Thursday, 24 March 2016

Wooden it be nice?

Nature's own sculpture
Not only do I not fly very often (thankfully), but it seems to have been a very long time since I sat next to an airplane window, in daylight, on a clear day.

But that happened when we flew back to the UK from Germany last week. And as we headed north west, the world below offered further evidence of something I’ve been aware of for a few years now: German towns and villages are never far from woods and forests.

Not only are forests at the heart of the German psyche, but it’s also reflected in the country’s love of wood as a material – and in particular, as a vehicle for art.

My maternal grandparents visited the Alpine region in the years after WWII and brought back a few small pieces, which my mother still has. So I’ve been familiar for years with the angular planes of wood on a carved mountain goat.

In 2000, my own parents went to Germany – the trip was my father’s retirement gift from his parishioners, and included tickets for the Oberammergau Passion Play.

They brought me back a pair of carved edelweiss flowers and a man with lantern and donkey, which owes something to the sentimental style of porcelain Hummel figures (if memory serves, my mother has a couple of those stashed somewhere too).

The central part of the Holy Blood altarpiece
When we headed into Bavaria for the first time last year, I expected to see plenty of wood carving, but in the event, the only obvious thing to be seen was cuckoo clocks.

This was not a trip where we were able to spend any time wandering in woods, but one of the specific things that we had penned in to do was to visit the Jakobskirche for some rather more polished wood.

The city’s main church, it’s Lutheran, although part of the many official pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.

Built between 1311 and 1484, in 1525, the church saw the peasant leader Florian Geyer (a Franconian noble) read aloud the articles of the revolting peasants during the German Peasant’s War.

But if you climb up the stairs to a gallery behind the vast organ, you’ll find a Holy Blood altarpiece, carved by Tilman Riemenschneider between 1500-1505.

The raw material
Riemenschneider has been dubbed ‘Germany’s Michelangelo’ and his work is always worth seeing. This is one of his seminal pieces – Andrew Graham-Dixon goes into some detail about in in his TV series, The Art of Germany. The artist’s ability to create highly realistic faces that seemed to have an inner life puts him head and shoulders above many others.

The church is also home to a high altar created in 1466 by Friedrich Herlin, a pupil of Rogier van der Weyden, but the Riemenschneider is the undoubted star here.

Flanked by two relief panels showing scenes from the Easter story, the central section of the altarpiece is a vast, 3D representation of the Last Supper. But what lends this version so much power is the figure of a disciple looking away from Christ and down toward us. As Graham-Dixon explained, it is a direct challenge to anyone looking at it.

Art historian Kenneth Clark considered that Riemenschneider’s works showed an idea of German piety in the 15th century and were harbingers of the coming Reformation.

Wooden woodsman and mushroom
The challenge created by the disciple breaking through the fourth wall (in effect) is a personal one that can be seen as indicative of the ideas of a personal relationship with God that would develop.

Away from religion, we did spot one or two wood carvings – although one small shop was still closed for the winter.

But I did find a small woodsman, which has now safely made the journey back to London, where he’s joined by a small wooden mushroom, which I was charged just €1 for, after the woman in the shop we were in was so delighted by The Other Half making a substantial Christmas decoration purchase.

However, aside from wooden Christmas decorations that were purchased away from K├Ąthe Wohlfahrt, Germany’s biggest Christmas decoration manufacturer, which has its headquarters in Rothenburg, together with a number of shops and a Christmas museum.

One visit convinced us that it is grossly overpriced and nowhere near the best quality around. Indeed, the owner of one independent shop told us that the company, via marriage, was effectively in Japanese hands and that Japanese tourists expect things to be expensive as a guarantee of quality.

Nature and time, wrought in wood
What we did come away with – well, what I insisted on coming away with – was a cuckoo clock: a genuine, hand-made one from the Black Forest (which isn’t that far away).

I picked the smallest one I could find; not one made to look like a chalet; with no painting on it. Not only is it made from wood – the traditional design reflects the woods and forests.

Back in London, I took my time getting it out of the box and mounting it on the wall. There is something ridiculously fascinating, in these technological times, in having something that requires no batteries or plugs – it’s almost a revelation that leaves you wondering how anything can work without that confounded electrickery.

It delights me that it’s properly hand made; that when you open the back, the inside reveals once more how it not mass produced. It is, then, thus evidence that real craftsmanship has not been lost.

It’s hardly a Riemenschneider, but it is an authentic piece of Germany in its own way, and in an era of  smart this and smart that, it’s a real pleasure to have.

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