Germany : Memories of a Nation

Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading the book of this title that accompanied the British Museum exhibition of the same name and the series of BBC Radio 4 talks by its author (and British Museum director), Neil MacGregor.

Memories of a nation

It’s a weighty hardback book, nearly six hundred pages long and with masses of photos and maps. There are 30 chapters. This is no conventional history of Germany. Instead, MacGregor chooses to focus (as he did in his ground-breaking History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition, talks and book which  has generated umpteen spin-offs) on objects and pictures which he feels relate to a “German history [which] may be inherently fragmented, but … contains a large number of widely shared memories, awarenesses and experiences”. Quotations here are all taken from the book.

8 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Each of the chapters was absorbing but several held particular interest for me. I studied German for four years at school to A-level and have visited Germany a few times. So when I read the chapter “One Nation under Goethe” I was straightaway reminded of his “Urfaust” (the earliest form of his Faust work) which we studied for A-level. But most of the chapter presented a picture of the German equivalent of William Shakespeare which I did not recognise.

Goethe and Faust

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe by Johann Tischbein and my 1968 edition of Faust Part One

The object  MacGregor focuses on is the Tischbein portrait of Goethe (1786-7) which shows the playwright (and polymath) in a classical setting “out of these survivors of a dead culture, Goethe will make something living”. Interestingly, for his fourth birthday Goethe was given, by his father, a toy puppet theatre which can still be seen today in his birthplace museum in Frankfurt. Goethe later wrote that this gift was to change his life. He was to become especially interested in Shakespeare and it was the influence of his (Shakespeare’s) writing that led Goethe to write his first work “The Sorrows of Young Werther“. MacGregor declares “Werther established German for the first time as a European literary language”.

17 An artist for all Germans

Durer self portrait

Self-Portrait – Albrecht Durer (1500)

The artist Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) created the first and possibly the most celebrated logo of all German logos. I remembered visiting the British Museum as a student to see The Graphic Work of Albrecht Durer in late 1971 or early 1972. This was an exhibition of Durer’s prints and drawings in celebration of the 500th anniversary of his birth. I remember seeing his Praying Hands drawing and Young Hare etching in a beautiful dark room where only the pictures were lit. More recently I visited a show of his work at the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight on Merseyside, ‘Durer and Italy’, in the summer of 2010.

knight in armour

20 Cradle of Modernism



The cradle in question was designed by Peter Keler in 1922 and is still in production today and the modernist movement with which chapter 20 is concerned is Bauhaus. Elegant and simple sums up Bauhaus design established in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius. Inspired by historic German values it was to “combine the medieval-guild traditions of communal working with the most rigorous principles of modern design and the enormous potential of industrial production”. Funding for the Bauhaus was cut in 1924 when the Social Democrats lost power in Thuringia. In 1925 it moved to Dessau. Although intending to be apolitical, when the Nazis took control of Dessau the Bauhaus moved again and to Berlin but was finally closed in 1933 when it had been “condemned by the Nazis as a centre of cultural Bolshevism”. There is now a Bauhaus Archive in Berlin which I have seen from a tour boat but not yet visited (it’s on my list!).

bauhaus archive

 Bauhaus Archive, Berlin

22 The Suffering Witness

Neue Wache

Here is my photo (2009) of the Neue Wache or “New Guard House” built by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in Berlin. The sculpture is an enlarged version of “Mother with her dead son” by Kaethe Kollwitz. The light is from the oculus in the roof. The memorial to the fallen of the war lies directly under the oculus exposed to all the Berlin weather.

mother and son

In this chapter MacGregor talks about the life and work of the sculptor and printmaker Kaethe Kollwitz (1867-1945). The sculpture above, within the Neue Wache, was chosen by Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1993 as a “memorial to the Victims of War and Tyranny” to be placed in this “austere neo-classical building in the heart of Berlin”.

I also recommend the chapters on Gutenberg (16 In the Beginning was the Printer); on the Hanseatic city-states (13 The Baltic Brothers) and on beer and sausages (10 One People, Many Sausages)!


At The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen

I’ve been hesitating as to whether to post about my visit to the British Museum on Thursday. Obviously I am no art critic, have no training in art and very little knowledge on the subject and even less knowledge about Grayson Perry himself so this is just my own personal comment. When I first heard about “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman”  I was very excited to see it.

I had no idea what to expect but the thought of choosing artefacts, items made by craftsmen and women over the decades, centuries and millennia, from the vast archive of the British Museum had overwhelming appeal for me. Put together with recently crafted pots and tapestries and what I believe are called installations for me the mix was a huge success. I loved it!

We’ve had A History of The World in 100 objects and Our Top Ten British Treasures and now we have a kind of temporary memorial to all of the unknown craftsmen and women whose work has been collected by the museum – or donated to it – over the centuries of its existence.

The exhibition is divided into themes such as Shrines, Journeys, Magick, Maps, Souvenirs of Pilgrimage, Sexuality and Gender, Scary Figures and Patina and Texture. I think I’ve remembered them correctly.

There is Grayson Perry’s teddy bear Alan Measles in his own shrine on the back of GP’s motorcycle. There was a radio programme about the journey they made to Germany on the bike on Radio 4 last November.

No photography is allowed inside the Exhibition but I did take a few notes of GP’s comments on some of the themes that most interested me.

On the topic of Journeys he says :

“The “journey” has become a tired metaphor of reality TV describing a transformative experience. I come on a journey every time I visit the British Museum. I enjoy idealised foreign travel in my head. Walking from my house in WC1 within 20 minutes I can have an encounter with the world.” 

You may have thought the title of this post included a typing error but it is intentional because GP and many of us see The British Museum as a Tomb to Unknown Craftsmen. A pot by Perry on display is called “A Walk in Bloomsbury”.

On Maps he says :

We trust maps. Maps are meant to be a trustworthy diagram of reality. All maps though contain some very human bias. They emphasise desirable features and leave out the undesirable. I like maps of feelings, beliefs and the irrational, they use our trust of maps to persuade us that there might be truth in their beauty.”

I have always loved maps and was delighted see a copy of  a book recommended to me by a friend and which has long lain in my Amazon shopping basket:  You are here : personal geographies ; by Katharine Harmon. A fabric map by Perry fills one wall – to see it at its best wait until you have moved into the next room and view it through a hatch in the wall.

On Souvenirs of Pilgrimage he says :

We all make journeys to see places or people that are significant to us. It is natural to want a keepsake of the trip to remind ourselves and show others. Pilgrims usually travel light so the souvenir may only be a badge, a photo or a signature.”

I was delighted to see masses of badges collected over the years by the British Museum. Even such ephemera has a role in the exhibition. I smile because I have a box full of badges up in the attic.

This final quotation has a resonance for me too. I’m a great visitor to churches on my travels. On the subject of Scary Figures Perry says :

“We have always had images at gateways to warn and protect. Cathedrals had carvings over the doors showing the Last Judgement and the damned going to hell – now we have CCTV.”

To find out more  there’s a book that accompanies the exhibition (of course) and here’s a link to the exhibition in pictures :

Grayson Perry’s Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman – in pictures

In the end I didn’t buy a souvenir but I saw three books which will go on my library suggestions list :

50 British Artists you should know, by Lucinda Hawksley

You are here : personal geographies ; by Katharine Harmon.

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman by Grayson Perry.