, but it has a solidity and depth, like exaggerated perspective between the foreground and background figures. It’s not even especially large compared to The Brixen Altarpiece, which is so huge it’s impossible to look up at without seeing converging lines. Because photographs turn everything, no matter how big or small, into objects of the same dimension and all scale is lost, my head is about level with the heads of the four saints in the predella of The Brixen Altarpiece.
There were also several works I couldn’t or didn’t photograph, either because they were under glass, or I was too hasty. The Brixen Altarpiece was only one of many similarly gigantic altarpieces; The St Margaret Altarpiece was another. An especially fine Northern Germanic piece of a saint I rarely see, and certainly never with her life and torture so disturbingly depicted. This was made around the same time as The Brixen Altarpiece, yet shows the style that continued to develop north of the Alps, distinct from the Renaissance in Italy.
And then there’s Andrea della Robbia’s The Adoration of the Kings, also around the same time and from Italy, in tin-glazed terracotta, and very much committed to Renaissance and even anticipating the Baroque. I think this is one of the V&A’s more famous pieces, and it’s gorgeous in real life. It exemplifies the character of the V&A collections. They’re concerned with materiality; the works on display emphasise the diversity of choice of materials, of techniques, of aesthetics, making the museum as much a place of science and technology as art.
Last piece in these rooms, Perino del Vaga’s The Raising of Lazarus I mention because I realised I’m attracted to works like this fresco, or some of the preparatory sketches or unfinished works (I’m thinking of Pieter Brueghel’s De Aanbiddung der Wijzen here) where there’s a softness and visible exploratory process.
From there, I went into the Cast Courts, where I knew I had no hope; the V&A had been playing with me up to then. It wasn’t quite Louvre scale of tiny people in epic architecture, but for sure reminded me of it. So I got lost trying to find the sculpture corridors, completely missed the St. Mauritius sculpture in the last room (I still have no idea if I was inattentive or if it wasn’t open), turned around, got lost in acres of the Asian collection (Persian miniatures are my thing and I almost put the brakes on the rest of my mediævaling for this and the Islamic collection), found the Raphael rooms—he’s really not my thing, I think people like him because they confuse their fascination with a kind of seductive, transfixing blandness for the sublime, a lot like how people do over the Mona Lisa—the altarpiece was impressive the way the megalith is in 2001—also not Raphael but the ‘Master of the Centenar’ (possible German painter Andrès Marçal de Sas)—sometimes I wish museums put multi-level viewing platforms (with binoculars) in front of these towering pieces, but that’s just because I love smearing my nose right up against the art. Then I’m off up the stairs to Levels 2 and 3.
Enter via the Tube. Any city where you get off the subway and there’s a direct entrance into a museum is a proper city. The Victoria & Albert Museum, or V&A was on my, ‘probably worth a quick perv’ list, but I had no idea what I was in for. Six massive floors of art, pilfered from around the world? Oh, yes! I turned up on a very sunny Sunday with Jenn, both squinting with a bit of a hangover. She works in the British Library, in the Asian and African Reading Rooms, full of stuff from the Dunhuang Buddhist caves — something for my next visit to London. We spent at least an hour not budging from the lawn of the courtyard before going down into mediæval land.
The rooms of the Medieval & Renaissance 300 – 1500 collection is quietly spectacular. What distinguishes V&A from other museums I’ve visited is how they understand the inseparable history of art and design. In Berlin’s Staatliche Museen you get paintings in the Gemäldegalerie, sculpture in Bode Museum, and arbitrary divisions putting a bunch of pieces that are too 3-dimensional to be painting but not enough to be sculpture in one or the other. By looking at the materiality of the works (and I’m thinking of Caroline Walker Bynum’s Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe here) there’s not such a need to force arbitrary categories (though I’m aware the National Gallery is also full of altarpieces as paintings), and we get works in ivory, metal, wood, glass, stone, and any combination of these that seemed appropriate to the artist. Further, there’s a seamless flow from Early to High Middle Ages, where frequently I see Early split off into more archæological contexts, and High as art proper.
Many of the early works — from around 400 to 1100 — are small pieces in walrus ivory, with stone becoming more prevalent in the 1100s, and highly competent techniques in all materials developing in the following couple of hundred years. One of my favourite shifts happens with International Gothic, where the flat, verticality of bodies suddenly burst into movement, things flourish and flow everywhere as if caught in a fresh breeze, and the public begins to appear in the picture: individuals, groups, crowds arrive to fill the vision and comment on the main action. And I can’t choose between this or the styles they supersede. Or rather seem to swing between. When I look at The Deposition from the Cross (image 3) or Fragment from a Deposition (image 9), both from the mid-late-1100s, and compare them with The Symmachi Panel (image 1), Front Cover of the Lorsch Gospels (image 2), and Panel with the Adoration of the Kings (image 15) from 400, 800, and early-mid-1100 respectively, all from variously Germany, England, Italy, Spain, I see a shifting back and forth between ideas of representation that don’t strictly propose progressive development or evolution — at least maybe until the Late Middle Ages.
I mention those pieces also because I find them beautiful and even strange, like the popping eyes of Panel with the Adoration of the Kings, or the intricate opulence of the Tabernacle (images 4-8), which looks like it should unfurl with mechanical glory. One of my favourites is the small Portable Altarpiece (images 27 and 28) by the Master of the Louis XII Triptych, in painted enamel on copper, which the V&A describe at length. My photos are more faithful to the original, but still don’t do service to the sublime colours, shadows, movement. I also love the Tapestry (images 29-31), because it depicts a woman “in fashionable dress undertaking a spiritual journey … she finally enters a convent” and I imagine it’s the story of Hildegard of Bingen or Mechthild of Magdeburg. As well, it’s an entire work of art devoted to a woman’s life and story, which is something I love mediæval art for.
Master Bertram’s Triptych with Scenes from the Apocalypse (images 32-37) is frankly scary bonkers. The V&A have an excellent article on the decision whether to clean the altarpiece — in fact their entire journal archive is worth losing a week or two in. I’m not sure why Jesus has a green-black face, but that’s what he has. There’s so much to see in this triptych, it’s worth opening the images and scrolling around their vastness.
As usual there were plenty of pieces I didn’t or couldn’t photograph (even really good lighting and presentation doesn’t mean a photographable work will result), plus this was only one half of one floor and I had no idea how overwhelmed I was going to get. Up the stairs and into Level 1 for more mediæval awesomeness.
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.
It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.
What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!
Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.
Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.
On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.
Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).
Books! I have read them!
Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings; Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.
I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.
This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.
Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.
As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.
Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.
All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)
I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.
Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.
And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.
Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.
My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
Thursday before last, I took the day off and biked over to the Gemäldegalerie for El Siglo de Oro: Die Ära Velázquez, their new special exhibition of ‘the golden age’ of Spanish art and sculpture in the 17th century. As with previous large temporary exhibitions, the Gemäldegalerie’s massive central atrium was converted into a meandering series of rooms and aisles, and for this one also spilling over into some of the chambers of the permanent collection.
And as usual, photos weren’t permitted, which is a wry experience seeing how many of the works come from the gallery’s own collection and I’ve photographed before. Nonetheless, I timed one of the attendants walking between rooms and snuck off a few of Gregorio Fernández’ Camino del Calvario, or Gang zum Kalvarienberg as it’s known here, a splendid Baroque piece that reminded me of a similar work I saw in the Muzeum Narowode we Wrocławiu (still one of my favourite museums in Europe).
I also bought the catalogue because I suspect I won’t try and persuade the Gemäldegalerie to let me photograph the exhibition as I usually do (high probability of a sour “No.”), so I’ll probably just blab on about the catalogue in my usual parochial manner shortly.
If you’re in Berlin, it’s totally worth seeing, really nicely put together (could do with a few more earlier works of the seriously fucking marvellous El Greco Immaculata Oballe type); consistently high quality lighting; audio guide up there with the best — and if you take the audio guide allow for at least three hours to get through; it’s definitely one of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s finest exhibitions, though predictably on the slim side when it comes to exactly what Imperial Spain was up to (and that was under the Austro-Germanic House of Habsburg) with all their colonising and empiring. Context. Art is not outside it.
A couple of days ago we were looking at Michael’s website and saw a new video in the progression of One Final Evolutionary Note. Michael and Gala dancing. Two of my favourite people and I love seeing them dance together. Yesterday I chatted with both of them, (and had dinner with Michael’s family, doing the Grande Tour of Europe), so with little else to say, other than I’ve watched it a few times already.