Sunday, 14 July 2013

Collectors strong and fat

If ever you want a deflating and painfully funny outline of history, turn to Simon Winder, whose Germania I not only treasured at the time but also turned back to more recently as an alternative guidebook while we were in Dresden and Berlin.  Winder begins his Saxon rhapsody thus:

It is conventional in histories of Germany at this point to start talking about Prussia so that everyone can start gibbering and rolling their eyes with fear. Instead I thought I would write about Saxony.

He continues: 

The fundamental pleasure of Saxony lies in its hopelessness. It is as characteristically German as Prussia and yet as a political entity it failed in all it did. Saxony's history appears somewhat marginal, and yet this is the place that gave us Schumann, Wagner and Nietzsche. Despite woeful frivolity, insanity and misamanagement it clung on to its independence, never quite going under , until the last wholly unmourned king abdicated at the end of the First World War. At least while within the confines of Saxony it is possible to think of an alternative Germany - wayward, self-indulgent and inept in a way that gives hope to us all.

'Woeful frivolity' is incarnated in the personage of Friedrich August, Augustus II the Strong, who may have made the skyline of Dresden what it is today but who also, in Winder's inimitable words, 'embroiled Poland in disastrous wars [as its king, bizarrely converted to Catholicism], frittered money away on bits of amber and ivory, fathered over 300 children [si non e vero...], did a party-piece involving tearing a horseshoe apart with his bare hands, and left Saxony helpless and indebted to an eye watering degree'. It comes as no surprise to find him gilded on his horse, an appropriate image of hubris which we encountered with crescent moon behind it on a balmy summer evening stroll over to the Neustadt.

Yet we now have to thank Augustus the Strong for his obsession with the curious, and his 'pitiful' successor August III the Fat for his incredible assemblage of great paintings which forms the backbone of one of the world's finest collections, the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. He it was who in 1765 commissioned Bernardo Bellotto, nephew of Canaletto and happy to take his uncle's name, to paint the most futuristic-looking amon g that artist's often conventional views. Pictured up top, it represents the unintentionally prophetic demolition of  the Church of the Crucifixion's demolition on a site where now stands the Church of the Holy Cross in the Altes Marktplatz, around which sandbags still lay deposited a week after the floods.

Anyway, I digress. You can't get much more 1945 than such a painting.

I'd been to the Gemäldegalerie in 1990, of course. But since then Dresden's state museums organisation, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, has created several more of the world's best museums. It was a sentence about the 'headspinning Green Vault'  in Winder which made me keen, even on a day when we might have basked in the sun on the banks of the Elbe, that we should all visit the Neues Grünes Gewölbe in the Residenzschloss.

We first had to surmount some confusion over which ticket to buy; there seemed to be a separate one for the reconstructed vault itself, a main one for its major treasures and other collections. Clearly we had to see the extravagant and pointless masterpiece of August the Strong's chief goldsmith, the Swabian Johannes Melchior Dinglinger, The Birthday of the Grand Mogul Augungzeb.

I don't know what you can glean from this, one of the images the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen supplied me on request and all (I'm assuming, for some are creditless) taken by Jürgen Karpinski. The devil of 'woeful frivolity' is in the detail: 137 enamelled figures covered in 5,000 diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls. There's also a hideous coffee set and plenty of what Winder calls 'repulsive little statues of dwarves'. Other regal donors had little more taste: Peter the Great  gifted a large sapphire in the form of a nose. Overshadowing the Lilliputian court in terms of expense is the green diamond for which Augustus III paid 400,000 thalers in 1742, now set in an agraffe (that's a clasp, for those of you who like me had never head the word before)..

This was the crowning glory in the route round the rooms as we took it. I think I preferred most of what was in the first, though, all around the late 16th-early 17th century mark and already tumbling into mannerism. Here's Daphne as a drinking vessel by Abraham Jannitzer of Nuremberg, coral serving as the laurel branches which mark her metamorphosis.

Much in this room would really come to life if the museum had a little more imagination to provide demonstrations once or twice a day. One such is the rolling-ball clock with supposedly revolving Roman emperors made by Hans Schlottheim in 1600. Again, the beauty is in the detail, so I apologise for the long shot.

There are also intriguing fripperies like the automatic spider of Tobias Reichel - what wouldn't you give to see this in operation? -

and the celebrated cherry stone of 1589 which, flanked by gold, enamel and pearl, is viewed under a magnifying glass so you can make out the 185 heads carved on it.

In spite of all this folly, much of the goldsmiths' work is extremely beautiful and artistic. I loved the wall mirror with Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the globe-shaped goblet held up by Hercules, some stunningly wrought ewers and basins. And there are quite a few handsome frigates like this one dated 1620 by Jakob Keller of Dresden.

The eye eventually tires of such opulence, but there's enough contrast to keep the interest alive for longer than usual in a museum trawl (I admired the Venetian reticulated glass in the third room, for instance). Even so, we had to give it a break and walked a fair way for lunch on the extraordinary roof terrace of the Yenidze Tobacco Factory - but that's for another time. Suffice it to say that we returned for more than an hour to the glories of the Turkish campaigns on the floor above the Neues Grünes Gewölbe, and were especially dazzled by the designs on the enormous tents, again sumptuously displayed and glowing in the near-darkness.

On, then, to Day Two in Dresden and back to the Gemäldegalerie in the Zwinger Palace. It's awaiting a big revamp, but so far the big grand room you reach first seems to have been sensitively relit and ordered. Raphael's celebrated Sistine Madonna, with the most reproduced winged putti in the world, naturally dominates, though I was pleased to see the two Dosso Dossis either side of it. These, like a very large percentage of the Italian renaissance collection including a Saint Sebastian of Antonello da Messina very different from the exquisite miniature portraits we saw in Sicily,

seem to have been acquired by Fat Augustus from Modena, also the source of some large-scale Correggios (the artist's least attractive work to me). He bought pictures from dealers all over Europe, and his taste - at least in the pictures on show - seems to have been catholic and yet discriminating. Mostly because of that, the Gemäldegalerie seems to have almost as much a representation of all the great artists, at least up to the 1750s, as the National Gallery. There's a Van Eyck to rival the one in Berlin (the saint's wings on the left are especially beautiful)

and two relatively early Vermeers, one characteristic

and the other not (how drawn one is in a room to the yellow of the Procuress's blouse).

The Guercino Evangelists are all outstanding, and once you hit the Titian room with the gallery's other most famous painting, the reclining Venus, a wealth of portraits unfolds over the next three rooms. Statesmen by Tintoretto and Titian

are followed by three great Holbein heads for the price of two, quite overshadowing for me the famous Dürer portrait of Bernhard von Reesen. In this room there's also a haunting face by an artist I'd never heard of, Barthel Beham)

and even among the host of Cranachs young and old there's an outstanding pair of portraits of two hard-looking nobles, Lord and Lady Macbeth to the life.

As it's Rembrandt's 407th birthday today (15/7) - Google, of all things, doodlingly reminds us - I ought to balance hard with soft and J's favourite picture in the collection, of Saskia with a flower.

Once past the Bellottos - and I think I'm right in saying there are some pictures by the real Canaletto too -  on the next floor, Fat Augustus's sway gives out, along with my interest in the eras concerned, but unflinching self-portraits by Mengs and Rosalba Carriera keep it lively. And then you come out in to the Zwinger courtyard, and realise how many thousand tourists have given one of the greatest galleries in the world a miss. Their loss. Augustus the Fat bequeathed an artistic treasure-house to the world. He also, according to Winder, carried on the tradition of 'political infantilism' by destroying Poland and reducing Saxony 'to a nullity'. I'll leave you Winder's judgment as postlude.

Germany's 20th century fate was not as Wilhelm II and Hitler believed it to be: to follow in the footsteps of Frederick the Great. Instead Germany followed in the footsteps of August III the Fat and his successors and was  beaten, devastated, occupied and partitioned, having twice entirely misunderstood the forces and resources arrayed against it. Perhaps Saxony is a more striking model for the anxious appraisal of German behaviour in the modern era and a much less harmless one than first seemed the case.


David Damant said...

I am not sure that memory is still on her throne but I think that the "Canalettos" at Dresden are by his nephew Belotto, who travelled around central Europe trading on the name of his famous uncle and painting the scenes his uncle painted, of Venice etc. They were labelled Canaletto when I visited in 1968 ( also at Warsaw on various dates) but I would have thought that by now they would have been renamed. Also, having seen elsewhere the pictures of Belotto when he freed himself from the self imposed tutelage and painted in other ways, I would judge that he is a greater artist than his uncle.

And, if I also remember correctly, the first building put together amongst the ruins was the picture gallery.

David said...

Quite right, and I've modified one later sentence because I'm fairly sure that in the room next to the Bellottos are some authentic Canalettos. Some of that artist's earlier pictures have the same restricted palette and slightly more realistic approach of his nephew (ie the 'Mason's Yard' in the National Gallery).

The Zwinger Palace was indeed restored quickly but when I first went, all the putti on the balustrades were down for cleaning. I gather it's the iron in the Saxon sandstone which turns it black.

wanderer said...

That's incredibly beautiful work David; it feels just as if one were there! How fantastic is that photo of Augustus and the crescent moon hanging in the ink night sky - and I got a bit tingly seeing that outrageously beautiful, and rather camp, Daphne and the sheer extravagance of thought, not to mention the sheer extravagance of the Green Diamond. There is something intoxicating about such indulgence, as pointless as it may seem, if not a wicked waste, manifestly an accumulation to nothing more than obscure the fear of being discovered, now or hereafter, the lesser and not the greater.

As you know, K ensured day two was a day of replenishment; we'd be 'at it' for weeks by then, which simply means that Dresden is there for the return, perhaps as early as next year, who knows. I have backtracked to your piece on Winder, and like his cheeky humour and need, sorely, his perepective. I'll be the better for it next time. Germania is on its way.

Laurent said...

Will and I always say we will return to Dresden and we almost went this year, had it not been for ill health.

All those treasures are gaudy but so much fun to look at because many are silly, Princes with too much money.

The last time we were in Dresden in 1999 the Zwinger was in a state of flux much of it closed and the putti in the yard etc... Would like to see it redone, recent photos appear to show that much work has been done.

David said...

Thanks, both. I think I incline more to wanderer's sense of wonder at the gaudy but oh so beautifully crafted. I did feel like a child in a sweetshop - the cabinet of curiosities surely brings out the kid in all of us.

And I'm so glad the Kunstsammlungen people provided those pics, especially in the absence of several significant postcards (which in themselves are becoming rarer). Dealings with Dresdeners on the hunt for images were always especially friendly, I should add.

Susan Scheid said...

As with Faberge eggs, I have a schizophrenic reaction to the works on display here. Too much money, and what suffering was going on elsewhere, I can't help but think--and at the same time, the pieces you display are enticing, no question. I found the Saint Sebastian quite interesting--so delicately pierced, not the usual blood-letting. Where I have no hesitation or split mind, though, is on the subject of Winder's Germania. Such a hilarious and irreverent, while at the same time knowledgeable book.

David said...

Indeed, Sue, we need Winder's witty and light view of German history as a corrective to all that's written in the Dresden guidebooks, where there's no whiff of criticism about the Strong.

David Damant said...

I fear that I must enter two qualifications to Susan's remarks. We can all agree, I think, that the contents of the Green Vault are OTT, and often in bad taste, but in general beautiful things should be created even if there is poverty elsewhere. Obviously a balance should be struck, and Dresden shows the wrong balance, but if nothing is spent on beauty and elegance until poverty and suffering are eliminated the world - we - will be - well the conventional phrase is " the poorer" but that is not strong enough.

As for Winder he may be amusing and hits validly at some false icons but he is often unreliable. I read the extracts David included in his blog very carefully and could not find a fault - so Winder is not always bad !! Unfortunately the truth in history can only be approached ( never reached) by long and complex texts

David said...

Agreed - it's the Princess Casamassima situation again (I do recommend everyone to read that underrated mid-period James novel). But there's a gulf between the Strong's knick-knacks and the Fat's stupendous picture collection. That said, I was as I wrote bewitched like a child at all those sparkly things. The sheer excess of objects, though, could be nauseating (did AII need ANOTHER ruby-encrusted dwarf?)

Susan Scheid said...

David and David D: Agreed, also, that "in general beautiful things should be created even if there is poverty elsewhere." Without art, after all, all our lives are impoverished, and what's the point in that? It's the out-of-balance aspect ("the sheer excess of objects," per David) that gave me pause, even as I was dazzled by the display. Well, what is life but a bundle of contradictions, eh?

David Damant said...

I have read comment on Henry James that his novels represent the stages James I, James II (mid-period ?) and the Old Pretender. More recently I read that in his later years James revised ( some say messed about with) some of his novels, so that in a sense one can see why he could be referred to as the Old Pretender.

For those not familiar with the ins and outs of the Stewart dynasty, King James II was thrown off the throne in 1688 and after his (earlyish) death his son was the pretender to the thrones of England and Scotland. He was called the Old Pretender to distinguish him from his son who eventually became the Young Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie) Like all the Stewarts they were absolutely hopeless. Although Charles I was good at collecting art

So the remarks about Henry James were rather witty.

Susan Scheid said...

David D: As is this remark of yours: "He was called the Old Pretender to distinguish him from his son who eventually became the Young Pretender (Bonnie Prince Charlie) Like all the Stewarts they were absolutely hopeless. Although Charles I was good at collecting art." I want to say the breezy wit is worthy of Winder, but I know that might give you pause. So I'll just say the breezy wit of DD here had me laughing out loud.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I'm seeing a new post of yours come up in my feed, but not here. It's one I sure don't want to miss, so I'm hoping that you posted, then pulled it back, and it's still to come??

David said...

Exactly so. All will be revealed after tomorrow night which (clue) is the first concert performance of Strauss's Capriccio at the Royal Opera. I am eating certain words about La Fleming...

Susan Scheid said...

Can't wait! Meanwhile, interlibrary loan has come up with the Poulenc letters, and another book you'd noted sometime back. Got a lot of reading to do, including your post just up now! (Speaking of reading, feel under NO obligation even to try this, but I did think of an Ashbery poem that you might find intriguing. It's perhaps his most lauded, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which takes as its inspiration the Parmigianino portrait of the same name. I have made a mental note to go back to it myself. I won't pretend to you that I've grasped it, but that doesn't stop me from going off into a nice little reverie when I read it.)

David said...

I promise to look that up - in fact, to BUY a volume of Ashbery poems because I reckon the look of poetry on a printed page is so important.

Parallel is an author people love or hate, the Austrian Thomas Bernhard, and his Old Masters, a novel about an old man who sits in front of a Tintoretto portrait in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and ruminates on his misanthropy. Very repetitive in a way that can drive you mad, and all in one long paragraph, but it's like nothing else I've read.

Willym said...

How I regret that we had to cancel our trip to Dresden - now doubly so having read your entry. Our trip there back in 1998 was one of the unexpected hidden joys of travel.

As I recall much was under construction - the Frauenkirche was only half rebuilt though the spire cross, given by Great Britain, had been dedicated the year before. The Grünes Gewölbe was housed in the Albertinum along with some really splendid modern exhibits. I'm surprised you didn't remark on my favourite piece in that wonderfully over the top array of bling:

Well if I could not be there in person to experience the wonders of that remarkable city first hand at least I am there through your words and pictures. Many thanks dear guide.

David said...

Herrgott, das ist so gross! I looked at the tubby chap in the cart (from days of your blog, I think, before we became acquainted). Not so different from what's purveyed in certain knickyknack shops today, though the materials and the craftsmanship are, to put it mildly, not so fine. That's one among the dwarves and court jesters.