A day in Leipzig

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Alte Handelsbörse, Leipzig

One of the things I find surprising about east German cities is that there is so much housing (i.e. apartments) right in the centre. This block is a stone’s throw from the Museum der bildenden Künste and the Hauptbahnhof:

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I’ve noticed the same thing in Cottbus and Chemnitz. The town planners in Coventry probably had the same idea when they built flats above the shops in the precinct, but I read that they were not popular and the residential element was turned over to commercial premises.

German Jugendstil is a bit heavy on the Gothic: they can’t quite abandon gargoyles:

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Twentieth-century events have left their mark on Leipzig: turn-of-the-century prosperity and innovation, war-time destruction, Soviet-era blocks, post-Wende renovation and then hyper-capitalism. It makes for a mix of styles.

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Requit – Viennese-style art nouveau café which appears to have had the turret added since reunification and the neighbouring building knocked down, according to Stefan Koppelkamm’s photos in the Museum für bildenden Künste (fine arts)

I spent much more of this afternoon in the Museum than I intended – but less than it deserved. Max Beckmann in particular got short shrift, but I hope I can remedy that another day.

The building itself is tremendous: like plastic sheeting over a scaffold, so that from the outside it is hardly there:

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but inside it is massive. The doors require all your strength to open them and are at least half as tall as regular doors – even in the toilets. You feel like a tiny Alice in the central well: it certainly tells you that this place is bigger than you.

Things I particularly liked:

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Kneeling King from the Adoration of the Magi by Michel Erhart, Ulm, late 15th century. Its expressiveness reminded me of the wonderful carved wooden heads in Ulm’s church. It’s almost like a moment of static soap opera.

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Head of an old woman, Christian Seybold, first half of 18th century. It could be a photograph! I know that’s a back-handed compliment today, but the skill and observation are timeless.

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Christ on Olympus, Max Klinger, 1897

This was my introduction to Max Klinger in the flesh. A faint “My goodness” escaped me when I saw it. I spent some time assessing my reaction: something between a giggle, a queasiness at the combination of frank nudity with Christian themes, and a feeling that it just looked like a lot of life studies put together. It is odd, isn’t it? Those bottom corner statues coming out of the frame reminded me of the creepy furniture in Barcelona. I bought a short guide to the restoration of the work which will require a lot of translation. I don’t suppose it will explain those children’s heads in the palm tree, though. Massacred innocents, anyone?

A penny dropped when I saw Klinger’s 1902 statue of Beethoven: of course, it was designed for the Secession Building in Vienna to go with Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze and other works. This statue has more children’s heads: I definitely need to read up on Klinger’s symbolism.

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I don’t like it, but it is intriguing.

The most engaging part was one of the temporary exhibitions – that of photographs by Stefan Koppelkamm. He photographed streets shortly after the Wende in 1990, then returned 10 or 12 years later to photograph the same place. The transformations are remarkable. I know that the DDR was often described as grey, but the 1990 photographs really hammer it home. Some of the transformations are what you would expect: coats of paint, renewed stucco, ornamental gables replaced, streets lined with parked cars, more shop signs. Other transformations are the reverse: shabby buildings formerly inhabited are now empty and are completely derelict (e.g. Halberstadt). And there is even a third stage: Koppelkamm’s 1990 photo of Selter & Weinert shows a tatty shop; in 2002 it’s a smartened-up clothes shop; when I passed it today it was empty and slightly shabby.

One scene in particular reminded me to be more discriminating in assessing what I see. The 1990 photo of the corner of Barfußgäßchen and Dittrichring showed a derelict and dirty building with only two floors remaining. Today it is a heavily renovated, smart five-storey building that looks as if it has been there unchanged for 100 years. Perhaps when I talked about towns being “pickled in aspic” during the DDR years, I should have added “or neglected”.

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