Why does Berlin fascinate and thrill me more than any city I know? I think Alexandra Richie puts her finger on the answer in her monumental history of the city, Faust’s Metropolis:
Like Faust, Berlin can be said to have two spirits in the same breast; it is both a terrible and a wonderful city, a place which has created and destroyed and whose name is both acclaimed and blackened. […] Above all, it is a place where history could not and still cannot be hidden away.
Nowhere in Berlin can you escape the ghosts of history, and especially the terrors of 20th century politics when Europe, in Mark Mazower’s words, was ‘the dark continent’. There are many places in Berlin where any European – German or otherwise – might reflect upon words written by Joseph Roth in 1937:
Why do the European states claim for themselves the right to spread civilization and manners to different continents? Why not to Europe itself?
About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters: how well they understood Its human position: how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
– WH Auden, from Musee des Beaux Arts
For Jem Cohen, director of the excellent film Museum Hours which I have just seen, the film’s origins lay in his love of the paintings of Peter Bruegel the Elder and his sense that Bruegel’s paintings somehow echoed his own experience as a film-maker. The film is both a meditation on art and its meaning in everyday life, and the story of two strangers who meet and gradually become friends as autumn turns to winter in the streets of Vienna.
Johann is a guard at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum where one day he encounters Anne, a Canadian who has come to Austria to be with her cousin who she hasn’t seen in years, who now lies in hospital in a coma. Anne (played by Mary Margaret OHara, the Canadian singer-songwriter known for her unique and unclassifiable 1988 album Miss America) knows no-one in the city and wanders its streets treating the museum as a refuge. Johann (played by Bobby Sommer) offers to help her, at first with directions to the hospital and then liaising with the hospital when language proves to be a barrier and obtaining for her a free museum pass. Gradually, they are drawn together as Johann joins Anne on hospital visits, and they explore the city, talking of their lives, and of paintings in the museum.
In his younger days, before he was employed as a museum guard, Johann had worked as a roadie and managed rock bands (Bobby Sommer here drawing on his own past). His observant, quietly-spoken narration lends the film its measured pace. At the hospital, at the bedside of Anne’s cousin, Johann describes from memory paintings that he has observed closely while performing his duties in the museum – works such as the self portrait by Rembrandt, painted in 1652 when the artist was beset by financial difficulties. He describes the paintings in loving detail, saying of a picture of Christ: ‘It’s the blueness of the river and skies, bluer than I could ever tell.’ As Johann speaks, Cohen cuts to a shot of a train moving silently beside a frozen river.
This is characteristic of a film which often turns away from the story of the two strangers (sometimes for as much as fifteen or twenty minutes) in order to meditate on looking and how we see the world – as reflected both in art and our daily lives. The camera moves constantly between details of canvases in the gallery out to the street – juxtaposing the faces of passers-by with portraits in the gallery, eggshells at the edges of a still life with cigarette stubs and a lost glove on the pavement. Cohen sees both as equally worthy of contemplation: the images on the museum walls and the quotidian swirl of passers-by and detritus on the street.
Museum Hours is far removed from a conventional Hollywood narrative: the lead characters are not young and glamorous stereotypes and their burgeoning friendship does not lead inevitably to sex. There is no neat resolution to the story of their encounter, and there is no sentimentality in the scenes at the hospital by the bedside of the comatose woman. Nevertheless, this elliptical study of two adults drawing comfort from a chance relationship is engaging – made even more so by the way in which Jem Cohen interweaves their story with his portrait of Vienna street life and a meditation on the way that life and art intertwine.
Looking is the central theme of Museum Hours. It is significant how often Cohen lets the gaze of his camera rest on eyes: eyes in paintings on the gallery walls, on city signs; eyes on sculptures, and the faces of passers-by in the city streets.
In the streets and public spaces of Vienna, Cohen’s camera notices details that we might pass by unseeingly: young boys on skateboards in a park, an old woman slowly climbing a hill, a stonemason’s carving in the walls of an ancient church, abandoned drink cans in the gutter, the faces of people muffled against the cold waiting at a bus stop, boarded-up shop windows, and the faces of individuals hopefully sifting and sorting through second-hand offerings at a street market.
Jem Cohen has spoken of how much of the inspiration for Museum Hours – the way in which he places his camera in public spaces to observe people and things and watch for the random – came from the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s celebrated gallery of paintings by Pieter Breugel, with their crowded compositions and attention to the haphazard details of everyday life. Cohen has shot many of his films in a documentary mode on the street, where, in his words, ‘there’s a kind of democracy of action, with random events and details all coexisting’. Looking at Bruegel’s paintings, Cohen writes,
I was particularly struck by the fact that the central focus, even the primary subject, was hard to pin down. This was clearly intentional, oddly modern (even radical), and for me, deeply resonant. One such painting, ostensibly depicting the conversion of St. Paul, has a little boy in it, standing beneath a tree, and I became somewhat obsessed with him. He has little or nothing to do with the religious subject at hand, but instead of being peripheral, one’s eye goes to him as much as to the saint. He’s as important as anything else in the frame. I recognized a connected sensibility I’d felt when shooting documentary street footage, which I’ve done for many years. On the street, if there even is such a thing as foreground and background, they’re constantly changing places. Anything can rise to prominence or suddenly disappear: light, the shape of a building, a couple arguing, a rainstorm, the sound of coughing, sparrows…
In the film’s pivotal scene, lasting some 20 minutes or so, an art historian (superbly acted by Ela Piplits) talks to a sceptical gallery tour party about the meaning and significance of Bruegel’s Conversion of St. Paul. Cohen scripted the lecture himself, and it clearly expresses his own deeply-felt responses to Bruegel’s paintings. The historian points out that, though ostensibly ‘about’ Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, we also need to be mindful that he painted this work in 1567, just as the Catholic Duke of Alba was marching into the Netherlands at the head of an army of 10,000 men to suppress the Dutch Protestant revolt. Bruegel’s painting, she suggests, executed in a time of political repression was, like his work in general, radical, ‘more radical than they might seem.’
Saul – the figure in a blue doublet who has persecuted Christians – falls from his horse in a tiny detail shown in the painting’s middle distance. What we see at first glance, the lecturer argues, is a mass of foot soldiers and cavalry, dominated by a large horse’s arse. Bruegel, the lecturer continues, was radical for making ordinary people and everyday events valid subjects for artistic scrutiny. Though not himself a peasant, he dressed as a peasant to immerse himself in their culture. His paintings with their depiction of the small details of peasant life are ‘not sentimental, nor do they judge.’
She notes how, in Bruegel’s painting of a peasant wedding, many viewers are puzzled by the absence of the couple being married. She points out that the bride is the unobtrusive figure seated against the green curtain (the groom traditionally did not appear until later in the festivities). Jem Cohen, in an interview on Fandor has explained how Bruegel’s approach to painting a scene has echoed his own experience as a filmmaker, seeing the relationship to shooting in a documentary mode on the street, ‘where there’s a kind of democracy of action, with random events and details all coexisting’.
I get a big kick out of Bruegel. I’m not obsessed, but he’s amazing in many ways—his genuine interest in the actuality of peasant life, of street life in general, coupled with forays into the fantastic… Most of my work is grounded in the everyday, which can also be very strange, so I would hope we somehow share common ground. He decoupled landscape from being just the background for religious subjects, and compared with most of his contemporaries he pulled large-scale oil painting down to earth, into the world we all move through. I see him as a radical force, but also humble and funny. My relationship felt personal; I somehow felt he was a proto-documentary filmmaker.
On the street, if there even is such a thing as foreground and background, they’re constantly changing places. Anything can rise to prominence or suddenly disappear: light, the shape of a building, a couple arguing, a rainstorm, the sound of coughing, sparrows… (And it isn’t limited to the physical. The street is also made up of history, folklore, politics, economics, and a thousand fragmented narratives).
In life, all of these elements are free to interweave, connect, and then go their separate ways. Films however, especially features, generally walk a much narrower, more predictable path. How then to make movies that don’t tell us just where to look and what to feel? How to make films that encourage viewers to make their own connections, to think strange thoughts, to be unsure of what happens next or even ‘what kind of movie this is’? How to focus equally on small details and big ideas, and to combine some of the immediacy and openness of documentary with characters and invented stories? These are the things I wanted to tangle with, using the museum as a kind of fulcrum.
Cohen suggests that it is not merely looking that matters, but presence–a type of looking that requires quiet and stillness and openness to the unexpected. Death is the common bond everyone shares. It is what allows us to draw a line from an Egyptian Pharaoh to a Dutch fox hunter to a tour guide in contemporary Vienna. It is presence that allows the boundaries of time and place to fall away. […]
As Johann sits with Anne by the cousin’s hospital bed and describes various artworks to the dying woman, the mere fact that Johann gives this dying stranger his time and attention imparts a certain dignity to her tragic situation. She is no longer dying alone in a hospital bed in Vienna with no friends or family to witness her passing. Impermanence is a constant, but that is no reason to withdraw, Cohen’s film seems to say.
Aldredge picks out a significant scene in Cohen’s film, in which Johann recalls a young ‘punk’ fresh out of university who had joined the museum staff and complained that the museum’s artworks were nothing more than trophies of the wealthy. He is unhappy that the museum charges admission, but Johann points out that he doesn’t object to paying admission to see a film. What is the difference?
With this simple scene, Cohen hints at a much larger topic—the commodification of culture. Without hitting us over the head with a message, he skilfully raises the question of audience and class. Is art only for the elite? What does it mean that Bruegel’s peasants are now ensconced inside of a great institution like the Kunsthistorisches? Shouldn’t artists be fairly compensated for their work? But when does compensation turn into commercialization? Who are artists working for? Themselves? Wealthy patrons? The general public? Is it right that an artist as great as Rembrandt should have so little money at the end of his life, as evidenced by his shabby clothes in a late self-portrait? And what stories do museums tell us? Can we really trust text panels and audio guides to tell us the whole story? For today’s youth, is the museum only a place to look at naked women and gore?
In an epilogue, Cohen leaves the gallery and presents us with a shot of an old woman making her way slowly and effortfully away from us up a steep city street until she is obscured by a building in the foreground. The image is framed in black, as if it is a landscape and she just a figure within it whose presence we might easily overlook.
Although I can appreciate that this slow-moving, episodic film might not be to everyone’s taste, I loved its intelligence and originality, greatly enhanced by the three central performances of Mary Margaret O’Hara, Bobby Sommer and Ela Piplits. O’Hara and Sommers apparently added a good deal of improvisation to their roles, making their characters appear truly authentic. If you are interested in art, especially Bruegel, and appreciate cinema that eschews stereotypical characters and conventional story arcs, this one’s for you.
Jem Cohen’s Ground-Level Artistry
In this YouTube video essay, Kevin Lee compares Jem Cohen’s the punk-rock documentary Instrument with Museum Hours
In October 1968, Kyffin Williams arrived in Patagonia having been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to record the descendents of the Welsh settlers who had first arrived there in the 19th century. During our day out on Anglesey, we visited the current exhibition at Oriel Ynys Môn, the gallery in Llangefni, the town where he was born. The exhibition consists of paintings, drawings and photographs made by Williams during the five months he spent absorbing the landscape and meeting the people of Patagonia.
Kyffin Williams is best known for his impasto paintings of Welsh landscapes and muscular portraits, often of hill farmers and characters from the villages and valleys of Anglesey and Snowdonia. This exhibition brings together less well-known, but equally impressive work completed during those months in Patagonia.
On display is a collection of pen, ink, watercolour and oils, ranging from large works to small sketches from Kyffin’s autobiography, Wider Sky. There is a slideshow of highly evocative photographs taken by Kyffin, as well as a display of some of Kyffin’s personal possessions such as his travel itinerary, letter of introduction from the Churchill Fellowship and his airline tickets.
It was in 1865 that a group of about 150 Welsh settlers sailed from Liverpool to Patagonia aboard the tea-clipper Mimosa. The settlers had been inspired by a Welsh Congregationalist minister, the Reverend Michael D. Jones, to make the long voyage to preserve their language, culture and religion. Jones had lived in the United States for a while, and noticed how quickly the Welsh assimilated and lost their language. He believed that it would be better for the Welsh to emigrate to a country where English was not the dominant language. He decided on Patagonia in Argentina, and set about raising funds, gathering public support and conducting lengthy and difficult negotiations with the Argentine government.
Two months later they arrived at New Bay (later renamed Puerto Madryn). The reality of life in barren and inhospitable Patagonia proved extremely challenging for the early settlers. Many faced great poverty and hardship as they struggled to make a living from the land. In time, however, they established their own Welsh-speaking communities where they built chapels and schools.
During the 20th century, the erosion of the Welsh language and traditions was evident as Spanish became the official language. However, in 1960s saw a revival of interest in Welsh culture amongst the descendants of the first settlers.
Kyffin Williams wrote in Gwladfa Kyffin – Kyffin in Patagonia of the inspiration he felt in Patagonia:
The light in Cwm Hyfryd was remarkable and often I drew in Pentre Sydyn in the hills to the east of the valley and heard far below the sound of the voice of Mary Hopkin being relayed from the tops of the telegraph poles. It was through a gap in the hills, that many years earlier a party of Welsh riders who had set out from Dyffryn Camwy to find the valley so praised by the Indians, suddenly I saw what they believed was their promised land.
‘Dyma gwm hyfryd’ exclaimed an excited rider and Cwm Hyfryd it has remained ever since. I also found it a wonderful valley and produced about 200 drawings. I did a water-colour drawing of Brychan Evans. He was a lovely spare man, a great rider and a man who had climbed all the surrounding mountains. I think I did him justice.
The bulk of Kyffin William’s output in Patagonia consisted of pen, ink, watercolour and gouache works, as well as some 35mm slides – rare photographic images that reveal his great interest in the people of Patagonia, as well as the landscape. These works were later donated to the National Library of Wales, and it is from their collection that this exhibition is drawn.
Dyffryn Camwy was the area first colonised by the Welsh after they landed on the ship Mimosa in 1865. The arid, flat landscape like a desert and the simple, rustic cottages that the first settlers built are evoked in the drawings and paintings that Kyffin made:
When I got to Dyffryn Camwy and I asked about hiring a horse they just thought I was absolutely mad; they said I would lose my way and I would be found dead years later and all that sort of thing. So I had to across the desert in an old bus, which is quite an undertaking since it was all dirt road. It was tremendous fun, one of the most interesting periods of my life.
On his return to Britain, Kyffin painted a series of vivid landscapes, such as ‘Horse at Lle Cul’ (below) and ‘Los Altares’ (top). In 1990, he prepared a set of monochrome pen and ink studies based on the earlier watercolours such as ‘Cwm Hyfryd’ (above). These were published as illustrations for A Wider Sky, the second volume of his autobiography, and a selection appear in the exhibition.
Kyffin Williams was born in Llangefni in 1918. His was an old landed Anglesey family, although much of his childhood was spent away from the island. After failing a British Army medical examination in 1941 due to epilepsy, a doctor advised him to become an artist: ‘As you are, in fact, abnormal, I think it would be a good idea if you took up art’.
Kyffin enrolled at Slade School of Fine Art in 1941 and later taught art at Highgate School until 1973. In 1974 he settled back on Anglesey in a house overlooking the Menai Strait, which remained his home for the rest of his life. Here he immersed himself in the community and landscape, and spent day after day outdoors, painting.
It is essential to have produced a great many pictures – drawings as well as paintings – out of doors, on the spot, in order to paint interpretive pictures in the studio. Painting en plein air is a vital preparation… One needs to store a great deal of information about nature, particularly about colour.
The move to Anglesey consolidated Kyffin’s growing reputation as a painter of Wales and its people. He was widely viewed as the first artist to truly connect with the Welsh people, but his reputation began to grow beyond the borders of Wales. In 1982 he received an OBE for his services to the arts and in 2000, his 80th year, he was given a knighthood. He died in 2006.
His work is now on permanent exhibition in Oriel Ynys Môn, in the dedicated Kyffin Williams Gallery, opened in 2008. Typically, it draws inspiration from the Welsh landscape, farmlands and people. This is a small selection:
Two of my favourite Kyffrin Williams portraits from the gallery are ‘Yolanta’ (above) and ‘Evan Roberts’ (below)’
I first saw her at a literary party near Regents Park. She was tall and slim with a mop of dark hair, a sensitive face andwith a long and most attractive nose. She was wearing a strange lace-like dress. There was something exotic abouther so I asked who she might be. I was told that she was Polish and that her name was Yolanta. I feel sure it is one of my best portraits.
Evan Roberts was a spare but well-built man with a head that had the look of nobility about it, and his voice was gentle and distinguished as he asked me how I would like him to sit. I posed him in order to make him look upwards and as he sathis blind eyes were turned towards the distant shape of Lliwedd, a mountain he knew so well but could not see. There was no sadness in Evan Roberts, but merely a contented resignation as he dreamed of the flowers and mountain he knew so well.
A short film made to promote an earlier Kyffrin Williams exhibition at Oriel Ynys Môn:
A clip from Kyffin Williams – Framing Wales (BBC 2):
On our second morning in London we went along to the V&A to see the exhibition Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography which features five artists who challenge the assumption that a camera is necessary to make a photograph. The work displayed is by Pierre Cordier, Susan Derges, Adam Fuss, Garry Fabian Miller and Floris Neusüss (above). Each in their different way creates haunting images by casting shadows on light-sensitive paper or by chemically manipulating its surface. In this way they capture the presence of objects, figures or glowing light, and seem to reveal processes hidden from normal view. The results are powerful images, sometimes with surreal effects and often exquisitely beautiful.
These artists create images directly on photographic paper, which uses silver salts that darken in exposure to light. By casting shadows and filtering or blocking light, or by chemically treating its surface, the paper is transformed into an image. The V&A has a page which describes these processes in detail here.
Adam Fuss grew up moving between rural Sussex in the South of England and Australia before settling to work in New York in 1982. He made his first photogram in 1986. His work concerns the discovery of the unseen: it deals with time and energy rather than material form. As well as mastering numerous historic and modern photographic techniques, Fuss has developed an array of symbolic or emblematic motifs.
Exhibition note: The butterfly is a classic symbol of the brevity of life, its flight standing for the passage of the soul. It is captured here in an obsolescent technique, that of daguerreotype. Made on silvered copper plates, daguerreotypes were invented in the 1840s and used mainly for portraiture. Here the plate has been intentionally overexposed, producing a shimmering blue.
Exhibition note: Flocks of birds scatter in flight. One bird is singled out, surrounded by a halo of others, as if protected and guided in its ascent.
Garry Fabian Miller produces works, many of which explore the cycle of time over a day, month or year, through controlled experiments with varying durations of light exposure. His works are enriched by being seen in sequences that explore and develop a single motif and colour range. Often, the images are conceived as remembered landscapes and natural light phenomena.
Exhibition note: In photography as in photosynthesis, light plays a fundamental role in creation. This work was made using beech leaves gathered from late April to early June in the artist’s garden on Dartmoor. Each vertical line was printed on one day, with the time period increasing incrementally from one day between the first lines to around two weeks in the later stages.
‘The pictures I make’, says Fabian Miller, ‘are of something as yet unseen, which may only exist on the paper surface, or subsequently may be found in the world. I am seeking a state of mind which lifts the spirit, gives strength and a moment of clarity.’
Floris Neusüss has dedicated his whole career to extending the practice, study and teaching of the photogram. Alongside his work as an artist, he is known as an influential writer and teacher on camera-less photography. Neusüss brought renewed ambition to the photogram process, in both scale and visual treatment, with the Körperfotogramms (or whole-body photograms) that he first exhibited in the 1960s. Since that time, he has consistently explored the photogram’s numerous technical, conceptual and visual possibilities.
Exhibition note: This window at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, was the subject of the very first photographic negative, made by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1835. After covering the interior of the window with photographic paper at night, Neusüss then exposed the paper by shining a light from outside. The resulting photogram recreates the subject of Talbot’s original small negative, but life size. Here’s the original:
Neusüss’ works often deal in opposites: black and white, shadow and light, movement and stillness, presence and absence, and in the translation of three dimensions into two. These qualities are seen especially in the Körperfotogramm series (top of this post and below).
Exhibition note: The bodies in Neusüss’s ‘whole-body photograms’ appear to leap or float, as though caught in space, implying dreams of flight or nightmares of falling. Here, an adult figure adopts a foetal position silhouetted against vague indications of an interior. Neusüss’s shadowy figures often suggest an underlying symbolic narrative of sensuality, fertility, dreams or the subconscious. By removing objects from their physical context, Neusüss encourages the viewer to contemplate the essence of form. He creates a feeling of surreal detachment, a sense of disengagement from time and the physical world. Collectively, his images explore themes of mythology, history, nature and the subconscious.
In Arch, her series of dreamlike landscapes (above), Susan Derges first made images of cloud by direct digital scans of ink dispersing in water within a small glass tank. She printed these scans onto large transparencies, then placed them beneath a glass tank containing water, bracken, grasses and reeds. Next she made direct prints onto dye destruction paper placed beneath both tank and transparency. Finally, she photographed these prints and digitally stitched them together to make the large-scale digital C-prints (above).
Susan Derges has become well known for her photograms of water (such as ‘Eden’, below). To make these works, she used the landscape at night as her darkroom, submerging large sheets of photographic paper in rivers and using the moon and flashlight to create the exposure and reveal natural patterns that are hidden in the apparant chaos of water flow.
Water’s absolutely key to everything that happens internally to us and externally, and it is the most fantastic metaphor for how everything operates. It can stand for a stream of thoughts, cascades of neural activity in your mind, it can stand for the idea of a circulatory system in landscape or in the body interchangeably. It seems to be something that kind of connects everything and maybe the underlying desire to make images in the first place was to talk about what underlies the visible rather than to just show the visible.
– Susan Derges
In an essay, ‘The Music of Waves, The Poetry of Particles’, Martin Kemp compares Kathleen Raine’s poem, ‘Water’ to the work of Susan Derges in their revealing of ‘the deep pattern of things’:
There is a stream that flowed before the first beginning Of bounding form’ that c ircumscribes Protophyte and protozoon The passive permeable sea obeys, Reflects, rises and falls as forces of moon and wind Draw this way or that in weight of waves; But the mutable water holds no trace Of crest or ripple of whirlpool; the wave breaks, Scatters in a thousand instantaneous drops That fall in sphere and ovoid, the film-spun bubbles Upheld in momentary equilibrium of strainand stress In the ever-changing network woven between stars.
When, in the flux, the first bounding membrane Forms, like the memory-trace of a preceding state, When the linked organic chain Holds against current and tide its microcosm, Of man’s first disobedience, what first cause Impresses without inherent being Entities, selves, globules, vase-shapes, vortices, Amoeboid, ovoid, pulsing or ciliate, That check the flow of waters like forms of thought, Pause, poised in the unremembering current By what will be fathered in the primal matrix? The delicate tissue of life retains, bears The stigmata, the trace, the signature, endures The tension of the formative moment, withstands The passive downward deathward streaming Leaps the falls, a salmon ascending, a tree growing.
But still the stream that flows down to stillness Seeks the end-all of all waters, Welcomes all solving, dissolving, undoing, Returns, looses itself, looses self and bounds, Body, identity, memory, sinks to forgetfulness, The state of unknowing, unbeing, The flux that precedes all life, that we reassume, dying, Ceases to trouble the flowing of things with the fleeting Dream and hope and despair of this transient perilous selving.
In this YouTube video Susan Derges’ work is presented with a soundtrack accompaniment of Giacinto Scelsi’s Aitsi for nically-prepared piano:
This video features a German news report about the Shadow Catcher exhibition: