26 October 2016

Romanticism, 26 Oktober 2016

Ignore the bust - and admire the beauty of the gold leaf decorations of the niche. I never tire of going to the Alte Nationalgalerie on Museuminsel in Berlin. It is a stunning building that was decimated in the second world war, but has been lovingly restored. One room has been kept so that we can know the state from which it has been brought.

All else has been restored in a convincing and attractive manner.  I especially love the doorways on the main floor, and the dome on the third floor.  The doorways "pull" you through the galleries, and the dome is a restful place that introduces you to the heart of the collection.

So the question that seems to naturally follow here is why do I keep coming back here.  What, other than the building itself, is the nature of the attraction. Sometime in the 1970s, I read a book called Dreamers of Decadence by Philippe Julian, and Robert Baldick. In it I met Odilon Redon, Edvard Munch, Gustav Moreau (whose atelier in Paris I visited once), and Jan Toorop among others. There was one artist in that discussion on Symbolist painters that I immediately took to, and that is Arnold Böcklin. There are several paintings by him here, some portraits, and landscapes, but above all his symbolist paintings. I am especially taken by the painting, "The Island of the Dead."

So I had to ask myself the question, "What is it about these romantic painters, with their slightly bitter edge, that is so attractive to me?" Today, as I thought about that, I think I realized something and that is that these painters still were cognizant and conversant with the myth (whether Christian, classical, or tribal). It is an orientation that we seem to have lost in our time. As an illustration, here is Franz Stuck's painting "Die Sünde" (Sin), which was painted in his lovely studio at Villa Stuck in München. 

Here the "evil" woman (taking the myth seriously) looks at us from the canvas, with the serpent peering at us as well over her shoulder. I don't like what the canvas says about women, but I do like all the cultural references that are there to be thought about and brought to mind. There is a challenge here to think about sin as a cultural force and as a religious concept, and its attachments in the culture at large. 

There is an early Max Beckmann, in which you can see how his modernist definitions of space and human form was beginning to develop. Although not a symbolist, he certainly understood myth and classical tales in his later works.

Then there is a haunting portrait of Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger, in which the philosopher stares out at us, but beyond us - deep in thought.

Finally, I couldn't help but photograph this wonderful painting by Anton Feuerbach, a painter steeped in classicism, but reaching for the modern. Finally, there is something here that explores deeply what it means to be a human being, at all points of the culture.

And, perhaps, divine as well.

24 October 2016

Some Casual Observations Donnerstag bis Montag (20 Oktober - 24 Oktober 2016)

Speaking of gulashsuppe...

the second best in the world can be found in this restaurant in the Nikolaiviertel in Berlin. I've had it there several times and it never disappoints.  (The best is found in Prague, across the river, in a nameless restaurant that serves it with wonderful dumplings.)

The Ballet in Berlin - Giselle was playing, so we had to go see the production at the Staatsballett Berlin, performing temporarily at the Schiller Theatre in West Berlin.

The stage was a bit small, but the sets were quite fantastic, better than SFB's. The corps at SFB, however, is distinctly superior. We both enjoyed the first act, but the second act (my favorite) lacked something.

A couple of amusing things happened. A French couple was convinced that we had their seats (they being on the left, and we the right). It took some time to explain the situation to them, to the amusement of those sitting around us. Also, during the intermission we looked at the Opernstore, the only Ballet store that I know of that sells mustard.

Saint Hedwig's Organ - is always a delight and so we took advantage of an afternoon concert on their magnificent Klais organ.  A piece by Bach and then Durufle was played to the delight of all. 

Saturday on the Spree - We always like taking a Spree cruise, that takes you down river and then back to the Tiergarten by way of the Landwehr canal.  It gives you a different perspective on the city, and allows several opportunities to experience locks.

That and a glass of hot chocolate, and later tortellini with vegetables makes for a delightful mid-day.  On several of our walks we run into Stolpersteine, small memorials to people who were deported and then murdered at the camps.

It's impressive to watch a culture and a people wrestle with their past - there are so many evidences of a good effort.  Every now and then, however, one runs into something like this:

In the neighborhood near our hotel there was once a synagogue that was destroyed by the Nazi's and further decimated by the bombings in Berlin. The city erected a memorial there made of Corten Steele - a stylized menorah with a panel explaining the history and the memorial. The panel had been defaced with yellow paint proclaiming "Jesus Wahrheit" (Jesus the Truth). It is embarrassingly disgraceful. The plaque is really quite beautiful with the Hebrew and German text incised into the steel.

Sundays in Berlin are locked up tighter than a drum - so finding ourselves at Hackescher Hof with nothing to look at or buy, we got on a streetcar, and took it to the end of the line and back. It allowed us to see parts of Berlin we had not visited before, and to see how rejuvenated the eastern half has become. There is one thing, however, that Berlin can't seem to deal with and that is graffiti; it appears everywhere, and to the detriment of some fine buildings.  

A visit to Amarna - On Monday we visit Museuminsel, and specifically the Neues Museum.  We are there to visit Nefertiti, of course, but she wasn't allowing photographs. A photo, however, of Queen Tiy gives you an idea of the beauty of this collection's holdings.

And there is a wonderful example of the Amarna style in a fresco of ducks and water lilies.

We had a good conversation with two different couples, both from London. It expands your world to share ideas and points of view with people from other places. Delightful! Especially delightful, however, is traveling with Arthur.

21 October 2016

Infrastructure and Self Image - 20 October 2016

After the fall of the wall, and the reunification of Germany, we began to see the transformation of Berlin from a divided city into a world capital again. The first glimpses of that were at Potsdamer Platz, once the busiest intersection in the world. Decimated by the bombing of Berlin during the Second World War it was a site ripe for redevelopment. As friends we knew came back from Berlin all they could talk about was the construction boom - how the city was being reshaped and reformed. There was an air of excitement and renewal.  

When I started coming to Berlin, Potsdamer Platz was complete, dominated by the Sony Center and full of crowds and families.  But as I took the U2 toward Unter den Linden one could see signs that this was just the first stage of many, and that construction was going to be a state of being for some time.  As I would look out of the train windows I could see the huge underground construction moving from the south up toward where the Hauptbahnhof would be built. And over subsequent visits we got to see that remarkable building rise - levels of commerce, transport, services, and humanity.

During that same time we saw the rise of government buildings, the refurbishing of the Reichstag, and the construction of memorials that would seek to interpret German history to the visitor. There was the stunning Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

and a small memorial on the edge of the Tiergarten memorializing the gay men and women who were victims of the holocaust as well.

This was in addition to new embassies, hotels, stores, and other buildings. One would think that they were done, but they are not.  The Deutsche Oper still is undergoing renovation, and the extension and rejuvenation of the Unter den Linden U linie has taken over the street, up to Alexanderplatz, where it passes by the reconstruction of the Schloß.

Above you can see all of the cranes surrounded in the Deutsche Oper, and behind that there is the odd dome of Saint Hedwig's Cathedral, which is planning its own expansion and renewal as well. As you continue up the street you can see in the distance the dome of the Schloß construction, which seems to have gone up overnight.

I go through all of this marveling at this city's resolve and this nation's foresight in tending to its infrastructure. There are fanciful items, such as the Schloß, but there are also fundamental investments in the way that the people of this city, and its visitors can encounter the culture of Germany. I wish that we would learn that lesson in America - beginning to take care of our own, and treating ourselves well.

So here is Arthur standing near the Neue Wache, as we prepare to enter the Historical Museum just in the near distance.  The last time we were here, we had to leave off at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the exhibition is so rich with artifacts and interpretation. In this vibrant city, renewing itself, it takes time to look back - and, I think, to rightfully ponder.

17 October 2016

Monday, 17 October 2016 - The Church and Culture

Entering Egino Weinert's studio again, we are immediately surrounded by ecclesiastical peculiarity, with iconography, materials, and usages all tied up with the practise of religion. Specialized language and knowledge seem necessary to appreciate all that surrounds you. I have returned because I want a remembrance of this trip. I started my collection of Weinert art (unknowingly) when Tom Tragardh gave me a small crucifix with the symbols for the Holy Spirit and the Father floating above the corpus, and the Creed embossed on the verso. The cross had been the property of Peggy, a former Maryknoll nun and a good friend of Tom's. I was honored to receive it both to remember her, and to have such a nice piece in my collection. It sits on the altar when I celebrate mass as a remembrance of why I am there. So today I buy two clasps for a cope. One set will go on my green cope, and the other on my white cope, replacing a Celtic piece on the one, and a slowly deteriorating situation on the other.

But there is more. I also purchase an enamel of Our Lady mounted on a bronze backing (above). It is a sample of both aspects of his work. I also purchase a stained glass piece honoring Saint Mark. While I am there it will hang in the vesting sacristy at Saint Mark's Church in Berkeley. When I look in my bag of things there is a small box, with a brass medallion of Saint Mark, the widow Weinert's gift to me. So nice...

We walk over the the Kolumba Museum a museum of the Erzbistums Köln. I will speak of their mission in a second. One is drawn past the first floor exhibition into a courtyard shaded by trees, and bounded on one side by the ruins of Saint Kolumba's Church, which was destroyed in the Second World War. The ruins were first "completed" by having a small chapel built above them, and then later being surrounded by the museum itself. One can walk through the several layers of churches, Carolingian, Romanesque, Gothic and more. 

In the entrance gallery one immediately meets the mission of the museum, to comment on contemporary culture and juxtapose it with older expressions both ecclesiastical and secular. It gives the visitor pause. The Church has over time been slowly separated from its various missions in the world. Healing and hospitals were given over to governments, and lately and sadly to private enterprise. Education became the purview both church and state. What monks laboriously copied over from the ancients, and what late mediaeval scholars discovered from their Arab counterparts, gave rise to the scientism of our own time. These are not losses, but rather the engendering of a secular culture that did not rely on theology to define itself. Perhaps even now it is philosophy that is slipping out of our collective grasp as we listen to the ill-formed ideas of racists and sexists. Thus the robots above give us a clue as we enter the collection. We will need to appreciate dissonance. 

The museum has an excellent collection of Coptic fabrics, including a magnificent Coptic tunic. On this day, these were displayed next to contemporary pieces of jewelry. Sometimes the juxtapositions make theological/philosophical comments just by their appearance together.

Just off a large room containing sculptures that once adorned the Dom, and that have been replaced by restorations, there is a wonderful ivory crucifix from the thirteenth century.  It is local, having been produced in the Rheinland. On the opposite wall hangs a painting by Norbert Schwontkowski (1949-2013), Der Vorabend der Geschichte (The dawn of history). Here are two trees: one bearing the Christ, the other surrounded by monkeys and other animals and inhabited by a snake. (2001 a Space Odyssey immediately comes to mind.) What do these two works have to say to one another, and do they both comment on the human situation?

Of extraordinary interest in an adjoining gallery is a seventeenth century sculpture of the Holy Trinity, produced in the south of Germany, in which the Trinity is seen in the three faces of the figure.  Behind it is a project by Chris Newmin (Berlin) Me in a no-time state. It is a series of five diptychs that juxtapose the works of several painters: Edvard Munch and Henri Matisse, James Ensor and Gustav Klimt; Lovis Corinth and Kasimir Malewitsch, Edgar Degas and Barnett Newman (which appears in the photo above behind the Heilige Dreifaltigkeit, and finally Mark Rothko an Philip Guston.

I finish my tour in a room with a large window that over looks the city with the Dom in the near distance. It is a compelling view. 

It is shared with a grouping, Der Vier Gekrönten, (The four crowned ones). They are a fifteenth century representation of four individuals responsible in the building of the Dom: the Bildhauer, Konrad Kuhn, joined by the work master, stone mason, and the polisher. These represent the technology that developed in the Gothic period that plasticized and transformed the Romanesque into the forms of the medieval period, spanning space at great height, opening up stone walls to windows, and centering whole communities with holy space. It was, in spite of its ecclesiastical purpose, an entré into a more secular and rational world, that valued a wider expanse of knowledge.

I have to include one last photograph of the reading room, which is a comment on the materials that we use to build our cultural monuments. The "library" (that's what I call it), is paneled in matched-grain panels that draw you to the comfortable seating, and the view from the window. I think it is no accident that in the sublime nature of this room, we are drawn to see and observe an office building right across the street. Thus we meet two worlds.

16 October 2016

Köln, 14-16 Oktober 2016 - Ecclesiastical Metal Work

Unlike previous years, when I made comments each day as we travelled, this year it will be much more limited. We are here in Köln to see and relax before moving on to Berlin, where we will do more relaxing and seeing. An extra added bonus was having my cousin Günter Ortlieb join us in Köln for the first few days of the trip.  There was lots of wine, food, and conversation.

On Saturday, Günter had to deal with my proclivities for all things ecclesiastical, so it began with a brief sweep around der Dom (without entering) where we ended up at the studio of Egino Weinert. He lost his hand in an explosion during the war, but made his art with one hand.  He died several years ago, but his widow still operates the foundry and studio in Köln where right across the street his daughter Giselle has her own studio. His work graces most of the important churches in Germany, and his metal work is evident either by its presence or by its influence everywhere.

This standing pyx with enamel work and a smoky quartz is an excellent example of his work.  So on Monday we will return where I'm looking at some enameled morse clips for a cope and perhaps a piece of glass work. 

On Sunday we made our way to Antoninerkirche, an Evanglische church close to the Kolumba Museum (which we are saving for Monday afternoon). Our visit there took on the nature of a pilgrimage for me in that I have always wanted to see Der Engel, a magnificent war memorial by Ernst Barlach. There are other works by him there, and the metal work and stone work is really quite beautiful in its stark reality. The medieval Taufstein is topped with a modern cover that is a foil to the simplicity of the stonework below.

There are two ambos in the chancel, but the one, modeled on the typical eagle-bearing-the-book lectern is by Rudolf Peer (1984), and is a stunning piece of work.

There are other Barlach pieces in the church, a seated Christ, and a crucifix above the baptismal font, but it is the angel hovering over a memorial to those who died in the First World War, that draws in visitors and tourists. There is a mood here of grief and quiet, with the memorial situated in a small apse off to the side of the chancel. A cross from Coventry Cathedral is placed there as well. 

My cousin observes how the nave is suffused with light, the ancient glass having been replaced by modern pieces after the war. It is a contrast to the Barlach memorial and the sheer weight of the angel. The room is a delight to enter. It invites both wonder and prayer.