Changing Trains

My previous visit to Germany saw me travel from Berlin down to Leipzig in the East. This time I reversed the pattern by beginning in Munich, returning to Saxony and visiting Dresden before journeying back to Berlin. Munich is rather different to either of the cities I had visited previously, being both more visibly prosperous and more visibly conformist, a state that consistently tends to elect the same conservative political party. Bavaria is an excellent case in point for a critique of democracy; ruled by a monarchy that was essentially indifferent to political or military expansion, war with Prussia and France was demanded by the state’s Parliament prior to it becoming the spiritual home of Nazism. The image of a city modelled on the ideals of the greek revival and the architecture of the enlightenment becoming a fascist marching ground is one of the most appalling notions in Western history.

I begin by walking along a street opposite the old Botanical garden. A rather crude brutalist statue of Neptune stands in the centre, in contrast to the mock Egyptian gateway. I walk past towards the Frauenkirche. Like much in Germany, this has been reconstructed having been destroyed in the war. The haphazard evolution of the building gives its exterior an odd aspect, as with the Bynzantine domes atop the redbrick towers. The exterior walls are lined with tombstones lifted from the graveyard while the interior is rather more empty, an exercise in streamlined gothic. A display shows the cathedral before the second world war as being full of baroque clutter before showing it as a devastated ruin. I see a lot of similar displays during my visit, raising the same sort of questions Sebald raised in The Natural History of Destruction. Exceptions include an elaborate grandfather clock, wooden statues of the saints and a large mannerist monument to the emperor Ludwig; it rather resembles the Hapsburg tombs I saw in the Kaisergruft in Vienna. I walk onwards to the Marienplatz. Like the townhall in Vienna, it’s a pleasingly florid example of Flemish gothic, its surface pullulating with dragons, knights and lions. As often with the gothic revival, the nearby old town hall fails to be sufficiently medieval or adequately gothic in comparison. The square in front of it is littered with devotional statues of the Virgin, putti and, rather oddly, a pufferfish. By contrast, the nearby Heiliggeistkirche and PeterKirche are archetypal baroque. As I enter the latter, the light is streaming through the upper windows and forming coruscating paths down to the floor. Its spire, so broad from the front and so narrow from the side, reminds me of Hawksmoor’s Christchurch.

Walking on again, I walk past the Hofgarten near the royal palace to the Englischer garten, a odd combination of wild wood with garden. A stream from the river Isar proceeds through the garden at pressure leading many to surf in its waters. As it grows calmer swans and ducks try to swim upstream. Follies abound from Klenze’s classicist Monopteros (unlike English neo-classical architecture it’s beautifully painted in pinks and greens) to a chinoiserie pagoda used by a beer hall. Walking back to the centre, I enter the Theatinerkirche. A nauseating mustard glass yellow on the outside, the inside is covered in stucco detail but is unpainted and left in white; the resulting view of the dome in the interior rather reminds me of Wren. Some of the surrounding buildings present a different picture, with frozen stone dramatising the dialectic of romanticism and the enlightenment as with the Klenze’s gothic Felderhalle with its statues of lions and Bavarian generals (one could be forgiven for viewing its connection with the beer hall putsch as predestined). The structure commemorates Bavarian military victories, one of many such monuments. Further down the street, past the university buildings with their wide fountains and before the classicist Siegestor is the Ludwigkirche. The building is under repair, with the roof being recovered with glazed tiles, so the ceiling is covered with nets that block my view of the sky blue gothic vault. With its patterned walls and giant altar painting, it reminds me quite a lot of English architecture of the same period, though Bavaria’s penchant for rundbogenstil meant a romanesque revival rather than a gothic one, just as the Nazarene painters were essentially Raphaelites.

The following day is taken up with visits to the various galleries in Munich. The Alte Pinakothek was badly damaged during the war and its surface remains a morass of scar tissue. The interior feels both cavernous and empty, lacking the decoration one would normally have expected of such a building. The collection is initially rather disappointing, with some rather generic Italian renaissance paintings; for instance an austere Botticelli from the period when Savonarola’s influence was at its height. I’m struck by a version of the annunciation where Gabriel has peacock wings (later, I find myself smirking at similar paintings showing the wings as rainbow coloured and resembling gay pride flags). I feel most interested when we come to Canaletto’s veduta paintings or a vanitas painting by Salvator Rosa . As is often the case, my spirits are restored when I come to the Dutch section; deserted church interiors by Saenredam, de Velde seascapes, Ruisdael landscapes, der Heyden paintings of palaces, portraits from Hals and Rembrandt. There’s even a set of landscapes showing Brazil as if it were Utrecht (there’s later a Burgkmair painting of St John on Patmos, complete with monkeys and palm trees). Unlike the Italians, the Dutch were more alive to the sensuous joy of things. I’m struck at how flower still lives combined different plants that could never have been in bloom simultaneously as a fantasia. Even moral allegories like Jan Steen’s The Love Sick Girl combine their fables with still-lives showing this love of surface.

The same holds true for the Flemish section (as with Brueghel’s Harbour with christ preaching where christ is simply one figure in a crowd and not nearly as central as the two housewives in the centre staring back out at the viewer), even if there is far too much Rubens, although one of his cartoonish paintings of the last judgement is quite striking. I’m particularly struck with a painter I hadn’t heard of, Cornelis Van Dalem, and a painting entitled Landscape with Farmstead showing a preoccupation with ruins in the form of a derelict church and a dilapidated famrstead. Like Ruisdael’s painting of the Jewish cemetery, it shows an early form of romanticism. The Spanish section is less interesting, notable only for a Velasquz court portrait and El Greco’s The Disrobing of Christ while Claude’s landscapes are the only things to leap out in the French section.

The German section comes last. Even in spite of their religiosity, I can’t help liking Michael’s Pacher’s paintings trompe l’oeil alter paintings that simulate gothic niches or his paintings of a devil with face on its backside. Like Bosch, it mostly seems like a work of surrealism at this point in time, no different to Brueghel’s painting of the land of Cockaigne where pigs run around with knives carving them up in the process. I’m more taken with a Durer self portrait, done in a style designed to consciously recall christ paintings and representing for me Burckhardt’s discovery of the individual, just as a nearby Altdorfer painting is the first landscape with a definite topography, that of Regensburg.

I pass onwards to the nearby Neues Pinakothek. The early rooms here are dedicated to international art (a Canova sculpture of Paris, Adonis by Thorvaldsen a Fuseli painting of Satan and Death). A rather gaudy Goya stands out clearly from an excessive number of Gainsboroughs. The German section is of the most interest to me as it again dramatises a dialogue of classicism and romanticism; Dahl’s The Day After a Stormy Night, architectural fantasies of ancient Athens from Klenze, Blechen’s The Construction of the Devil’s Bridge, Friedrich’s The Arbour. I feel more ambivalent about the Nazarenes; their use of colour is something I certainly respond to but their subjects are often anodyne at best. By contrast, the entire room given to Rottman’s paintings of Greece is fascinating. Bavaria had helped Greek independence in return for giving its dynasty the Greek throne (for a short while) and Rottman was one of the first Europeans to paint the ruins of Corinth and Athens. Delacroix, Gericault and Daumier represent French work in the same period. The modern section is surprisingly comprehensive, covering Monet, Cezanne, Manet, Lautrec, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir and especially Guaguin and Van Gogh. The final rooms turn to the more unusual; Klimt, Schiele, Von Stuck and Munch.

Finally, I visit the Lensbachhaus. I haven’t been enormously impressed by Lensbach’s rather stodgily realistic paintings but there’s undeniably something rather striking about his former villa. The courtyard is an Italian renaissance fantasia of sea horse fountains and statues while the undamaged sections of the interior are equally richly decorated. This takes up where the Neue Pinakothek had stopped, with Von Stuck’s Salome (paintings of Salome often recur in various galleries and I later see a fountain dedicated to the Strauss opera) and the likes of Corinth’s Self-Portrait with Skeleton (presumably an echo of Bocklin?), but most of the house is given up to the various members of the Blue Rider group. Kandinsky represents a clear core to the group but although I’m unfamiliar with the other names, I’m quite impressed with Munter’s folk art, Jawlensky’s & Macke’s landscapes and Marc’s animal paintings. The Lensbachhaus is close to Konigsplatz and opposite the Propylaen, a classicist monument By Klenze to Otto’s brief reign as King of Greece. It faces a black obelisk on the other side of the platz that serves as a Napoleonic war memorial. Inbetween are Klenze’s equally Grecian Glyptotek and Staatliche Antikensammlungen. I only later learn that this was the central Nazi administrative area; Troost’s fuhrerbau where Chamberlain was handed his piece of paper stands nearby. It’s a music school now, wreathed in ivy. I walk back into Munich and visit the Michaelkirche. As austere as the Theatinerkirche, it does have a funerary monument by Thorvaldsen, much in the style of the Caniova tombs I’d seen in Venice. By contrast, the Asamkirche, is florid with rococo detail. I’m especially taken with a sun image in the ceiling and by a skeleton attacking a cherub with a scythe.

The following day is taken up with a visit to the Munich Residence. Combining late reniassiance and North Italian baroque designs with later work from Klenze, the building takes you through grotto halls decorated with shells, a courtyard with a statue of Perseus, an antiquarium with walls painted with roman decorations and walls lined with busts of Roman emperors (I especially like trompe l’oeil paitnings that show the already long hall extending even further into infinity), a chapel with ceiling blazing with blue and gold and walls lined with marble and frescos, state rooms lined with tapestries that have retained most of their colour, a long gallery lined with portraits, porcelain cabinets, a miniatures cabinet, baroque galleries whose mirror lined walls create the impressions of an infinitely recursive space. There are various collections in the Residence; a grisly display of skulls and bones in a reliquary, an exhibition of various orientalist tapestries and above all an exhibition of ‘white gold’ porcelain, covering the collection of Chinese and Arita Imari through to Meissen wares. There’s also a brief exhibition on a lost palmhouse constructed atop part of the residence and containing various follies. Finally, there’s the Staatliches Museum Agyptischer Kunst containing an impressive red marble statue of Antinous as Osiris, a translation of the Greek geographer Artemidorus in papyrus, several sphinxes and gold jewellery from Meroitic tombs.

In the afternoon, I return to Konigsplatz and to the Glyptotek. Like the Pinakothek, the interior is stark and bare creating an uncanny feeling of emptiness, something exacerbated by each room having a plaque showing its orginally highly ornamented interiors. The collection here varies from pediment cornices and palmettes to kouroi, tombstones, sarcophagi and votive reliefs. The most famous statue, the Barberini faun, is given a room largely to itself. I’m most struck with a representation of the head of Medusa, a statue of Diomedes and a bust of Antinous. The centre of the collection is statuary from the Temple of Aegina showing sphinxes and Trojan warriors. Opposite, the Staatliche Antikensammlungen is largely dedicated to Greek depictions of women, especially in terms of how the Amazons were depicted (mostly in vases but also statuary) as an orientalised other, mounted warriors shown in the same terms of Scythians or Thracians, just as the Maenads were shown as worshippers of an asiatic cult. The permanent collection is somewhat sidelined, but it does have an excellent collection of glass wares and a beautiful gold crown of leaves.

The following day is taken up with a rather preditactable visit to Schloss Neuschwanstein. It’s one of those uncomfortable moments that remind you that you are a tourist and not just a visitor, as you join the crowds thronging their way to this remote castle. The landscape here is certainly beautiful with the old castle of Hohenschwangau overlooking a swan lake circumbscribed by mountains. The new castle lies halfway up one of these mountains and is reachable through a surprisingly gentle path that twists and turns on its way up. I’m interested in part in the rather tragic story of King Ludwig (partly a case study as to the medievalist ideals of Ruskin or Wagner being put into practice, partly the archetypal story of the persecuted gay aesthete) and in another part in the medievalist architecture. Created by a theatrical set designer rather than an architect, Neuschwanstein combines Ludwig’s preferred romanesque arches with a design that is gothic overall, a fantasia on a middle ages that never existed. The interior is characterised by a horror of emptiness, with every surface painted, patterned and decorated. Wagner’s operas form the basis for a series of frescos throughout the various rooms, with the swans from Lohengrin forming a leitmotif throughout (although the lion forms the basis of the Bavarian crest and mythical creatures like dragons appear to guard stairwells) in tapestries, frescos and porcelain. The throne room is an odd combination of Romanesque and Byzantine, depicting historical monarchs and christian allegories alike on its walls. By contrast, the furniture in later rooms is pure gothic, with encrustations of wooden crockets abounding. The Singer’s Hall rather perversely reminds me of Wren’s Greenwich Hospital where the main hall also culminates in a wall sized fresco, here of Klingsor’s magic garden.

This essentially concludes my visit to Munich and from here a long train journey follows to Dresden. The countryside gradually changes from fir trees and hills to something that more closely resembles England (I do wonder whether Germany actually has an agricultural sector; all I can see being grown is Sweetcorn) I feel rather ambivalent about this city. Standing on the Bruhl Terrace and looking at both the Neustadt and Altstadt, it’s easy to understand the glib label of it being the Florence of the North, even if all the spires and towers had long since been blackened by pollution and rather resembles Edinburgh more than Italy. The building is predominantly baroque with some older structures such as the medieval Residence. Bisected like Prague between old and new towns, with the the Bruhl terrace serving the same purpose as London’s embankment, the city is in many ways of maze of sighing bridges and walkways beneath buildings (the terrace was built after the removal of the city fortifications and the casemates remained hidden beneath them; like those in Prague they now contain original versions of statues replaced with copies outside, such as one of the Duke of Moritzburg and the skeletal figure of Death). It soon becomes clear that none of the buildings I can see escaped the firestorm and they are all efforts in conservation and reconstruction; many like the Dreikonigskirche, the Frauenkirche and the Kreuzkirche have left parts of their altars as they were after the firestorm. Some, like the Kreuzkirche appear undamaged on the outside but without any restoration on the interior (although the Kreuzkirche does have a striking renaissance totentanz relief). Others like the Frauenkirche are hyperreal constructs, entirely new buildings that simulate their predecessor. In this case, the interior is filled with paint that replicates marble patterns and has a pastel quality that I suspect is toned down from what it would would have been. I’m equally unclear if trompe l’oeil paint is a restoration or a substitute for certain architectural features. Perhaps because I have never seen a new baroque church before (nor ever will again), I’m struck at how kitsch it is; it seems to need the patinia of age. I also find myself preferring the blackened towers to the gleaming cream of the new Frauenkirche. Equally, much of the city was never reconstructed after the Seond World War and instead saw the building of various Soviet building blocks (many of which have become hotels now). A rather grim statue of a female worker stands in front of the town hall and the Kulturpalast in the city centre is a depressing rectangle with Soviet murals on its facade. It rather resembles the late and unlamented Palast Der Republik in Berlin. Nor are many of the gleaming glass and steel buildings that have been errected since the Wende much of an improvement, although I do get the impression of greater prosperity than I had recalled seeing in my earlier visit to Leipzig. While I do see derelict villas in the suburbs that were never rebuilt after the war, I also see several that either have been or are being reconstructed.

Inevitably, I begin at the Zwinger Palace, with its satyr caryatids, reliefs of Perseus and St George and carillion chimes. The Porcelain museum here is rather better than its Munich counterpart, explaining the symbolic significance of much of the imagery (washing a white elephant meaning to wash away the delusions of the world). Augustus the Strong described himself as having a ‘maladie du porcellaine’ even bartering his troops for porcelain; the museum includes rooms containing white porcelain representations of animals, from rhinos ane elephants to peacocks, an attempt to model the world in porcelain. Much of the afternoon is taken with Dresden Gemaldegallerie. The Italian section is notable for Messina’s semi-pornographic depiction of Saint Sebastian, some Venetian nightscenes by Canaletto and a number of Belotto paintings of Dresden itself, showing the original Kreuzkirche and its demolition. Once again though, it’s the Ditch and Flemish section that interests me; a Valckenborch painting of the Tower of Babel similar to the Brueghel, Brill and Savery’s paintings of ruins, Rembrandt’s portraits of his wife, a Vermeer painting of a girl reading a lette (the orginal had a representation of Cupid to make the meaning clear, which Vermeer removed) and Ruisdael landscapes. The German section has a number of Cranach and Holbein portraits and a ruin painting by Klengel. I also visit the Green Cabinet in the Dresden Residence; a series of rooms holding a royal wunderkammer, that ranges from amber and gold to mother of pearl, coral, nautilus shells, ostrich eggs and coconuts. There are a few other structures that seem noteworthy; a gilded gold statue of Augustus in the Neustadt, a Japanese palace with mandarins as caryatids and a police headquarters decorated with bat and owl gargoyles.

The following day is taken up with a trip to Moritzburg and a walk around the Baroque castle. Situated in the middle of a lake, it’s a peaceful walk around the lakeside woods and reed beds. A number of geese vociferously demand bread. As one might expect from an inflated hunting lodge, the interior has few walls without stag antlers and with many paintings following suit. Much of the walls are decorated with an embossed leather that has not weathered well, lending a rather sad aspect to the interior belied by the vivid orange of the exterior. I’m rather taken with the idea of a palace having a ‘Hideous Hall’ decorated with mythological scenes. Walking back through the grounds to Faisanderie, a pink lodge surmounted with a mandarin that nods in the wind. In conventional baroque form, the Faisanderie exists in a stright line from one wall of the castle, although the stream that leads down this path suffers from its fountain being damaged and is simply a low pool filled with reed and lilies where dragonflies go back and forth. The final folly I see is a lighthouse, painted to represent the lines of pink bricks on plaster. The building leans out onto another tranquil lake and again seems to resemble a pagoda as much as a conventional lighthouse. Returning to Dresden, the evening is spent at an organ concert in the Frauenkirche; Vierne, Durufle, Franck and Messiaen.

Changing trains again, this time a shorter journey back to Berlin. My original visit to Berlin had been the subject of a depressing journey to Leipzig through derelect factories and abandoned villas. Some of this remains but rather less so; I’m unclear if the difference is my own memory, the elapsed time or greater prosperity in Dresden than Leipzig. Berlin itself remains an anomaly. As a capital is seems rather empty, with the punks loitering around graffiti covered streets reminding one of London in the seventies. In many respects, it’s a pleasant, elegant city of green spaces and wide boulevards. The S-Bahn system is now one of the most modern and impressive in Europe and far preferable to the London Underground. On the other hand, much of the city remains an odd mixture of grey housing blocks from the Soviet era, often placed directly alongside gleaming corporate buildings, neither of which engage me much. Alexanderplatz, with its cheerless combination of dun coloured communist kitsch and skyscrapers is especially unengaging. On the other hand, the reconstruction of the city has been rather more thorough than that in London (I eagerly await the plans to demolish the Barbican and Southbank), with a few concrete towers now being all that remains of the Palast Der Republik while construction is underway nearby to rebuild Schinkel’s Bauakademie.

The initial days are clouded with dark skies and rain, so I retreat to the Gemaldegallerie. The pattern of my responses is essentially familiar by now, with a mixed response to the medieval works becoming more affirmative to the later works. The medieval German section does have a Cranach work that I haven’t encountered before, The Fountain of Youth. I wonder if this isn’t an allegory of the resurrection but the painting seems equally ‘readable’ as a hymn to the joys of youth and the flesh. As often I find myself most drawn to the portraits against the legions of anonymous saints; Holbein’s The Merchant Georg Gisze or Fiorentino’s Portrait of a Young Man. I also find myself warming to Brugehel’s The Dutch Proverbs (vernacular rather than sacred wisdom) and Bosch’s St John of Patmos a painting whose realism is interrupted by the appearance of a strange creature opposite a raven. Later Dutch paintings that stand out for me include Vermeer’s The Glass of Wine and several Ruisdael landscapes, as well as a more unusual view of the Damplatz in Amsterdam. The Italian section includes a number of more pagan Botticelli paintings than I had seen earlier in the visit, a painting of Venus by Titian, a capriccio from Canaletto showing a ruined baldachin and an interesting veduta scene from Martini. The Spanish section is immediately notable for a pair of Caravaggios, including Amor as Victor. I also briefly visit the Hamburger Bahnhof; a former train station turned modern art gallery, with a small collection of Rauschenberg collages and Warhols.

This is then followed by a visit to the Bodesmuseum. Shut during my last visit, I found myself impressed by the interior; the Radcliffe Camera style dome houses an equestrian statue of one of the Prussian monarchs while a central hall is cast in the form of a basilica, housing Maiolica works from various Italian churches. The exhibition is perhaps less interesting; much of the medieval sculpture seems clumsy and cartoonish, although two saints depicted in clothes coated with gold leaf and elaborate top hats strikes an odd and pleasant contrast. The same applies to a loaned kunstkammer with an elaborate gold statue around whose feet crawl jewelled beetles and a variety of ivory and amber capriccios. The best section is dedicated to the Byzantine; beautifully decorated sarcophagi and the apse mosaic from a Ravenna church. A nearby section is dedicated to Coptic textiles and funerary work. The Altes Museum was also shut during my last visit; organised around a central rotunda Schinkel had clearly designed to remind one of the Pantheon, the lower section is dedicated to Greek and Roman exhibits that are new to me. Highlights here include a bronse statue of Antinous as Bacchus, a praying boy statue formerly owned by Frederick the Great and a bowl depicting a satyr orgy that made the Warren Cup seem restrained. The upper floor is the Egyptian section I had seen in its former home in Charlottenberg, so I recall exhibits like the Bust of Nefertiti and the Fayum mummy paintings (though I’m not sure I recall the Meroitic section or the sheer number of Mummy masks). I also revisit the Altes Nationalgallerie, part of which had previously been shut; such as the Canova and Thorvaldsen sculptures.

The skies briefly clear the following day and I walk down Unter Den Linden from the Brandenburg gate to Alexanderplatz. I recall buildings like Humboldt University and the State Library but I also decide to detour and see Gendarmenmarkt, with its symmetrical cathedrals and opera house. I then stop at the Schinkel Museum, a redbrick gothic church that could have passed for a gothic revival structure from the typically classicist architect. The interior is rather eerie for its absence of pulpit and pew; instead various marble statues are scattered about, from artists like Thorvaldsen, Schadow and Christian Daniel Rauch. The nearby Neue Wache with its austere classicism and tomb-like interior is entirely different again, especially in the environs of the Schlossbrucke with its elaborate statues and wrought iron seahorses. Reaching Alexanderplatz, one finds oneself underneath the towering bulk of the Fernsehrturm, easily Berlin’s tallest structure, which dwarfs the Nikolaikirche and the Marienkirche underneath it. The interior of the latter provides quite interesting; gleaming white gothic sheltering elaborate tomb monuments. The Weltzeituhr is easily the best thing in Alexanderplatz; I certainly find myself unimpressed with the continued presence of the statues of Marx, Engels and Leibknecht, which should have all been exiled to a historical theme park long ago.

A visit to the Neue Synagogue proves a mixed experience; although the exterior has been beautifully reconstructed the interior has not, thwarting my expectation of something similar to the synagogues I had seen in Prague. The exhibition inside documents the guilding of the synagogue as a part of the reform movement, its place in the history of Jewish life in Berlin, the murder of that community and the dereliction of the building. There’s something similar with the Kaiser Willhelm Memorial Church, now twinned with Coventry Cathedral. The ruin is shut during my visit although I can see some rather fine mosaics and marble statues through the windows. The modern church, containing the Stalingrad Madonna, is open and although a rather ugly box from the exterior is awash with blue light inside. Amongst other destinations during my trip, I visit the Oberbaumbrucke (mostly a desire stemming from having seen Lola Rennt) and the Saint Matthias Churchyard (which is nowhere near the church of that name, which resides in the Kulturforum). Containing the graves of the Brothers Grimm and Von Stauffenberg, many of the monuments are rather generic and could as easily be found in London, but I am struck by a tomb that contains a white marble statue of the deceased, only just visible in the gloom of the interior, various monuments in verdigris encrusted copper and an art deco statue wreathed in ivy. I also note that grave of Napoleon Seyfarth and his lover, their grave marked with two arrows emblazoning their homosexuality. Another grave has a rainbow flag on it.

There were various good restaurants during my visit, including Jewish, Persian, Czech, Cambodian, Uzbek (boar ghoulash) and Russian as well as German meals like blood and liver sausage with one litre tankards of dark beer.