Saturday, 14 September 2019

Hamburg 5

Gentrification on Alsterglacis, near Dammtor

As you would expect, after slightly less than a week in Hamburg, I have returned as a complete authority on its dialect, history, architecture, and customs. Um, not. To be honest, I'm not sure I could even say that with any confidence about our own house (what is in that box on the landing?), let alone any larger geographical entity. However, having walked quite a few miles through its streets, I am now a bit of an expert on Hamburg's weather.

Like Mancunians, the inhabitants of Hamburg have an intimate relationship with precipitation. They are resigned to – indeed, celebrate – Schmuddelwetter, a persistent drizzle that periodically tunes up into full-on rain, and occasionally and mysteriously switches off to allow a muggy spell of sunshine. If you look at the geography, it's obvious that – like driving behind a heavy truck in rain – Hamburg is picking up the spray from Britain's wheels, plus whatever the North Sea happens to be stirring up. Or, in a Hamburg saying: "Wenn es in London regnet, spannen die Hamburger die Regenschirme auf" ("If it starts raining in London, people in Hamburg open their umbrellas"). People seem to think there's some kind of metaphor at work there about the closeness of links between Britain and Hamburg, but I seriously doubt it: this is about rain from the west, pure and simple [1].

As a consequence, a few hours in an air-conditioned museum or gallery were even more welcome than usual. And Hamburg, as it turns out, has two of the best art galleries I have ever visited, plus a pretty decent natural history museum.

There's not a lot of point in me describing in any great detail the Kunsthalle Hamburg, with its contemporary wing Galerie der Gegenwart. It is simply one of the best public art galleries I have ever visited. If art is important to you, then Hamburg is worth the trip for this experience alone; go and see for yourself. Its stellar content aside, I think what makes it exceptional is the quality of the displays and the "interpretation". I have never seen pictures so well lit. The diffused ceiling lighting means there is little or no reflection in the glass, and you can comfortably examine the texture and brushstrokes of a painting, or the ink and plate-tone of an engraving, in a way that would normally require much awkward neckwork and hand-shading. Look at this close shot of Paul Klee's Der Goldfisch:

Yes, that is behind glass. What a pleasure, to get nose-up to a favourite image like this, and also to be virtually alone in the room, surrounded by work of similar quality, but with each picture given plenty of space to breathe. Especially compared to the Klee exhibition at Tate Modern a few years ago, where you had to sharp-elbow your way to the front of the crowd bent in front of each ill-lit picture, to get just a few seconds of awkward squinting. Or what about these two Rembrandts (in a whole roomful of Rembrandt prints): one the original ink sketch, the other the worked etching, shown side by side:

As for the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, that has to be a contender for Best.Museum.Ever. I've already mentioned it (Hamburg 3) and, again, you need to see it for yourself. It's essentially what the V&A in London could be, with some thinning out of the displays and the application of a little North European taste. An example: where the V&A would fill a room with Japanese scrolls, to no great purpose other than to say "what a lot we've got!", the MKG settles for just a handful, beautifully displayed in a room that echoes the minimalist Japanese aesthetic it illustrates:

Some readers may recall my own experiments in this direction (Roll Up!). It was instructive to see the real thing, and be able to examine the way a hanging scroll is assembled from its multiple elements. It's what a "museum of arts and crafts" is all about, after all.

Now, the monetary value of gallery exhibits is not normally the first, or even the last thing to enter my mind – you could go crazy calculating the value of even a small room of Impressionist paintings – but when I entered a tiny room of Pictorialist photographs in MKG and saw this...

... I was all, like, WTF, LOL, OMG, and other initialised expressions of gobsmackifaction. For that is Edward Steichen's "Moonlight: The Pond", which set an auction record for a photograph in 2006 at $2.9m. I calmed down a bit when I realised it was "just" the photogravure version, extracted from Camera Work, but that's pretty scarce, too (the MKG claims to be one of only eight institutions, worldwide, to own a complete set), and is to my taste actually preferable to the slightly queasy false coloration of the original photograph.

It goes without saying that I made a bee-line (wasp-line?) for the Zoologisches Museum. Although not large, by big-city standards, it is yet another exemplar of how display and interpretation should be done. It hits just the right balance between accessibility and specialism, without at any point resorting to oversimplification or condescension (I'm still reeling from the London Natural History Museum's re-labelling of its invertebrate gallery as "Creepy Crawlies"). On the evidence of Berlin and Hamburg, it seems the Germans have a real talent for this aspect of curation, from which our own museums could learn a lot.

Big whale, little whale...

Llama chameleon...

By the way, in that room of Pictorialist photographs in MKG, there is a copy of Camera Work (No.1, 1903) on display opened in a vitrine, at a page where Steichen has written a little essay, "Ye Fakers", concerning the debate between "straight" and "manipulated" photography. It is composed in such an ironic manner, verging on sarcasm, that even I, an over-educated Brit, had difficulty extracting his real point but, essentially, he is making the argument that the whole process of photography is manipulation (or, to the critics of the Pictorial style, "fakery") from beginning to end; there's nothing "straight" about it. In Steichen's words, "In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. When all is said, it still remains entirely a matter of degree and ability." Sound familiar? It's a point that is still being made, every ten minutes or so, somewhere out there on the Web.

And, talking of tiresome, consider these prophetic words from the same essay (written, remember, in 1903):
Some day there may be invented a machine that needs but to be wound up and sent roaming o'er hill and dale, through fields and meadows, by babbling brooks and shady woods – in short, a machine that will discriminatingly select its subject and by means of a skilful arrangement of springs and screws, compose its motif, expose the plate, develop, print, and even mount and frame the result of its excursion, so that there will remain nothing for us to do but send it to the Royal Photographic Society's exhibition and gratefully to receive the "Royal Medal."
We're not quite there yet, but some clever idiot, somewhere, is doubtless working on it. Robotic factories, driverless cars, artistless art... Who needs jobs? And who needs messy, fallible people, anyway?

Whoah, more people... Who says the Germans are dying out?

View from the Kennedy-Brücke into the Binnenalster

1. As well as German and English, I studied Geography at A-Level. One of our teachers, Les Ransley, was a dab hand at blackboard art. Quite often, we'd come into the classroom and find him preparing an elaborate graphic illustrating some geographic or climatological concept. A favourite was a large chalked "W" out in the Atlantic, alongside which were the smaller, partial words "arm", "et", "esterlies", enclosed in a fat arrow pointed at the British Isles. Hence, rain...


amolitor said...

"camera work" is Stieglitz, the picture is Steichen (who was, to be fair, rather joined at the house to the former for some time)

Mike C. said...

Thanks, I'm always getting those two mixed up! Both photo and essay are by Steichen, but as you say, Camera Work is Stieglitz's journal. I'll quietly remove "his"...


old_bloke said...

I noticed with interest your comments on the lighting in the Kunsthalle and the lack of reflections in your photos taken there. It's been a source of irritation to me for many years that, where I've been able to escape the prohibitions of the gallery attendants and take photos of interesting works, they often come out with the ghost of a bald old man in the background. It's a shame that in this day and age so many British galleries and museums can't (or won't) provide a better viewing experience.

On a more positive note, I recently visited the Lady Lever Art Gallery to see the excellent exhibition of Rembrandt prints loaned by the Ashmolean. Not only did they provide magnifying glasses for old eyeballs to look at the fine detail close up, but had put up signs positively encouraging visitors to take photographs and post them on social media. It quite cheered me up, to think that not everything in this benighted country has gone to the dogs.

Mike C. said...


Yes, it's the glass, as well as the poor lighting -- cheap reflective stuff vs. proper gallery-standard glass. Interestingly, more and more places seem to be allowing photography: I suspect they realise it's a losing battle with smartphones... Even National Trust properties are allowing it, now.

I always carry a pocket magnifier, these days (hate wearing my glasses). Very useful in restaurants, too...


Henry Bckmeyer said...

Enjoying your Hamburg series.
I lived there in the mid-1990s and enjoyed the city a lot, in spite of the weather.
I’m sure it’s changed a lot in the following years. Except the weather.

Did I mention the shitty weather?

Mike C. said...


Word is, the weather has got worse...