From Weaving to German Expressionism

I’d passed the statue in the featured photo several times before I looked it up. The initial descriptions were bland, but referred to the sculptor, Hans Perathoner. When I looked him up, I found a minor artist whose life was, nevertheless, spent in tumult and movement.

Hans Perathoner was born in the South Tyrole (where he trained under Franz Tavella), moved to Munich to study art (where he won the highest student honours), and then, in 1903, took up a position teaching painting and sculpture in Bielefeld. He created the statue of the linen weaver which stands behind the church St. Nicholas (featured photo). Heinrich Heienbrok from the nearby town of Jollenbeck was the model, along with (possibly) the footballer Harry Breitsohl.

When the German expressionist style statue was unveiled it instantly became a local hit, and has since come to stand for the main medieval industry in the region. I’d found a few days ago that in the beginning of the 13th century CE the town of Bielefeld already had a population of 3000, and needed its own parish church. Weavers and merchants made up the main portion of the town’s population at that time.

Perathoner moved on to Berlin and was already established there as a teacher of sculpture in 1914. he made various other sculptures, very few of which survive. In 1930 he created a sculpture of Jesus writhing in agony on the cross. This work became controversial, he was accused of blasphemy, and the statue was removed from several of the locations where it was placed. It is now in a church in Marzahn in Berlin.

A reconstructed church

In the middle of the old town in Bielefeld, with its post-war shops and restaurants, is the tall church of St. Nicholas (Nikolaskirche). I found very little written down about this church. It is the oldest in Bielefeld, having become an independent parish church as long back as 1236 CE. The beautiful altarpiece (photo above) is noted as having been carved in the Antwerp workshops of St. Luke’s guild and delivered in 1524 CE.

Door of Saint Nicholas church in Bielefeld

I was captured first by its doors (photo above). They were made in 1963 by the sculptor Gerhard Marcks, who was one of the founders of Bauhaus. Although I’ve passed them before, I never managed to enter the doors before they close at 6 in the evening. I made a determined effort yesterday, surprising The Family by reaching the church at 4:30. We were the only people inside for a while.

Nikolaikirche, Bielefeld

The old town center does not give you much space to stand back and admire the building. From any place which gives you a clear view, it looks high and imposing. The tower is just over 80 meters tall. Inside the church I saw photographs taken after the 1944 air raid on the center of the town when only the bottom of the tower and the walls remained. A reconstruction started in 1954, and was completed by 1963.

Interior of Nikolaikirche, Bielefeld

Perhaps this hurried reconstruction is the reason why the church looks so bare inside. The vaulting looks like it has been made of bricks. The tall lancet windows have a simple post-war look that you find across Germany: tiles of tinted glass (you can see the reflection of one in the photo below). The pulpit, which was made in 1989, just has text carved into wood. Even the stairs up to the organ are modern constructions. There is a clear rejection of pomp in the design. This is one of the refreshing changes that happened in the public sphere in post-war Germany.

I understand that the church is not known for its acoustics. I asked a friend who is a bit of an expert on organs about the one you see in the photo above. He said that the straight lines and rectangular boxes are definitely 20th century, perhaps from the 1950s or 60s. I can’t find any record of pre-war organs in this church.

Figure on display in Nikolaikirche, Bielefeld

In the featured photo you can see a painted wooden statue near the altarpiece, and the rose window. This was designed by Karl Muggly in 1954. The chandeliers are baroque and date from between 1637 and 1707. Apart from these and the altarpiece, the only older work is a little statue inside a glass case in one corner of the church. From the explanatory text near it, I gathered that it is a remnant of an external decoration.

It is interesting to see a church which might have been built first in the mid-14th century, but was reconstructed almost entirely within living memory. I suppose that if you look hard at many places in Germany, you will find histories of this sort.

The serious business of afternoon coffee

Coffee time in Germany is serious: you have to have cake. We met an old friend for coffee. As we reminisced about the Christmas we’d spent in the family home more than a decade ago, his mother brought out the cakes she has baked specially for the afternoon.

Rita outdoes herself each time. This time it was a cheesecake with mandarins.Cakes She makes the topping with quark and whipped cream. Quark, if you are wondering, is a German sour cream, somewhere between the consistency of Indian chhena and French fromage blanc. When used for a cheesecake, it sets fast into a creamy and firm layer. The bottom is a regular layer of cake. The whole thing looked wonderful before she sliced it, but was even more interesting sliced. The Family exclaimed over the even distribution of mandarin through the cream. We each took seconds, and resolved to go on a long walk later.

One cake is usually not enough for a good coffee. Rita had also baked a raisin tea cake. I’m always pleasantly surprised by cakes where the raisins are uniformly distributed through the volume. My technically competence is not good enough for that. In any case, Rita’s raisin cake is my special favourite. The Family was astounded to see me take a second helping of that also. We did have a long walk in the cold after that. I hope that was enough to burn the calories.

A light biennial

It was a rainy weekend in eastern Westphalia. After a bad start, the Saturday settled into a fine and cool day. We were with friends who knew of a wonderful exhibition going on in a nearby town called Bad Rothenfelde. These little towns which are known as “bad”s are traditionally places where people went to recuperate after an illness. Many of them have a quiet laid-back elegance which seems to be out of time.

Apart from the pool, Bad Rothenfelde is famous for its giant walls of dried leaves on which water is allowed to drip. Inside each wall is a corridor along which you can walk and inhale the damp water, which is supposed to be good for you. The wall is a massive canvas on which many video works are projected during this biennial called lichtsicht. The example below is part of a fifteen minutes long work called More Sweetly Play the Dance by Willian Kentridge. The wonderful music is by the African Immanuel Essemblies Brass Band, about whom you can learn more from their facebook page.

Night flights, night thoughts

We left Mumbai after midnight and landed in Munich just before dawn. At this time of the year the skies were clear all the way. This is a fabulous route to fly. You see towns and cities all along the flight path, glowing like little jewels in the dark side of the planet. We passed Karachi and Isfahan. The Caspian sea is a little north of the flight path, the Adriatic a little to the south. Baghdad is just below the horizon. There were little dots of lights all along the flight path. I glanced out of the port and saw a small city all lit up; the flight path indicator said I was flying over Pan.

As we flew past the Black Sea I fell asleep. Ankara, Istanbul, Sofia, Bucharest, Szeged, Zagreb passed before I woke up for a light breakfast in the dark skies over Graz. The Family woke up to the smell of my coffee. Soon we started on a long descent towards Munich. The maze of lit streets which you see in the featured photo is probably Salzburg. We passed it just a little before we landed.

Many years ago I’d wanted to drive this route. The iron curtain was rusting then, but the Iran-Iraq war intervened, then the invasion of Kuwait, and the invasion of Iraq, and finally the situation in Afghanistan. Now one can only fly over these once-wonderful cities where Asia and Europe merge into each other and wait for the day when again one can travel by land between India and Germany.

Rilke country

This is my favourite time in northern Germany. The cold has not yet settled in. The weather is fickle: sunny and warm one day, foggy another, and cooler with rain if you are unlucky. But through it all there is the glow of leaves turning colour.

As for the final fruits, coax them to roundness.
Direct on them two days of warmer light
to hale them golden toward their term, and harry
the last few drops of sweetness through the wine.
–Rainer Maria Rilke

I think of this as Rilke’s country, where lonely people sit under the golden trees writing long letters and reading a little. I will post more on this through the season. Here are a few photos through my first day here.

The speed of forgetting

In Aachen, near the Dutch-German border, I switched on the TV and saw the day-long destruction of the wall that hemmed in West Berlin. Twenty seven years later I walked into the lobby of 520 Madison Avenue and saw a piece of the wall. Five reinforced concrete slabs, out of about 100000. The side that you can see is the one which faced Mariannenplatz in West Berlin.

The cheerful paintings are due to two street artists, Thierry Noir and Christophe Bouchet, who decided to do something which was not only illegal but dangerous. The wall stood inside the territory of East Germany, so anyone painting the wall was technically crossing the border. When asked about this, Thierry Noir said to Huck “…the soldiers were allowed to jump over and arrest me if they wanted to. But I was young and quick at that time so they had no chance against me.”

The two were joined by other artists. Eventually, by the late 1980s, a kilometer long stretch of the wall had been painted. Now Noir sometimes joins other artists to paint other pieces of the wall. He was asked once about his feelings when the wall came down in that June many years ago. His reply was “I was not crying because my world was pulled down, it would be arrogant to say that. It was not an art project, it was a deadly border. One hundred and thirty six people were killed because of the wall – everyone was just happy that it went away.”

I was the only person in the lobby on that Saturday morning. The guard looked bored, from which I gathered that some still come in to look at this piece of history. I wonder whether twenty five years has been long enough for us to forget that people overcome walls.

Christmas markets in Cologne


Every German town has a Weihnachtsmarkt, ie, a christmas market. I’ve bought chili-coated almonds in Frankfurt, sipped Gluhwine in Heidelberg, shivered in the cold breeze blowing through the lit up market in Hamburg, and warmed myself with a hot chocolate in Bremen. But the christmas markets in Cologne are special, partly because they attract a huge crowd of tourists, but also partly because Cologne brings the fun atmosphere of its carnival into the market. I was a little surprised to see the market already, but after a little conversation with friends, I realized that they are usually open for five weeks, ending in Christmas. The technical counting is that they open the weekend before the beginning of Advent.


It was a cold day in Cologne when we walked into the beautifully lit market in Neumarkt (photo on top). I’d skipped lunch and was ready to eat something. A stall selling flammkuchen seemed attractive; these are pancakes made from very thin rolled bread dough, topped with onions, specks of pork and cheese, everything warm from the oven. After that we slid through the crowd to the main attraction: gluhwein. This is hot red wine with added spices and sugar, and created to make you feel warm in the cold dark days before Christmas.


Cologne has a series of christmas markets near each other. We crossed the pedestrian zone to one in Heumarkt. This had a skating rink where you could hear a lot of Dutch. This is not surprising, given that Cologne is perhaps two hours from the Netherlands. The crowds tended to lump up near the most popular stalls. We squeezed into a tiny open space near the counter of a bratwurst stall. This has to be the most successful German export: the sausage inside a little bread-roll with mustard and ketchup is known in the English-speaking world as a hot dog. We wolfed ours and then began to flow through the crowd again, fetching up eventually (surprise, surprise) near a gluhwein stall. This was different: the wine was white with an enormous dose of nutmeg.


We exited from this market within view of the Cologne cathedral. At the base of the cathedral was the largest of the markets we had seen till now. A huge christmas tree looked over it, and I did not get a real sense of the scale until we got nearer. The base of the tree spanned a circle of stalls with a concert stage at the centre. The band was tuning up as we approach, and pretty soon launched briskly into their first number. The audience broke up laughing, because it was a song for the carnival which they were playing, not a christmas song. Those came later.


As the evening progressed the crowds grew. The stalls were doing brisk business: everything from crepes to grills to chocolates, coffee and gluhwein. A festive atmosphere enveloped the whole crowd. These are some of the most interesting weekends that you can see in Germany. Families are out together: adults and children alike enjoying the festival. It seems that even the people running the stalls enjoy themselves: many are dressed as if for a preview of the carnival.


It is not only food and drink you can get here: in principle you get a whole range of christmas decorations. One stall sold only the lights which you might want to hang on your christmas tree, others did brisk business selling stars. There were stalls which sold elaborate paper cutouts which you could hang on a tree. There were wonderful stuffed toys and puppets. I could hear so many languages: Tamil, Gujarati, Russian, French, Dutch and English, in addition to German were what I recognized. It seemed that the world had converged on these markets.

The holy mountain of Heidelberg


Heidelberg has long been famous for its beauty. In 1843 a guide book on Germany by John Murray explained that Heidelberg “is charmingly situated on the left bank of the Neckar, on a narrow ledge between the Neckar and the castle rock”. Today the soul of this charming old town is lost to the same chain stores which feed like zombies on old town centres in Europe. I walked away to the picturesque banks of the Neckar.

From Bismarckplatz I walked on to the Theodor-Heuss-Bruecke and saw low clouds drifting through the woods on the hill called the Heiligeberg (Holy Mountain). The wooded slopes of the mountain were not bare, as I found eventually when I struggled up the steep Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Walk). Beautiful as this road turned out to be, the view of the hill from the bridge was more beautiful still, with the fog rolling over the picturesque buildings straggling up the hillside. The old city was rebuilt after it was repeatedly destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War. Many of the buildings date from the Baroque period. The right bank, ie, the buildings in the picture above, would have been built at about the same time.


Heidelberg felt cold this week. It did not snow, but the highest temperature stayed below 5 degrees, and the night dipped a little below freezing. As a result, when I woke up on my second morning there, I saw a dense fog over the river. Apparently this is a common occurrence in winter. The right bank was barely visible in the fog. All very picturesque, and to my mind, more atmospheric than it would have been in the clear light of summer.

The little market hall


I always wanted to say "We interrupt our blog on travelling through the Himalayas to bring you breaking news on the market in Frankfurt". Now that I have a chance, I’ll grab it.

One of the attractions of Frankfurt is the fresh produce market known as the Kleinmarkthalle, meaning the Little Market Hall. I walked into this place on a cold day in November. The market was bustling. I was quite surprised to see the kind of fruits and vegetables on display. When I first visited Germany many years ago you could only get potatoes and carrots in winter. Today I found fresh summer fruits: apricots, berries, even spring produce like strawberries. Paces away were the mushrooms of autumn. I really wished I was not in a hotel, but living in an apartment with its own kitchen. My personal favourite is the yellow trumpet shaped mushrooms called pfefferlinge in German and chanterelle in French. I walked very slowly around the market enjoying the memories each thing brought back.


The baker’s stalls were full of traditional delights. Bakers in Germany have a daily cycle. In the mornings you’ll find the fresh rolls which are so delicious when you cut them open for a long, leisurely, breakfast. There are also other, sweeter, options for different morning lifestyles: good for a quick bag to carry with your coffee on the way to work. Closer to lunchtime the breads give way to sweets: the wonderful German cakes which you see in the photo above. These stay till afternoon tea is over. Then breads reappear: the loaves of warm dark breads which go so well, specially, with the soups and stews which warm you in winter. I find that I always slow down when I walk past a baker’s in Germany.


And then there are the wonderful meat shops. This one must have been very special, because the queue in front of it did not disappear as long as I was in the market. The signboard says birds and game. I did not look closely at it because I would be overcome by pangs of regret at the absence of a kitchen. Instead I wandered past to stalls which served hot lunches. I looked around and chose a plate of matjesfilet with boiled potatoes and a glass of white wine. Matjes is herring which is first ripened for a couple of days after it is caught and then lightly salted and preserved in vinegar with herbs. It is served cold. On this bitterly cold day, the accompanying warm potatoes felt good. The wine was a Rhine valley Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), a fairly typical pairing with the Matjes.


With the main part of my lunch done, and at a wonderful cost, I prowled the market again. This is Frankfurt: so there were stalls selling apple wine (not fizzy like cider), and various herb sauces, some of them combinations which are very local. The people at the stalls are good sales people, and are happy to let you taste. Many of them speak English pretty well. If you are interested in conversation but your German is not very good, it still breaks the ice if you start with a few words in German and then switch to English. After this tasting, I walked back to the baker’s and picked up a portion of a red-berry cake. At the center of the market hall is the most important stand: the one which serves coffee. A large espresso goes really well with the cake. This fortified me enough that I was ready to walk back out into the cold and wander around the old town of Frankfurt.