Tuesday, July 29, 2014

London/Prague/Berlin - 21 days of more than Proust, Summer 2014





Home again to the comfort of long-living in one place and welcoming phone calls and emails are easing me back. The lush woods and towering trees still shelter my house. I return to yoga on my cushy mat and at the Y. The washing machine and drier are at the ready, and the pile up of mail (and bills) is shrinking. Most happily, the plants on the deck burgeoned during my three-weeks away.


I’ve already taken the train twice into NYC, once walking touristy 42nd Street to Dorothy (www.vfa.us/honor.htm) Round Table and where over an Afghani lunch we, a group of eight, discussed NYC theatre, the city's foibles, politics, and the world’s mayhem. And just the other day to spend a totally splendid afternoon with Shefali from India (www.amazon.com/Shefali-Moitra/e/B001ICNGN2) on her rarest of trips to the USA and NYC. But wait, remember I’ve barely returned from roaming London/Prague/Berlin where Europe’s perfectly preserved marvels of civilization chugged before me and World Wars and the communist era remain topics to consider especially in Prague and Berlin where I’d not been before.

So, let me say before more time floods by: As major cities usually are London is full of itself (and justly so). Tourists of all stripes come and go, decked in all imaginings of clothing (even more so in Berlin). They come and go, talking not of Michelangelo but of the latest whatever at the Tate. I went for the Matisse exhibit, largest collection of his paper cutouts. Waiting my turn (you get a ticket for a certain time) I marveled  at the Surrealist show, discovered a luminous Turner, photographed the ugly building and some folk at rest from their culture glut.

Turner
Inside the Tate
  
Madonna of the Tate


The Matisse paper cutouts are brilliant, bright and huge. I thought I was familiar with them. The MET has the jazz series. Many were new to me. I loved the big mockup for stained glass. The intense colors and large scale of the works actually made me dizzy. I had to take it slow. Now at home, I cut out a copy of his Venus and tacked it on my studio wall for inspiration. Grace and simplicity, what a great lesson.

 
Painter friend Alan Dick brought me into the National Gallery through a side entrance. Knowing artist that he is, he walked me straight to the paintings in Proust I seek.  The
Rembrandt Self portrait, age 63
perfectly painted Rembrandt at age 63 stared back at us with the wisdom of his genius. We spot the Hendrickje Stoffels Proust mentions, Woman Bathing in a Stream.

Alan lives frugally in London. I stayed four days, sleeping each night on a futon on his spare studio floor. He brilliantly conjures all colors with a brief palette: titanium yellow, manganese blue and a single red. He paints thinly with carefully tended brushes. His life appears to be, but is not simple. He’s very Zen from years in Japan, admirably cultural, codifying a breadth of philosophy, championing the literary greats, brilliant books, classic films, and the piano (he plays Satie) into a grand parade of ideas and clear thinking. His models are beautiful young women with cultivated minds. They pose for his paintings, are admired, and love him as devoted nieces. Each artwork ventures beyond the portrait, a dense cultural statement. Here's Alan pouring me a glass of wine, his Paris painting so beautifully rendered behind. 
Alan Dick, the painter at home in his London flat. Painting on the wall
London is vibrant, beyond Rome where I was last December. London has it all, folk from all the world and walks of life, busyness, gaiety, quiet parks, Indian shopkeepers, taxis, the Tube, red buses, great museums, and nowadays, wonderful food, everything. I’d spent November into December in Assisi, Italy last year where the devout and not the various come, not those looking for life beyond religion (save for us artists at the Arte Studio Ginestrelle). London embraces the spectrum of the here and now.

And London's literate homeless

Yet, you can't be in England or anywhere in Europe without reminders of difficult histories. While I was in London, it was the anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand that led to World War I. Discourse on that scourge was aired. What would be facing me in Prague and Berlin?

Back to the history and legacy of art. I went alone to the Wallace collection to absorb its banquet of a display. There’s Gainsborough
Gainsborough detail

 Joshua Reynolds, Van Dyck, Canaletto
Venice, Canaleto
Pieter de Hooch, Rembrandt, and more. Rembrandt’s Titus was there, looking wan, having lived through the death of his mother, his father’s bankruptcy, and the servant who became his father’s next woman. 
Titus, Rembrandt
Titus? Monoprint with Chine Colle, Suzanne Benton
I created a monoprint with an image from a Rembrandt painting. The painting is in the National Gallery hanging near the Titus. I'd thought the image was of Titus, but no, it’s A Boy in a Fanciful Costume. Here's my print.
One painting in the Wallace is by a woman, Elizabeth-Louise Vigee LE BRUN. It's in the same room as two new-to-me magnificent large Rembrandts. Her name is partly hidden by a cupid statuette. 


Then, there it was, what I’d come to the Wallace to see, a painting in Proust, a lush and seemingly still alive Fruit and Flowers by Jan van Huysum (before 1726). 
Pieter de Hooch’s were nearby, preparing me for the one I’d seek out in Berlin.

Prague is another story, a picture perfect walking city, a museum of the streets where ancient and impeccably restored architecture (as far back as 800 AD) make it seem a continuous film set, a wonderland of on and on, and I enjoyed it all for six ever-unfolding days.

















On the Charles Bridge with Suzanna Simor, my gracious host in Prague.

Suzanna's home on the outskirts had formerly been her Grandmother’s. She bought and meticulously restored it after the Communist era. I shifted to its luxury from Alan’s modest and comfortable studio to her impeccably designed and groomed rooms with skylight metal blinds that close and open at the touch of a switch. Her fully restored Art Nouveau living room hides off the entry behind double doors. Its fabric wallpaper was specially selected by Suzanna to match the scene: an exquisite parquet floor, a polished to a rich shine large (is it cherry wood?) dining room table, built in commodes with exotic inlaid wood, upholstered dining room chairs, all topped with a suspended of the period chandelier. Another note of grandeur is the broad and winding staircase traveling to Suzanna’s second floor suite and my bedroom.
A partial view of Suzanna's house from the stoney road.
We had a great treat through my Bulgarian friend Anna's recommendation that I contact her friend, the American Cultural Affairs Officer in Prague. We were thus invited to an early morning visit on my first day in the city. We left Suzanna's house very early, walked the stony road to the train into the city and took a city bus through the most excellent part of town to the beautiful American Embassy. Our bags were scanned. We gave in our passports, cameras and cell phones in exchange for a receipt and day pass tag. Then shepherded into the garden behind the Embassy, we walked up and up stairs and more stairs to the  highest point overlooking all of Prague and its red tiled roofs. The American flag flew above. Suzanna told our host that it had flown thus throughout the Communist era. Visible throughout the city, it beamed the hope of Democracy with its every wave over Prague’s populace.  

It was still morning when we left the embassy. Suzanna proceeded to show me the city, indeed every site in the guidebooks. At the famous Jewish Quarter, I walked in its ancient cemetery. 100,000 dead are buried there, 12 layers deep (contrary to Jewish law, but there was no choice, no other space).

Most sobering was the silent memorial in the Pinkas Synagogue.  Its walls are totally covered with calligraphy. Lists and lists of beautiful uniformly written names of those who died in Nazi concentration camps, the names of the perished, the families, and where they’d lived. Up and down every interior walls, upstairs and down. Names cover every room. Many were familiar, held by neighbors from my childhood in Queens. I've friends bearing these names. Can I ask about their perished, their disappeared?



We walked on, first across the Charles Bridge, then past great buildings and monuments, the sculpture of Jan Hus, where Protestants were martyred in the 30 years war, where the Nazis executed, and then the communists (even more brutal). We walked past buildings built in the styles of time that now harmoniously nestle side by side. We passed through grand plazas. Lunch was potato soup and very good bread in the peaceful courtyard of the Campanuella Cafe Restaurant. Stepping inside a fine art gallery to see Eastern European and Russian contemporary art., and then surely the best handmade puppet shop in Prague, Truhlar Marionety. Suzanna bought a charming crafted angel. I took pics.
  



The famous Prague Castle’s flow of tourists. The guards stand impeccably still.

The museums are pleasure treasures and surprisingly spare of curious souls. I took in the Castle’s art collection (costs extra) and came unexpectedly upon Titian’s Woman at her Toilet, the very painting in Proust I’d searched and searched for at the Louvre last summer and where it was purported to be. It suddenly showed itself as I flitted past paintings less magnificent. A great reward!

Woman at her Toilet, Titian

There's a unique family art collection at the Lobkowicz Palace by Prague Castle. It houses paintings of Brueghel, Velazquez, Canaletto, and Cranach. Owned by Prince William zu Lobkowicz (born 1961) a nobleman from the House of Lobkowicz is an American with Bohemian (Czech) roots who grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1990, he moved to then Czechoslovakia to claim his family's vast ancestral holdings, which he continues to restore, preserve and display. Here's the Breueghal:

I met PhDr. Blanka Knotkova-Capkova through a long time Philosophy Professor friend in India, Shefali Moitra. We've stayed in touch since the 1970's. At her suggestion I applied for and received a Fulbright to India (1992-93). This time she wrote that I should meet Blanka. She and I sat in her lovely garden on my very last afternoon in the city talking about India (she’s been there 18 times), feminism, and the Czech psyche. She's invited me to return and lecture to her Gender and Asian Studies students. Perhaps I shall.

Next branch of my journey, to Berlin by train from Prague. The railway station for the train to Berlin is a throwback to Prague's past. I assume a bleak and barren communist past. There I also encountered only surly workers, seeming sour and hopeless spirits condemned to life in a grey and dismal railway station. Regardless, I rolled my suitcase and carry-on breathlessly up a long incline to the platform and holding fast to my first class ticket. When the train arrived, I was the sole first class passenger standing before that carriage. There was no one to help hoist my suitcase onto the train so I moved over to a second class carriage. A sturdy man weightlessly took on the chore. I squeezed into the crowd and luckily found a seat.

My ticket was checked officiously three times along the way, my passport twice. The train stopped briefly in Dresden, a still beautiful station built before the world wars. Its high glass arched steel framed ceiling overlooks a broad airy expanse. As promised, I waved through the air to Colin Ardley, Alan’s sculptor friend who has settled there.

The train ride sped by with friendly conversation with a middle aged German couple, unmarried and affectionate, and three Swedish young men on college holidays, one studying engineering and the others business. Gratefully, all spoke nearly fluent English.

I was excited to arrive in Berlin. The train station is modern, lively, and clearly marked for getting tourist information. I got a street and a metro/bus map with script large enough to read without a squint and caught a taxi at the stand. I asked the driver if he enjoyed being a Berliner. He glumly said, “No, life is full of problems.” “No, it’s not the traffic.” I didn’t probe. He drove to the apartment I’d rented for nine days through airBNB.  It was exactly as it appeared on line, roomy and modern. In the kitchen: electric coffee maker, electric tea kettle, a toaster, dishwasher, small fridge, a stove that started with the touch of a finger, and a washing machine. Around the corner: a German, Italian, Egyptian, Indian, Turkish, two Vietnamese restaurants, two bakeshops, an ice cream parlor, and the Karstadt department store. Across that street, a park.

Barbara Rothenberg’s amazing musician son David (davidrothenberg.wordpress.com/), in Berlin on an academic sabbatical and with wife and son was living in a flat around the corner and graciously helpful as well as wonderfully interesting as he filled me in with Berlin data. He walked me round  the neighborhood. Following his lead, I bought cheese and a smoked whitefish at the Turkish Market.

I walked to the Holocaust Museum  from my Kreuzberg flat.

The architecture of the museum rattled me with the armor of its fa├žade.
It's stark interior was disorienting (on purpose). A hugely tall space epitomizes bleak  absence. Most searing for me -  the long room - that hall laden with steel cut, calling/crying masks piled one onto another endlessly along the floor. Their silent screams stabbed, peeled raw - the grief, loss and fear. 




The next day I set out for the Gemaldegallerie of old master paintings, knowing from an email I’d sent and received before I left where I'd find Mantegna’s Cardinal Ludivico Trevisan whose hard, hard face Proust matches with his Marquis de Beausergent’s “doomed majesty.”  The reference comes up in the final volume, Time Regained in Proust's Remembrance of Lost Time.

Pieter de Hooch The Mother, another Proust painting that was of course among the Dutch paintings.
The museum's superb collection boasts of artists van Eyck, Bruegel, Durer, Rafael, Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Rubens. The painting though that stopped my breath: 
 Woman in an Ermine Jacket, Vermeer

A superb, magically, alive Vermeer. Its suspended moment in movement captured my delight as soon as I walked into its room. How did he do it? Certainly not as Tim hypothesizes in his film, Tim’s Vermeer. Tim never approached the magic. He spent more time replicating the tapestry than the faces. Its the faces, the hands, the gesture, the light, ah, the light, always the light that catches the life.

Light is magical everywhere, and today in my town, Ridgefield, CT it's spreading out its New England grey. The Director of Wilton's, CT Weir Farm artist residency (when I’d been there ten weeks years back) said that grey was my cultural heritage, that German, Russian and Polish grey. Is that why I feel at home in Germany? I’ve spent months in Koln and time in Munich, Hanover, Stuttgart and Kastl year after year throughout the 1980’s and sporadically since. Again, just now.

Though my first time in Berlin, I recognize immediately it is totally unique among German cities. It’s energy, the preponderance of young people strutting about in all manner of casual and still-hippy dress, and yes, its disorder. It continues on with what seems a laissez-faire re-invention of self. Cranes everywhere lack all aesthetic thought about blocking or not blocking the view of a Baroque architectural marvel. One building, as if to hide  dishevelment is wrapped with a painted scrim, a replica of what will eventually be restored within.

WWII bombs destroyed the city that keeps rebuilding itself as if Jesus lives amid the cranes and promising future salvation. I walked and walked, took the Metro, buses, saw the Brandenberg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, etc. I went to Potsdammer Platz's modern marvel of a mall with friend Eva and her friend Kat on the only day it’s empty of people, Sunday.

Of all the untold tales, endless ones still surface within those who've lived through through WWII and the communist era. My new friends in Berlin (through Eva) took me throughout the city. They’d lived there during and after WWII, as a divided city before the wall and then were frozen behind the wall they'd witnessed rising. Do the memorials and reminders splayed throughout the city matter to the young who keep coming to new Berlin? They seek its openness, cheap living and the anything goes spirit. Who's to blame them for harking back to a spirit reminiscent of the 1920’s, that slice of time, not quite a haven, but a respite between wars. It's revisited in today’s beat, technology, and now accepted diversity. Seems to me that people’s gestures mimic German Expressionist paintings. And the dramas of Berthold Brecht?
Brandenberg Gate

Kathe Kollowitz Memorial to the Victims of War and Terrorism


My Koln friend Eva arranged for me to meet her dear friends Elke and Ditte. They generously took me where I'd not know to venture and emboldened me to use the buses on my own. Invited to their Monday morning English class, I found the discussion broad and lively. Their Irish teach made occasional grammatical corrections. He'd just become a German citizen.
Suzanne, Elke and Ditta, Berlin 2014
They took me to the marvelous Museum Berggruen that houses a great collection of Picasso (many of Dora Maar), Mattisse, Klee and Giacommetti. After the wall fell, gallerist and private collector (Jewish) Heinz Berggruen was granted a newly vacant building to exhibit his collection. Prussian Cultural Heritage purchased the collection for the Nationalgalerie in 2000. After he died in 2007, family members added to the collection and continue their support.
Dora Maar, Picasso
Dora Maar, Picasso

I bought a three day museum pass and went to each one on Museum Island: the Altes Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the Bode Mseum, the Neues Museum and the Pergamon Museum. The Pergamon is soon closing for years of renovations. I got there in time. Nefertiti and Lion Gate won't be seen for a number of years. Two works in the Pergamon collection:



Lion Gate
 Lots of great work throughout Museum Mile. The buildings are astonishing
Altes Museum, Museuminsel, Berlin
 My favorite collection is the Gemaldegallerie where the Vermeer is. Look at what else I happened upon:
Botticelli and Cranach
Durer
Besides seeing art, let me not forget the balmy Saturday evening I came upon the tango dancers. The rhythmic music and the dancing went on non stop. I was pinned to it, pied-pipered, watching, listening. It was then that  I fell in love with Berlin.


Seemingly out of character, I went to the David Bowie show at the Martin-Gropious-Bau. Getting on in years, he's now planning to tour virtually! I encountered a documentary on David Bowie in India during some political mayhem when people were forbidden to go out on the streets. I was in India on a Fulbright and briefly in a Delhi hotel without a restaurant. There was just the TV and the government had shut out all the news. All there was to see was the David Bowie documentary. I watched. What I like was his talking about the difference between his being a person and a persona. There was a small mime of his enacting putting on a mask and then not being able to take it off. Obviously, that would interest me as a mask maker/performance artist.


 My dear friend Eva Eckhardt lives in Koln. She came to see me in Berlin. We've been friends since the 1980's when I had a studio in Koln and was creating 27 masks on the theme of the Holocaust way before the Shoah and Schindler's List films. Eva brought her Berlin friend Kat to walk with us and take me to the outdoor Holocaust Memorial.
Eva




Hagan, Suzane Benton Holocaust mask
welded steel



















Kat had been a boy solder in Hitler’s arm, drafted at 14 and stationed in occupied France.  Now in his 80s with long white hair and loose clothes, his energy is prodigious. He'd lived behind the Berlin wall. We walked through the former East Berlin area. He pointed out where Hitler’s bunker lay buried. New buildings surround it. Remaining underground, unmarked, a hidden secret from the past.
Kat at the Holocaust Memorial, Berlin
Here's Kat at the Holocaust Memorial walking down seemingly endless rows of rectangles, each, if you look, is somewhat different from the others with singular cracks, holes or scratches. Even the distance between aisles, deceptively appearing uniform, is in fact varied, telling us of individuality amid the callous and cruel, the inhuman uniformity of that history of human annihilation.

Checkpoint Charley, the Holocaust Museum, the Holocaust Memorial, they are there, on the streets, to be seen, acknowledged or ignored. To me, The Wall of Terror was mild compared to what I’d learned as a child from refugees from Hitler, those living in my Queens, NY apartment building, refugees who’d arrived before, during and after the war with ashen stony faces permanently etched with their seeping, weeping loss.

Here I am, home again after nine days in that sleekly renovated apartment in the Kreuzberg district in Berlin with it’s efficient kitchen, comfortable bed, back terrace, storefront door and more. It was easy to slip into as if a home. The door was frosted, keeping me from sight, but I saw silhouettes of passersby sweeping past the door long into the night. I heard their voices, but not in my bedroom. Every room had a door to shut out all noise.

The Tube was a short walk away. The Turkish market trotted out twice a week with fresh food and sundries. I ate Vietnamese, Indian, mostly Indian and bought my croissants daily from the nearest bakeshop. Everything so near. Back home in Ridgefield, CT. I walk barely trafficked roads with friend Lisa, have a happy lunch in town miles away with Kathleen from the memoir group, listened to and saw a MET opera DVD at the Playhouse the other day and drove downtown to say hello at Olley Court where two of my artworks await buyers.

Do I see the familiar with the same sense of wonder I had on the trip? Proust, still, his prodigious memory tutors me to keep looking not just blink, to look with commentary. This morning it was breakfast on the on the deck and taking in the sky with its ocular of blue amidst the white/grey about to rain clouds. So far its cool today, no rain after much yesterday night, yesterday and last night, nearly drowning my plants on the deck. I had to spill the overabundance filling the pots.

My old refrigerator is filled with Ridgefield’s weekly open market produce, specialty shop cheese and super market specials. That chilly box sings a peculiar, familiar cadence on auto defrost. In Berlin, food went into a fridge with transparent shelves for the exact number of days: nine eggs, daily breakfast croissants, salami (a taste of Italy), a lime. I gave David Rothenberg my jar of quince jam and the lime at lunch on departure day. It was his birthday.

Lastly, I must mention David's telling me about  the private Sammlung Hoffman Museum's  Saturday
 Lisa and I went  to learn about Erika Hoffman's unique contemporary collection. We also saw the Flex Gallery two-person exhibit our tour guide Isabel and her colleague Hannah put together. Isabel is coming to CT in August. I've invited her to visit my Ridgefield studio. We can stay in touch. It's a delight when my worlds meet.
I thought coming home would mean discontent with my kitchen. In Prague I reveled in Suzanna’s perfectly current kitchen. Her stove too asks only for a finger's touch to start the heat. Her spiral grand staircase is so generous compared to my nearly hidden one to the downstairs. But no, home is home, my kitchen is fine, familiar and functional. I’ll never make changes, well maybe a new stove, dishwasher or whatever. Settling in as I am, I must remind myself to look and listen as if I’ve never been here before. And, my studio awaits attention, devotion, my life.
Last trip photo, taken by Alan on my overnight pass-through from Berlin, soon leaving for Heathrow and my flight home.