Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dresden: The Simulacrum City

I’ve just returned from several very enjoyable days in Dresden: a lot of museums, some music, and plenty of superb Saxon wine, which you can hardly find anywhere else. Nevertheless, I am obsessed with what this city has to say about the nature of reality.

Dresden was one of the great baroque capitals of Europe. It was made wealthy by mining, and its rulers were adept at avoiding war, so the wealth accumulated. Over several generations a series of spectacular buildings was erected along the banks of the Elbe, culminating in the construction frenzy of August der Starke – August the Strong, although the sculptures and portraits suggest that his muscle tone left something to be desired. A particular marvel is the Zwinger complex, a large open courtyard surrounded by arcades, parapets, towers and domes.

As you probably know, all of this, down to a few blasted wall segments, was destroyed during the bombing raids of February, 1945. Where there had been baroque splendor, now there was only rubble.

After the war, Dresden found itself in the German Democratic Republic, the “People’s State” that emerged from the Soviet zone. Slowly and not very efficiently, the authorities began to rebuild the ancient palaces and churches according to the original plans. After 1989 the process was accelerated, culminating in the completion of the Frauenkirche in 2005.

So now it’s all back, every vaulted arch and sculptured ornamentation. The effect is enormous. Dresden is once again a tourist mecca: I heard every European language family along with several Asian ones as I walked the streets of the Altstadt – and, of course, Dresden attracted me.

But what is this? The guidebooks talk about the buildings as though they are the same as those built centuries ago, but each one is a reconstruction. Dresden looks old, but it is newer than Las Vegas. It is an elegant, extremely sophisticated Euro Disneyland. The palaces were not built by kings to proclaim their wealth and power; they were built by modern construction firms to give tourists, and even the local population, the illusion of continuity, that the great erasure of 1945 could be undone.

Ah, but the artwork is original, you say. Those spectacular paintings, the Raphael Madonna with the bored cherubs at the bottom, the dynamic images of Rubens, the landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich that are almost archetypal for German romanticism – there is no make-believe here. These are the real items, the actual canvases that felt the brush of these artists.

Probably, but let’s do a thought experiment. These paintings survived because they were transported out of the city during the war. Some were returned immediately. Others, such as those seized by the invading armies (especially the Red Army), were returned later. Some were never returned and may never be seen again. But what if the canvas that hangs in the gallery today is not the original, but an excellent copy executed during the years when the work was passed from hand to hand? Maybe someone thought, I’d like to keep the original work and pass off a copy. If I can’t tell the difference, if I enjoy the copy while imagining that I am viewing the actual brush strokes of Raphael or Friedrich, how is this different from the pleasure I get from the ersatz palace the painting is housed in?

Is all of this an argument against the rebuilding of Dresden? No. I’m glad it was done. Like I said, I had a great time. Nevertheless, it does raise difficult questions concerning the meaning of authenticity in a world that expects to see the past within the present. I wonder what Walter Benjamin would have thought of this.

UPDATE: Before anyone posts a comment about this, I should mention that there is a fascinating coda to the Dresden story. The rebuilt city was declared a "World Heritage Site" by UNESCO, but this honor was revoked when the decision was made to build a new bridge across the Elbe that would alter the historic view. Except, of course, that the "old" bridges were also new, postwar reconstructions. It's all a hopeless tangle.

UPDATE No. 2: I've corrected a couple of spelling errors.


Shag from Brookline said...

Kurt Vonnegut as an American POW in Dresden survived to tell us of the evils of carpet bombing. War may be hell, but this was excessive. The rebuilding of Dresden should serve as a monument of such evils.

Ed Dolan said...

If you are visiting Dresden and want a touch of real authenticity after seeing too many reconstructions, don't miss the movie at the technical museum. It's really authentic.