Posts Tagged ‘Caspar David Friedrich’

A tour of my library – part three

August 10, 2019

61TD2aaM3XL._AC_UL436_SEARCH212385_ It’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to take a serious interest in art, and it’s a pretty eclectic one, given that I have no formal training or study of the subject: it’s a bit ‘this is what I like’, really. I’ve long liked photomontage, having come across the work of John Heartfield when I was quite young; I fell in love with the romantic visions of Caspar David Friedrich, and actually went off to Rügen to see the famous chalk cliffs which he painted: they are quite stupendous, although have not survived in the same configuration today. Turner I came to like when I went on spec to a major exhibition of his paintings of Italy in Edinburgh about ten years ago; since then I have sought out other exhibitions and acquired books of reproductions of his watercolours too. If there’s a particular movement I really enjoy, it’s Expressionism. The one book I will rave about is actually the catalogue from an exhibition I visited in Berlin a few years back, which set great works with similar themes and subjects from the impressionists and the expressionists side-by-side. It was an absolute eye-opener and I spent hours, completely engrossed.

Currently there is a shelf in my study dedicated to Poland and things Polish, including a good number of history books, particularly those of Norman Davies. I have also collected a number of memoirs written by Poles who underwent similar experiences to those of my father during the Second World War, as well as diaries of writers and other cultural figures from that period. The most interesting and curious book in this collection I inherited from my father, who was presented with it on a visit to Poland in communist times, and it’s a very odd book for them to have allowed to be published: a facsimile of – I translate – Index of the Names of the Gentry, originally published a couple of centuries ago. Our family name is listed and we have (had, rather, for one of the first acts of the reborn Polish state in 1919 was to abolish the gentry) a coat of arms! What you need to know, contextually, is that it was the name that mattered, not wealth, status, social standing… you could be a poor peasant family (like us) or stinking rich with an estate.

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I gave up the study of history after O Level, taking up English Literature instead, telling myself I could read as much history as I liked when I liked, and have done just that. My reading hasn’t been structured or systematic. Particular interests have been ancient Rome, the Reformation, the Soviet Union, Poland and modern history generally. Roman history I studied at school, and it’s such an important part of the background to European life and civilisation it’s hard to avoid; I also remind myself that the Roman Empire lasted for far longer than the British or American ones… The interest in the Reformation links back to my Catholic childhood and the cultural vandalism that was the English Reformation, as well as my current interest in theology, as I attempt to make sense of my existence. And Polish and Russian history – well, that’s obvious.

My travels: R is for Rügen

September 22, 2017

The island of Rügen, off the northeast coast of Germany, is one of the places that’s long been on my ‘must visit’ list, and I’ve finally made it. German friends had recommended it, and there are the famous chalk cliffs that inspired some of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. It was a long trek, but really worth it: I’m not sure I can recall more stunning scenery in any other place I’ve been to…

I stayed at Prora, which apart from having beautiful beaches, is home to the Colossus of Prora, Hitler’s holiday camp for 20,000 German visitors at a time, a strip of concrete six-storey blocks which stretches for three miles: it truly is vast. The war broke out before it had a chance to welcome any holiday-makers; parts were used by the German army, then some bits were blown up by the Russians when they overran the area, so two blocks are ruins, but the rest still stand in varying states of repair and disrepair, and they are gradually being transformed into luxury apartments for wealthy German holiday-makers of the 21st century. During the time of the GDR, parts were a training centre for the People’s Army, and part a sort of sanatorium and rehabilitation centre. The history of the place is documented in a fascinating museum on the site which is crammed with memorabilia from the nineteen-thirties to the nineteen-nineties.

The geology of the island is curious, and it’s littered with granite boulders and fields of flint; there are a lot of flint beaches. Near where I stayed was a curiosity and rarity, the feuersteinfelde or flint fields, an area a couple of miles long and half a mile or so wide which was entirely flint, with its own flora. Because of its remoteness, the eastern edges of Rügen are home to primaeval beech forests were never used or exploited, and these now form the Jasmund National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site; there is much wonderful walking here. And then, of course, there are the famous chalk cliffs, two hundred feet high in places, spectacularly beautiful with their forest covering. Dangerous in many places partly due to sea erosion, and also because of winter frosts causing collapses, the views are stunning as you walk along: glimpses of precipitous, creamy-white cliffs, trees dangling perilously off the edges. Occasionally there are wooden staircases which allow fit walkers to get down to the beach below (and back up again!) and admire the cliffs from below. I could see how the painter was inspired.

On the south-eastern corner of the island lies the Mönchgut peninsula, which is completely different, being far less forested, and also slightly hilly, so that it’s possible to survey the sea and inlets in all directions and get the feeling of being on an island. There, I found a restaurant which offered me “the best poppy-seed cake you’ve ever had in your life”: I tested the hyperbole, and found it to be accurate.

Sadly, large parts of the island I never got to see for lack of time. Many of its villages have ancient redbrick churches, tiny but perfectly formed, and which reminded me of some of the churches in the Romney Marshes in Kent; there are picturesque thatched cottages, and the remains of a number of ancient Slavic fortifications. At times, I was reminded of Cornwall by the sheer touristiness of the place, where every other house is a holiday let, and wondered what it was like in winter, and what life was like for the locals… Other places I visited included Kap Arcona, the most northerly and easterly part of the island, with its lighthouse, and the village of Altenkirchen which has the oldest church on the island; magically, the organist was practising when I visited… this is a holiday I’ll never forget.

The Art Museum

December 11, 2015

61IMIf4BSBL._AA160_I’ve been thinking about my preferences in art as I’ve leafed through the pages of this enormous book again. I bought it a couple of years ago as I realised that, being retired, I had more time to devote to exhibitions and galleries that I previously had. It is as near as you can get to a single volume guide to the world’s art and its history, although it has vaarious flaws, which I’ll get on to eventually…

For some reason, I’ve come to enjoy ancient Egyptian art, particularly statues and sculptures, and a recent visit to the Neues Museum in Berlin was wonderful, although I did come away with the feeling that the only reason the Germans hadn’t brought the pyramids back was that they were probably a bit too big… I suspect my interest dates from seeing the first Tutankamun exhibition at the British Museum in 1972.

Over the years I’ve come to enjoy the impressionists a great deal, and have fallen in love with German romantics like Caspar David Friedrich, but my greatest pleasure at the moment comes from Turner‘s paintings, watercolours and sketches. But then there are also unexpected, one-off discoveries, like the astonishing Otto Dix series Der Krieg, based on his experiences of the First World War. My tastes are very catholic, as you can see. And modern printing technology allows books of reproductions of very high quality.

As I thought about what I liked, what gave me pleasure or spoke to my condition, I also wondered about what I didn’t like, or, more accurately, felt I couldn’t access or understand. Some art I find so culturally distant from what I have grown up with that it is hard to approach or understand – the art of Africa, India, South East Asia or the Pacific, for instance; I find European and Middle Eastern art much easier on the eye and the brain. In a slightly different way, I have also felt that, upon reflection, time is also important: I find a lot of religious art, particularly paintings (sculpture and architecture less so) too austere and remote, and most portraiture from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries leaves me totally cold and uninterested. This, I think, is because it strove to be representative, and, in a post-photography age, it just doesn’t work for me at all.

Everything is in this book, in small doses sometimes, and overdone at others. My first gripe is that, when I’m looking at pictures, I’d like to know where I can go and see the original: that information is clearly given, but in an appendix at the back of the book, and this book is so large that quickly flicking to the back just isn’t an option. By the time I got to the end of thebook, I felt that there was an undue emphasis on recent – late twentieth century – art and sculpture, whereas earlier eras were a bit skimmed over. Or is it just that there is so much more art being created now, a greater variety and more experimentation? How subjective is the selection made by the editors? Picures and scupltures are reproduced in high quality, and there is a very informative glossary, annotation and location of every work ‘exhibited’ in the book. It will continue to be a useful companion in the future, though I suspect it won’t stop me acquiring other, more detailed collections of particular artists’ works.

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