Monday, December 29, 2008

Kleidung cle√er kaufen

A weekly newspaper is a treasure trove of potential content for my blog. Helmut Schmidt is celebrating his 90th birthday. A film of Thomas Mann's novel "The Buddenbrooks" has just premiered at the Litchburg in Essen. The latest from David Sedaris has just come out in translation and is well received in an entertaining review. But I'm drawn to this story: German clothing discounter, Kik, has clothing racks that look like swastikas. It's the kind of story I can really sink my teeth into.

Apparently it all started innocently enough when a father and son team went into the Kik branch in Albersdorf, considerably north of Essen. The 13 year old son was studying National Socialism in school and he remarked to his father as they passed the pants department, "Guck mal Papa, hier sind überall Hakenkreuze!" (Look Dad, there are swastikas all over the place here.) Dad sent a letter to Kik and requested that they remove the swastikas from their stores, only to be told by return mail that the objects in question are not swastikas. They are Winkelständer (angled racks.)

This is one of those simple stories that inadvertently gives us real insight into some very complex concepts. In this case, we get an inside look at current thinking in Germany about the Nazi past and the free, democratic state that Germany has become. These clothing racks are indeed in the shape of a swastika. German law does forbid the representation of the Hakenkreuz. But I also agree with the store manager, who says, "Ach, das sind nur unsere Winkelständer." He goes on to point out the advantages of the Winkelständer: you can fit more stock on them, customers find them convenient and according to the manager, "They look so nice when they're all in row." Does society really have anything to fear from such a fine and useful object?

I visited Bonn's Haus der Geschichte just a few days ago (a fabulous museum dedicated to the history of Germany since WWII that allows objects to tell their own story: I highly recommend it) and viewed a fascinating exhibition about Germany's relationship with its national symbols. The Kik Clothing Rack Affair wasn't part of the show, but it would have fit right in. Within the context of a national history museum, presumably the ban on Nazi symbols is lifted and among the items displayed were individual tart forms with the swastika at their center. Seeing those objects was pivotal for me and I don't think this society would be better if censors were denying us the experience. I find the story about the Winkelständer equally insightful and I believe the dialog over Kik and its clothing racks going on now in the Landeskriminalamt in Kiel is probably a healthy one that will lead to some deeper understanding of what we fear about the Nazi symbols. Probably this particular application of the swastika form is completely harmless, but then again, take a look at the little Logo/Mascot for the Kik store: is that a Hitlergruß he's making? Hmmm... maybe I'll just buy my pants at H&M.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Things are hectic here in the days before Heiliger Abend and Weihnachten. I started this morning in the neighborhood with a haircut and then a search for an appropriate Christmas tree at Edeka. The Florastrasse square was manned with Jehovah's Witnesses handing out Wachtturm! (not many takers) and our standard accordion player. Our accordion player is the best in a city that's got a surfeit and I take some pride in that fact. I'm not sure why.

I spent some time at the Folkwang Museum today too and since they're under construction, they're suffering from a lack of visitors. Their response to the problem is a giant " O P E N " sign that made me mistake the museum for an American supermarket. It's a particularly awkward sign since they leave it up all the time, i.e. when they are, in fact, closed. The sign doesn't detract from an excellent exhibition of modern photography and some appropriately confounding videos.

I also went through the downtown and took some parting shots of the Weihnachtsmarkt. I read an interesting article this morning in Die Zeit about Weihnachtsmärkte in general and learned that they are all the rage in the UK. Apparently, cities there are contracting with German cities to provide them with a complete Weihnachtsmarkt package. In Birmingham, a seriously multicultural city, residents whose parents came from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc. are now really into the Gemütlichkeit. The trend sounds great to me, even though chewing on a smoked eel in the cold isn't really my style. I don't mind being in the minority.

I hope the readers of Forschungsjahr and Vitrine will have a happy and healthy holiday season and a great new year. We've got a full schedule here for the holidays and I may even get to taste Lebkuchen. I'll be back with a report in 2009.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Eine Tintenwelt

The central theme in Tintenblut, a book I'm currently listening to on CD, is the yearning to travel to a magical parallel world, despite the difficulties and dangers present there. It's a paradox I can relate to as I experience the winter solstice here in Essen. When I meet people here in Germany, they always ask me where I'm from and what brought me here. They're often surprised to find out that I'm an American who has chosen to live here in the Ruhrgebiet for a year. In fact, they all ask me the same question: "Why?"

It's a question I've been asking myself a lot lately. I left my Wohnung on my way to the studio yesterday at 7:30 am. and faced a cold, wet, dark, foggy world. I leave almost everyday in darkness and come home in darkness. Back in Utah, where I live when I'm not on sabbatical, the sun shines almost every day. There comes a time when you have to ask yourself, "What in fact am I doing here?"

One of the things I've been doing this past week is reading the second in a series of three books by Cornelia Funke that I mentioned above. These books are intended for children or young adults, but I'm an old adult and I'm still finding Tintenblut very compelling. I read the first in the series, Tintenherz, a few years ago and it was slow going. I tend to read at night and that means I fall asleep a lot while I'm reading. The book moves pretty slowly when you're only managing about three pages a night and I never reached critical mass with it.

Now I'm "reading" the second book on CD while I paint and it makes a big difference. I'm enjoying the novel, which, like the other two books in the trilogy is based on a simple, compelling and inventive premise: that a skilled reader can cross the border from our world to the world of the story that he or she reads aloud. I wanted to see if her books are known in the English speaking world and with a little research (meaning that I stumbled around on-line searching Wikipedia and Google) I discovered that not only are the books known, but that Frau Funke was chosen by Time magazine in 2005 as one if the year's 100 most influential people. The only other German named was Cardinal Ratzinger (or Papa Ratzi, as he is known in some circles here in Deutschland,) who was later named as Pope. Not bad company for a children's book author.

I'm curious to know how many readers the Tintenwelt books have found in the English speaking world (where they are know as Inkheart, Inkspell and Inkdeath) and I've decided to use the blog poll feature that Blogger so kindly provides. I know it's sort of gimmicky, but I'm told blog content consumers like their experience to be interactive. We'll see. Check the side bar for the poll and I'll continue with Tintenblut. It's the perfect book for another dark, cold, wet day in the studio. Cornelia Funke is busy working on the screen plays for a series of films based on the books and she'll be experiencing the solstice in sunny southern California. With the success of her novels she presumably has the resources to live wherever she wants. When she meets fellow expatriates strolling the pier in Santa Monica, I doubt if anyone has to ask, "Why?"

Saturday, December 13, 2008


As an artist who's spent most of his adult career teaching on a university campus, I've never before had the luxury of spending so much time in the studio. It's giving me a very different experience of my own work and allowing me to notice patterns in the process that I've never focused on before. As I mentioned in a previous posting, the method I use to begin a painting has a long tradition. Like Rembrandt and his contemporaries, I begin all my paintings with thin layers of paint with very little oil in them. It's a process that offers many advantages. It allows a painter to block out simple shapes quickly and get a sense of how they might relate to one another. It could be compared to the process of outlining a writer might use, and it forces the painter to work from general to particular. There's also a very practical advantage, in that oil paint layers are very stable when the "fattest" layers (the ones with the most oil in them) are on top of the "leanest" layers.

Unlike Rembrandt, my underpaintings don't focus on value, or light/dark contrast, but rather on hue contrast. I don't give any thought to value as I begin a painting, but instead try to pick an underpainting color that will be complementary (in the color theory sense, meaning "opposite") to the color I expect will go on top later. That much I've always been aware of, but my increased time in the studio has shown me that my preference for an emphasis on hue early on in the paintings tends to encourage a relationship between hue and value that is parallel to a chord progression and melody in music. I set the pattern of hue relationships early on and they are like the chords. Value contrast comes later in my work and functions like the melody.

This relationship is reversed in the work of many other artists. In fact, I often present students with an assignment in which they are required to use three basic values as a chord progression and fit hues into that structure. It's an interesting process and one that dominated pictorial organization until artists like Monet, Matisse and Andre Derain came along.

I'm photographing my work at various stages in order to document this process. I've got an idea at the back of my mind that I might be able to apply this in my painting classes when I get back to the grind at Utah State. The paintings I'm showing in this posting aren't complete, so I can't show you the results yet, but when they are finished, I'll be posting them on my "gallery" site, VITRINE, as I will do with all the work I'm doing during this sabbatical year.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Comparison of the sociodemographic features of Amer/Germanohand injuries

When I talk with other Americans about our respective experiences in Germany, they often mention things I have little or no experience with. Schloss Neuschwanstein comes up a lot, Oktoberfest... Lederhosen. German Christmas celebration seems to be prominent in the American consciousness too, and all the Teutonic stuff that comes with it: Lebkuchen, real candles on the tree, Spekulatius... I always have to play along in these conversations, even though I wouldn't know a piece of Lebkuchen if I tripped over it. I'm always afraid to bring up the things that really strike me about living in Germany. Hand injuries, for example. I'm sure people are injuring their hands all over the world, but there seems to be some kind of epidemic here in Germany, or at least in Essen. If I hang out in Porscheplatz, I might see three or four bandaged hands in the space of 15 minutes. It's really striking.

I realize this is just anecdotal evidence. I suppose it is possible that I'm only imagining it. But I feel there is a remarkable incidence of bandaged hands here in Essen and I'd love to know why. Is this an urban/suburban thing? Does it have to do with the relative social status of the populations I'm comparing? It's common knowledge, I guess, that bivariate analysis has revealed a marked correlation between an individual's socioeconomic parameters and the site of the accident, but how would that explain my observations?

My sabbatical proposal made no mention of research into the frequency of bodily injuries and it's unlikely my observations will lead to significant funding when I return to to Logan. So I should probably just let this go, but I dream of a study comparing net income of a sample population drawn from the US and Germany (after deduction of tax and social security contributions). These data could be used to construct a summary three-level index of social status (the Winkler index) and might shed some light on what for me is a curious aspect of life here in Essen. Then again, maybe I ought to stick to painting. It's probably just simple repetitive motion overuse inflammation from changing the Lederhosen everyday.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Trespassers W

My previous posting, "Denglisch" registered my displeasure with the tide of English sweeping over the German language. An alert reader pointed out to me that German National Socialists made an effort (largely unsuccessful it would seem) to get rid of words in German that stemmed from "unGerman" sources. According to some sources (this one, for example) the Nazis embraced Krummapfel as a substitute for the foreign Banane (banana) and the incredibly absurd, Gesichtserker for Nase (nose.) Does this make me (ugh!) a "speech nazi?"

The Speech Nazis, literal and figurative, want to preserve purity in language. I want to preserve diversity. I fear the monoculture that is being imposed on the world by the unprecedented dominance of the English speaking media and I lament the loss of variety it brings with it. Eisenhower warned us about the military/industrial complex. I'm just as worried about the American entertainment/cultural complex.

When I was eight years old, I spent a lot of my free time copying sections of Winnie the Pooh into a notebook so I could learn them by heart. I still count this book among the finest written. It's quirky and inventive. The writing is self-referential and Milne plays with language in the text in a way that would make it a translator's nightmare†. But there is an excellent translation of A. A. Milne's work into German, made by Harry Rowohlt. Herr Rowohlt preserves the genius of Milne's work in his translation and breathes new life into Pu und Ferkel when he reads aloud. By contrast, when media giant Disney made a "translation" of A. A. Milne's work, they turned it into a sappy mess. It's what happens when something original and particular is converted for a medium that seeks to reach the broadest possible audience. It is reduced to Pablum. Easily digested, even if it provides minimal nourishment. A perfect product for the global Monoculture

Harry Rowohlt is an amazing figure in the German media world. He's an actor, musician, interprets the work of other authors such as Robert Gernhardt and he writes a regular column (Pooh's Corner) for Die Zeit. But what I find most impressive about Rowohlt are his credentials as a translator. He's translated well over eighty books/scripts from English into German, and from whom? Kurt Vonnegut, David Sedaris, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Kenneth Grahame, the Marx Brothers... are we seeing a pattern here? The man has excellent taste. Maybe, you're thinking, he just accepts the assignments given to him by the publisher? Wrong. He owns 49% of Rowohlt Verlag. He writes his own ticket.

As I spread the pages of Die Zeit this morning, I was delighted to find Pooh's Corner in the Feuilleton section. Confusion set in as I came across this sentence at the beginning of the sixth or seventh paragraph:

Morgens in Brenner's (Apostroph nicht von mir) Park Hotel...

The German possessive form is built without an apostrophe, but the trend toward an apostrophe "s," another example of the influence of English, is building and it is at the center of an intense conflict. So what is Rowohlt trying to say with his comment, "apostrophe not mine?" He writes for the cognoscenti and is anything but didactic in his approach, so I'm not sure what to make of this rather dry comment. Assuming he's taken it on the chin in the past for the presence of an apostrophe in the title of his column, maybe he's heading off a flood of protest. Or it could be he's irritated by the presence of the apostrophe in "Brenner's" but feels justified in using it himself, since the column title is in English. In either case, it makes me question my previously rock-solid position on the Americanization of German. Maybe I ought to lighten up. Ultimately, I'm just a guest here and it's not really my business. In the future, I'll try not to stick my Gesichtserker where it doesn't belong.

† The Piglet lived in a very grand house in the middle of a beech-tree, and the beech-tree was in the middle of the forest, and the Piglet lived in the middle of the house. Next to his house was a piece of broken board which had: "TRESPASSERS W" on it. When Christopher Robin asked the Piglet what it meant, he said it was his grandfather's name, and had been in the family for a long time. Christopher Robin said you couldn't be called Trespassers W, and Piglet said yes, you could, because his grandfather was, and it was short for Trespassers Will, which was short for Trespassers William. And his grandfather had had two names in case he lost one—Trespassers after an uncle, and William after Trespassers.

"I've got two names," said Christopher Robin carelessly.

"Well, there you are, that proves it," said Piglet.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Since beginning my sabbatical, I've completed a lot of new work, some of it featured here in the pages of FORSCHUNGSJAHR. I haven't included reproductions of all the new work, because I feel I'd like to include text with most of my postings. There's a paradox here: if I spend time on writing, I have less time for painting and therefore have less new work to post here. I've decided the solution is a second blog where I can post only images with minimal text. If you've been following FORSCHUNGSJAHR, I hope you'll continue, but you may enjoy visiting my new site to see what I've been doing in the studio since July of 2008.