Monday, March 30, 2009

Jewish Cemetery (Jüdischer Friedhof), Schönhauser Allee, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The Jewish cemetery in our neighborhood opened in 1827 to replace the earlier one, which opened in 1672 and closed in 1827 (and was obliterated by the Nazis in 1943). People were buried here from 1827 to 1942. This cemetery is quite close to us, and was thankfully NOT obliterated by the Nazis, but there is very little information that I can find about it, especially nothing to explain why a fairly large tract of it (maybe 10 to 20 percent) is in ruins and appears to have been deliberately vandalized.

There is a well where people were hiding to avoid the draft during the Second World War; they were discovered and executed by the SS here in the cemetery. (They were Gentiles, of course; there were no Jews left in Berlin by this time, and even if there had been, they wouldn’t have been able to serve in the German military.)

Most of the graves are not vandalized and seem well tended. There are some pretty impressive family mausoleums, many of them incorporating classical architectural motifs, and some even use Gothic designs (which surprised me because I’ve always thought of the Gothic style as specifically Christian).

One thing I saw for the first time was the Jewish custom of placing stones on top of the grave marker. Most of the graves had stones piled on them; I’m told that it has something to do with simply indicating that the grave has been visited. I asked my grandmother's Jewish cousin about it, and she wrote, "I have always known that we put stones on the graves of Jews as a sign that we are thinking of the one who has passed away. I do not know the origin of the custom, though."

Another Jewish friend of mine said that "it was always explained to me that they were an indication that the grave had been visited. Since graveyeards are often filled with loose stones, it's an easy way to mark that a loved one or loved ones had been there. I do, however, like this explanation, which was one of the first I saw when looking for explanations on-line: 'An early Midrash Lekah Tov (also known as Pesikta Zutra) 35:20 relates that each of Jacob's sons took a stone and put it on Rachel's grave to make up Rachel's tomb. Here and elsewhere we learn that by placing stones on the grave one participates in building the tombstone. We do not find any direct connection with our present practice, but we might ask if this is an ancient memory of this tradition.' That is to say, everyone participates in building the grave by adding the small stones to it, which isn't a bad explanation and here has a Talmudic source."

NOT the Jewish Cemetery, but the Tierpark (the East Berlin zoo):

The Jewish practice of placing stones on a grave extends not only to graves, but also to memorials like this one dedicated to the Wulheide Concentration Camp. This memorial is in the Tierpark, which is the East Berlin zoo that was created when the original Berlin Zoo ended up in the West. This memorial does not mention Jewish victims of the Holocaust (or Shoa as it is called in Hebrew), but the stones on top of it speak to that omission.

The inscription on the memorial talks about the “thousands of freedom fighters” who were members of the illegal Communist Party (which was banned by the Nazis), who were killed here or dragged off to concentration camps where they perished. Many of those same individuals were undoubtedly Jewish, and I like how the stones on top of the memorial expand its meaning and speak poignantly about the breadth and depth of the tragedy.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tierpark, Berlin

One of our favorite sites in Berlin – and my son’s absolute favorite – is the Tierpark (animal park), located in the former East Berlin area called Köpenick. When Berlin was partitioned after the war, the Zoologischer Garten ended up in the hands of West Berlin; the East Berliners wanted their own zoo, so this was founded. In an example of communism at its best, the regime turned the grounds of the vast Schloss Friedrichsfelde (schloss = “castle,” or more like the French “château” - a palace) into a zoological garden. It opened on July 2, 1955, some 54 years ago.

The Tierpark is vast. It covers 160 hectares, and according to its website is “Europe’s largest landscape zoo.” My Baedeker guide says, “Compared to the western zoo, the Tierpark grounds are much more expansive and much less cramped in terms of both the outdoor enclosures and the animals’ stables and hutches.” We have visited it three times, and we only ever see about half of it on any given visit.

What I want to write about today, though, is the sculpture. On our most recent visit, which was yesterday, I made a project of photographing all the sculpture we ran across, which you see here. (Keep in mind that we only got to see half the zoo on this visit.) They have everything from monumental lions in a naturalistic style, to cute little animals in a more kitschy style of the type you often find aimed at children. There is even one statue of two children; they are playing with a fish – it’s supposed to be a fountain, and maybe when the weather gets nicer they’ll turn on the water. That’s located next to the playground.

But what I can’t figure out is, what’s with all the nude women? I mean, just how are they thematically related to the Tierpark? There are no statues of men, either nude or clothed. Are women supposed to be part of “nature,” along with the beasts (both wild and domesticated) in the Tierpark’s collection?

Josef Scharl, artist

This week I discovered an amazing artist I had never heard of before, the German painter Josef Scharl, at an art gallery in Berlin. A biography is available at the gallery’s website, but here are some highlights: Scharl was born in Munich in 1896. He studied art in Munich, where he was a member of the Munich “Neue Sezession” from 1925-1928. He spent significant time in Rome and Paris (part of it on a Prix de Rome award). In 1935 his work was included in the Nazis’ “Degenerate Art” exhibition, a show of art that the Nazi government condemned and confiscated from museums. In 1938 he went to New York, and never returned to Germany. He died in 1954 after a long and successful career.

The paintings are somewhat expressionistic in their use of color; both that and the subject matter show influence from Van Gogh’s works. The experience of seeing the work of an artist I had never even heard of, art that made such a strong impression on me, was really exciting. Here are some examples of his work:

Nierendorf Gallery, Berlin

Last week in Berlin, one of the highlights of my mother in-law’s visit was an afternoon at the art gallery owned by an old family friend, Florian Karsch. He was very close to my husband’s grandmother, in Germany during and immediately after the Second World War, when my mother in-law was just a girl. The gallery is called Nierendorf (the name of Florian’s step-father). At 83, Florian is still actively involved in running the gallery, and even in making art himself.

Nierendorf has a very large collection of interwar German art. The current exhibition is of works by Otto Dix. Anyone familiar with Dix’s powerful work knows that they are expressionistic, and sometimes of violent subject matter like war and death. Florian very generously gave me a copy of the 50-page catalogue of the Dix exhibition. It is a lavishly produced, color glossy booklet. He gave me a similar one of quite different works by his wife, Inge Karsch, which are mostly floral still-lifes and landscapes; the catalogue is equally beautiful.

For me this visit was a highlight of my time in Berlin (8 weeks now) in part because of the chance to discover artists whose work I hadn’t known before (especially Josef Scharl; see my blog entry), and in part because Florian was such a kind, sweet man. He was drafted as a soldier at age 16 – the Germans were quite desperate at a certain point, and were conscripting everyone, young and old. He lost his leg at age 19, and was recovering (not very speedily) in the town of Bad Pyrmont in Lower Saxony (near Hanover), where he met my mother in-law’s family. Her mother was an artist, and offered free art instruction to recovering soldiers; Florian was one of these. Although he insists he is not an artist, he makes sketches of all the visitors to his gallery, including me and my mother in-law. My portrait is shown below.

Garry Orris, photographer

A few weeks ago I met an artist at the market on the Kollwitzplatz; he was working at a booth as a favor to his friend, a jeweller, so I started out talking to him about the jewelry. When I asked him what HE does, he told me about his work, and he even had a poster with him that he sold me for half price. He's an Australian bloke, named Garry Orris, with offices / studios in Sydney and London.

This description of the work comes from the artist's website:

"Completely tattooed Mario and Yvonne's inspiration is derived from the Marquesas Islands in the Polynesian Pacific, it is from there that the word 'tatow' or 'tatau' meaning to mark something originates. For centuries the Marquesas were known and feared due to the cannibalistic rituals of the inhabitants. Entire groups of tribes-men, women and children were tattooed from their fingertips to their toes, under the hairline, on their genitals and even in their mouths. Boys and girls as young as eight were tattooed in preparation for puberty and the process for many was not complete until the age of 30. The Marquesas are famous for their solid black and layered tattooing known as 'pahupahu', this can be seen on Mario's body and on Yvonne's arms. Traditionally it was commonly applied to boys or warriors as a disguise and separated them from all other Polynesian tattoo forms. Nowhere in the world even today can this, the extremist [sic] of all tattooing be found."

Here's another work I found on his website, which also involves couples with enormous tattoos. Rather than commenting on it I will just refer you to the website.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Neues Museum, Berlin, March 2009

On Sunday, March 8, we were among the 35,000+ Berliners who visited the newly restored Neues Museum, a preview of the design by English architect David Chipperfield. The galleries were empty; the museum was only open for 3 days, and will not be open again until October (with the collection installed).

The Neues Museum was built from 1843 to 1855 by Friedrich August Stüler, a student of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (the great 19th-century Prussian Neoclassical architect). It was destroyed during the Second World War, in the bombings of Berlin from 1943 to 1945.

I posted a slideshow on Flickr: Neues Museum, Berlin. There are about 30 photos here, too many to put on the blog. This was my first foray into Flickr (which I don't find very user-friendly, by the way). I hope you will check it out.

Here is the article about the NEW New Museum from the New York Times by Michael Kimmelman on March 11, 2009.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Chambord Arms

Here's another image I ran across in ARTstor, from the Château de Chambord. Now I want to go to Chambord just to see these.

Photographer: Carl de Keyzer, 1999.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Possession" by A.S. Byatt (book review)

I have just read Possession, A.S. Byatt’s expansive novel about love (the lover possessed by the beloved), about biographical-historical-literary scholarship (the biographer possessed by his / her subject), and other forms of possession, including 19th-century parlor-room “spirituality” (subject of a poem within the novel called The Mummy Possest), sexual jealousy, and a beautiful women’s fear of becoming the possession of her would-be lover. The kind of possession that I experienced while reading it was a kind of obsession, where the book took hold of my mind and would hardly let me put it down. This novel is over 500 pages long, but I read it in the space of a week. I found the ending so touching – the Postscript of 3 pages dated 1868 – that I cried when I finished it. Long before I came to the end of the novel, I entertained thoughts of re-reading it immediately (though I won’t right now because I can’t spare the time!).

I only just learned about A.S. Byatt a few months ago when a friend asked us to read The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye for book group – a short story that blew me away, by the way. Only since then have I become aware of what an important writer Byatt is, and have noticed that so many of my literary friends have read Possession; it was even on the list of “100 books everyone should read” that recently circulated on Facebook. By now the novel is 20 years old. Boy, did I feel like a Johnny-come-lately. How can I presume to write a review of this novel? Surely hundreds of reviews have been written about it already – the author won the 1990 Booker Prize, and received lots of laudatory comments from prestigious journals blurbed on the back cover. I have read none of those reviews, nor do I want to. However, I will try to do more than just gush about how AMAZING I thought this novel was and how much I LOVED reading it.

Although I hadn’t read this novel before, I had a persistent sense of déjà vu as I read. If I found out that I actually HAD read it and forgotten completely, I wouldn’t be surprised; it had such a familiar feeling. Plus I was able to easily guess the big surprise ending – though I imagine its obviousness is intentional on the author’s part. I think I must have seen the film, not in any very memorable way, perhaps on an airplane some years ago. That must be the explanation. But another aspect of the novel’s familiarity is that it fits in squarely with a certain genre – a pseudo-historical detective story, and I am thinking specifically of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (which I only listened to as a “books on tape” recording) and Headlong by Michael Frayn, a novel about the discovery of a possible Brueghel painting in a dilapidated English country house.

Byatt’s novel is far superior to both those others. The most impressive thing about Possession is the range of narrative voices and literary genres Byatt assumes as its author, creating so very many authors within this weighty text, providing each of them with a unique voice, some in several genres. I am impressed by the combination of talent, skill, versatility, and perseverance that allowed her to master all these voices and genres. Here’s a list, though not complete:

1. Randolph Henry Ash, 19th-century poet; genres: poetry, letters
2. Christabel LaMotte, 19th-century poet; genres: poetry, letters, fairy tales (prose)
3. Blanche Glover, Christabel’s domestic partner; genres: diary, letters, will / suicide note
4. Mortimer Cropper, 20th-century American biographer of Ash; genres: biography, autobiography, public lecture
5. Ellen Ash, Randolph’s wife; genre: diary
6. Leonora Stern, 20th-century American literary scholar; genre: literary criticism
7. James Blackadder, 20th-century English literary scholar; genre: scholarly text
8. Sabine de Kercoz, 19th-century Breton (French) cousin of Christabel LaMotte; genre: diary
9. Hella Lees, 19th-century London spiritualist; genre: memoir
10. Gode, 19th-century Breton servant in the Kercoz household; genre: ghost story (set down by Sabine de Kercoz in her diary)

Cropper’s biography of Ash in the novel is entitled The Great Ventriloquist, but the nickname is appropriate to A.S. Byatt herself. Curiously enough, we never see anything written by Maud or by Roland, the joint protagonists of the novel, both of whom are published academics.

In addition to these fictitious characters, Byatt quotes a wide range of authors from Wordsworth to Freud to Milton. Perhaps the most admirable accomplishment of the novel is Byatt’s quite lengthy poems, which imitate Victorian poetry quite convincingly. She seems to revel in the epic form – Milton is clearly one of her favorite poets, she also quoted him in The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye – and Christable LaMotte’s epic poem The Fairy Melusine resonates with medieval chivalric romance like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

My favorite passage, though, was Byatt’s short meditation on the pleasures of reading. Some readers might not like her self-consciousness about literary processes – but to a certain extent, that’s what the whole novel is about, the process of becoming a writer, of finding one’s voice, whether as a poet, a novelist, or a scholar. I will quote from the novel at length; this is from Chapter 26:

“It is possible for a writer to make, or remake at least, for a reader, the primary pleasures of eating, or drinking, or looking on, or sex. Novels have their obligatory tour-de-force, the green-flecked gold omelette aux fines herbes, melting into buttery formlessness and tasting of summer, or the creamy human haunch, firm and warm, curved back to reveal a hot hollow, a crisping hair or two, the glimpsed sex. They do not habitually elaborate on the equally intense pleasure of reading….And yet, natures such as Roland’s are at their most alert and heady when reading is violently yet steadily alive. (What an amazing word ‘heady’ is, en passant, suggesting both acute sensuous alertness and its opposite, the pleasure of the brain as opposed to the viscera – though each is implicated in the other, as we know very well, with both, when they are working.)

“Think of this, as Roland thought of it, rereading ‘The Garden of Proserpina’ for perhaps the twelfth, or maybe even the twentieth time, a poem he ‘knew’ in the sense that he had already experienced all its words, in their order, and also out of order, in memory, in selective quotation or misquotation – in the sense also, that he could predict, at times even recite, those words which were next to come, or more remotely approaching, the place where his mind rested, like clawed bird feet on twig. Think of this – that the writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone, and they were alone with each other….”

(To me these 4 paragraphs were the climax of the novel, though still a couple chapters away from the final denouement; I omit one full paragraph, and give you this final one in full:)

“Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark – readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.”

Here Byatt seemed to be responding to the sense of déjà vu I felt as I read her novel, the sense of familiarity that sprang from it. Maybe it’s the idea that all stories have existed before, they’re just being retold over and over, and what’s remarkable about them is the author’s ability to inflect them in her own unique way. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye was remarkable for its retelling of classic stories – the genie in the bottle story, and many others. In Possession, Christabel tells her young cousin Sabine (an aspiring writer): “All old stories, my cousin, will bear telling and telling again in different ways. What is required is to keep alive, to polish, the simple clean forms of the tale which must be there…and yet to add something of yours, of the writer, which makes all these things seem new and first seen, without having been appropriated for private or personal ends.”

One aspect of the story is troubling, and that is Byatt’s treatment of the lesbian relationship between LaMotte and Glover. LaMotte throws off her long-standing arrangement with Glover to be with Ash only for a month, or a summer (we don’t know exactly how long it is, maybe 6 weeks). She spends the rest of her life alone and grieving the losses of both. The privileging of the heterosexual relationship over the homosexual one is not uncommon in novels, and perhaps this too helps account for the sense of déjà vu.

On another level Byatt satirizes academia and the competitive scholars who go to extreme lengths to possess knowledge, or even to possess relics of the dead poets they study. She also makes forays into critiquing the critical theories they employ – feminism, psychoanalysis, deconstruction. Maud tells an older female scholar, “The whole of our scholarship – the whole of our thought – we question everything except the centrality of sexuality – Unfortunately feminism can hardly avoid privileging such matters. I sometimes wish I had embarked on geology myself.” Maud seems weary of the emphasis on sexuality, and skeptical of scholarship that relies so heavily on it. Byatt herself, in the lengthy passage I quoted, wants to call our attention to the pleasures of the mind, of reading, as opposed to the sensual pleasures. Yet, at the heart of this novel , which is ostensibly about poetry and literature in general, the plot revolves around sex: the sexual relationship between two long-dead poets, as well as in the lives of the other characters, living and dead. I can hardly say more without spoiling the novel for you, so I will just urge you to read it.

Note: The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye is the title both of a long and engrossing story by Byatt, AND of the collection in which the story is published – along with 4 other stories. As I read Possession, I discovered that at least two of the other stories from The Djinn (possibly three) were originally published as part of Possession, embedded in its narrative. These include “The Glass Coffin” and Gode’s story about the little dancing thing. I don’t understand the logic behind their republication as stand-alone stories.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Museum of Natural History, Berlin

Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History) documents more than two centuries of collecting and displaying specimens from the natural world. The museum’s galleries are packed with fossils, stuffed animals (including extinct ones), geological specimens (such as prismatic columnar basalt – a favorite in our family!), and animal specimens preserved in glass jars. There is one room devoted to anthropology, which displays remains and re-creations of all the known hominids up to and including homo sapiens. The homo sapiens display case contains just a few examples of material culture – objects that were made by early man – but these are very famous artifacts, including the so-called Venus of Willendorf (which I was surprised to find here rather than in an art museum).

As the mother of a four-year-old I have seen more of this museum than I probably would have otherwise; my son calls it “the dinosaur skeleton museum.” Its centerpiece is the dinosaur room, boasting the tallest dinosaur skeleton in any museum in the world, as well as the finest fossil specimen of the archaeopteryx in the world (of the 10 known specimens). The archaeopteryx is the first known bird, and is considered the evolutionary link between reptiles and birds.

Although the museum is worth seeing just for the rich and varied collections on display, it does make effective use of 20th-century technology in a few cases, including a video presentation of the solar system, which is projected onto a circular screen that slowly drops from the ceiling while you are watching it; viewers lie on their backs on an enormous round sofa. The video uses the “powers of ten” technique of zooming away from the earth and then zooming back towards it to create a sense of the enormity of space. Another neat technological display is a video screen that travels around an enormous globe, showing how plate tectonics work through a video recreation of the shifting of plates to create the continents as we know them.

The museum is housed in a late 19th-century building, which, though beautiful, has many rooms that are not safe and therefore cannot be opened to the public. This limits the amount of the collection that can be on display, yet even those rooms are used effectively as pedagogical tools. A sign on the door of one such room reads as follows:

“Part of the bird collection is kept in this 480 m2 hall. The historically furnished room documents bird biodiversity, with examples from all known families of birds. Among the most valuable objects are specimens from famous explorers, collectors and researchers, such as James Cook, Simon Peter Pallas, Alexander von Humboldt, Christoph Ludwig Brehm and Alfred Edmund Brehm. Like many rooms in the museum, this hall cannot be opened to the public due to its poor state of repair. We plan to use the room in future as an example of how a classic ‘show-collection’ was presented.”

(All text in the museum is provided in English as well as German, which I greatly appreciate.)

As you can gather from this quotation, the museum in some ways thematizes the history of collecting and the history of display. Even in the parts of the collection that are open to the public, there are some rooms where the 19th-century style of “show collection” is in evidence: specimens are lined up in glass-and-wood cabinets that stand in the room like stacks in a library. The ways in which scientific knowledge has been created and disseminated over the centuries are presented to visitors in an interesting way. One room shows not only how animal specimens are preserved through taxidermy, but also some older, less life-like examples that demonstrate how greatly these techniques have improved over time. This room contains a dodo bird – probably my favorite thing in the whole museum! – and the preserved remains of Bobby, a mountain gorilla that lived in the Berlin Zoo in the 1950s.

Currently the Museum für Naturkunde has a temporary exhibition on Charles Darwin marking the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth AND the 150th anniversary of the publication of his earth-shattering book, The Origin of Species.

1. My own photographs of the collection, a few of which you see here, are inspired by the work of artist Rosamund Purcell, whose museum photographs I greatly admire.

2. Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde reminds me a bit of the Horniman Museum in London, which I recommend for those interested in such collections. The Horniman has a greater emphasis on anthropology, but does include animal specimens collected in the 19th century. We visited the Horniman in August 2007 – with two two-year-olds – and it was a great family excursion. My only regret is that I was not blogging in 2007 so I don’t have a blog entry about it!