Red Love: The Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

This is the family history of three generations of Germans. The author’s grandparents were young during WWII; one grandfather fought in the French Resistance, the other seems to have been a lukewarm Fascist, but both ended up being inspired by the promise of the new socialist East Germany that was going to rise out of the ruins of the war. Then his parents grew up as products of the GDR, and he was a young man when the Berlin Wall came down.

GDR Tootsie

He’s got plenty of good material, and it’s well-written*, so if it sounds like the kind of thing you might like, you’ll probably like it.

* Apart from some slightly clunky tense shifts; he opens chapters in the past tense to establish the scene then switches to the present tense for the bulk of the text. Maybe it works better in German.

» The photo, ‘KULTUR, BERLIN GDR 1984’ is © phillygdr and used under a CC by-nc licence.

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Cranach at the Royal Academy

Now this is my kind of exhibition. I don’t what it is I find so appealing about the Northern Renaissance; obviously, artists like Dürer, Van Eyck and Breugel are among the all-time greats of European art, but I love it all: van der Weyden, Memling, Bosch, Holbein, and indeed the star of this show, Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I like the Italian stuff as well, but there’s something about these northern painters I can’t get enough of. Maybe, as someone with a soft spot for the medieval, it’s because the continuity with the medieval is in some ways more obvious in the north. Maybe it’s because I am myself northern European; maybe there really is a northern sensibility — a gothic sensibility, if you like — which runs a great deal deeper than one might imagine. Or not.

portrait of a Saxon Princess, Lucas Cranach the Elder

Whatever the reason for them, it’s amazing how much difference these preferences can make. The other day I went up to see the Cranach, but the ‘From Russia‘ exhibition was still running at the Royal Academy and the queues were horrendous, so I popped in to the Pompeo Batoni at the National instead. Batoni was an C18th Italian artist who did history paintings and portraits, many of them English aristos doing the Grand Tour. I didn’t bother to blog about it because I just found it so boring. In the Cranach, on the other hand, I liked every single work, even the ones were it didn’t seem like he was really trying.

And there are a few like that; apparently he was famous at the time as a quick man with a brush, the person to go to if you’d just built a new castle and needed a dozen paintings on assorted themes to brighten up the place. He had a big workshop and churned out lots and lots of work, including many repetitions of the same themes. Compare, for example, these portraits of Martin Luther, all in different galleries: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Cranach was a friend of Luther’s, and as well as portraits of Luther he painted biblical scenes illustrating Protestant themes, illustrations for Luther’s German translation of the bible, and other Protestant propaganda material; yet that didn’t stop him taking commissions for prominent Catholics. There was a marvellous portrait of Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg who was working on a Catholic version of the bible in German, painted as St Jerome, the man who translated the bible into Latin. He’s sitting in his suitably German-looking study, wearing his red cardinal’s robes, surrounded by animals, including a lion, a parrot, a squirrel and a family of pheasants.

Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Elder

And I don’t suppose Luther would have approved of the sexy pictures of naked, pot-bellied, weaselly-faced blonde girls, who all look the same whether they are supposed to be Lucretia, Eve or Venus. One of these features on the posters for the exhibition, and the National managed to gain a bit of free publicity when it was initially rejected by London Underground as being too racy for them.

As you can tell, I give the show a big thumbs-up. I just don’t understand why it should be so much less popular than ‘From Russia’. It’s just as well it was, though, because these are the kind of paintings you want to get right up to, and take in the details.

» The RA’s exhibition website is pretty rubbish, as usual. Both the paintings above featured in the exhibition but I got the images from Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of a Saxon princess (they know she’s a princess by what she’s wearing, but don’t know which one) is from the National Gallery in Washington. Adam and Eve are in the Courtauld in London.

Two Lives by Vikram Seth

Two Lives is a biography of Seth’s great-uncle and aunt. They met in the 30s in Berlin when Shanti Seth was studying dentistry and took lodgings with the (Jewish) Caro family. Henny Caro was one of the daughters of the house and at the time was engaged to someone else; but after the war they eventually got married and lived together in London.

In one way of another their lives and those of their friends touch on many of the key historical moments of the C20th, but most centrally the war and the Holocaust. I’m reluctant to give too many details because I think he intentionally reveals them slowly.

Seth writes well, of course, and I found it an engaging enough book. I still slightly wonder whether it would have been published if it wasn’t written by a famous novelist, though. Not because it’s badly written or not worth reading, but because it seems to lack focus somewhat. He started writing it after the death of Henny, intending really to write a book just about his uncle but found a stash of letters, mainly between Henny and her German friends after the war. So Shanti’s story is based on direct interviews as an old man, while hers is pieced together from old letters, and they don’t quite mesh, somehow. In fact, considering they were married for several decades, there’s an odd feeling that their lives as told in this book don’t overlap that much.

I don’t know. I’m not sure that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Mind you, those parts are are often very good: interesting, moving, well written.

(this post also appears in my ‘What I’ve been reading‘ section)

Don’t mention the war

Because the World Cup is in Germany, yesterday the Guardian decided to theme a whole section of the newspaper around the subject of “our peculiar relationship with Deutschland”.

It’s certainly true that the British have a generally negative idea of Germany. But these days I don’t think it’s particularly deeply felt or deeply held. And the common suggestion that it’s all about the war is, I think, only marginally true. All those films with humourless Nazi commandants certainly can’t help, but I don’t think many people really equate modern Germany with the Nazis. The humourless stereotype is almost worse for their image than the actual war.

The real problem for Germany’s image in the UK is that there’s nothing positive to balance against the bad stuff. We have plenty of negative stereotypes of the French, but we like their food, fashion, films, and their actresses. We are often anti-American, but we enjoy their music, movies, and novels. Germany has absolutely nothing that has captured the British imagination. You’d think the blondes, beer and fast cars would give the country a certain laddish appeal, but somehow even they don’t manage to make Germany seem any more fun.

I don’t know. Perhaps I’ve got it completely backwards, and the existing prejudice is the reason the British never find anything to like about Germany.

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