Vacation: a rose by any other name…

Today, while looking at fashion history at the MAK, I got into a conversation with a dubliner. We were comparing notes about hot fashion items through the centuries, and we chuckled over parallels between hot fashions and all the political rides on both sides of the Atlantic. 

About a decade my senior, he pointed out that referenda tend to be funny things because, insofar as they are the most direct voice of the populace, how they are pitched by their proponents makes all the difference. 

“Take last year’s same sex marriage referendum,” he exhorted. “Because someone told my fiercely religious country to think of our gay and lesbian siblings as ‘god’s children,’ the gay marriage referendum passed. By a landslide! Is there lashback? Do some people have second thoughts?

“Sure they do! But because the initial thrust was one of inclusion, those who are insecure enough to go against the tide are shamed, even by conservatives, because now they’re questioning god’s love. You don’t have to believe in God to think that’s clever.

“But,” he went on, I can’t figure out your trump, and I can’t figure out Farage. I’m worried about May. With the Brexit results and the groundswell for that mad man you’ve got, it beggars belief!  

“Your man will have walls around everything, while Theresa May will have us all Agitating for a wall to keep the republic safe from the Six Counties. I thought Boris was touched in the head, but she’s going to be trouble.”

And we talked for a good half hour before I realized the museum was closing and I hadn’t seen the carpets yet. I made my excuses and left. He wasn’t altogether gracious as I left, principally because he could tell I needed to flee his torrent of speech.

 As I took the ornate steps down, I wondered if that’s how people felt talking  to me or, more accurately, trying to get a word in edgewise. That’s when it hit me. My idea of a vacation, of necessity, entails hardly ever speaking to anyone for more than, “can I get a Diet Coke and the lamb vindaloo? Yes, very spicy, thank you.”

I get exhausted taking nonstop, but when I’m in my hometown, surrounded by folks I know, I feel this compulsion to talk. To talk at length. To talk about a number of topics. To talk aggressively and to entertain or become the center of attention wherever i am.

And it drains me. It drains those around me. It exhausts me trying to keep entertaining, and it enervates me trying to think up fresh stories, topics, or ideas. 

When you go to a country where you don’t speak or understand the language, these issues fade into nothingness. Your conversations become blissfully brief and utilitarian. You keep yourself to yourself. You don’t interpose your conversation or opinions on those around you — not in restaurants, hotels, the subway, or in museums. Because you can’t understand them, and they can’t understand you. 

Now, that’s a true vacation of the body and soul. And when you come back home? People actually seem happy to talk or listen to you again! It’s a win-win. 



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


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

The Leopold Museum

If you love the work of Egon Schiele and you want to see as much as possible in one place, the collection Rudolf Leopold started and maintained looms large.  I’ve loved his work for years, and wanted to get some perspective on his creative development. To that end, the Leopold Museum’s current exhibition, SELF-ABANDONMENT AND SELF-ASSERTION, met my needs perfectly.

I don’t think I’d ever grasped the extent to which he embraced Klimt early in his career, but that made his evolutionary growth seem much more dramatic. I will qualify that by stating the evolution struck me as more creative than emotional — letters attributed to him struck me as precious and petulant.

Just as we can never know how he could have grown as an artist, had he lived past the age of 28, we are left wondering what he’d have introduced to his work, had he  accepted a paid opportunity a patron had arranged for him to visit Paris. 

My thoughts on his maturity aside, this exhibit’s sheer quantity of schiele’s work reinforced my sadness that he died so very young. To survive World War I, and die months later seems like a cruel joke.

Shifting gears somewhat, I want to touch on a couple other artists I’d either never studied or heard of before. I’d seen a few of Oskar Kokoshka’s paintings, and I love his saturated colors and intensity, but somehow, I’d never been exposed to the Anton Kolig  or Richard Gerstl (the latter having died in 1918, along with Schiele and Klimt –what a deadly year for art!)

Also, I somehow had missed out on the Wiener Workstatte until today. How was I unaware of that atelier? The artists who comprised it had a wonderful eye for reconciling form and function. In particular, Josef Hoffman’s souvenir from the Concordia Ball caught my eye:

I was equally struck by an armoire by Kolo Moser precisely because it was so elegant, but nonetheless practical:

I could go on about Moser at some length — his paintings also stirred me. But I’d rather do some research before I say something stupid and ignorant. 

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. 

Alte Nationalgalerie: a visual amuse-a bouche

After fortifying myself with a smoked salmon sandwich and a berry tart at the cafe tucked in a corner of the Neue museum, I strolled around the corner to a stately collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century art — most, but not all — from Germany. 

This material doesn’t speak to my soul the way a Turkish kilim or iznik tiles do, but in a funny way, that was perfect. After five hours of seeing things that resonated with me (and a few that should have, but didn’t manage), I found the hour and a half spent seeing artists I don’t know, portraying subjects alien to me rather refreshing.  

A few things ended up speaking to me after all. Whether because they were inspired, because they evinced humor, or they came as a surprise, I noted a few gems at this museum. In particular, I found Adolf Menzel’s range and skill noteworthy because he could drill down into the intensity of a split second. 

I had mixed feelings about Caspar David Friedrich, but both his Monk by the Sea and Abbey in the Oaks stood out because they cast a spell of melancholy without resorting to cheap sentimentality. 

I found a poignant Toulouse-Lautrec when I wasn’t looking for it; that felt like a bit of a personal score to me. 

I also found an exhibit of paintings, inventions, and writings by August Kopisch rather curious because he was a complete unknown to me. His translation of Dante’s Inferno reinvigorated Dante scholarship after it was published. 

His work neither demonstrates slavish classicism nor a moribund obsession with death. I suspect he kept too busy writing, trying to perfect his “quick furnace,” and defending counterclaims to his assertion that he discovered the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri; he didn’t have time for too much gloom and doom.

Other gems I stumbled upon included Lesser Ury’s somewhat impressionistic “Nollendorfplatz by Night” and Max Slevogt’s “Frieze of Mozart’s ‘the Magic Flute.”  Both caught me off guard with their quirky charm. 

I can’t even specify exactly why I liked Arnold Blockin’s moody “Ocean Breakers (the Sound,)” except to suggest it hints at Munch’s work a few years later.* in any case, the Alte Nationalgalerie rounded out my day’s peregrinations perfectly, and I felt more than ready to return to my roost where I could unclutter my mind. 

* Edvard Munch was Norwegian, but his training and travels exposed him to French, German, and other artistic movements before he found his voice. I think the comparison is apt, so long as no reader confuses similarity with influence.

What great curating looks like

Without a doubt, the highlight of my day wandering around Frederick, Maryland, has to be The National Museum of Civil War Medicine.  Superb curatorial text, thousands of authentic artifacts, and knowledgeable staff make this two story museum a testament to medical history, technology, and social progress.

The museum strives to educate visitors not just about the status quo of medicine during the Civil War, but how much the technology of healing soldiers evolved during a half decade that saw a president assassinated; a barbaric linchpin of our nation’s economy abolished; and the balance between agrarian and urban culture permanently disrupted. 

I hate the colloquialism “game-changer,”  but the exhibits here illustrate how aptly that expression describes how the civil war affected the way medicine was practiced — not just in the US, but worldwide. Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton both effected change overseas, born of observations on the battlefield, and Walt Whitman, the compassionate nurse, transmuted what he saw in civil war hospitals into soulful verse.

Of the eye-opening lessons I carried away from this museum, these made the most impression on me:

  • The idea of triage originated with one of the first battlefield surgeons (as did an effective and comfortable ambulance service). 
  • Changes made in lighting, hygiene and control of space between the patients’ beds not only dropped the mortality rate of patients to 8% by the end of the war, they changed america’s perceptions of doctors from bloodthirsty butchers to gentle and careful healers. The fact that the practice of bleeding fell out of favor during this time helped effect that.
  • Many more women, masquerading as men, fought in the civil war than I ever dreamt was possible. Of course, since with exams rarely were performed with integrity, that was easier than I’d have imagined. Many went on to work as spies for either side, as well as fight in combat.
  • Whether because they were captured or circumstances threw them together, confederate and union doctors worked side by side in many theaters of the war, their only goal to heal as many soldiers as they could, regardless of allegiance.
  • As the US navy grew, skirmishes and hostile engagements between the union army and the confederacy occurred everywhere from the shores of France to the Bering Straits — not just the battlefields outside DC, Frederick, or Richmond.
  • There being so few schools that would take women prior to the civil war, the concept of nursing as a profession took off as a consequence of the thousands of soldiers who contracted infections, std’s, and nutritional disorders — all of which slowed both armies in their tracks. 
  • And, finally, the prosthetics that surgeons fit amputees with featured shockingly modern mechanics, given the time and tools on offer. 

The museum occupies a furniture maker’s atelier, which was fitting because those were the professionals contracted by the army to embalm and build coffins for soldiers who perished.

The physical aspects of the museum — layout, lighting, and decorative elements — encourage a logical flow of learning, starting with recruitment propaganda at the beginning of the war and ending with the coffin and embalming operations when soldiers died.

A decorative element that caught my eye — being a train geek — was a mural on both sides of a corridor. Depicting the interior of a train which transported soldiers from the front to big hospitals. Those trains, and the riverboats that got pressganged for that purpose, struck me as Faustian. 

On one hand, sure, trains and ships transported higher quantities of soldiers to hospitals faster than ever before, but given the coal dust burned to propel trains or boats, but how clean could those have been, and how many patients contracted infections or gotten motion sick from the journey?

Still, as the docent I spoke to about these and the nurses pointed out, progress is never simply linear or unilateral — just think of all the men and women of color who got on a professional footing while working in the war, only to face jim crow laws during Reconstruction.

This museum does a bang-up job of not only answering hundreds of questions, but inspiring many, as well. I’m glad I took my time. Aside from the music I came to Frederick to see, this place will count as the highlight of my visit. 

A portable medicine cabinet, pioneered during the civil war to deliver necessities to field hospitals and the front. 

Splints and prosthetics 

Mural and descriptive text about medical rail cars.

Patented wheel chair.