Archive | May, 2012

Art, Syria, and Why Beauty Matters

10 May

This weekend I posted a guide to Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum. If you read that and have also read the news recently, something probably caught your eye. I mentioned that one of my favorite things in the museum is the Aleppo Room, located in the Islamic Art galleries. I said it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in any gallery of Islamic art. Then I read that the recent violence in Syria had reached the city of Aleppo, where the house containing the room was originally located.

That something so beautiful could be from a place that is currently so full of ugliness was both shocking and saddening to me. As someone who studies art I deal mostly with the aesthetic side of cultures and have the privilege of being able to put aside some of their baser elements. But I have to wonder, how much could we accomplish if we took the time to appreciate the beauty in other cultures? How much more open would our dialogue be, how would our opinions of others change, if we stopped to look at the artistic accomplishments of societies and simply acknowledge their merit?

In cases of human conflict it can be easy to overlook the beauty in other cultures. A perfect example of this is the underwhelming American Indian galleries in many American art museums. To fully accept these artifacts as art instead of anthropological objects is to bring up complex questions on the moral history of the United States. Likewise to study the art of the Middle East is to admit there is good in a part of the world that many in the West claim is backward or even evil. It’s harder to dismiss American Indians as primitive when looking at the amazing geometry of a mask done by the Kwakwaka’wakw people of the Pacific Northwest or Islam as violent when surrounded by the serenity of the colonnades of the Cordoba mosque.

Visiting an art museum and acknowledging the beauty in other cultures takes us a step closer to understanding. I’m not speaking of the fetishization of the exotic, but the real understanding that humans have always sought and appreciated beautiful things and that maybe we’re not as different as we think. I took more interest in the situation in Aleppo because of the room in the Pergamonmuseum. Rather than something happening in a foreign land, it feels closer somehow. Art creates a feeling of our common humanity. It helps us to feel, to understand, and allows us to grieve when we see mankind act against itself. Art is the shared heritage that unites us all.

There is one surprising thing about the Aleppo Room that only enhances its meaning. The man who commissioned it for his house was a rich merchant in the city, and he was also a Christian. Biblical scenes coexist with Ottoman decorations. Two cultures that seem at odds to our modern worldview converge to form one beautiful object. I think it was that very juxtaposition that fascinated me the most. Yet again I was reminded how the boundaries we know now, whether national, ethnic, or religious, are not now nor have ever been as set as they may seem.

They say that the opposite of seeing the world in black and white is to view the shades of gray, but I have to disagree. Instead we need to turn to the bright colors in artwork. The idea may seem naive in the face of global problems such as the current situation in Syria, but the beauty of one work of art or even one room can go a long way toward inspiring us. All we have to do is look.

The Pergamonmuseum

5 May

There is perhaps no other museum in the world that has such an impressive entryway as the Pergamon Museum.  As soon as you walk in you’re faced with one of the museum’s great highlights, (and also its namesake), the Pergamon Altar.  It’s not exactly subtle, but it does do a great job of preparing you for everything you’re about to see and experience within the museum’s walls.

The specialty of the Pergamon Museum is architectural reconstructions, as they call it.  These are full-size reproductions of some of antiquity’s great structures using the original remnants that were excavated and supplemented by modern materials.  They are what truly sets the museum apart from other museums of antiquity, as well.  Rather than room after room of statues and pottery, you get a slight glimpse of how a city would have really looked in ancient times.  Or to put it another way, you’re given a context in which to place all those statues and pottery.

Officially the museum consists of three “museums”, or collections: The Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Museum of the Ancient Near East, and the Museum of Islamic Art.  Although disparate, the three are all immensely fascinating in their own right.  Then you take a slightly closer look.  Even the supposedly “Western” collection, that of Greek and Roman antiquities, was excavated predominately in modern Turkey.  With this in mind, the museum reminds us how fluid and changing our fixed ideas of culture truly have been throughout history.

These are the kinds of big topics your mind automatically starts to wander to when confronted with the grandeur of the Pergamon Museum.  It’s hard not to when what you’re used to seeing as ruins are instead shown looking much more like they did 2,000 years ago.  Really, it leaves a person feeling quite insignificant, but in a good way.  Humanity has accomplished grand things in our history, and some of the grandest are on display in the Pergamon Museum.

Special Note: Through September 2012 one entire wing of the museum is devoted to the special exhibition “Pergamon: Panorama of the Ancient World.”  I’ll be honest with you here—if you’re really interested in ancient Greece and its art it’s probably worth it, but with admission charges reaching upwards of €20 if you include the special 360° panorama display most people would probably rather pass.  Don’t worry, you’ll still have plenty to see in the regular collections.

Suggested Plan:  You could go through in roughly chronological order if you so choose, starting with the Ancient Near East, moving on to the Greek & Roman rooms, and then finally moving on to the Islamic Art upstairs.  Really, though, most visitors just kind of end up walking around aimlessly and slightly in awe.  Nothing wrong with that, at all.

The size of the museum is rather deceptive, as well.  While it might not seem that large, you will probably want to spend longer than expected in the museum.  One note, though — the only restrooms are located outside of the galleries.  The downside here is that you have to return your audio guide and then pick up a new one.

Don’t Miss:  The museum’s big attractions may all be located on the ground floor, but be sure to take some time to visit the Islamic Art galleries upstairs.  The Allepo room is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see in an Islamic Art gallery.  Also be sure to visit the small room located underneath the Pergamon Altar (go to the right of the altar) which details its excavation and history.

Dining:  Odds are you’re not going to spend an entire day at the Pergamon Museum, but if you find yourself feeling a little peckish the cafe at the Pergamon Museum, accessed from outside the building, has good food inspired by the museum’s collections.  The one downside is that the service was unbelievably bad while I was there.  Be prepared to be assertive with the wait staff.

Audio Guide:  It’s not often I say this, but the audio guide of the Pergamon Museum is a must.  The descriptions of the artifacts are informative and well-done, and with so many fascinating things to see you’ll be glad to be able to hear more about them.  I’ve never used the “press * for more information” button so much in a museum.  The good news is that it’s free with your museum admission.

Information Sheets:  Detailed information on some objects can be found on extra sheets, found near the objects.  The most interesting of those available is the explanation of the Telephos Frieze on top of the Pergamon Altar, if for no other reason than the paper provides the only English-language explanation of the story of the frieze.  Just bear in mind that the museum asks you to leave a small donation for these papers.