Holidays in the sun 

Have mercy on me, dear reader, for I spent most of today in irons (have I mentioned my hotel used to be a prison?)

I spent hours in irons. But not shackles. Rather, I surrounded myself with Iron, bronze, silver, and marble, too. I made a visit to the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology my first order of business, thinking I’d spend an hour, perhaps 90 minutes there, before revisiting Tokapi Sarayi and the Aya Sofia, maybe pay a visit to that doge interred on the upper gallery. Best laid plans, and all that.


Founded in the latter half of the 19th century to house a number of the palace’s growing collection of sarcophagi, the collection currently spans four buildings, with a prodigious amount of exhibits off limits while engineers shore up the main building against seismic activity.
Given the utterly overwhelming volume of artifacts I saw, I decided to pinpoint three areas where I felt the museum excelled. I qualify that by pointing out this museum doesn’t do anything badly or even merely competently. The labels could benefit from some proofreading, but that detail doesn’t detract from the scholarship, the choice of items on display, or the superb framework the curatorial text lays out for visitors.


I was most interested in two areas when I started exploring — the local Chalcedon Culture that began roughly concurrently with the Hellenic city of Byzantium and pre-Persian (or Parthian) inhabitants, of the region around the Sea of Marmara.
The Chalcedonian aspect of my curiosity they handle extraordinarily well because there’s so much archaeological material right here in town. Since the Chalcedon culture was firmly entrenched from the sixth century before the common era (bce) in the areas between Uskudar and Karakoy on the Asian side, digging the subway endured a wealth of artifacts. 

They coyly hint at the uncertainty of the etymology for the culture, but one can discern that whoever wrote the text sided with the account that the Persian warrior King that defeated both them and Byzantium called their kingdom the land of the blind, joking you’d have to be blind to choose to live anywhere but the promontory currently occupied by the Topkapi Sarayi and the archaeological museum, among other highlights.

Given Istanbul’s location and the trade advantages its position between the Bosphorous and (some ways to the west) Dardanelles, the city has been a sort of grand central station to the Hittites, the Phrygians, and countless others, so my interest in preparthian history is very well served by this museum.


What I didn’t know was that at some point in Istanbul’s inhabited history, both the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea had been fresh water 

That must have complicated trade a little bit, but not enough to dent the city’s trade profile. Interaction with Assyrians, Cypriots, Hellenes, and the Parthians visibly shaped what one sees in the local grave coverings, but it also adds weapons technology, additional materials (like soapstone, alabaster, and eventually marble) to the attention of local artisans. 

What I didn’t walk into the museum expecting was the superb level of granularity that the exhibit on Troy provided. I’ve seen two or three exhibits that focus on what Schliemann did and the mistakes he made (attributing jewelry to Homer’s Troy that belonged to an earlier civilization, to name one), but never have I seen an exhibit which breaks down every layer; details its population and area consumed; described burial methods; discussed their economic position; and described their relations with neighboring cultures.


If I am to be honest with you, the fact is I haven’t done this museum and its four buildings’ contents even remotely well. This complex took me the better part of four hours and I read almost every label. 

I barely scratched the surface. I doff my hat to the curators who’ve assembled this amazing treasury of glass, statuary, jewelry, ceramics, weaponry, and even the oldest love poem!

Back in the saddle again (or, a tale of two visionaries)

After two days respite from museums, I felt ready to tackle a couple, albeit not as exhaustively as I had over the past week. 

I visited Kunst Haus and the MAK (Österreichisches Museum für angewandte Kunst). The former houses a lot of the artist Hundertwasser’s paintings, maquettes, stamps, and other works, while MAK focuses on design. 

Having resolved I wouldn’t drive myself insane by trying to see every little thing, I focused on the works of Hundertwasser, but found I couldn’t read much of the things he himself wrote. 

I found myself sympathetic to his goals, desiring to replace overdevelopment with nature and restoring a, curvy, organic shapeliness to all buildings designed by people. I particularly loved his dedication to planting more trees in the cities, in houses, everywhere. 

But I realized I’d go mad if I were in a room with him — his writings and paintings betrayed a monomaniacal “true believer” vibe that I’ve found difficult to be around. I idolize woody guthrie and Susan b Anthony, but I suspect they’d have driven me nuts, as well. 

Although the museum forbade visitors taking photographs in the main section, the special exhibition, a retrospective of Martin Parr’s work, encouraged it. Much of Martin Parr’s work won my heart and soul because it had warmth, vibrancy, and a sense of humor. One section in particular, titled Dance, proclaimed that photography was the 2nd most democratic form of expression in the world, after dance. 

There was such exuberance and Joie de Vivre in his photos of people dancing that it made my heart beat faster:


This one he shot in Rio and I can only hope people will find that release and sense of ecstasy when the olympics make it there. Not holding my breath, though. 


This one he shot in Moscow, and it utterly disabuses the viewer of any notion of joyless and bleak life in the capital (a city I loved and would happily visit again).

Other collections of photos examined families at beach resorts; visitors to foreign climes (including Las Vegas — I can’t imagine what an Englishman would make of the world that is Vegas); and people approaching their 1st formal balls. 

A leisurely hour of walking brought me to MAK, which for all intents and purposes, resembles the Victoria & Albert in London or the Smithsonian’s Renwick in DC, prior to its renovation. MAK features the arts and craft of design, disciplines like fashion, rug weaving; jewelry; furniture; or printing. That sort of artistry. 

I could go on about the joys of discovering more art nouveau treasures:


Or how completely at home I felt in the room with carpets:


But those are not what jazzed me to my core. The discovery of architect Frederick Kiesler had me peering at photos, trying to imagine what life on Broadway must have been when a new production with his stage sets debuted; or wishing I could have been a fly on the wall the first time he and Peggy Guggenheim met (at her fervent request). 

Like Hundertwasser, Kiesler had a vision in his head so complete that he tried to illustrate his design principles (which coalesced in his term ‘Corealism’) in a convoluted,multi-factor equation. I think he, too, was a True Believer, and was a handful in person, but I’m impressed with his visionary zeal and energy. One product of his zeal I’d like to see is “the temple of the book” he built for Jerusalem. The maquettes were brilliant.  

His “city in Space,” which he exhibited in Paris in 1925; his notions of houses and furniture which could be infinitely reconfigured to create new living spaces; and his redesigns of both stage and movie theaters qualify him as one of the most exciting designers I’ve ever encountered. Why had I never heard of him for the first seven squared years of my life?

Postscript: I realized this morning that I could have easily cited Joseph Hofman and Otto Wagner as my two visionaries. They certainly would both qualify. 

Mumok

Let’s just say that out loud, shall we? 

MUMOK

There. Wasn’t that fun? An abbreviation of MUseum MOderner Kunst, Mumok sits in The Museum Quarter and exhibits challenging works that ask the visitor to reexamine the role of art in society, in one’s life, and over time. 

A current exhibit, Painting 2.0, tirelessly examines how the Internet, Social Media, and technology at large have transformed our understanding not only of painting as a medium, but also audience; surface; and representation. Actually, the exhibit has the admirable effect of causing me to wonder where artists go from here. 

When representation and abstraction are no longer binaries opposed and the idea of shocking images (be they erotic, violent, politically charged or morbid) no longer elicits a thrill or (much) outrage, what’s next for the artist? For the critic? For the collectors? Or just consumers of art like myself? What do we want/need?

How do you conceive of a next step when folks like pollock, Stella, Rauschenberg, or Warhol took things to a plateau and the Internet doubled down on the programmatic challenges (who is the audience? How important is the medium? How important is the material, when you can reconstitute it in pixels?)

I found Painting 2.0 an excellent stab at the directions artists can take next — have taken already — and what are the stakes. But I didn’t glean insight about me, or about art as it is becoming. I don’t fault the curators of this exhibit for this failure on my part — they did their job, and the artists did theirs — admirably so. 

What struck me most emotionally was a collection below street level which traces the founders’ efforts not only to collect and display,  but also to promote artists and movement they might not have personally liked. Also worth noting was the tireless effort of the founders to bring artists who’d fled the nazis back to Vienna, particularly Oskar Kokoshka. 

These drives to promote unknown bro dynamic artists and honor those already influential struck me as admirable, and made me happy that I had worked my way through the entire museum

Seccession

Art Nouveau has long been a favorite era of mine, and I find the Viennese idiom particularly delightful. I had to see the building the practitioners established as a space for their shows, and I wasn’t disappointed. I’d seen pictures, but they were lacking details like the plant tendrils on the sides of the building…


…or the turtles supporting the giant planters on the front steps:


The real magic, of course, is the building taken as a whole, but what I think a lot of people come to see is Klimt’s frieze in the basement. Known as the Beethoven Kiss, it winds around three of four walls high in a simple, softly illuminated room.


I’ve excerpted a section I particularly loved for its fluid grace and luminosity, but really, the whole thing needs to be seen at once, as a whole, and not on a computer monitor, tablet, or phone. 

In other words, get off your ass and see it for yourself. It’s worth the airfare, the Jetlag, and everything else. Just go. 

Bauhaus Archiv

Nothing I’d read of the Bauhaus movement prepared me for the museum the Bauhaus Archiv houses. I found myself floored by a number of  realizations about a movement I had thus far admired from afar. 

I am constrained in the number of images I can display here — the museum did not permit photography inside, but I’m none too upset by this. How could my meager photography skills capture the breadth and depth of imagination on display?

The overarching epiphany here was the sheer magnitude of disciplines the Bauhaus instructors undertook to teach students and the superb pedagogy that went into producing so many artists.

I also had to adjust my thinking about the Bauhaus aesthetic over all. I’d conceived the signature look to be limited to clean rectilinear shapes and the occasional curve relieving the angles as an accent, not an intrinsic factor in the design.

I also failed to see the warmth and humor shared by the proponents. Instructors such as Vassily Kandinsky and  László Moholy-Nagy collaborated on a wonderful workbook for one of Walter Gropius’ birthdays, and the sense of both creativity and community one gleans from its pages suggests something special, something binding and intense, sort of like what the Corcoran School of Art students used to describe.

What I really loved — what comes firstly from the curatorial text — is the attitude that students needed to get familiar with the properties of the media and objects they worked with before embarking on theoretical coursework. 

Students explored properties like hardness, weight, curvature, and interactivity with other things. In particular, the way light, color, and shadows affect what we see. 

From the close interaction of instructors with students, the sense of closeness, whether in Dessau, Weimar, or Berlin, and the sense that the future lay in embracing both the form and the function of things, but also their suitability to the human spirit, the permanent exhibition really makes the visitor wonder what the future could have looked like, had nazis basically chased all the luminaries of Bauhaus to foreign shores (like Chicago and North Carolina). 

A temporary exhibit about textiles reinforced the values of the original Bauhaus instructors by exploring the means of production and what we mean by the word textiles. Recycled plastic, woven milk casein, and esoteric materials lent insights into traditional methods of production, as well as querying the future and purpose of the textile industry. 

Though small, this exhibit asked visitors to deconstruct and build anew their relationship to the practical world around them, whether worn, sat on, or carried.

Taken as a whole, the Bauhaus Archiv museum nominally wouldn’t consume too much time, but I found myself retracing whole sections’ labels and background text for clues to how Bauhaus evolved as it moved from one city to the next and coped with cuts in funding, as well as moral opprobrium from the nazis.

I think I’d need a semester or more to grasp fully what I sought in drawings, paintings, coffee pots, and sculptures, but coming to grips with that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this museum. 

The Museum for Photography

When it became rapidly apparent that I needed a plan B this afternoon, I landed in a wonderful archive of kink, humanity, and psychological insight. 

Operated in conjunction with the Helmut Newton foundation for the last decade, the museum makes an effort to surpass the “isn’t it a pretty picture” gambit to strike a blow for humanity. I don’t mean something as trite as Bono’s sophomoric efforts to feed the world — I mean using photography to build bridges between ourselves and those we may never meet. 

Exhibits like “photos rarely come alone” build bridges by offering thematic series that strengthen empathy through portraiture, abstractions, humor and absurdity. By showing us the decay of the Soviet Union (Boris Mikhailovich) or the simple adoration of a spouse (Louis Stettner), this exhibit asks us to embrace those who seem alone and alienated (Francesca Woodman) and join those who already enjoy a sense of community (Helga Paris). So many of these series made me smile to look at them, though some are nothingness shy of bleak. I think that’s because I saw ever shutter click as a light in the darkness.

Elsewhere, darkness doesn’t contrast so much with light as accent it. A collection of Helmut Newton’s experiments  in sly manipulation of words, layout, and ambiguous, but garish, poised imagery put in focus just how much we take for granted what is news, as opposed to what is theater. As another exhibit in the collection, entitled Helmut Bewton’s Private Property” makes clear, Newton saw theater everywhere and embraced it.

Looking at his models’ faces in candid shots between poses, one could believe that his campy, kinky, and even exploitative brand of theater put them at ease because he was just so in love with life that he doesn’t seem predatory. By the time one has read all the letters, captions, and even some obituaries following his death, one really missed him. It doesn’t seem fair that he’ll never shoot another spread ever again.

The crowning glory of this museum for me, though, has to be the Alice Springs MEP show. Newton’s widow June, working as “Alice Springs,” mirrors the souls of punks, of celebrities, even if her husband with a luminous honesty that is neither cynical nor naively idealistic. 

Some of the kids you see smiling in her pictures probably haven’t smiled for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. She, like Annie Leibovitz, seems to brush aside the dead wood and show the fundamental people in front of her. That’s rare talent. 

So why’d I never heard of her?

It’s a mystery, but you can bet I’ll search out more of her work. I liked her husband’s stuff too — not done looking for his life’s work, now that I got a concentrated taste of it (rather than bits and pieces over the years).

I’d be remiss if I ceased writing about this museum without alluding to Mart Engelen’s work in the cozy room at the back of the first floor, titled “June’s Room.” Featuring various people of varying fame and consequence, Engelen’s portraits leave the viewer feeling the photographer caught something in conversation that the rest of us missed, and the expressions on the subjects’ faces would make more sense to us if we were privy to that missed comment.

The perfect example of this bemusing lot of prints appears in the portrait of John Waters. He has long been the Cheshire Cat of film, but this ups the ante. I loved Engelen’s work, but I felt left out. Perhaps because I felt he leaves us outside looking in so thoroughly. 

The Brohan museum

A museum devoted to Art Nouveau and Art Deco? With a focus on furniture and design? How could I resist? I didn’t. 


Located across the street from Schloss Charlottenburg, The Brohan museum provides sequential and geographic context for the rise of art nouveau and its transformation into Art Deco.


At this juncture, I’ll reveal a dirty, and frankly needlessly stupid, secret: I can’t evaluate curatorial content here because almost all of it was in German, which I never learned. That raises two pertinent questions:

  1. Why’d I go to Germany, if I didn’t know the lingual franca (sic)?
  2. Were there audio guides I could have secured with English narration?

I’ve wandered off topic. What I saw at this small museum filled me with joy. The furniture, the shapes of household items, and advertisements from the 20’s and 30’s coalesce in a vision of a future in which archduke Ferdinand’s death didn’t decimate Europe and madmen didn’t unleash racist genocide on the world.


Never mind that much of the furniture from those bygone years proved to be uncomfortable; never mind that the Bauhaus school gave use visions of a more streamlined aesthetic. And never mind that ideologically there was some overlap between some strains of art nouveau and early fascists. 


Well, I guess I can’t have it both ways, can I? If I suggest the utopian futures intrinsic to art nouveau preclude fascism, it’s not fair to link them. Oops.


The problem here is that I rely so heavily on the verbal content of a museum’s curatorial direction, and if I can’t read the labels, the objects look like pretty baubles from a century ago. Consequently, my editorial content seems hollow. That’s why I filled this post with many photos.


I will append to this a comment on the temporary exhibit on the fourth floor. Celebrating the posters promoting the Jazz fest that Nicholas Troxley started in Switzerland, this exhibit did have English text, as well. Emphasizing the broad span of influences that Troxley reflects in his art work, the exhibit went to great lengths to show all of them and how his posters have changed the most. 


With gleeful anarchy, Cubism, fauvism, and abstract expressionism all raise their hands and wave in the forty years of troxley’s posters.  It is a glorious riot of style and exuberance, worth the price of the museum admission as a whole.