Art Moves in Germany (Core Course Week, Part 2)

(Part 1 here)

Thursday, February 6th

I forget my toothbrush, somehow. And my hairbrush. I won’t figure this out and be able to fix it until later tonight, rifling through my backpack on the fifth floor of a hostel in Hamburg, Germany.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My core course’s study tour begins after I slip off the darkened grounds of the folkehøjskole at 5:45am, “Misirlou” pumping through my headphones to keep me awake. Our class takes the tour bus down a road with creeping mist and yellowed grass; then a nausea-filled ferry ride over the German border; then the bus again. Then we’re in Lübeck, a picturesque town surrounded by waterfront blocks and old steeples. It could be part of Copenhagen, only the signs are populated by umlauts instead of the slashed-through “ø”.

The cafe my lunch group goes to won’t take any non-German credit cards, so I jog a block over to get euros from a bank. As the bills slide out of the machine, I’m surprised at how much I’ve missed their colors and close-to-USD denominations from last semester. The holes in the center of Danish kroner coins are definitely cooler, though.

Lübeck waterfront

Brian split our tour into two parts – an “Apollonian” one for harmonious activities, like the fine arts, and a “Dionysian” one centered in the energy of the crowd, culminating in a Hamburg football game. Starting from Apollo’s side, we’re here in Lübeck to take in Marienkirche–St. Mary’s Church–and see if it still “works” as an art piece in speaking to us today.

We gather around a gated-off area inside, where a bell rests, shattered, in an indentation in the brick floor. Both bells fell from their places in the church’s two spires during an air raid in World War II, which also caused a historic medieval tapestry to catch fire.

One of the broken bells of St. Mary’s. (Photo credit: Paul)

The most quiet class seminar we’ve ever had happens here, done in whispers outside the gate–on why the bell was preserved like this, what kind of losses it might symbolize. Erik comments that the bell shows that for just one night in 1942, it might have seemed to the people of Lübeck, even in this place of faith, that a God wasn’t there.

St. Mary’s sanctuary

I walk the full church hall, feeling some of my worries from Wednesday return as I try to get it. I see all the cues–the high ceilings, the suspended wooden cross, the glass–and appreciate how beautifully they’re arranged. But Brian has spoken about how for those living during the church’s construction in the Middle Ages, St. Mary’s would’ve been the center of their lives–literally, with everything else in town pointing towards it–and a reflection of the divine itself. I’ve been taught that these things represent something sacred, and why, yet this church will probably never hold the same significance for me which it did for that community. Maybe that’s a deeper layer of loss.

Another bus ride finds us by the afternoon in the neighborhood of St. Pauli, Hamburg, where smokestacks rise up in the distance and every lamppost is covered over in a thousand raucous stickers. DIS covers our trip to Marblau, a Mediterranean fusion restaurant, for dinner; Rebecca, Tess, Maya and I talk over the meal about ABBA and terrible young adult dystopia books we once loved.

Marblau’s fig and pancetta pizza

Keeping the Apollonian mood going, we end the day with baroque music at the city concert hall. I’m nodding along with the first half of the show, but all the pieces seem to run together after intermission (albeit melodiously). Clearly, this is something else which should be working for me today but isn’t; half our class looks rapturous in the row behind me when it’s time for applause. My music taste really must be rotting my brain.

…then again, there’s an involved exploration on the walk to the city bus of whether we could’ve had an equal artistic experience by singing through the “Mamma Mia!” musical. In “Myth and Reason”, everything’s fair game!

Friday, February 7th

Breakfast is served at a pizza place next to the hostel, but contains no pizza; then we’re up and off on the train. The railway map looks like thirty colored earphones tangled in a pile, and somehow makes the Danish zone system seem simple.

Hauptbahnhof, the central train station in Hamburg, shot from the escalator.

Brian situates us on the first floor of the art museum, the Hamburg Kunsthall–hey, kunst, a Danish-German crossover word! We’re at the center of an art history ring that starts somewhere in saintly iconography and makes a lazy arc on over to the 1950s, and have gathered around this piece, “Der Mann im Stock” (“the man on the floor”), by Ernst Barlach. It reminds some of us of piety; others, struggle; others, old age. Brian thinks it works, and Heidegger thought a lot of Barlach’s pieces did, too.

“Der Mann im Stock”

Like at St. Mary’s, we’re free from guided tours or museum headphones, and have some time to engage with the art in our own ways. (We’ll write reflections about pieces that we were drawn to, like at the Glyptotek, when we return.) Renee and I get lost on a walkway between the contemporary exhibits in the basement and an entirely separate building, barely making it out in time for lunch. Maya and Erik tell us afterwards that, apparently, all the good Impressionist stuff was on the other side. “There were paintings that you see in art textbooks!” Erik will say at dinner, whipping out his phone to show examples.

The afternoon is set aside for an “art walk” around Hamburg, featuring the pieces mentioned in our class readings and discussions. As we progress, I realize that it’s also a chronological walk through history. First comes the tall, monumental pillar engraved with a mother and child, commemorating the “40,000 sons” of the city who died in World War I.

The Hamburg waterfront

In a nearby park, we contrast two pieces from the following war. On the left, a commemorative stone associated with the Nazis features figures that seem to have marched out of a propaganda poster (as Gus points out), with a text glorifying self-sacrifice in battle. Further down is an art piece made in response, portraying the victims of World War II bombings; the people are disfigured and dying, but seem more human. It’s a dialogue that forces you to walk the full length of the path.

Then, a stop at the home playing field for St. Pauli’s football club, a team known for their distinctive pirate logo and open-minded fans. (Brian kindly surprises us with matching skull-and-crossbones fan pins!) Nearby looms a former bunker from the second world war, currently a dance club, soon to be a hotel.

Throughout the route, Brian points out gold solpersteine, or “stumbling stones“, positioned carefully between the ordinary sidewalk tiles. Each brick memorializes a resident of Hamburg who was persecuted or killed under the Nazi government; they’re often placed near each person’s home. It’s sobering, yet with a bittersweet undercurrent of (for lack of a better word) hope. Someone points out that, while these individuals were dehumanized during their life, we can remember their loss today by their full name and address. For the rest of our time outside, our eyes are peeled to the ground, seeking out names.

Our final dinner is at the restaurant Nil. “Wow, mange tak–” –thanks very much– “–DIS,” Rebecca laughs, when we learn of its Michelin-starred status. Nora, a member of DIS’s administrative staff who’s on tour with us, jokes “I’m not even sure if I know how to eat this?!” as she scrolls through the menu on her phone.

We figure it out–plus, on our side, Gus, Travis, Chase and I make the happy discovery that unlimited bread is included on the tab. Mid-meal, Loren kicks off a conversation about whether people always picture deities in their own human image, which I guess was the sort of thing that was bound to happen when you shoved everyone in our philosophy class at the same tables.

Appetizer: salmon with pesto and lentils

A few groups go out into the city to dance to techno music; I’d love to join them, but the sniffle I’ve been nursing since the beginning of the week has morphed into a full-on state of Being Sick. There’s one Greek myth where a group of sisters, the daughters of the king Minyas, refuse to join Dionysus for his festivities because they’re weaving. In retaliation, he infests their looms with ivy and makes them turn on their children. I wonder what, hypothetically, Dionysus’s stance on forty-eight-hour colds would be.

Saturday, February 8th

At least two other people fall to sicknesses worse than mine during the weekend. We’re all offering up pain medicine and cough drops, making pharmacy runs, helping each other with luggage. Who knew that, during a weekend in Germany, stomach pains and sore throats and general sleep deprivation would be the some of the things we’d bond over most?

Everyone makes it back on the bus, though, as we go to our last artwork–St. Nikolai Church, the tallest building in the world when it was reconstructed in 1874.

Tower of St. Nikolai

The tower is stunning–you really have no choice but to crane your head up. And I suppose it’s so stunning that it erases any memory of the historical context or information from class I walked onto this site with. Wow, I think, if this is the steeple, the sanctuary must be just as well-built.

There is no full sanctuary.

Over the unfailing sounds of the church bells–which cut Brian off twice during our class conversation–we learn that most of St. Nikolai collapsed during Operation Gomorrah, the Allied bombing campaign on Hamburg during World War II. Today, the site is preserved as it was, to paraphrase one plaque, as an “argument against war”.

In both the observation tower and a museum in the church basement, displays explain not only the tragedy of the bombing for the church, but the actions within Nazi Germany which escalated the war to that point. Can I think of an American museum display I’ve seen that recorded history with that kind of nuance? I come up short.

Bells of St. Nikolai

Outside St. Nikolai and the bells, the surrounding area’s been rebuilt and modernized since the destruction, and it’s quiet on the street, save for rushing cars. On the grounds, I have no choice but to enter the world the church preserves of a tragedy in 1943. And I begin to grasp at a stronger idea of how to tell when something “works”.

After this last visit seems like a strange time to get Dionysian; I still feel like I’m in the world of St. Nikolai when I step on the bus. The walk to the football game, which takes us through a forest, is a good transition. “This is much more exciting,” someone points out, than being dropped in a stadium parking lot.

I’m not sure if the members of “Myth and Reason” fully become one with the crowd–more than once we have to consult with Brian to tell the Hamburg club apart from their rivals, who also have a blue logo. Everyone’s on their feet, though, for the two goals that Hamburg scores to win the day, when a collective roar floats up over the field. I bob my head along to the intensely choreographed chants of the home team’s fan section, who have special permission to cart in massive drums. On the way out of the park, some overenthusiastic German fans photobomb our group picture.

Now bus, ferry, bus back home to Denmark, the rides passing in a blur of sleep. In a tunnel on the way to Copenhagen, the lights streak a champagne-color, and the silhouette figures of everyone at the front of the vehicle glow. On the train to Roskilde, it’s just me and Loren again, ending core course week the way we started it–talking still. About travel and our long-distance commute. About whether, in a place like Hamburg, you ever can–or should–separate the present from the historical past.

Somewhere in my notes I have a comment scribbled from class, some qualifier for art. If you couldn’t have a realization about living or a shift in perspective without having seen a particular piece, it must be truly great. I can’t speak too soon, but I think this specific study tour opened up things for our class that wouldn’t have happened without it. Mange tak, DIS. For real.

Header image: “The Wanderer” (Apollonian) stands in front of the sticker wall at the FC St. Pauli store (Dionysian).


Art Is Dead? (Core Course Week Etc., Part 1)

Tuesday, 1/29

There are certain phrases that sound perfectly normal after a few weeks in another country. Only when you remove yourself from the moment can you realize how lucky you are–how ridiculous it is–to be able to say them.

Like when I was abroad last semester, knee-deep in Attic Greek homework, and leaving the apartment: “I’m going to go sit on the Acropolis for a while and clear my head.” Or the way we give each other directions to places in Copenhagen: “It’s by the castle. No, not that castle, another one.”

Or more recently: Tuesday, when everyone from DIS is out on our folkehøjskole floor common room, and Loren leans over and says, “Hey, Claire, are you ready for Germany?”


“You know, the study tour?”

“Yeah, I know–that’s next week?”


Yeah. You know. Just heading on over the border into Lübeck and Hamburg for three days. For a field trip. Normal stuff.

“…of course!”

Saturday, 2/1

I barely catch the last train that can arrive at Copenhagen Central Station by 8:30am–the time of my visa appointment in the city. The DIS Roskilde folkehøjskole group takes up half the top floor of the bus shuttling us over to the government building. Inside, we wait on line to scan our fingerprints and get our passports reviewed; outside, it’s grim, and it rained at some unidentifiable point. My phone’s camera still finds rainbows everywhere.

At the Royal Danish Library cafe, I struggle to parse this week’s Kierkegaard readings over a croissant. As a break, I go up to the top floor, five stories above, for the “Grand View” of the waterways.

My afternoon’s free, so I cross the waterfront bridge; I want to figure out how to reach the inviting brown-gold spire I see every day over the skyline. (When you’re not navigating by castles in Copenhagen, you’re using spires.)

The building is Vor Frelsers Kirke–the Church of Our Savior–over on Christianshavn. The sanctuary inside turns out to be just as stunning as the tower:

Nearby are canals and vein-like streams, along with a marshy park that grew over a set of fortifications first planned by King Christian IV. I take the escalator down into the subway home, and a musician plucks out an acoustic version of (fittingly) “Love is All Around“.

Sunday, 2/2

Three hours inside the National Museum of Denmark…and I don’t even make it to the Vikings.

I guess I should’ve anticipated feeling overwhelmed–there’s four floors in the museum, spanning thousands of years of Danish and world history. I spend most of the afternoon lost in the “peoples of the world” section, particularly the room that plays both ancient and contemporary music from different cultures. I also pass through the rooms of 18th-century Denmark, learning about divine rule and festivals and persecuted folk beliefs. (There’s an uncanny number of traditions that end in some warning about becoming a single “old hag”.)

Back in Roskilde, our floor celebrates a DIS-double birthday weekend! Malobi and Zach cut the first slices of a tangy lemon cake and open the cards that we all signed on Friday night. Keeping with national birthday tradition, a mini-Dannebrog (Danish flag) is put out on the counter for decoration.

Around midnight, a crowd of enthusiastic Scandinavians and DIS students congregates in ROFH’s Orange Room–named for the fluorescent shade that coats the chairs, ceiling, and wall–to watch the Super Bowl in real time. I last a half-hour before calling it quits, but several Americans make it til three or four in the morning, planning to sleep while in transit for their own DIS trips the next day.

The first quarter begins, to a packed house

Monday, 2/3

Happy Monday! Art is dead.

Or is it? Our goal as a class this strange week–Core Course Week–is to figure it out. For the next three days, all our other classes have been waived for four-hour sessions (with lunch breaks) and a field study in “Myth and Reason”. Then, on Thursday morning, we’ll all leave for our “study tour” to Germany together.

We’ve got quite the match-up to judge, too. In one corner, Hegel argues that we’ve turned to use science and reason as our ways of understanding the world, and art can never hold the kind of power for us that it did for ancient people. In the other, Heidegger pushes back, writing that art can still have something to say about what it means to be human. And then there’s Nietzsche, who makes a guest star appearance in our reading during class to wail that everything sacred is dead (or so he claims).

Brian asks us if we think there’s any art left that has fundamentally shifted our understanding of the world, and hesitant answers crop up: cathedrals, Mad Men, Harry Potter. Maya suggests punk rock, and Brian agrees, saying that those bands are often more interested in the spirit and beliefs they play in than the world’s ideas about quality: “They’re just like, ‘How do you do this?'” Miscellaneous guitar noises ensue. “‘Oh, OK. Cool!'”

Coincidentally, I was listening to this the night before…

The train’s late after class, spoiling my evening plans to track down a helmet before the biking shops close. But I stumble on a huge mall in downtown Roskilde which somehow contains every Danish outlet store I’ve learned to recognize so far:

Not pictured: Netto, 7-Eleven (not technically Danish, but close enough), ALDI, etc.

I buy a whiteboard at Arnold Busck for our floor–the suggestion for a place to doodle and leave messages popped up at our last meeting–and, embarrassed, ask the cashier for “Engelsk?” (English?) when I don’t realize she’s offering me a bag.

The common room is eerily quiet that night when I go to put the board up–no trap music, no laughter. Nearly all the other DIS students have their study tours at the beginning of this week. I stay up too late working on Tuesday’s readings and a blog post; by the time I go to sleep, the first news from the Iowa caucus has started rolling across social media.

Tuesday, 2/4

Our class hasn’t quite killed off art yet, but we spend a lot of time today talking about ghosts–the “spirit” of people; the way places feel haunted when they don’t mean something to us anymore. Brian projects images on the board of some of the creations we’ll be visiting in Germany, and each time, asks the question that will become infamous in our class–“Does it work?” Does it still have something meaningful to say?

Erik, Sarah and I order food at Sandwichpigen, AKA “The Sandwich Girl”–a popular DIS lunch spot because of their student discounts. We check out a basement-level cafe-bookstore that’s caught Erik’s eye, only to discover the literature is entirely French-language. None of us know French, so we scan spines and call out authors we recognize.

Den Franske Bogcafes Efterfølger

During dinner at the folkehøjskole, ROFH student Eskil animatedly tells me about football club rivalries and fan fighting when he finds out our class is going to a game in Hamburg. “Do people in the United States have fights like that about sports?” he wants to know. I admit he might get better answers from another DIS student–like Aiden, who seems to not have missed a single American football game since we’ve arrived. But I know enough to tell him about the frenzy in the streets in Philadelphia after the Eagles won the Super Bowl last year. Eskil assures me our class will probably be fine, and won’t run into any “hooligans”.

I have my longest Danish conversation thus far with the toddler of a visiting teacher, leading with “Hvad hedder du?” (What’s your name?). The rest of the evening is for helping with dishes and doing a last round of laundry before the trip–“practical matters”, as Brian might say.

Wednesday, 2/5

A holiday! The Dannebrog hangs from Christiansborg and (in a tinier form) off of buses alike. Our class meets up at Cafe Katz for coffees and refreshments before our field study; there, Rebecca figures out using her phone that it’s Crown Princess Mary’s birthday. Brian laughs–he’s got dual Danish-American citizenship, but it’s still hard to keep track of all of the royals.

Today we’re visiting the Glyptotek, with a goal of taking pictures of art that we think–you guessed it!–“works”. We have to upload our images and reasoning as a discussion post online before the week ends. Paul and Nicole both bring real cameras, cementing their status as two of our class’s Legit Photographers.

An uncomfortable realization hits me when we’re given free time to roam the halls. I’ve always loved going to museums like the Glyptotek, but usually because of the beauty of the art, or what it tells me about a certain time period, or because I like playing Mythological I-Spy like the classics nerd I am (“Hey, Amazons fighting Greeks on a vase!”). All well and good, but when’s the last time a piece of art really changed my worldview? Is art dead to me?

I like the memento mori message of the piece I end up using my assignment, though I’m still not sure if I feel it, or if it really sinks in.

“Death and the Maiden” by Elna Borch

The afternoon is my last time for a little while to be fully present in the city, and I want to soak it in, get a full sense of the spirit. I start on Strøget, the longest pedestrian street in the world, keeping an eye out for lamppost stickers and churches.

On Skindergade Street, where “Myth and Reason” meets, I browse around in Accord, the used vinyl store (despite not owning a record player). Eskil and I talked on Tuesday night about records in Denmark after I said how surprised I was to find three different shops for them in Copenhagen. He said that the “hipsters” were helping to bring them back, before imploring me to listen to Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (one of my big rock blind spots) in its entirety. Records, he explained, helped him listen to albums like that as a whole, without feeling tempted to skip tracks. I get a little of my optimism about art back–maybe, if you approach it in certain ways, it’s more likely to “work”.

I end in the University of Copenhagen library, where stained glass circles line the walls and burnt candle stubs mark the tables. (In Denmark, candles are welcomed almost everywhere!)

It’s a night of arrivals and departures in Roskilde. The common room springs back to life as people return from study tours; Zach brings home a spongy cake that tastes like bananas. In my room, I roll up jeans in my backpack, throw in my passport, wonder how our class will get by this weekend without a lick of German language knowledge (that I know of) among us. I sleep less than I should.

(Part 2 later this week…)

(Header image: Loren, in the middle of some crushing revelations about art, strikes a pose in front of the Sphinx sculpture at the Glyptotek.)