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).