Monday, September 25, 2006

Walt Disney at Le Grand Palais

Johann Dieter Wassmann was a frequent visitor to Naumburg, all the more so after he took to photography in the early 1890s. His fascination with the bold, simple forms of the city’s medieval cathedral are reflected in the large number of images he recorded here over several years. Curiously, the austere geometry of this 13th century Romanesque structure suited his early modernist preoccupation with the reduction of image to line, depth and volumetric form. In the photograph above (WF1070024, albumen silver print, 18 x 23 cm), the focus is solely on form, with ornamentation, such as the upper row of stone sculptures, merely incidental.

This ensemble of sculptures just happens to include top-centre-left Count Eckhart and a serene Uta, circa 1245. 40 years after Johann captured this image, Uta would attain far greater attention when Walt Disney combined her carved body with the face of Joan Crawford to create the evil queen in his 1937 adaptation of the Brothers Grimm’s “Snow White”.

Disney’s unbridled confidence in mixing disparate cultural references is now the subject of a major exhibition curated by Bruno Girveau at Le Grand Palais. “Once upon a time, Walt Disney,” which opened last weekend in Paris, honours a man Girveau describes as “one of the great geniuses of the 20th century and the greatest storyteller of the 20th century,” although in a back-handed compliment he goes on to say Disney’s juxtapositions “are completely unscrupulous, something only an American could do, back then and still today.”

For more on the exhibition, and France’s effort to make cultural amends with the U.S., here’s a link to Angela Doland’s overview in The Los Angeles Times.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Mexico City 1897

As a pioneer in the field of sewerage management, Johann Dieter Wassmann travelled extensively in Europe, the Americas and the Asia/Pacific. In 1897 he made his final trip, taking in Mexico City, where he consulted with city officials on the ponderous task of devising a gravity sewerage system for a city built at the bottom of a valley in a lake.
Unfortunately, most of his travels were as a younger man, prior to gaining an interest in photography, so they went largely undocumented. By 1897, however, his photographic skills were finely-honed, as was his dexterity with the new hand-held roll film cameras widely available in the 1890s, allowing unprecidented mobility and spontineity for the photographer. Nowhere is this more evident than in his breathtakingly modernist Mexico City portfolio, reminiscent of the early work of Manual Alvarez Bravo. Pictured:
JOHANN DIETER WASSMANN, untitled, Mexico City, 1897. Albumen silver print, 23 x 18 cm, WF 898028.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Carpenter's Tale

After yesterday's post several readers have asked where they might learn more about the untimely death of Johann Dieter Wassmann. The best source is Maime Stombock's eloquent essay, "A Carpenter's Tale."

A CARPENTER'S TALE by Maime Stombock

"At 56, Johann Dieter Wassmann should have known how to board a tram. Clumsy is not a word many would have associated with a man who, as one of Leipzig's foremost civil engineers, led a meticulous life. But in the half light of morning on January 6, 1898, late for a meeting and distracted by the gentle solitude of a new fallen snow, he raced to board a slow moving tram outside his home on the corner of Schonbach and Äuss. Hospital Strasse (now Prager Strasse). With briefcase in hand, he leapt onto the forward running board. As he did, his footing gave way -- he did reach the running board, but missed the handrail and fell backwards, slipping under the carriage. Despite having the wherewithal to roll as he fell he was unable to roll far enough. The rear wheels of the tram, in their deliberate progress, crushed his left leg just below the knee, leaving a stump with a dangling calf and booted foot secured only by his few remaining calf muscles.

"But Johann Dieter Wassmann wasn't clumsy, as I have said. He was in a hurry. Herein lies the none-too-subtle irony in his death from these injuries three months later: It was the very pace of modern life and man's obsession with time, at the expense of the wonder of the space around him, that had come to preoccupy Johann's personal and creative life in the closing decade of the 19th century, although it was his more celebrated professional life that had given him pause to ask: where is it all going? Renowned in the burgeoning field of sewerage management, he had experienced the toll of industrialization and urbanization first-hand. But he did more than just experience it; he spent the whole of his illustrious career battling to thwart this dual assault on the human condition..."


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wednesday Archive #04 - Dein goldenes Haar...

In addition to the extensive personal archives of Johann Dieter Wassmann housed at The Wassmann Foundation, Washington, D.C., there is a small but curious collection of articles the family gathered in the months after the artist's death on March 18, 1898. One such item is this tiny lock of the artist's hair, lovingly bound with red thread, framed here by the envelope of his death notice. The cause of death was a streptococci infection that developed after the artist slipped on ice and fell under a slow moving tram on January 6, 1898. His right leg was crushed, requiring amputation, but an infection soon developed in hospital and he was never to recover.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Freyburg 1897

JOHANN DIETER WASSMANN, Freyburg, 1897. Albumen silver print, 18 x 23 cm, WF 747003.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Neo Rauch: 'Der Zeitraum'

Last week I offered up a range of posts in the lead-up to Neo Rauch's September 9 'Der Zeitraum' opening, including a review on opening day, but I wasn't yet able to show you the paintings themselves. Well here's a link to the complete catalogue, courtesy Galerie Eigen + Art Leipzig. The link opens a PDF file, so you may have to be a little patient.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Wednesday Archive #03 - Galvani's Experiment, 1790

'Galvani's Experiment,' 1790 (engraver unknown), E. Atkinson, NATURAL PHILOSOPHY (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1887), a translation of A. Ganot's COURS ÉLÉMENTAIRE DE PHYSIQUE, from the archives of Johann Dieter Wassmann, currently in the holdings of the Wassmann Foundation, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Stasi Museum Leipzig

September 11, 2006 gave me pause to reflect on the chilling return of authoritarian and fascist ideologies, from both within and without, and our general inability as an art community to respond to these threats in any meaningful way. One rare exception can be found in the Museum of Modern Art’s recently opened exhibition ‘Out of Time’ in New York. Amidst the clutter of this effort to display the museum’s contemporary collection is the haunting four-screen video projection work ‘Stasi City’ (1997) by the British artists Jane and Louise Wilson. Here’s how Roberta Smith describes the work in The New York Times: "'Stasi City,’ takes us on a clanging, Cubist tour of the abandoned headquarters of East Germany’s secret police. This symbol of daunting power becomes a readymade. Relentless tracking shots and dumbwaiters used to disorienting effect move us up, down and through the building, along endless hallways, into office-like interrogation chambers (note the padded doors), past revolving file boxes once filled with dossiers. The dead-end is a room for medical examinations, surgery or perhaps torture. Its floor is littered with blue and white flakes of peeled paint that evoke a vast Arctic ice pack. With its mordant slapstick, ‘Stasi City’ may be a structuralist version of ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ but it undercuts tragedy with the suggestion that evil ultimately crumbles and falls away. And its formal rigor is itself cause for hope.”

More daunting still, see the real thing. There are Stasi Museums in former Stasi headquarters in both Leipzig and Berlin. Each museum has a thoughtful website worth further reflection; I’ve included a link below to the site here in Leipzig. Dittrichring 24; 14:00-18:00 Wednesday to Sunday; admission free.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The City

from THE CITY: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MITCH EPSTEIN (New York: powerHouse Books, 2001).

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Neo Rauch at Eigen + Art Leipzig

In 1908, Hermann Minkowski gave a lecture in Cologne on the world-view his former student, Albert Einstein, was implicating by his special theory of relativity, published three years earlier. Minkowski began the lecture with the proclamation that, “Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.”

Today's opening of 'Der Zeitraum' at Galerie Eigen + Art Leipzig attests that the paintings of Neo Rauch have moved full force into just such an independent reality. Surrounded by friends and family on a day with the first hint of autumn in the air, the artist could not have chosen a more germane moment in which to solidify themes he has been patiently moving toward for several years. Neo’s show at David Zwirner/New York last year gave clear indication that the artist was leaving behind the social realist iconography of the GDR - imagery that had made him a household name in the global art market - finding his own private Idaho within a more expansive landscape of memory.

In the March 2001 issue of ArtForum, Daniel Birnbaum wrote of Neo’s work at the time, "This is a weirdly concrete dream of production, athletic strength, and socialist modernity dreamed in a time and a place that no longer exists." That was then; this is now. As the exhibition title implies, ‘Der Zeitraum’ suggests a moment in space and time that very much exists, eternally and universally, a time in which past, present and future both co-exist and are carried concurrently with the temporal experience of the everyday.

That’s not to say these monumental paintings don’t establish location (Ortung); they do and that place is very much Neo’s native Saxony. The landscape of memory this implies is therefore one ensconced in the landscape of eastern Germany, but with the passing of years it is no longer one so focused on the recent experience of the GDR, which, as Birnbaum rightly suggests, doesn’t exist any longer. Rather, Neo’s canvases now embrace a comprehensive landscape, encapsulating the history and experience of modernity itself.

Where and when the modern era began may be open to debate, but there is little doubt it was in full swing by the close of the Napoleonic Wars. Here Leipzig holds unique memory, as host and victim of the single bloodiest struggle in European history prior to the First World War – the Battle of Leipzig (1813). This birth of the modern era from the very blood of Leipzigers is uppermost in the city’s collective memory and recurrent in Neo's imagery of Napoleonic-era figures in recent paintings such as ‘Neujahr’ and ‘Schmerz’ (shown at Zwirner).

As a pinnacle of modern thinking, Einstein’s special theory debunked Newtonian notions of fixed space and time in its conclusion that the perception of space and time differ according to the unique position of the observer. With ‘Der Zeitraum’, Neo Rauch has made a bold, elegant and decisive argument that our perception of modernity likewise hinges on the unique perspective collective memory affords the viewer.

To give Neo the last word, "Some people... detect Americanism in my work; others think it's Far Eastern; and only the spiteful fellow painter who lives in the next village recognizes my paintings to be nothing other than the same provincial manure he has in front of his own nose."

1. by the author, 'Russenstraße', Leipzig, 2006, colour photograph.
2. Johann Dieter Wassmann, 'Quedlinburg', 1895, albumen silver print.
3. artist unknown, 'Le Congrés' (The Congress of Vienna), 1815, colour etching.

9 September 2006 through 22 December 2006
Galerie Eigen + Art
Spinnereistraße 7, Halle 5 D-04179 Leipzig
Opening hours: Tuesday through Saturday: 11:00 - 18:00

Friday, September 08, 2006

Park Sanssouci 1896

Johann Dieter Wassmann, Park Sanssouci, Potsdam, 1896. Albumen silver print, 18 x 23 cm, WF 743015. (For my Friday feature I have vowed to let the photographic works of Johann Dieter Wassmann simply speak for themselves, as they do so well.)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The ancient wood

While I'm still in this deep zeitraum headspace from yesterday's post, and as a lead-up to this weekend's opening of Neo Rauch's 'Der Zeitraum' exhibition at Eigen + Art, I thought I might quote from Maime Stombock's excellent essay 'A Carpenter's Tale' (see link below for complete text).
"For Johann Dieter Wassmann, delving into the ancient wood was an essential catharsis, just as it would be a hundred years later for his compatriot Anselm Kiefer. In a letter to his brother Wolfgang, dated November 10, 1885, Johann writes that from the moment his saw broke the grain of his rough planks of birch, oak, pine, beech, ash, walnut, elm or whatever else might be at hand, he was magically propelled through the looking glass, moving into the wood, first physically - as he cut, planed, joined and finished the timbers - and then mentally - as he deliberated what world might inhabit the inner space of these exquisite boxes.
"His experience of the wood spared none of the senses, however. The sweet freshness of pine, the acrid harshness of elm [above] that burned the eyes and throat, the gentle pleasantries of oak: he genuinely believed as his father had that the souls of men inhabited these timbers and only by cutting into them and experiencing them fully could these souls find release. He reminded Wolfgang of the stories their father would tell them as children, the stories they would insist on hearing again and again of the family workshop in the years that followed the Battle of Leipzig, a time when their father himself was just a child. The terrible destruction of the city and surrounding villages had left such an abundance of floorboards, panelling and structural timbers, that Leipzig's woodcutters found no cause to fell a single tree for three years, instead harvesting their bounty from the rubble. But unlike fresh cut timbers, which house only old souls, August commanded to his sons that recycled timbers uniquely house the souls of those more recently departed.
"The oak parquetry of Madame Troufold's salon, gracefully planed and mitered by their grandfather to make a small corner cupboard, had overwhelmed the workshop for a week with the perfumed elegance of a life cultured beyond their dreams. The softly worn pine floorboards of Herr Zächer's bäckerie, despite being scrubbed with bucket and brush each morning, had brought such hunger to the journeymen when they cut into them to frame the carcass of a veneered chest of drawers, that they finished their daily bread before noon, venturing out to find more before returning to their work. The walnut panelling recovered from Kapitän Brunheld's library, the walnut that their grandfather fashioned into several fine wardrobes, had surrendered thick smoky tobacco, aged whiskey and a thousand tales of Saxon glory before the wardrobes left the shop. And the narrow ash planks from the stairway of Fräulein Nau's bordell, the planks their grandfather had hoped to shape into dough bins, brought work to such a halt and lowered the integrity of the conversation to such a degree, that he gave up in disgust, burning them as firewood, although the smoke from the fire provoked one of the men to partake in a debaucherous drinking binge lasting three days, ending with his arrest for committing unnatural acts in the public square."
Pictured above is Johann Dieter Wassmann's ET IN ARCADIA EGO II, 1888. 35 x 28 x 12 cm.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Sein und Zeit (Being and Time)

"Phrenology of the brain," engraver unknown, 1898. Star Publishing Co., Chicago, USA.

After racing through Paris Nord last night to catch the slow train back to Leipzig, I had a few hours to reflect on our collective obsession with time, all the more so in light of Neo Rauch's much anticipated exhibition 'Der Zeitraum', opening this weekend at Eigen + Art. Johann Dieter Wassmann, for one, had hoped our obsessions would be otherwise. But first, a digression. Among Johann's archives is a considerable dossier on phrenology and synesthesia. His writings suggest he was skeptical of both, but in his search for some paradigm that might help him find new meaning in the metaphysical, he was open to all comers. Although Johann's personal vision of the modern was a far cry from what came to be, the very onset of the modern gave Johann confidence that the 20th century would see man enter over into a world in which representation would be derived not only by means of the visual, but through a state of complete sensory and metaphysical awareness. Getting back to time, he believed the modern would allow us to enter over into a world in which space and time were wholly united (somewhat presaging Einstein's notion of space-time in his special theory of relativity, published in 1905), halting the misuse and reckless abandonment of the physical world brought on by our rising obsession with the temporal. In doing so, he believed that cities might one day become more humane places in which to live, factories might develop into more benign places in which to work and human beings might long last relinquish their fixation with the watch inside their pocket, the clock on the mantel or the bahnhof timetable. As I file this post on my new Blackberry at first light, passing through the Harz Mountains, I have to conclude we've landed a long way off the mark from what Johann had hoped.
Will Neo find some means of taking us to our metaphysical zeitraum on Saturday? I'll let you know. In the meantime, here's a link to a very incisive interview Pompidou curator Alison Gingeras did with Neo in FlashArt some time back, touching on many of these issues. Neo's responses are translated by Susan Schwartz

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Catching up with Neo Rauch

Last night I played the flâneur and made my way through the balmy streets of Leipzig, under a waxing moon, to the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst (pictured bottom) for an opening that lived up to its promises and more. The occasion was a preview of ANALOG, a new work by Vienna-based artist Dorit Margreiter, curated by Julia Schäfer. Also opening was the exhibition LAST MINUTE, curated by Ilina Koralova (GFZK link below). I can't honestly say I saw enough of either show amidst the throngs to give them a fair appraisal, so I may have to report back once I've seen them in a more reasonable light. I must mention as well that the ever popular Hotel Everland (middle), created by the Swiss duo Sabina Lang and Daniel Bauman, remains part and parcel of GFZK, literally. The one-room groover's hotel has been perched atop the museum villa since June, where it will remain until next summer, before moving on to Paris.
For a relative newcomer to Leipzig, the party was a dream-state of the city's artists and intelligensia. The New Leipzig School was well represented, with Tilo Baumgärtel, Christoph Ruckhärberle, Martin Kobe, Matthias Weischer and David Schnell all in good form. But where are the women in this new school, I ask? Neo Rauch (top) was kind enough to introduce me to several of the city's leading collectors and dealers, including his own gallerist, Gerd Harry Lybke. Coincidentally, Neo has a show opening later this week at Eigen + Art Leipzig that he's titled 'Der Zeitraum'. He denies any connection, but we're flattered just the same. Nose to the grindstone, he reports that when he's not fending off American collectors or hanging shows on three continents, he's locked away in the studio or spending time with his lovely partner, the artist Rosa Loy, and their teenage son. I'm about to catch the ICE to my native Paris for a few days, but I'll be back posting mid-week.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Won't you be my neighbour

With plans for the future MuseumZeitraum Leipzig still in the early stages, I thought a tour of the neighbourhood might be appreciated. Here's one of my favourite landmarks, from the bad old days of the GDR. Amidst the relentless gentrification of the inner urban neighborhoods, this 'Isolator' spark-plug ad sits proudly, and I hasten to add a bit defiantly, on Prager Straße, south-east of the city centre.