Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Welterbestätten, Rhein und Ruhr

Immediately on my return from Hamburg, we (finally) had a house guest here in Essen. My nephew, Tom, is on Spring Break from the University of Washington and stopped by on his way from Prague to Vienna. You might be wondering if maybe a mandatory course in Geography isn't in order for the Huskies, but in fact, Eurail Passes would seem to make that kind of thinking obsolete. There are two United Nations World Cultural Heritage Sites in our neighborhood: Zeche Zollverein, a really cool coal mine, and the Cologne Cathedral. We decided to bring Tom to both of them.

I get down to Cologne regularly and it's only a short hop from Essen. For this visit I wanted to finally see the new Kolumba Museum. Built on the ruins of St. Kolumba, a church destroyed in World War II, the Kolumba is the art museum of the Christlichen Kunstverein für das Erzbistum Köln. When I was growing up in the diocese of Bridgeport, I don't remember hearing about our Bishop having an art museum, so I was curious about Kolumba. I'd heard that it combines an excellent collection of art from the Middle Ages with both modern and contemporary pieces. But whenever I go to Cologne, it seems I have some business to attend to and the museum is always too low on the priority list to merit a visit. This time I planned to make it my first stop.

We took a few wrong turns getting there but ultimately arrived at what I feel is a very impressive building. And of course, the museum was closed. With every museum in Western Civilization closed on Monday, the Catholic Archdiocese of Cologne opted to be open on Monday and closed on Tuesday. And the Pope wants to know why church attendance is down.

We recovered rapidly and took off for a visit to the former headquarters of the Gestapo in Cologne. But my mind came back to the seemingly paradoxical alliance between contemporary art and the Roman Catholic Church later in the day when we made it to the Kölner Dom. The newest addition to the cathedral, which was begun in 1248 and only completed in 1880, is a stained glass window designed by Gerhard Richter. Richter is a progressive contemporary artist and his randomly generated design of 11,500 squares of glass was criticized by Cardinal Meisner when it was unveiled. Richter, though not particularly religious, claims strong spiritual beliefs, and presumably he feels they are imbedded in his window. I doubt if anyone would deny the window's beauty, but I feel that random organization (which might well be an oxymoron) is the antithesis of a structure imposed by the supreme being. Right?

Luckily no one is really interested in my point of view on these matters and when we visited the Zeche Zollverein earlier today, no such complicated philosophical questions were posed. We admired the amazing Bauhaus inspired buildings. We marveled at the scope of the project and at the audacity of humans to contemplate building anything so massive. And we contrasted the Zeche, closed after only 55 years in operation, with the Dom, where they're still buying new windows after 761 years in business.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Harrys Hamburger Hafenbasar

Long before Tom Waits used it for the intro of "The Black Rider," Harry's Harbor Bazaar was famous here in Hamburg. At € 2,50 for an adult entrance, the twenty plus rooms of junk are a bargain.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Space Heater, Plum Wine

I've got a final update on the two paintings I began almost exactly a month ago. Both paintings are almost complete, so the next time I photograph them, they'll go into Vitrine. "Space Heater" (they're working titles) has about five more minutes work probably, but I'm not sure which five minutes yet. It's been a much more complicated problem than most of my recent paintings, because it combines a wide range of value contrast with an almost equally wide range of hue contrast. I'm usually really stingy with value contrast, but the window light coming through the curtains forced me to use everything I have available to me. I'm not at all sure how I feel about this painting. I may need to give it time to age before I evaluate it. "Plum Wine" needs several hours still, probably over a couple of days. I was convinced a week ago that this one was going to be a real yawn, but it's surprising me each day and I'm to the point now where I really like it.

I won't be able to wrap these up immediately since I'm off to Hamburg for 4-5 days later today. I got a packet of maps, catalogs and info brochures in the mail yesterday from my contact there and I'm looking forward to my first visit to the Hansestadt.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

1066, PT-73

Officially, I've been on furlough this past week. It's a way my home university has come up with for meeting a small part of the budget cuts handed on to us from our state legislature. So, during this week, Spring Break on campus back in Logan, the entire university is on a mandatory and unpaid furlough. I know from the electronic chatter that not all of my colleagues were even aware of the meaning of furlough before they had the dubious benefit of taking one. Not me. A furlough was what the crew of PT-73 was always trying to get, preferably in New Caledonia. Or, looked at from the other way around, it was what Leadbottom was always trying to take away from them. If you never watched McHale's Navy on television, then you have no choice but to fall back on your Phil Silver's Show experience. Either way, furlough ought to be in the working vocabulary of every right thinking American.

But there's no denying, this particular use of the word is a little confusing. Furlough always seemed a positive thing for Torpedoman's Mate Gruber and Engineman, "Tinker" Bell. But I can't get too excited about a week without pay. I decided some investigation of the origin of the word might be in order. I don’t know much about etymology, but I noticed as soon as I began learning German, that there seem to be at least two words for everything in English, one that is common like "house" and a second that has a certain snobby quality like "mansion." Coincidentally, my hero, Harry Rowolt, has a column in this week’s Zeit in which he investigates exactly this aspect of the English language and uses it to argue that certain novels are better in their German translation than in the original.

He points out that since the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English follows this rule of thumb: vocabulary for things we associate with work comes from German. "Cow," for example. The words for things we associate with pleasure, such as "beef," come from the French. The speech of the commoner can usually be taken at face value. It comes from the “heart,” or auf Deutsch: ist herzlich. The speech of the Norman nobles is tricky. It can be "cordial," without really coming from the heart. Rowolt describes his difficulty in translating Flann O'Brien's novel, At Swim Two Birds, as he came up against words like "recalcitrant." He argues that his translation of recalcitrant as aufsässig is ultimately an improvement for the book. It's a simpler word. Warmer, and presumably, comes more from the heart. I looked up aufsässig and it does in fact mean recalcitrant. It also means, defiant, defiantly, fractious, noncompliant, obstreperous, rebellious... a lot of meaning to pack into one word.

I was at a dinner party not long ago with a group of native German speakers and an American other than myself and my wife. This American explained to anyone who would listen (and most of us didn't have much choice,) that English is a far better language than German, which really doesn't have enough vocabulary to express things properly. Is that what Herr Rowolt is getting at? Does he want to dumb down the English speaking world's literature for Germany? NEIN! I would argue that German is capable of expressing the same kind of subtlety as any other language, but it isn't necessarily always done through vocabulary. And Rowohlt sees a simpler vocabulary as a distinct advantage. That, and what he calls, der Krimi-Effekt. But I think that will have to be taken up in another post, another day.

So what about "furlough?" Is it a word that has to do with work or pleasure? My investigation shows that it comes from a Dutch word for "permission." Dutch is a Germanic language. So it's not about Vergnügen. Paradoxically, it's a word that means something like, "pause from work," but based on its Germanic root, must have some subtle negative connotations. Maybe that's why Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935, German satirist, publicist, and prescient critic of National Socialism) had this to say about English: "It's a simple but difficult language. It's composed entirely of foreign words that are incorrectly pronounced." Basta!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Basil Fawlty often explains the odd behavior of his employee, Manuel, by saying, "He's from Barcelona." I've never ascribed any real significance to the comment, but recent adventures there have led me to think there might be something special about the people of this city. I spent most of last Friday finding architectural treasures in the Eixample section of Barcelona where they are thick on the ground. I wandered into an amazing building that houses a college of music to explore and met the group pictured above coming down the stairs. They took no particular notice of me as they continued their perambulation. I went from room to room, each more lavishly decorated in the Modernista style than the last. I have no idea why they were blindfolded but they weren't the only blindfolded people I encountered in Barcelona.

Later that day I was at the Correo to buy stamps. I dread the Post Office under the best of circumstances and the language barrier made me even more apprehensive. I took a number and then went up to the designated window. I ordered the post card stamps in my own unique blend of Spanish and Italian and the man at the counter responded with enthusiasm to have a non-native speaker to deal with. First he complimented me on my Spanish, then asked if I spoke English at all. He explained that he was taking an English course and would I mind if he conducted our transaction in English? We then went through a delightful explanation of the possibilities: would I prefer eight 31 cent stamps, or four 62 cent stamps? We discussed the pros and cons of both options and traded some questions about vocabulary. I left after ten or fifteen minutes with a line building up behind me, sure that I had just met the most polite and entertaining postal worker in the Western World.

Then on Saturday I got into a conversation with an older cobbler in the neighborhood of Grácia. He had two license plates from New York displayed in his shop. One said "Boss" the other "Godfather." Together we worked out good translations. We decided on el hefe and el pate. At least I think we did. He talked pretty fast and I only understood about 5% of what was said.

But my point is that the people of Barcelona are not overly inhibited. They are genuinely friendly and relaxed. At a busy cafe, waitresses don't seem particularly irritated by a group of foreigners, one of whom persists in ordering the "oven baked tractor" for lunch. It makes for a very pleasant city to visit and I hope I can return in the future.

In the meantime, I've had requests from more than one reader for more photos of the trip. I could only upload one image at a time with my mobile phone, but now that I'm back in Essen I can put more pictures online. For anyone who would like to see my Barcelona pictures, you can go here

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Casa Batllò

Almost 20 degrees today, sunny with a nice breeze. I spent the day on the coast, first taking in a great exhibition about city planning in Barcelona, then walking leisurely back into town along the beach. All of Barcelona was out walking, including pickpockets, one of whom I managed to grab with his hand in the pocket of a young Scandanavian fellow. A great and supremely satisfying day.

Tomorrow we fly back to the Ruhrgebiet. Forecast: rain. Tuesday more rain, Wednesday rain is expected and Thursday and Friday it's going to rain. It will be a good excuse to stay in the studio all day and paint.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pavelló Mies van der Rohe

The New York 1964-65 World's Fair was a pivotal experience for me growing up. I visited the fair many times, and with my Brownie Starmite camera I documented the pavillions for B. F. Goodrich, Ford, General Electric and many others. I was photographed drinking "Wink" at the Canada Dry pavillion and the photo was published in my local paper, the Wilton Bulletin. Life was good.

Imagine my consternation when my father casually mentioned to me that when the fair was over, all the buildings would be torn down. On my last, now bittersweet, visit to the fair, the Beatles played Shea Stadium, and exiting the park I could look into the stadium through the gap in the center field wall. I saw some tiny figures moving on the stage as we pushed through a throng of would be concert goers gathered on the pedestrian bridge to the fair parking lots. Maybe it was John or George. Ringo would have been sitting down, so it wasn't him. I hoped it wasn't Paul. But my thoughts were mostly on the park buildings. Would they tear down the Tad's Steak House building too? It seemed such waste.

So it came as no surprise to hear in my Modern Art survey course, that the German pavillion to the 1929 Barcelona World's Fair had also been destroyed. Only the chairs survived. But the people of Barcelona know when they've made a mistake and for the 100th anniversary of Mies van der Rohe's birth, they rebuilt the pavillion. I saw it today and I feel good knowing it's back.

I pass the Flushing Meadows still when I fly out of or into JFK. The Unisphere is still there and the New York State pavillion, looking like a 1000 year old ruin. It always depresses me a little. Now I can think of Mies van der Rohe and maybe it won't be so bad.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Everything is Everything

German Fußball trainer, Sepp Herberger, is famous for, among other things, pithy quotes that have a cult status in Germany. Like American baseball legend, Yogi Berra, Sepp always seemed to be able to sum up a situation in a way that transcended the everyday and became timeless. His well known quotes often don't mean anything at all, but are like zen koans in their meaninglessness. Some examples:

Der Ball ist rund.

Das Spiel dauert neunzig Minuten.

Nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel.

They remind me of a saying I've always attributed to Donny Hathaway, "Everything is Everything." It's a point of view that I've been thinking about a lot today at the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia. Yesterday I had a very high protein breakfast because of some confusion about spirals and caracolas. Today I saw how Gaudi used the snail as a symbol of Nature and the mathmatical structure of the snail as the foundation of many of the miraculously complex forms that repeat throughout his design. It all seems very profound to me right now and I can only say, "The ball is round and the game lasts 90 minutes."

Everything is, indeed, everything.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Barcelona: Caracola

Nothing makes me happier than a good bakery and I was lucky enough to find a great one on my first morning in Barcelona. The woman behind the counter was kind enough to put up with my Spanish and I learned some new words from her too. The most important was "caracola," which is the name for my favorite kind of pastry. It's a flat spiral of dough with either raisins or poppy seed between the layers. Auf Deutsch, they're called "Schnecken" and this bakery makes an outstanding example of the raisin variety.

This morning I was in another part of town and couldn't make it my Stammbäckerei, but I popped into a "bar" on the Diagonal for breakfast. "Cafe con leche y caracola," said I, as I sat down at the counter. I gestured to the pastries in a glass case as I said it, but there was a mix up in our communication. Caracola does mean Schnecke, and Schnecke means snail, so called because of the spiral form, but in España, I guess I should have said "una caracola," because what I got was a plate of garden snails in a light butter sauce with sage and rosemary.

Como se dice "yum?"