I’d been waiting for this for so long. I’d read Stross’ notes on his blog for the sequels (which might have been in the long piece he wrote when The Trade of Queens was published early-2010, or the Crib Sheet), and somehow never thought they would happen. He’s been more than busy with The Laundry Files series this decade (plus a sequel to Saturn’s Children), so I was resigning myself to not seeing this world continued — just like the Eschaton series.
The original Merchant Princes series was six books, which I started reading in Zürich when I’d plundered the English bookshop for all available skiffy. In fact reading Charles Stross in the first place was because I’d dealt to the other writers. I kept picking up Accelerando and putting it back down, convinced by the first couple of pages it was a second-rate Neuromancer. I was joyously wrong on that, it turned out to be mental. I’ve read it at least four times. The Merchant Princes though. I wasn’t even sure it was the same Stross. It looked all … fantasy romance novel or something. Eventually I gave it a whirl, and thought it was enough of alright to keep going with the series. And like Accelerando, I’ve read them I think four times.
Early-2013, they got repackaged and edited into a trilogy. For the better with the editing. For the covers … well, they fit into what seems to be Stross’ current demographic, which is pretty hetero bro-ish, whatever he might like to think. The original covers were kinda embarrassing. It’s not so much the thematic elements of fantasy romance cover art that I cringe over (but they did provoke a few “WTF are you reading, Frances?”), more that they weren’t done very well. But they were explicitly directed at women, and that’s what was missing in the 2013 Omnibus and in the new Empire Games cover. Which makes me worry that this deceptively thoughtful and dramatic multiple universe espionage series is — even with the best intentions of the author — going to slowly slip away.
I’m not sure on this. Whoever might be Stross’ most vocal fan base, and whoever he might write for in, say, The Laundry series of late, I do think he has a long-term commitment to writing stories about women and prioritising them as characters. Besides The Laundry, almost all his other novels either have women as the main character, or as equals in an ensemble. And yet, some of the recent Laundry novels have become tiresome techno-bro fests of battles and hardware, and his poor handling of a trans woman character played for laughs in The Nightmare Stacks … if I hadn’t have read him for so long would have been enough for me to throw him the fuck out. All of which leaves me a bit conflicted. I really, really want to like Empire Games, and coming to it from reading Stross for ten years, I know why I like him and I also know what whatever it is that’s left me frustrated with his more recent books is not superficial.
So finally, here’s the continuation to my third favourite series of Stross. Third? Why, yes. Eschaton and Saturn’s Children are tied for first, probably with the former edging the latter out. I don’t know why I loved Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise so much and might not if I read them again now, but he set a phenomenal standard with all these four novels. Empire Games. Yes, it gives everything promised and hoped for. Stross also (I think retroactively, sometime around Book 4 of the original series) establishes Earth 1 as definitively not this earth. Which makes sense considering he nuked Washington, and Anglo-Euro-American politics has become so bizarre in the last couple of years it’s better to preemptively avoid getting bitten by them.
We’ve firmly left the world of fantasy here, a shift that started sometime mid-series from memory, but was tempered by the non-Christian north-east coast Medieval/Renaissance Earth 2 world (Viking knights with assault rifles and a penchant for castle-based, early 21st century nouveau riche lifestyle). In Empire Games, that part of North America was comprehensively nuked, and the faction which escaped are now refugees in an early-20th century steampunk North American Commonwealth on Earth 3. It’s set a little in our future, so around 17 years after the original series, meaning the original main cast are all grown up and are now middle-aged women. And then there’s the new cast: Miriam’s daughter Rita, who was adopted out, her former East-German dissident/sleeper grandfather, the intrigues of the Family holding her in its grasp. And Rita is openly, unremarkably queer.
Empire Games is the first of a projected trilogy. Based on the synopsis I read (which might be linked to in one of those above posts), some of the general large-scale action he’d planned is being hinted at already. It definitely goes into the hard sci-fi worlds of Stross I love, potentially in a direction like Alasdair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. A lot of the book was devoted to both set-up for those events and catch-up for the last 17 years. It reads coherently enough as a single novel to not leave me awkwardly hanging — a habit of several authors lately which feels like their book has been ripped in half and I’ve paid for the whole — and does a good job of balancing the competing demands of past and future with telling the actual story. As much as I enjoy the silly romps of The Laundry universe, I’m overjoyed Stross has returned to The Merchant Princes. I think it’s less demanding for him to write the pop-culture novels, but his tougher, less-accessible books have both that pop-culture side and a depth of thinking that is his brilliance.
The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
“Wha’d’ya think of Lanark, then?” “La-whu?” “Lanark!” “Dunno. Never read it. I think …” “You love The Bridge and you’ve never read Lanark?” “urr …” “You have to read Lanark.” “Orright …” “Never read Lanark … How can you understand The Bridge without reading Lanark? Alasdair Gray was his —” I was pretty drunk, we were both pretty drunk in a restaurant in Leipzig after the première of Wonderwomen, so some of the details are … I’m probably making up this next bit “— mentor, his biggest inspiration. Gray didn’t really like him though.” Something like that. I probably said something like, “errr … yeah, he might have been mentioned in this book on the Culture I was reading …” He was. Also in the other book on Banks. So because of Chris Clark (musician, not footballer), I am reading Lanark.
Thanks, Chris, it’s fucking with my head.
There’s these scenes early in the first book, where our protagonist, something of an aspiring louche — he’d be positively emo if this was written in the ’00s — is all maudlin on a balcony in a café, which is above a cinema, and I can’t get a vision of Café DKD in Auckland out of my head, out the back of the Civic Theatre (it’s all multiplex there now, but the theatre still exists, as does the Moorish brickwork forming screens over the windows), the regular mob who lived there on both sides of the bar, just the feeling of the place and time. Lanark invokes this sort of visceral memory.
Do I like it? I’m not sure. It’s part nightmare, like when you have a distant memory of a film you saw in your teens and can’t decipher its reality, like Jacob’s Ladder. It’s definitely a book I wouldn’t be reading without Chris’s enthusiastic praise. It’s like archaeology, one of the classics at some point you can’t avoid and discover it’s fucking brilliant. Disturbing, don’t read in bed brilliant. Not sure how I’m getting through it brilliant. Not sure if brilliant or bludgeoning me with the inexorable will of the author. It’s a work of endurance. I’m surviving it. I think I like it.
I’m doing this as a memory. I went to LADA, spent the afternoon in their Study Room, trawled hundreds of books and pulled out a few, spent minutes or tens of looking and reading. Also a memory. I am reminded of my own history in biographies or documents of people and groups I think of only infrequently, which at one time were all I thought of. Or others I know about and have never read, or have circulated around me, or are entirely new. The books are arranged chronologically, in the order they were purchased in. Of all the possible arrangements, this is my favourite. It tells you something about the book that it doesn’t and can’t tell you itself.
These are the books I looked at and read a little of. In chronological order — mine going from first to last, and LADA’s going backwards in time from most recently acquired to about halfway through their collection. Some I like; others I don’t. I am still wondering what they tell me about me.
Pina Bausch — The Biography, Marion Meyer (trans: Penny Black)
my body, the buddhist, Deborah Hay
Precarious Lives — Waiting and Hope in Iran, Shahram Khosravi
A Field Guide for Female Interrogators, Coco Fusco
Integration Impossible? The Politics of Migration in the Artwork of Tanja Ostojić, Pamela Allara and Manuela Bojadzijev
Guerilla Aspies — A Neurotypical Society Infiltration Manual, Paul Wady
Leigh Bowery — The Life And Times Of An Icon, Sue Tilley
Black Artists In British Art, A History Since The 1950s, Eddie Chambers
Test Dept: Total State Machine, eds. Alexei Monroe and Peter Webb
Tania Bruguera: On the Political Imaginary, Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Gerardo Mosquera, Helaine Posner
Thee Psychick Bible : Thee Apocryphal Scriptures ov Genesis Breyer P-Orrige and Thee Third Mind ov Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
Jan Fabre: Stigmata. Actions & Performances 1976-2013, Germano Celant
Feminist and Queer Information Studies Reader, eds. Patrick Keilty and Rebecca Dean
Femininity, Time and Feminist Art, Clare Johnson
The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium, Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, Sue Scott
The Shit of God: Diamanda Galás, Diamanda Galás and Clive Barker
Jan Fabre: I Am A Mistake. seven works for the theatre, ed. Frank Hentschker
Female Masculinity, Jack Halberstam
Trans(per)forming Nina Arsenault: An Unreasonable Body of Work, ed. Judith Rudakoff
I read these in the wrong order. Mainly because they arrived out of order. So I read Fair Rebel first, which is Steph Swainston’s most recent Castle novel, the first after her return to writing after a few years retirement, and then jumped back to her last before, Above the Snowline.
This is something of a minor work next to the gigantic, continent-shaping events of the original Castle trilogy and Fair Rebel. Her concern here is the life of Jant, the Messenger, also known as Comet. If we see anything of the world of the Castle through someone’s eyes, it’s through his, yet he is also deliberately reticent in sharing much of himself. It is up to the events of Above the Snowline to rectify that, but even here he — by which I mean Steph — does a fine job of keeping private private.
I’m not much of a reviewer. I’m not writing a carefully structured synopsis, methodical analysis and criticism; there’s a world where I do, but it’s not this one.
I spent the novel convinced the action took place over the peaks of the Darkling Mountains on the west coast, when it in fact took place barely on the shoulders of the eastern flanks. It’s nonetheless a pitiless world of vast glaciers, peaks, and alpine forests, where winter, snow and darkness collapse the action in on itself. Just as Steph writes warfare and battle with the dispassionate attention of a sniper at the side of a commander, so does she write mountains like a climber on the wrong end of a rope and a storm.
I’m curious why she writes hetero males (long-limbed, winged, and drug-addicted ones) as main characters, and the binary pairings that seem especially pronounced here. I think she can justify it to herself, the world of the Castle is her lifelong fantasy world, and probably as real and familiar as this world. Yet it always jars me when an author has such familiar and recognisable romantic or gendered relationships in a world so very much not ours, as though the base reality for the multiverse was a 20th century European historical revisionism of its imagined self. Not that I’d throw it down and refuse to read it. Swainston is currently very much on my Will Always Read list.
So, Above the Snowline, I probably wouldn’t read more of Swainston if I’d started with this, even though it chronologically precedes the first Castle novel, The Year of Our War, and would make an interesting order to read. It’s like a novella exploring the main character of her other novels, yet somehow he remains elusive, as though she doesn’t really want to share him with us. As for Shira Dellin, the Rhydanne who sets off the novel when her partner is murdered by colonialists, she is and remains an enigmatic Noble Savage, the object of Jant’s immature infatuation, too blinded by his imagined superiority to see she is fighting for her and her people’s lives. I’d like to think the current world of fantasy and sci-fi is grown up enough to not actually be seriously writing this, but then I remember Avatar is getting four sequels. I’m a little iffy about some of this.
Worth reading? If you’re like me and get a kick out of reading everything from an author, then sure. Otherwise the Castle trilogy followed by Fair Rebel is a hugely accomplished quartet, starting with The Year of Our War. If that one doesn’t do it the rest probably won’t.
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.
Late-2015, for vague reasons I couldn’t plumb, I threw myself into Steph Swainston’s massive The Castle Omnibus. Three books in one. Was most impressive. One of those rare stories and worlds which keep churning in the background of my thoughts, like you know a second reading will be rich with detail you’d forgotten or not even noticed the first time.
And at that time she’d retired from writing to be a chemistry teacher, so besides Above the Snowline (which I’m currently reading), that was to be the entirety of her literary brilliance. Lucky for me she found an arrangement between the demands of publishers and fans, and her need to write, and returned with an absolute slammer of a novel.
Or maybe she just wanted to smash down the world she’d created. Or maybe she needed to do that to open it to the possibilities of these worlds. For whatever reason, she annihilates people and buildings with methodical, dispassionate relentlessness throughout the Fourlands and not stopping at the Castle itself. Immortals are sloughed off; art, industry, culture, history burned and razed; and not the minor cast either. She goes straight for the leads who have filled her previous four novels. It’s gloriously brutal and tragic.
I’ve been quietly raving about Swainston to my friends, but don’t really know how to describe her. Sometimes it’s like William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch; other times like ancient Greek literature. There’s a logic in the many worlds like some science-fiction yet there’s obviously a lineage with Western European fantasy, but to say, “If you liked Lord of the Rings, you’ll love this” is entirely what it isn’t. Sometimes it’s like a deranged and drug-addled version of Poldark. I was looking through writers to go, “It’s like them,” and usually I can get close, but with Swainston … maybe a bit of Sophie Samatar or Jo Walton’s The Just City trilogy, but really all three are so different.
I’m not sure if reading Fair Rebel without The Castle Omnibus would be so satisfying — or such a punch in the face — but this is the kind of series you’re either all in for or don’t make it through the first chapter. Obviously I’m all in.
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.
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.