Monday, 25 December 2017

I always imagined European winters to be very dramatic. I thought the river would freeze over, and markets would sell roasted chestnuts and ice skates for hire. I thought we would need to strap tennis rackets to our feet. But Christmas was quite sunny. It was only just cold enough to see your breath in the air.

I called my mum in the morning, and we talked about board games and cassowary transportation. Then we ate cake at an Art Nouveau cafe in the city concert hall.

I really loved Art Nouveau when I was younger. I liked how complete it was – you can’t half do Art Nouveau. It can be elegant. But now I find it too obvious that it’s only for the rich; everything hand made, everything lavish. The best parts of it; the graphic elements, the colours, are usually overwhelmed by superficial allegories and figuration. Even in Prague where whole streets are in the same style it’s not enough. You’d need to do a whole town, and it would look like a theme park. But it was a very perfect place to eat cake.

After we went to the National gallery, which was split between two palaces in the castle district. I was caught up by this sculpture with a (live) spider on its nose:

Transubstantiated into wood, stuck there, unable to blow it away or to scratch or to move. He looked so pained.

National collections seem to get caught up representing national artists, which is good sometimes but to an outsider the difference between Bohemian mediaeval sculpture and the international style is wholly academic.

At lunch I ate fried cheese and made the strange face I make when I know I am being photographed. I hadn’t shaved for about two weeks, which almost worked, but it’s not complete and doesn’t grow in the right places – I had an image in my head of Charles I and a rakish pointy beard, but in the evening I decided to shave partly because I looked up what Charles I actually looked like and thought better of it. Maybe Francis Drake would have been a better choice.

We had booked a dinner at the Intercontinental, with a view over the river. At the table behind us an American man who looked like Steve Mnuchin (but wasn’t) sanctimoniously tasted the wine. I dislike tasting wine in restaurants; the purpose was to tell if it was corked or turned, but now the bottles don’t have corks. It’s strange seeing a social custom be disembodied from the practicality that underlied it, and become etiquette. I always nod very enthusiastically. A lady played covers of pop songs on the harp. You could almost tell what they were, but it was just out of reach.

The main course was breaded carp, which is a Czech speciality. There were bins of live carp throughout the city at the Christmas markets during the day, for local Czechians to buy fresh and bake at home. It is strange eating a goldfish. They have a lot of bones.

After a day of fried cheese, pheasant mousse, pheasant soup, and breaded carp, I cancelled the lunch I had booked at the Zizkov tower for boxing day. I was sad to miss it, but we had no appetite left for rich food, and my sister had said before I could mention it that she wouldn’t be coming.

Thursday, 21 December II

It’s Sunday now and so, consequentially, I can barely remember what occurred on Thursday. But the pictures in this phone have dates. I like the idea of jogging memory, like pictures are a set of spark plugs that reignite a functioning engine that was already there. It’s quite comforting. I wonder if it is actually like that or, even now three days later, my memories are moving versions of these pictures, artistic reinterpretations made out of still images.

Anyway we went to the Decorative arts museum because it was in the same building that contained my lost wallet. The above piece was the standout, clearly, for its beautiful chicken feet and the doughnut shape of the flask which is an objectively silly concept.

This is an excellent chicken ceramic.

This is an important parrot container. It has a removable head but you have to wonder what exactly you would keep in it. Pumpkin seeds? I would keep pumpkin seeds in it.

The Bauhaus archiv, it turns out, and I should have known, has no collection because the Bauhaus was in Dessau. But it does have an excellent shop. Some day I will buy this Wagenfeld tea set. I just need to save up. Also, not take it on a plane, because that could only be tragic. One thing I did learn was that Moholy Nagy went on to Chicago and started a photography school called the New Bauhaus. The photographs were quite good. Sadly, no textile design. I mostly wanted to see Annie Albers’ tapestries.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

A lot of people have told me that I lose things very frequently. And I suppose, to an extent, I agree I do, but also I suspect maybe I admit it more than other people. As in maybe other people lose things all the time but they are more sensible about not admitting it, because it is embarassing. Because it seems to me it’s quite easy to lose things. Frankly I have no idea how I lost my wallet with 1x debit card, 1x MasterCard, 250 euros in cash (clearly too much cash, had forgotten how much, thought it was 100 so would have been blissfully ignorant) and 10 pounds (why did I bring pounds to Germany? Don’t know, seemed close enough). One good thing about losing things all the time is you get given them back, which is a very heartening experience. I don’t deserve the goodness of all the people who have variously handed my wallet back to me (always with all the money).

My favourite thing in Renaissance art is iridescent angel wings.

Growing up with Sunday school books you’re given this anoydyne vision of a white walled heaven, full of square jawed Jesus’ and blonde expressionless Gabriels. If you were a made up thing and you could have wings – any wings – surely you would have these.

And if you could be a God, (specifically one version of God, the Christian god, specifically from the range of said God as represented in various art historical periods) surely you’d be this multicoloured, counter-reformational God, creator of an entourage of languorous Mannerist seraphim.

Wednesday, 20 December II

After the Old Masters gallery, which had twice as many paintings in it as you could mentally deal with in one sitting, we went on to the Neues museum. Lunch was a strange dish at a chain cafe. It was described as veggie pasta with chorizo. The pasta turned out to be sheet pasta, lasagna style, wrapped around chunks of falafel, with many piles of sausage on top. It was odd. Also beer, beer is everywhere. I have been getting dehydrated because I am mostly drinking beer.

Despite appearances, the renovations to the Neues museum happened after the war. It is an interesting place. It was built in the 1850s in a faux Egyptian style, with false frescoes and tomb like bricks framing the exhibits. Then it was ruined by bombing, and parts rebuilt. It has been taken away just enough from its camp Victorianness for it to feel strangely appropriate as a setting for the objects. The occasional orientalist history painting interrupts but mostly it has a huge, memorializing scale.

The only photo of the collection I took was of this happy Roman jug. * The Germans are VERY salty about the Red Army taking Schliemann’s Trojan bits away from them. This shows a considerable lack of self awareness. There were three signs saying the Russians held the collection ‘in breach of international law’. There were no signs mentioning anything about repeated requests to repatriate the bust of Nefertiti to Egypt.

After the museum we walked through a Christmas market at the base of the TV Tower.

This is the TV tower again (I really like it):

You don’t realise how important food is to joy until you cannot have it. The markets were warrens of little tents with wurst and glass ornaments and roasted nuts.

We did stop for a glass of gluhwein, which my dad tipped out into a plant and my sister didn’t seem to enjoy. I enjoyed it. There was an ice rink with no one on it, but mostly a lot of people enjoying hot meals and mulled wine, and walking their Christmas daschunds.

Ice rink and statue:

Representative mood photo below. There is much walking and no space to think. I wish I could lie in a park and stare at the sky for a few hours.

* We saw the bust of Nefertiti. I don’t know why, but even though it is very perfectly preserved, and very beautiful, it didn’t move me. The granite statues were more amazing – carving as good or better than any Roman marble but in hard stone, in 3000BCE.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Who knows why geese go barefoot?

I am pushing the black and white photo thing but, I like this. It reminds me of ’70s art books with their terrible photolithographs. Anyway, the man in this Brueghel is pondering why the geese don’t have shoes. I think it comes across. It’s a Flemish aphorism that means, ‘there’s a plan to everything’. Or something like that.

Today we went to the Gemäldegalerie. I was partly distracted taking photos of all the silly animals in the lesser mediaeval paintings but they have an amazing collection. It is also a huge building – you think it is huge, but it is huger.

It was deserted again when we arrived.

Having no one around definitely makes it easier to take faux architectural photographs.

Part II to come: very difficult to find time to write entries. Much expectation to participate in conversation and leave hotel at earliest opportunity.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Nothing will ever smell as good to me as the bratwurst did at Bornholmer-Strasser station.

East Berlin is so dull it’s beautiful. Especially in the cold air, and rain, with the empty lots full of skeleton trees and the roads built on heavy iron arches. And in the middle of it burnt orange doors to the train station, and turquoise tiles, in these strange colours that feel as if they were picked by someone who had never seen colour before – peculiar, particular. The perfect colours to set off grey.

The Berlin wall looked unthreatening and thin, like a theatre prop.

It wasn’t really the wall that kept people in, I guess. But how frustrating to have such a flimsy barrier stand between you and the world. It was freezing there, just a small field with a piece of wall, and a visitor’s centre with a fifteen minute film that we didn’t watch.

It’s amazing how empty Berlin is at this time of year.

Catherine stayed in the hotel today, so my dad and I went to the Stasi museum. This was building 1 of 45; just the centre of a giant complex that seemed to have mushroomed around one man with a lot of power. Despite the fact that they were awful, you could tell that the flats surrounding it were nicer than the usual – pinkish pebblecrete with lightwells around the stairs. The doors are like the doors to a nice hotel:

The foyer has red granite columns and stairs, a weird blend of luxury materials and proletarian symbolism. The first and third levels of the museum are text board heavy, a lot of dry information in a well ordered series that tells you who the main officials were and an overview of their history, staffing numbers, influence, methods. There was a car with a plexiglass door and a camera set up to film through a 1mm hole around a corner. Some of the gadgets seemed over the top silly, like the watering can camera. The second floor has the well-preserved bits, with the Bond-lair boardroom:

The panel on the left is a map recessed into the wall:

And the casino room:

[Berlin has excellent stair rails: even in the East, with these Mies van der Rohe curves]

The offices reminded me of the Prime Minister’s suite in Old Parliament house, a 60’s political period piece. Full of phone banks and card file cabinets. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t understand all the recordings of Eric Mielke, or maybe it wouldn’t be necessary in a city where my parents’ generation could have had an active career as Stasi agents. But it seemed like the piece that was missing was personal stories about what it was like to be investigated, or to inform; why you did it, what it meant to you. The most affecting exhibit was a series of photos of informers and their code names; a man at the wedding of the couple he informed on, a punk singer performing with her band. Maybe the problem was that it would strike too many nerves, but that in itself would be interesting to address: an explicit acknowledgement of the trauma in families and society that a surveillance state causes. Maybe it’s too political, given reunification. We came back to go to a concert at the Philharmonic.

I keep on about the light but I really love it. All of these tiny lamps along the stairs and hanging from the ceiling, with bright pools on the carpet and dimness near the bar. They actually think about it here.

The concert itself was a chamber orchestra playing Bach and then a series of atonal contemporary Korean compositions and then Bach again. It worked about as well as it sounds like it would. I haven’t been able to make the aesthetic leap to atonal music; maybe you have to appreciate it on an intellectual level to do that. I was falling asleep with jet lag, and worried that I would embarass us by collapsing mid-performance. But it ended, finally, and we left.

Before all of this we’d been to the Natural History museum. I think it has been renovated recently. I was hoping for it to be half derelict, full of dusty taxidermy and dark hints at weird attempts at science, like measuring the mouths of parrots. It did, though, have a very impressive room of fish in jars, in a glass walled enclosure lit from behind:

It was very German – like the Australian museum but more organised.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

You forget how high and sharp and vivid the light in Australia is. The light here is dim and gold and gone by 4:00PM.

My father does not realise that he gives the impression of being offended when spoken to in German (or in any foreign language, generally – including such phrases as hello, thank you, good afternoon would you like a cappuccino?). This has caused confusion and discontent. I think he is trying to hint that he can only speak English. Actually, I am not sure what he is doing. Anyway, he must be kept away from as many Germans as possible.

Hamburg central

When the train arrived, he walked so quickly down the platform to find our carriage number that my sister fell over in pursuit and he did not notice. She was helped up by passing Hamburgers*. I think 36 hours of travel has made us uncivil.

Also, the Germans call mobile phones handys. This is an important discovery.

*This, I presume, is what you call people from Hamburg.