Sunday 29 September 2019


Hamburg, September 2019

Thinking about the "Red Room" in the previous post naturally got me thinking about black and white photography. When I first started taking my photography seriously – somewhere around 1979, I suppose, when I took a deep breath and laid out the cash for a brand-new Olympus OM-1N – practically all reportage and non-commercial photography was done using monochromatic film. Colour was only just beginning to be the new, happening thing in "art" photography: William Eggleston's groundbreaking exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art had been as recent as 1976, and even pioneers like Martin Parr, Jem Southam, and Paul Graham had barely started to make the transition to colour in Britain. As anyone who has tried to use a darkroom to produce colour work will attest, the processing of colour film stock and colour prints are jobs best left to professional labs and, as a consequence, expensive. Monochrome film, on the other hand, is not only relatively cheap but, if need be, you could process the stuff in your hotel bathroom. Crucially, however, it also offers the kind of end-to-end "hands on" opportunities for self-expression that made it a congenial medium for the artist. For the dedicated photographer, preferences in film, paper stock, and darkroom chemistry – not to mention enlargers, lenses, easels, print washers, and all the rest of the darkroom paraphernalia – were matters of intense brand loyalty and finely-calibrated connoisseurship. And, in some cases, jealously-guarded secrecy. From an expressive point-of-view, the chain of choices in materials and technique could yield surprisingly different results from essentially the same basic process.

The 1970s and 80s were the heyday of the magazine Creative Camera and its roster of craft-focussed luminaries like Fay Godwin, John Blakemore, and Raymond Moore, and any aspiring amateur like me looked to them as exemplars of the True Art. If you really knew your stuff, you'd also be aware of the more solid (and, frankly, more distinguished) American and European traditions of art photography, although in those pre-internet days this did require a certain amount of conscious effort. Just to be aware of names like Harry Callahan, John Gossage, Josef Sudek, or Josef Koudelka was to be in a tiny minority; to get to see their actual work, in any form other than smudgy grey magazine reproductions, was remarkably difficult. Exhibitions were rare, and photo-books were still a scarce commodity. I remember encountering the bookshelves on my first Duckspool workshop with a sense of wonder. Peter Goldfield had assembled a collection of the very best, most unobtainable monographs imaginable, many of them inscribed, because so many of those prominent photographers had taught workshops at Duckspool. I could have happily spent my five days there just browsing the books.

These days I have a fairly substantial book collection of my own, including many superb volumes of B&W photography,  but if I want to see exemplary monochrome photographs in the classic style, I usually take down one of several books by Finnish master, Pentti Sammallahti. His compendious collection, Here, Far Away, in particular, always seems to remind me not just how good monochrome can be [1], but also how "straight" photography can, in the right hands, unquestionably be an art medium, in the same way as, say, an ordinary pencil. In that respect it's like another inspirational book, Luigi Ghirri's Kodachrome: both make me want to get out and take more, better photographs. In Sammallahti's case, it also usually sparks a temporary enthusiasm for making monochromatic versions of suitable digital colour images.

"Suitable", because truly worthwhile black and white is not a simple matter of recording what is in front of the camera, although the "truthiness" inherited from film-based reportage of the past does invest monochrome with a certain unique aura of documentary authenticity. In order to create an aesthetically-successful B&W photograph certain latent properties that can easily be overwhelmed by "subject" and "colour" have to be present to the seeing eye – a digital camera or a camera loaded with black-and-white film still shows a full-colour world through the viewfinder – and in particular that elusive quality known as "tonality", something which must subsequently be brought out, whether in the darkroom or on a computer, with proper skill and care. I think of colour photography as being like fresh fruit, and monochrome as rather like the dried, preserved version. A raisin or a prune is its own thing, bearing little resemblance in either appearance or taste to the original grape or plum, and it takes experience, skill, and patience to process one into the other. Only certain varieties of fruit are suitable for preservation by drying, and these are often not the most attractive or tasty varieties when fresh. Whatever the two states have in common, you can't judge one by the virtues of the other, but there's absolutely no reason not to enjoy both.

However, it's not really my forte, black and white. Hence "temporary". Much as I enjoy the work of others, my own efforts rarely give me as much pleasure. I love form, tone, composition, and all the rest of it, but it seems colour is what turns me on. Nonetheless, here, for no better reason than that I felt like doing it, is a little gallery of some of my own relatively recent photographs (all taken with a Fuji X70), rendered in a range of monochrome styles. I like them, and can imagine them printed small – perhaps 6" square or less, in the Sammallahti style – and tastefully presented in plain white window mounts in simple dark-wood frames. But (unsurprisingly, perhaps, given they're a random selection, chosen for experimental purposes) I don't think they show the same unity of vision and approach that (I like to think) my colour photography does. Which is paradoxical; because, if the colour were to be restored, then they probably would.

Laocoön, Royal Academy September 2018

Black Ven, Dorset, June 2019

Tyntesfield, Somerset, August 2019

Dyrham Park, August 2018

Dyrham Park, August 2019

Southampton Golf Course, February 2019

1. It's a real shame that no inexpensive selection of his work remains in print (the cheapest copy of Here, Far Away currently on AbeBooks is £280!). The little Photo Pôche book is OK, and worth getting, but hardly does them justice. If you don't have a copy of Here, Far Away and you ever see one at a price you can afford (in any language  it was published in multiple countries simultaneously  my own copy is German, titled Hier weit entfernt), then seize it with both hands. You won't regret it.

Wednesday 25 September 2019

The Red Room

Not being on Facebook, Twitter, or any of those other time-consuming innovations, I only get to see or hear about the latest "memes" and Twitter-storms at second-hand, and generally only when they've already gone from deliciously hot, through tepid, to stone-cold and inedible. So, forgive me if you've already heard this one, but (allegedly) someone, somewhere, at some time (a time which counts as the "ancient expired past" by social-media measures, but "quite recent" by conventional, old-money measures), posted this:
What is the purpose of this 'red room' in Stranger Things? We frequently see Jonathan go inside this to 'refine' his photos or something. I don't quite understand what happens here. He puts the photo in water, and somehow this makes it more clear? ... Is this an old film technique, and if so what is it called?
Stranger Things is a Netflix series, m'lud, one of an endless outpouring of such series that I generally have no interest in watching, but which is apparently very good, if  a Spielberg-ish mix of nostalgic Americana, horror, and sci-fi is your thing. So, at first glance, what at first I thought was maybe a reference to some Twin Peaks-style "Red Room" weirdness turned out, of course, to be something far stranger and far more other-worldly: the darkroom.

Which, on one level, is hilarious. And surely not just to those of us for whom the darkroom is still an active memory. That dim red light, the enlarger, those miraculous trays of "water", the line of pegged, drying prints... These are surely no more obscure in meaning to digital natives than any other obsolete phenomenon that is a staple of movie story-telling; things like the horse-drawn carriage, the flintlock pistol, or the pay-phone. Otherwise, a film like Blow-Up (which I happened to watch for the first time a few weeks ago) must be pretty much incomprehensible. Although, actually, to be fair, it is pretty much incomprehensible, but for quite different reasons. No, you have to suspect that we are dealing with a case of poker-faced feigned ignorance here; which is still hilarious, but intentionally so. And which also makes the condescending laughter of the irony-immune smart-alecks who mainly seem to populate the internet even funnier.

However, it did make me wonder about the ongoing decline of the idea of process. Pretty much since the advent of domestic electricity, I'd say, most of us have completely lost touch with any grasp of how things work. You flip the switch, and it just ... happens. For example, it occurred to me recently that I had no idea where the electricity that powers our landline telephone is coming from: after all, where's the plug, where's the battery? I had to look it up, and, apparently, British Telecom are kindly renting us some of theirs, sent down the line [1]. Similarly, I'm pretty vague about the nature of radio and "terrestrial" TV: I seem to remember from physics lessons it has something to do with the fuzzy image of a Maltese cross – maybe TV was invented in Malta, or even by the Knights Templar? – and some ubiquitous but invisible rays and waves of various shapes and sizes. And these are old technologies: add wi-fi and mobile phone signals into the rich mix of multi-format waviness swirling through the atmosphere, and the urge to start wearing a tinfoil hat becomes understandable. I mean, do they go through you, or around you? You could be forgiven for wondering whether we are all slowly being cooked in a gigantic, terrestrial microwave oven by the BBC, at varying speeds, depending on which end of the spectrum you happen to favour. The function of the red light in the red room, I believe, may also have been wavy in nature.

Something which is both a result and a cause of this disconnect from the how of the material world is the contemporary pursuit of seamlessness. Seamlessness is not quite the same thing as good design. Obviously, it is very old-fashioned to expect the user of a device or service to apply any measure of common sense, native wit, or thoughtfulness to its use or function – or to the limits on its uses or functions – and also simply to invite the attention of personal injury lawyers. If a thing can't be used by a drunken half-wit – or can be used by a drunken half-wit in some inappropriate and potentially fatal manner – then it's in urgent need of better design. Or at the very least a sticker saying, "FFS don't use this toaster in the bath, you idiot". No, seamlessness is life as experienced by the very wealthy, or the very beautiful. Clothes are laid out, doors open, cars arrive, tables are booked, all without any effort beyond a vaguely-expressed wish to eat out this evening. The apps on a smartphone are similar miracles of paths smoothed and obstacles overcome, gifting apparently effortless cleverness to the most witless app user. Honestly, do you have the foggiest idea of how, say, Google does what it does? Beyond, um, "indexing"? Trust me, it's miraculous. Or, as Arthur C. Clarke put it in his Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

Nostalgic photographers talk of the "magic" of the darkroom, and (inevitably) how miraculous it seemed when the latent image began to form in the tray of water developer. And, indeed, there was something a little special about taking personal command of the whole process, all the way from getting the bloody film into the bloody reel of the developing tank in complete bloody darkness, to hanging your wet prints over the bath. This, despite the fact that most of us bought bottled chemicals, about which we knew nothing more than how to dilute them, in which order to use them, and how many elephants were required to make them work properly [2]. I expect growing your own vegetables from seed, or maintaining a vintage motorbike must bring the same satisfactions, a William Morris-ish glow of "unalienated labour". But I, for one, was more than happy to trade all of that rough magic for the seamless miracle of digital photography. It freed me from the Red Room, like a labourer freed from endless spadework. But how does a digital camera work? I have no idea. And if one breaks or stops working, could I – or anyone – fix it? No: it'll probably end up in landfill, an inert brick of fabulous technology, along with all the obsolete microwaves and flat-screen TVs.

Which is a dilemma that exists across nearly every aspect of modern Western life. Many of us worry that it can't go on like this, always choosing the miraculous convenience of hi-tech ignorance over hard-won knowledge and understanding. But it's hard to see a way forward which isn't either a step backward into the agrarian, homespun past, or an ever closer embrace of "trust me" technologies in some eco-techno paradise; in the words of Richard Brautigan's bizarre poem, "all watched over by machines of loving grace".

It's easy to be amused by ignorance, feigned or real, but it may well be that our future depends on the willingness of brave, naive individuals to expose themselves to scornful laughter, by speaking up and demanding to know, "How does this work? I don't understand. Do you understand? Is this real, or is it just a trick? Why would you want to keep us in the dark like this?"
[cue up The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again"...]

National Portrait Gallery

1. This puts me in mind of a juvenile prank from Olden Tymes. You'd ring a random phone number, and say, "Hello, GPO here! Have you got much cable between the phone and the wall?" To which (if the answer was "yes") you would add, "Well, could you push a bit through, please? We're a bit short at this end. Thanks!"
2. That may be a genuinely mysterious "red room" trope for the uninitiated... In the absence of a timer, seconds were counted as "elephant one, elephant two ..."

Wednesday 18 September 2019


I really like the strong shape of this Ancient Greek bronze hand I came across in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe. Whether it's a fragment of some statue, or a stand-alone (hand-alone?) device for warding off the Evil Eye, I'm not sure. Whatever it is, I'm fairly certain it's a male left hand, which adds to its attraction for me, being both male and left-handed. Do try to ignore the unfortunate shadows behind, which rather resemble another well-known and ancient apotropaic device.

A primary motive for me in visiting such museums is to gather potential material like this for use in photo-collages and digital imaging. I knew as soon as I saw it that this this hand was destined to figure in my work: like Cycladic figurines, it is simultaneously ancient and incredibly modern in the elegant refinement of its abstraction. Quite often, the first thing I do with a single strong shape like this is to multiply it into a repeated pattern, something which will come in handy for backgrounds, and so on. Such as this:

I'm actually quite pleased with that as it stands. It's got something of the rhythmic liveliness and graphic simplicity of the quilts I saw in Bath's American Museum last year. Although it's a little deflating to realise that one's true vocation might have been designing upmarket bed-linen.

Incidentally, it always amuses me that the German word for a mobile phone is ein Handy. Which, according to Duden, is actually derived from the English word "handy" (zu englisch handy = griffbereit, greifbar; praktisch [1]), and is not, as I had assumed, some cute diminutive coinage derived from the German word for hand, which also happens to be Hand. I'm glad it's not: if there's one thing that brings out my inner Grumpy Old Man, it's people who babble like five-year-olds about "biccies" and "veggies" and all those other infantilising attempts to render a cold, cruel world into a cosy safe-space, where besties in onesies can coo over their latest selfies... Hmm, but on the other hand maybe there is a market for my exclusive line of apotropaic duvet covers...

Hotel Wagner im Dammtorpalais (highly recommended)

1. "From English 'handy' = ready to hand, graspable; practical."

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...

Thursday 12 September 2019

Hamburg 4

View of the Elbe from the Altonaer Balkon

Stuhlmannbrunnen, Altona

It's not much of a boast to say that I speak better German than most of the British population. After all, most of the British population don't speak any German. Or, increasingly, any foreign language at all; the requirement for state schools to teach one foreign language to GCSE level was removed some years ago, with the inevitable consequences. German was never widely taught to start with, and it is estimated that teaching has declined by 64% since 2000.

However, it is true that my German is quite good, having studied the language to A-level, and handled German books most of my working life. That "quite good" is not false modesty: until relatively recently I had not visited a German-speaking country for decades, so lack the sort of everyday fluency that can only be acquired by, say, trying to find a universal plug for your hotel bathroom sink in a department store. I'm sure I must sound like a memory-impaired dotard who has been locked in a library for 30 years (not an unfair description, now I think of it): not so much Kaspar Hauser as Kaspar Bibliothekar. Nonetheless, I am able to say, with a surprising degree of conviction, "I am in need of one of those whatsits that makes the water remain in the sink, but of uncertain dimensions, please, Miss". My accent, I'm told, is quite posh, which must be doubly unsettling.

I was lucky enough to be taught by a brilliant man, one Dr. Arthur Splett, who had studied at Downing College, Cambridge in the days when F.R. Leavis held sway there. Known to all pupils as "Arfur" or "Doc", and for some reason widely (yet falsely) assumed to be gay, he was a fine example of a breed of teachers that may have died out with the state grammar schools: an engaged scholar of his subject, a profoundly cultivated man, uncompromising in his standards, yet caring deeply about the education of unlettered New Town oiks like me. I wouldn't say I was his star pupil – that honour went to another Mike, the extraordinary M.A. Rogers, son of a local vicar [1] – but I like to think I made an impression. I know he was disappointed when I chose to study English at Oxford, and not German at Cambridge.


Durchschnitt, Rotherbaum

Despite this excellent preparation, I always seem to be ending up in parts of the German-speaking world where the local accent or dialect is verging on the impenetrable. Most recently in Austria, Berlin, and now Hamburg. I mean, it's quite a stretch from the conventional Hochdeutsch "guten Morgen!" to the Hamburg Plattdeutsch equivalent, "Moin Moin!" I suppose it's the equivalent of an English-speaking German ending up in Newcastle or Glasgow, with the rather significant difference that the locals there won't immediately and cheerfully switch into fluent German in response to your first blank and baffled look. It's no wonder Brits and Americans feel no pressure to learn foreign languages: it can sometimes seem as if English is the universal substratum of all languages, a rich seam of common understanding into which all foreigners can delve, if only they have the sense and good manners to take the trouble. A foreigner who insists on speaking in Foreign is therefore – by definition, to this way of thinking – simply a rude, ignorant bastard. After all, what language is the Bible written in?

As a linguistically-curious person I'm in the habit, when abroad, of always carrying a small dictionary with me. There's always some new word, or some important ambiguity to resolve, especially in the sort of dense officialese employed on crucial things like railway timetables or, most crucially of all, restaurant menus. Not that most small dictionaries are much help with the latter. One particularly delicious meal I had was a Hamburger Pannfisch ("Hamburg-style fish-fry") which included Rotbarsch ("red rough"), Seelachs ("sea salmon"), and Meerzunge ("sea tongue") [2]. None of which were in the dictionary but, hey, in for a fishy pfennig... I also enjoyed myself in the Zoologisches Museum, figuring out the German names for various creatures: I was particularly taken by Siebenschläfer ("seven sleeper" a.k.a. the Dormouse) and Saatkrähe ("seed crow" i.e. the Rook) [3].

But, as it happens, my main linguistic takeaway from my brief stay in Hamburg was the word Kiez or Kietz, which seemed to be cropping up everywhere, but which also didn't figure in my dictionary. There were posters for things like Klassik in deinem Kiez ("classical music in your Kiez"), a radio station called Kiez 1, and even a kebab joint called Kiez-Döner. I began to suspect it was some new, all-purpose word for "good". When I eventually looked it up on the Web, however, it turned out to be a northern German word meaning something like "neighbourhood" or, if one wanted a British slang equivalent, "patch" or "manor". But THE neighbourhood, from a Hamburg perspective, is always the red-light and night-life district centred around the Reeperbahn. Alles klar!

Reeperbahn hoarding

View of the "Warehouse District" and Elbphilharmonie concert hall

1. To my surprise, Mike Rogers turned out to be a lecturer in German at Southampton University when I arrived at the library there in 1984.
2. These turned out to be Red Perch, Pollock, and Sole... All very tasty.
3. An observation: bird-life seems awfully scarce in Hamburg. Apart from the odd pigeon or crow, and a single Jay, I saw hardly any birds, even in the park-like areas. Certainly there were none of the urban flocks of sparrows or starlings you'd expect in Britain. OTOH, I was delighted to see Red Squirrels in the tree outside my hotel window. I don't think there's a connection...

Tuesday 10 September 2019

Hamburg 3

A spectre haunts Germany...

Let's get this one out of the way, before moving on to more cheerful stuff. One of the many things I admire about Germany and the majority of the German people is the thorough and responsible way they have addressed the terrible burden of the Nazi past. Unlike, say, Britain's relationship with slavery or the imperial past, most Germans have accepted responsibility for crimes they themselves did not commit, but which, it can be argued, were committed in their name. British politicians cannot even bring themselves to apologise for the Amritsar Massacre of 1919. One very visible expression of this German desire for atonement is the project to insert so-called Stolpersteine ("stumbling blocks") into the pavement outside the former houses or apartments of those – mainly but not exclusively Jews – who were forcibly deported to extermination camps.

They're uniform in size with a typical German cobblestone, and simply and unsentimentally record the known facts. For example, from one of the Stolpersteine above:
Hier wohnte
Lea Kleve
geb. Bachrach
Jg. 1878
Flucht 1936 Holland
Interniert Westerbork
Deportiert 1942
Ermordert 10.9.1942
(Here lived Lea Kleve, née Bachrach, 1878; fled to Holland 1936; interned at Westerbork; deported to Auschwitz 1942; murdered 10/9/1942).

Having noticed some of these brass pavement plaques in Berlin streets last year, I had assumed this subtle memorialisation of individual Holocaust victims was a civic or governmental project. However, it turns out to be the initiative of an artist, Gunter Demnig. To call his work an "art project" may seem to trivialise it, but essentially that's what it is. It's well worth reading about Demnig's aims and methods at the link. Apparently, in 2018 the 70,000th Stolperstein was laid in Frankfurt: that's a lot, but there's still an awfully long way to go.

Talking of art, another Nazi-related problem that Germans have inherited and tackled with admirable diligence is the theft of art and antiques from Jewish families, and their subsequent deposition in various public and private collections. In the short time I had in Hamburg I managed to visit several museums and galleries, and perhaps the most impressive of these was the equivalent of London's Victoria & Albert Museum, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, or MKG. Being a museum of art and design, MKG keeps in its collections precisely the sort of items that would have been looted from prosperous Jewish homes. Furniture, silverware, ceramics, paintings... It is a magnificent assemblage of objects, beautifully displayed and interpreted, but there is always the nagging feeling: where did all this stuff come from? Crucially, however, the museum has taken a proactive attitude towards establishing provenance and, where possible, restitution [1]. Indeed, one of the rooms is dedicated to showing the sort of research that is carried out in this regard. Where provenance looks dodgy, but the original owner has not been identified, a red Raubkunst? ("looted art?") flash is added to the label. Personally, I tend to think that all such fancy stuff is better held in public museums, anyway, but I suppose I might feel differently if the Rembrandt had belonged to my own murdered grandparents.

"Looted art? Research into the provenance of the MKG collections"

Flashed label on a cabinet of silver medallions
Typical provenance:
1892 Paris, Workshop of Oscar Roty
until 1939 in unknown Jewish ownership
1939 Finanzbehörde Hamburg (the city tax authority)
1960 via the "silver allocation" to MKG

Of course, one mustn't pretend that all Germans are of good conscience, or that Nazi-style attitudes and politics have been hermetically sealed in the past. Far from it. Sadly, fascism is not a virus that can be eliminated, like smallpox, by an assiduous programme of antifa vaccination. The far right is active here in Britain, and across most of Europe, after all; there will always be work to do to ensure that the monster does not re-awaken or, if it does, to put it back to sleep. But who is better placed or more motivated than our good friends in Germany to do that work?

Anti-AfD graffiti in Altona

1.  What do you mean, what about the Elgin Marbles? Listen, we've got a till receipt for those! Wait, it's here, I'm sure, somewhere...

Monday 9 September 2019

Hamburg 2

Expressionist electro-punk clubbers
(Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe)

Let's face it, say "Hamburg" to most people – most Britons, at least – and two things come to mind: the Beatles and "nightlife". The two are not unconnected, of course. Hamburg has been a party city for a very long time, with a bottomless appetite for generation after generation of entertainers of various stripes and degrees of sleaziness. My guidebook tells me that "Hamburg is renowned for its electro-punk sound, which started in the 1980s and has evolved and morphed endlessly". Well, I'll have to take their word for that. In my 65-year-old world, loud noise is no longer welcome (sadly, a liking for it 40 years ago has meant that my ears now generate their own permanent ambient-techno soundtrack), and my bedtime is well before the best clubs even open their doors.

But, out of a sense of duty, I did take an afternoon stroll down the Reeperbahn, noted the absurd "cookie cutter" Beatles statues in Beatles-Platz, and watched the bars and lap-dancing clubs on Grosse Freiheit sweeping out and restocking for the night's action. And I can report that Hamburg's notorious hot-spot looks like every other big city hot-spot when seen by daylight, and stone cold sober. That is, about as alluring as a puddle of vomit on the pavement. While I concede that timing and context is everything, I find it hard to imagine that it would look much better in an advanced state of intoxication at 2 a.m., either. But then my generation was fortunate enough to escape the "clubbing" phenomenon, except insofar as it it kept us awake until 3 a.m., waiting for our daughters to return home safely.

Things looked more interesting just a block or two in behind, in the area known as Sankt Pauli. Most cities these days have at least one postcode like this, where sleaze and criminality shade into subculture and youthful experimentation, and where various semi-outlaw tribes can co-exist uneasily, united mainly by a common dislike for respectability and its enforcers, the police. Given more time, I'd have checked it out more thoroughly, but I suspect you'd need a native guide to show you around. Curiously, St. Pauli features heavily in the Hamburg souvenir trade: even at the airport you can buy a black, skull-and-crossbones "St. Pauli" t-shirt. Why? Because of the football team. It's a pretty cool t-shirt, but I'm sure most souvenir hunters would be completely unaware of its significance, and in particular the anti-racist, anti-right stance of the team's supporters.

St. Pauli: a better class of graffiti

Sunday 8 September 2019


Grindelallee graffiti 

I've spent most of the past week in Hamburg, Germany. My partner was involved in an academic conference there so I tagged along, as is increasingly becoming my MO, these days. Much as I hate travelling, I love being abroad, free to explore and photograph in an unfamiliar city. Although, as another North Sea / Baltic port on a river estuary, Hamburg did seem oddly familiar after similar recent excursions to Amsterdam and St. Petersburg. Inevitably, it also has certain similarities with Southampton, too.

Over the next few days I'll publish some little galleries of my photographs, together with whatever commentary seems appropriate. If any of my German readers are familiar with this fine city, feel free to tell me what I'm getting wrong!

Hamburg waterfront

Sunday 1 September 2019

Revolution No. 9

Staircase at Tyntesfield

Name-dropping is one of the more tedious habits in the humanities, especially at the fuzzier end of the spectrum, where artists, curators, and writers about art congregate. Indeed, it can sometimes seem that name-dropping is the name of the game. When I was young and impressionable I abandoned a promising academic career, in part because I thought that anyone who repeatedly cited the likes of Plato, Descartes, Wittgenstein, or Derrida must necessarily also have read those authorities. Preferably in the original language. I had not, and didn't much want to, so folded my hand before the stakes got too high. I know better now, but don't regret my decision. The bare-faced fraudulence of much "scholarship" is breathtaking.

Understandably, this fake-it-to-make-it tendency applies ten-fold to actual practitioners. This may be rank prejudice on my part, but it stands to reason that, at the fluffiest extreme of that fuzzy end of the spectrum, the sort of person attracted to mucking about with paint is not likely to have spent much of their time reading, say, Foucault or Deleuze, much less have arrived at a considered view of their place in the traditions of philosophical thought. I'd go further, and suggest they are unlikely to be capable of doing so; very few of us are. Life is too interesting, and making art too much fun, to spend long evenings puzzling over difficult books which engage with dry, twisty issues you hadn't even realised were issues. It's unrealistic, I think, to expect practising artists to have engaged with heavyweight, brain-taxing, aesthetic, social, and philosophical problems, much less to imagine they are in any position to offer useful contributions to the debate, even if that is so often the pitch of much contemporary art-speak. Enough, surely, to wear the Foucauldian black leather and turtleneck, and maybe flirt a little with S&M, at least until the next new intellectual fashion sensation comes along.

Fraudulent or not, it has to be acknowledged that the humanities industry is nothing if not industrious, not to say fashion-forward, so new names-to-know are getting churned up all the time. A cynic might say that merely keeping up with the latest fashionable look is what much "scholarship" has become. Foucault? Deleuze? Really? Are you seriously going to be wearing that this evening? In my former trade as an academic librarian, obviously, this kind of superficial familiarity was not so much a con-trick as an essential professional skill: like knowing how to find a good plumber, rather than pretending to know how to fix a leaky pipe. So I have always liked to think that I know at least enough of – and enough about – the pantheon of unread-but-droppable names to navigate most literary and art talk and, if necessary, bluff my way with the best. After all, it is still my proud boast that I have never read a single Jane Austen novel, and of these Persuasion is my favourite. Consequently, my bluffer's ears pricked up when I read this recently:
This opening was not altogether unlike the dozens of staid institutional receptions I’ve attended in New York—there was a tasteful jazz quartet, an open bar, an impressive spread of canapes, and the guests were mostly rich people who all seemed to know each other—but at the entrance, I was offered a Cato-branded pocket Constitution along with the exhibition catalogue, and people namechecked Hayek and von Mises instead of Jacques Rancière.
Rachel Wetzler, Culture Worriers: the libertarian struggle to understand contemporary art (The Baffler, issue 46)
No, wait... Jacques Who?

Well, it seems I have not been paying attention. Just about everybody has been talking about Rancière, apparently, and for some time. If you care, his Wikipedia article is here, a moderately informative review of one of his books is here, and a lively idiot's guide (appropriately titled "Who the Fuck is Jacques Rancière?") is here. If you don't care, I don't blame you. What possible stake do most of us have in the incessant chatter of academics, aesthetes, or their hangers-on? But I was intrigued: is Jacques Rancière really a name to conjure with in such circles? So much so, that his is the obvious, telling name to drop in an article, in order to differentiate the "OK" woke'n'wealthy art-lover from the neoliberal "Not OK" sort?

I suppose it could simply be the writer engaging in a little sly one-upmanship. Such things are not unheard of in academic-critical circles. But I find it hard to believe that the sort of wealthy patrons, gallerists, and art collectors who are, as I imagine, the usual invitees at upscale gallery events would have the slightest clue about a character like Rancière, or where he fits into the three-dimensional chess game of French philosophy. Although I suppose a hot-cheeked moment of embarrassment over the canapés might lead some humiliated socialite to google "Who the Fuck is Rancière?" later that same evening. Except they'd probably be looking for "Ron Seer".

One takeaway from my own hasty googling is that Rancière seems to have taken ownership of that venerable anarchist credo that, left to their own devices, free from the interference of teachers and bossy experts, people will teach themselves what they need to know. I'm not sure whether the example of this process offered in the less-than-scholarly source cited above ("Who the Fuck is Jacques Rancière?") is the author's or Rancière's own, but I'm afraid I find it hard to accept, at least in the version on offer. I believe, as fervently as I believe anything, that intelligence is evenly spread through the world's population, and that bright kids will always find a way through oppression and injustice to improve the quality of their lives, by innovative criminality if necessary. But I'd want to see some solid evidence to back the claim that a group of kids in Ethiopia, left alone and unassisted with an unopened box of electronic tablets – unable to speak English and allegedly even unaware of the function of an "on/off" switch – ended up not just mastering the device but also hacking Android within 5 months. I'd like to believe it, I really would – just as I'd like to believe in a tablet device that works without a recharge for months on end – but it smells too much of the sort of Panglossian wishful thinking that leads NGOs and charities to crash about the world, unintentionally paving the road to Hell. And I say this as someone who did not cancel his standing-order tithe to Oxfam, following the revelations of the unsavoury activities of some of their field-workers in Haiti and elsewhere.

Quite why this sort of thinking has taken a hold in the rarefied field of art theory is a good question, and is one of those subjects that would require a book-length examination, not a mere paragraph in a blog post; it would certainly take more googling and more reading to resolve than I am prepared to do. Libri longi, vita brevis, and all that. But I suspect it must be connected with that strange, century-long urge of some artists to remove all traces of their own skill and agency from their work, an urge which is the democratically-inclined cousin of the equally strange, but rather more aristocratic urge to produce work that hardly anybody actually wants to hear, read, or look at.

These two related tendencies clearly originate in the artists' perennial desire to disrupt and refresh the exhausted or compromised artistic traditions and practices that went before, but both have relied rather too heavily on a series of theoretically-inclined guides who have led them down some strange paths indeed. Take serialism and atonality in music, for example. I know nothing about "serious" music, really, except that I am certain that if I never hear another piece by Stockhausen or Boulez I will be perfectly content. Which may, of course, mean that I am just a smug, narrow-minded, parochial philistine. That is, assuming the definition of an engaged, open-minded, metropolitan aesthete is someone who can stand more than two minutes of aggressively tuneless plinky-plonk, or can happily chuckle over the Sanskrit puns in Finnegans Wake. So be it: such people must exist, although I have yet to meet one; perhaps they cross the street when they see me coming. Or perhaps they are never to be encountered in the public street, and are those name-dropping patrons of art, insulated by wealth from any infectious contact with our trashy bourgeois complacency?

I very much doubt that, however. One of the most annoying things about the improbably rich, apart from simply being improbably rich, is their desire to corner the market in admirable but actually demographically-widespread attributes such as intelligence, education, and taste, exclusively rebranded for an upscale clientele as sophistication and savoir faire. It's a game long played by the aristocracy, and since taken up by their modern-day equivalents: a mask to wear over the ugliness of the essential injustice and exploitation that lies behind all disproportionate wealth. I'm sorry, but we're just naturally smarter and better than you! This charade is constantly reinforced by portrayals of the rich in popular culture. In TV shows and films, toffs and Trump-alikes are rarely portrayed as morally ugly, gold-plated twerps, semi-literate monsters of ego haunting characterless, hotel-standard accommodation. On the contrary, they are inevitably elegant, beautifully-dressed alumni of top universities, fluent in a dozen languages, connoisseurs of fine things, occupying tastefully-decorated pieds-à-terreMy God, is that a real Matisse? – or book- and antique-crammed mansions surrounded by park-sized lawns. Now, I have even less evidence for this assertion than the advocates of teacher-free education do for theirs, but I'd guess this assemblage of traits and tropes actually belongs to no-one: these are merely the signifiers of wealth in the popular mind, and are never its diagnostic symptoms in the real world.

No, what I'm pretty sure is the case is that, guided by gallerists and art advisors (this is an actual job), the rich buy the art they are advised to buy – whether they like it or understand it is irrelevant – just as I expect they wear what they are advised to wear, support the Good Causes they are advised to support, and delegate all financial investment to their trusted brokers. Personally, I admit I have a tough time differentiating the Good Rich from the Bad Rich; I'm no connoisseur of wealth. But maybe it's just a case of which advisors they choose? And perhaps it's those same advisors who hand out executive summaries of what names to drop this season, and why.

So, at the same time as you invoke the egalitarian, armchair-revolutionary anarchism of Rancière, you drop a few mill on a large smeary daub by Gerhard Richter (when you'd really rather have a Jack Vettriano), simply because you have been told that the Richter best denotes the intelligence, education, sophistication, etc., that you would like to be presumed to have. You being rich, and that. It must be quite something, though, to be in a position to carry off the material embodiment of name-dropping, by hanging some eye-stretchingly expensive piece of canvas on the living-room wall. Oh, sure, that's a Richter... Goes quite nicely with the upholstery, don't you think?

Besides, hold on to it for a few more years and then you can get Sotheby's to flog the bloody ugly thing for a fat profit. Bad rich person! Or maybe lend it to a museum, where arty proles can gaze admiringly on your discards, free of charge. Good rich person! Why, sir, you're practically a revolutionary yourself!

Baby, You're A Rich Man...