Wednesday, 30 January 2019

A Dresden Landmark – Yenidze Tabakfaktur

In February 1945, when the city of Dresden was bombed into oblivion by Bomber Command and the USAF in a firestorm of epic proportions, it might have seemed like the worst had happened. But Dresden was destined to be one of those unfortunate places where one kind of tyranny was immediately succeeded by another, in more than half a century of totalitarian governance. Victor Klemperer was a Professor of French Literature at the Technical University and a long time Jewish resident of Dresden when he began keeping a diary in 1933, the year the Nazis took power in Germany. In spare and unemotive prose, he described how he and his Aryan wife experienced the incremental but remorseless process of dispossession of property, basic human rights and legal status to the point where, as a Jew, he was forbidden to own a radio, a bicycle or a pet and compelled to travel on the open rear platform of the tram, while shopping for food was restricted to the hours of 18.00 to 19.00. Klemperer and his wife escaped their fate by simply walking out of the city, unobserved in the chaotic aftermath of the firestorm.

The painter, Otto Dix came to Dresden in 1910 to study at the city’s art college (Kustgewerbeschule) where he adopted an Expressionist style, until in 1914 he volunteered for military service. When he returned to Dresden in 1919, Dix was a traumatised veteran of the First World War, having fought in the Somme, the Eastern front and Flanders. Once again he studied painting and evolved a style of heightened realism. The award of an Iron Cross had done little to soften his hatred of the mindless cruelties of war that would preoccupy his work for many years. When his attention turned to the decadence and conflict of the Weimar years, he brought the same savagery and brutality to his portrayal of the social scene. In 1933, the new Nazi regime quickly identified him as a degenerate artist and dismissed him from his teaching post at the Dresden Academy.

Vladimir Putin was posted to Dresden in 1985 and remained there until the collapse of the DDR in 1989. His duties are a matter for speculation but it is likely they exceeded collecting press cuttings as his biographer (Masha Gessen) alleged. Last December his Stasi pass turned up in the Dresden state archive, confirming his closeness to the DDR security service. It can safely be assumed that the Dresden years supplied Putin with valuable experience in surveillance and intimidation, helping to form the master of misinformation and arms length aggression that graces the world stage today. The story goes that when the old order collapsed in 1989, an angry crowd turned up and demanded entry to the KGB office. The door was opened by Putin, who brandished a weapon and successfully dispersed the mob by threatening to shoot to kill. Perhaps it was in the afterglow of this event that Putin felt the first flicker of a sense of destiny that he was born for higher things.

Which brings us to Dresden’s most bizarre landmark building. Approaching the city by train it appears as an exotic Orientalist apparition on the right hand side, shortly after crossing the river Elbe on the Marienbrücke. A 5 storey building with an elaborately decorated parapet, surmounted by a Moorish glazed dome, alongside is a minaret, comfortably taller than the height of the dome. The minaret was built as a factory chimney and the main building was given over to cigarette manufacture. Hugo Zietz had been the proprietor of a business producing Turkish cigarettes sold under such names as Salem Aleikum and Mameluk, since 1886. Zietz saw the commercial potential of building a factory inside the envelope of an Orientalist fantasy building and commissioned architect Hermann Martin Hammitzsch (1878-1945) to produce a design. Hammitzsch reached for his Islamic reference books, threw in a few Gothic details and came up with the amazing Orientalist pastiche we still see today. The finished building opened in 1909 and was recognised as a classic example of architecture as advertising - high visibility and a permanent reminder of the exotic origins of the product. One third of the building was destroyed in the war but after patching up by the German Democratic Republic (DDR) it remained in use until 1989 as the central tobacco office of the DDR, (the “VEB Tabakkontor”). Full restoration to its present condition took place in 1996. Since when it has been mostly used as office accommodation, with a restaurant on the 7th. floor.

It turned out to be the only building of note that Hammitzsch would design. Indeed, there are no records online of any other building that could be attributed to him with any certainty. We do know that in later life he married Hitler's sister, Angela. On the basis of this connection that he was appointed in 1939 by the egregious Gauleiter of Saxony (Martin Mutchsmann, master embroiderer and underwear manufacturer) to direct a programme for the modernisation of Dresden along Nazi-approved lines. It was in this capacity that, after the burning of Germany’s largest Synagogue (originally designed by Gottfried Semper) on Kristallnacht, Hammitzsch ordered that the smouldering ruins be demolished and cleared. A rare incidence of the Nazis taking action without first obtaining the legal agreement of their victims. And a depressing display of architectural vandalism directed by a mediocrity against the work of an immeasurably superior colleague. History doesn’t record how Hammitzsch survived the post-war reckoning - he simply faded into obscurity, having irredeemably stained his reputation in the eyes of posterity. In recent years Dresden has acquired some notoriety as the birthplace of the anti-Islamic Pegida movement. They still gather in the city centre for some casual racism every Monday night despite having been overtaken by other hard-right parties (AFD) who forced their way into the Bundestag in last autumn’s elections.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

London Life in Postcards

Street life was a popular subject with postcard publishers in the early decades of the last century. In London, as elsewhere, the streets teemed with indigents from the lower orders, desperate to scrabble a living from commerce or deceit. Street entertainers, news vendors, dangerous and exotic animals, musicians and escapologists had their images reproduced on thousands of cheap postcards and offered for sale to customers who could take comfort from the fact that their station in life, however modest, was at least superior to this gallery of rogues and miscreants. The status of the Sandwich Man was not to be envied. The bowler hatted musicians may have perched a little higher in the social order but their talent for engaging the higher faculties with melodious serenading on flute and harp can only be guessed at. The enduring fascination with this subject extended to the post-war years, although by this time Britain could only be shown in black and white. The resolutely monochrome spectators of Charing Cross Road tell us as much as we need to know about that lugubrious period in our national life. I like to think of the figure in chains as that of Roger Stone but, of course it represents the great Brexit Warrior struggling to regain sovereignty.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Transparent Factory, Dresden

Dresden's Transparent Factory (Die Gläserne Manufaktur) was built in 2002 for Volkswagen to a design by Gunter Henn, just less than a mile from the city centre in a corner of the Großer Garten at Straßburger Platz. Not strictly a factory, more of an assembly plant. No foundry, no metal bashing, no casting or forging. All the heavy work takes place 80 miles away in the city of Zwickau where VW inherited the former Trabant factory after the demise of the DDR. Vehicle components and chassis are shipped to a logistics centre in Dresden and onwards by a 150 ton CarGoTram that runs on the city’s tram network.

The principle assembly building extends along Stübelallee where a handful of workers, clad in white lab-coats, can be observed supervising the automated production line. For several years the VW Phaeton was “hand-built” on the premises but since 2017 production has moved to the e-Golf, VW’s first all electric vehicle. Rather than being conceived to take advantage of economies of scale, this factory seems like a vanity project, intended to generate publicity through high visibility and to function as a statement of faith in the commercial potential of the old DDR territory. A Visitor Centre and a Restaurant are provided to attract the curious to step inside. The great glass rotunda where finished vehicles are temporarily stacked certainly succeeds as a spectacle and the operation offers a brightly lit window into the workings of the motor industry. But the extent to which it’s profitable is for others to calculate.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Citroën and Tintin

Two Citroën 2CV brochures from 1985 – one in French, one in English. Designed and drawn by Bob de Moors (1925-1992), an associate and sometime assistant to Hergé, in classic ligne-claire style. Tintin and Hergé had a long and presumably profitable association with Citroën and collectors have compiled extensive lists of examples of publicity. The popularity of Tintin offered an easy route to capture the hearts and minds of the motoring public and steer them toward the Citroën brand. The artist has produced a perfect pastiche, slightly overshadowed by Citroën’s demand that only photographic images of the cars could be shown. It makes for some disassociative effects when we see the hand-drawn occupants of a photographically rendered vehicle passing through a hand-drawn landscape.