Thursday, February 26, 2009


I'm looking at a map something like this almost every night on the Tageschau, nightly news, in Essen. It shows a thick gray blanket covering all of Germany. Just to be fair, it's covering most of France, Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium, et al. as well. What I have more or less just discovered, is that it isn't covering Spain, or at least not the part of Spain I'm in. Molto bé.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Interiors: update

I've made some progress on the paintings I started last week. They're still far from finished, but I'm getting a sense of where they're going and what the problems are likely to be as I continue work. That work will have to wait though: I'm leaving tomorrow for a week or so in Barcelona.

It's a little frustrating. I remember so clearly seeing images of Barcelona in Señora Doniegnan's Spanish class and thinking how great it would be to travel there one day. It's one of the things that kept me in the class when other students were bailing after they had satisfied the foreign language requirement. Now I'm finally going to Barcelona and I find out they don't really speak Spanish there. Of course Señora Doniegnan can't be blamed. I believe that at the time she was trying to teach me Spanish, Catalan was banned by Franco for official use and aggressively discouraged otherwise. Now, I'm visiting websites to plan the trip and at some of them I can select from up to six different languages in which to load the page. Catalan naturally, but also English, French, German... Spanish isn't an option.

My webpage at is also finally built. I'd love to waste the next five or six days playing with it and uploading images, but I probably won't have time before I leave and I'm not planning to take a computer with me.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Die Ente bleibt draussen

I've never been able to tell a joke properly. For some reason, I simply can't remember the order in which the elements come, or I forget the premise entirely. I remember the punch lines more often than not, but wreck the joke by leaving out the one detail that makes the punch line funny. This was a serious handicap when I was a bartender and I can remember a lot of punch lines from the time, but not the set up. I've been thinking about one of those jokes a lot this year, trying to remember how it went. It was one of those really dark, evil jokes that turn a tragic current event into an opportunity for a cheap laugh. The punch line was, "Sunny, and von Bülow."

It was based on the trial in which Claus von Bülow was found guilty of the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny. He was later acquitted in an appeal and his attorney, Professor Alan Dershowitz, wrote a book about the trial, Reversal of Fortune. Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close played Claus and Sunny respectively, in the film that followed quickly on the heels of the book. I'm thinking about the case now after 30 years because another scion of the von Bülow family is so often in the news here in Germany: Vicco von Bülow, better known under his pseudonym, Loriot. Loriot is a phenomenal performer, artist, writer, and comedian. He's 86 this year and his life's work is being celebrated with museum exhibitions, magazine articles and a good TV documentary, which I watched last night.

Loriot's work, even more than that of other comedy writers and performers, is so closely tied to language, and the German language in particular, that he never made a career outside of the German speaking world. He loves the stiff formality of official German, in German it's called "Amtsdeutsch," and uses it to devastating effect in his work. That work includes TV sketches, film, cartoons, books and live performances. A music lover from an early age, he has even been invited to direct opera performances. Almost everything I've seen from Loriot is based on the tension between a specific use of language, often a formality made possible by the use of Amtsdeutsch, and a situation which is completely at odds with the way language is being used. My personal favorite is Die Herren im Bad. Watch it by following this link to YouTube, but be prepared: if you're not a German speaker, it will probably be a big disappointment. The premise is that a hotel guest climbs into his bath, only to find that it's already occupied by a stranger who has mixed up his room number and entered the wrong room. The two men are faced with a situation that would send most of us running, but they never lose their formality. Take this line for example:

Aber jetzt wissen Sie, dass Sie in einer Fremdwanne sitzen und baden trotzdem weiter.

I am by no means a trained translator, but in my opinion, a sentence like this can't be written in English. And if it could, it certainly wouldn't be funny. In German on the other hand it is a sentence that even if he had never written another word, earns Loriot my undying respect. For economy, it's on a par with the Gettysburg Address. For humor I'd compare it favorably with President Wagstaff's speech to the faculty of Huxley College. That means an eleven on a scale of one to ten.

Loriot has a special appeal to a visual artist, having been educated at the Hamburg Kunstakademie. One of his fellow students was Horst Janssen, another excellent artist not well known outside the German speaking world. Janssen stuck with drawing and painting, but Loriot parlayed an opportunity as a cartoonist for Stern into a career that allowed him to do essentially whatever he wanted. I'm envious and imagine I too could have been a big success if I had just had a chance at directing film or writing for television. But let's face it, I can't even tell a simple joke properly. If anyone remembers the premise for the von Bülow joke, please let me know.

And for those of my readers who are not German speakers, Loriot put together the following sketch which is almost all physical comedy. It needs no explanation.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I'm starting some new paintings this week. Even before I began my sabbatical in July, I had an idea that I wanted to make some paintings that explored unusual light sources. I've already used a couple of subjects that could fit into this category, the black and white television I bought thirty years ago in Madison, WI for example, or the wall mounted circular fluorescent tubes that illuminate the school building my studio is in. Today I began a painting that I hope will feature a space heater as light source. Sometimes characters get pushed out of the paintings as they develop, and the finished work might not have a lot to do with the original idea. But that's fairly rare and I expect the space heater to be in the painting when it’s finished.

The second painting explores an idea that I've always depended on: using the spaces that I live and work in as subject matter. We live unter'm Dach, that is, in the attic Wohnung, so the ceiling is slanted and windows are isolated in dormers. It creates some intriguing reflected light patterns that I can't resist using.

I've been photographing the new paintings at each stage of development and I thought is might be interesting to see them here as a series. The original pencil drawing doesn't show up very well in a photograph, but once I've reinforced the linear structure with very thin oil paint (in ultramarine blue) the drawing is much more visible. Then I apply the thin underpainting that I've written about in a previous post.

Simulating light effects means making illusions and since the beginning of the twentieth century, illusion has had a bad reputation. The logic went something like this: Illusion is not the Truth and everything that isn't the Truth is a Lie. Lies are bad, ergo, Illusion is bad. I was in the Hetjens-Museum in Düsseldorf recently looking at ancient Greek terracotta/black pottery and even in this, the simplest of pictorial strategies, the potters were playing with figure/ground reversals. What this suggests to me is that the artist doesn't create the illusion. It's the viewer who craves a three dimensional understanding of the image. Even when an image is reduced to simple black shapes and red middle tone shapes, we immediately form an object/background relationship. We live in a three-dimensional space and understand every image in those terms. So I don't waste much of my time worrying about whether illusion is evil or acceptable. I'll post some more images of these paintings as they develop.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Anno Domini 946

It's the year Königen Editha died, the first wife of Otto the Great. Otto, you will remember, was Duke of Saxony, and crowned emperor in 962 of what was later called the Holy Roman Empire. Editha was, by all accounts, beloved by her people and is often call heilige Editha although her canonization is unofficial. Since the building of the Magdeburg Cathedral, there has been a sandstone sarcophagus there dedicated to her. Since work on the cathedral was begun in 1209, many years after her death, it has always been assumed that the monument was nothing more than a cenotaph: an empty tomb erected to her memory.

But now the Saxon-Anhalt Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie has a different opinion. According to Rainer Kuhn, in charge of the dig at the cathedral, bones found in the sarcophagus are indeed, probably those of Otto's former queen. He calls the find the most important middle ages discovery of the last decade in Germany, maybe in all of Europe. This sensational find was announced and presented to the world just under two weeks ago, but not in Magdeburg. Instead, the discovery was announced in neighboring Halle. And here the plot thickens.

Magdeburg Mayor, Lutz Trümpter, is furious that the find wasn't announced in his city. Matthias Puhle, chief of the Landesmuseumsverbands is likewise hot under the collar and called the transportation of the bones to Halle, a "Nacht und Nebelaktion" referring here to a code word used by Nazis for secrecy in the transportation of those destined for concentration camps. (The expression gained notoriety when it was used as the title of the French documentary film about the camps, original title, Nuit et brouillard.) Giselher Qaust, (I think it's his real name) the Domprediger in Magdeburg, called the removal of the remains Leichenfledderei which we could translate as grave robbing. Pretty strong Tabak. Have the archaeologists anything to say for themselves?

Jawohl! According to the official press secretary for the dig, the cathedral community was properly informed of the transport. And while the Burgermeister complains that he only learned of the discovery of the remains on January 21, back in Halle, they're saying that the Burgermeister wasn't the least bit interested in the dig. The museum chief Puhle was likewise disinterested and offered no financial support for the project. We'll probably never know the "truth" here, but for me the situation rings a bell. I close my eyes and I see the following all too common scene:

So my money is on the archaeologists. And since they're holding all the cards, or in this case, bones, things will probably go their way. The next step for them will be to analyze the mineral content of the bones and compare it to known samples of people who grew up in Wessex, England as Editha did. If it's a match, then the likelihood that the bones are hers is close to 100%. If not, then it's still a pretty cool cathedral and probably worth a visit when the archaeologists have completed their work, packed up and gone back to Halle.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Das Spardosen Terzett

Friday evening I was at the Grillo Theater here in Essen for a performance of the Spardosen Terzett. Die Spardosen are regulars at the Grillo, where they have a loyal following that enjoys their special blend of music, cabaret, humor and hospitality. They began with a short set of jazz inspired numbers and I was impressed in particular with how complete a trio made up of drums, bass and saxophone could sound. I really felt that the drummer was crucial to the mix. His playing was melodic and filled the gaps in what could have been a very thin sound. After warming up the audience, Die Spardosen introduced their "guests:" Weber-Beckmann, a voice/piano duo that performed in a similar vein, mixing humor with music. As the evening continued, Weber and Beckmann traded sets with the Spardosen and joined them on stage for an interview segment, a quiz (!) and the finale.

I was already familiar with the Spardosen Terzett from a video I saw a while back on YouTube. The song performed in the video spoofs a proposed Ruhr Region slogan that was first made public in March of last year. The slogan seemed so dämlich, I wanted to know more about it and thanks to the miracle of blogging, even almost a year later I can still follow the excitement. From the very first news story in the WAZ, (Westdeutsche Algemeine Zeitung) the facts were wrong. The slogan should read as shown in the image above, but instead was printed as Ruhr Hoch N Team-Work-Capital. Hoch N means "to the nth power" and presumably the problem is that wordprocessing software didn't easily allow newspaper reporters to use a superscript in their text. The second problem, splitting Teamwork into two words and putting in dashes contributed to the wave of negative response that followed. Take a look at the original wordmark and slogan here and I think you'll agree, it loses a lot as it is reported in the news and discussed in the blogs.

When the dust finally settled, the slogan was re-thought by the advertising agency that developed it and the consortium of Ruhr businesses that funded it. It's a small story, but like the introduction of the Chevy Nova in Spanish speaking countries (No va! = doesn't go) it demonstrates how tenuous comprehension can be and how completely situations can spin out of control when we forget to manage the details. As near as I can figure, the slogan is being used in a changed state, but its target audience is international, so I'm not in a position to see it here. You are in a position to see the Spardosen Terzett performing Ruhr Hoch N Team-Work-Capital by clicking here. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


In 1995 I went the Neander Valley, just east of Düsseldorf, to visit the Neanderthal Museum, a museum devoted to a site where fossilized bones of early humans were found in the 19th century by limestone quarry workers. The museum wasn't very impressive, but the reason was that funds were being raised for a new building. In the interim, they were sort of camping out in a very small space. There were, however, well maintained trails around the museum and it seemed only natural to me that one of them must lead to the cave, the original site where the bones were found.

After viewing the very modest artifacts on display, I asked one of the people at the entrance desk where the site was where the bones were found. She looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and said, "Keine Ahnung" (= no idea.) It seemed an inadequate answer for the museum dedicated to the discovery of the first species defined as human other than our own. I assumed she had misunderstood my question. I explained further that I wanted to visit the cave where the bones were originally found. I'd like to hike there with my family. Is it in the area? "I think it must be close," she said, "but I really have no idea where it is. It's probably paved over now."

Huh? they've lost the original Neanderthal site? It seemed incredible but further exploration led me to this story. It details the facts around another set of Neanderthal artifacts that were lost in France. I don't know how the rest of you feel about this, but my faith in archeology was substantially shaken by these revelations. Losing one important Neanderthal artifact is a tragedy. Losing two begins to sound like carelessness.

This past Sunday I went again to Neanderthal, and good news! They've built the new museum building, pictured above. They've also found the original site of the cave, lost during the limestone quarrying that went on there. They also found further artifacts and bones at the site. The bones fit perfectly with the original bones found in 1856. It's a resolution I didn't dare hope for. If you're in the area, I can recommend a visit to the museum. And let's hear it for Ralf Schmitz and Jurgen Thissen, of Germany's Office for the Preservation of Archaeological Monuments who rediscovered the cave. They've really saved the archaeological bacon.