Not quite a room with a view but a view from a room, kind of. . .

Digital photography has changed the way people record their lives, whether through an actual camera or a smart phone. With the cost of making prints to see what it looks like gone completely, there is no reason not to take a photo of anything at all. If it’s no good, the delete key is right there, and if it is. . .or even if it isn’t, if it’s just a moment in time that has some interest or other (or not), it can be whomped up on a blog post or anywhere at all on the net, or even – daring but done – a print can be made and stuck in a photo album, or in a show. . .or pasted on a door, or the floor. . .It’s good! It’s better than good! Amazing! A friend of mine takes a lot of photos of what she eats. Why ever not? I’ve tended to continue taking photos of things that cost me a bomb to record in the old film days, but have added a few. . .

In my cycle trip through Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands at some point I started taking photos of hotel interiors. They range from hostel bed shots – of the mattress above from a lower bunk in a hostel – to rooms, hallways and stairwells. . .and in one case the skylight of an atrium, and a strange sculpture in a hotel in the Netherlands. Some are modern, and some older. . .

It struck me that there is probably an endless elaboration of the division of labour in hotel design too, that if you can’t get a degree in hotel hallway design now, it won’t be long away.

Here is a selection, just for you.


This hallway is in a “Scandic” hotel in Malmo, Sweden. The carpet is not one that would suit someone somewhat the worse for wear in my opinion. But maybe, given that it’s Sweden, it’s about sex:


Below is a hallway in Jonkoping, Sweden. The colours are cool, though I was not too taken by the carpet.


This stairwell in the hotel is not at all bad.


Here is the view from above, with a certain derelict cyclist’s machine locked up:


But the room! Wow! For the unfit guest, or the guest who is superfit and just forgot to bung a set of barbells in the luggage:


I used them. I did! You wouldn’t know.

In Gothenburg, which is spelt many ways, here is the atrium of one of the Scandic hotels (there are heaps of them):
















Below is another corridor from a Danish hotel in a chain that wants guests to feel they are in a ship. The prices are very reasonable.


Somewhat more elegant, a revamped historic hotel in a small Danish city outside Aarhuis.


A window from same:




This amazing work is in the lobby of a hotel in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. I have tried, and so far failed, to discover what it’s about, so have in the interim made up its story, which I will share with you.

The hotel is opposite a memorial to the Canadian soldiers who fell in the campaign to rid the Netherlands of  the Germans in World War II. Quite a few died – it was a very hard campaign. The Canadian headquarters were nearby – the palace where the King and Queen of the country once lived.

My theory is that this carving was a gift from Canadian natives who had served in the campaign, either to the royals or the hotel. It symbolises – according to me – the hunting prowess of the subjects, the warrior standing on the head of the bison revealing this, plus the warlike success and failure of the people, symbolised by the head in the one hand. . .there is more. I would be grateful for any information that either debunks this, or adds to it.



Onward! Here is a lift in a Leipzig hotel. . .


and here another window in a hotel near Dresden, in the area known as “Saxon Switzerland”:


There you go. This is a teaser for some other “themes” that will surface eventually.  If you haven’t enjoyed this one – sorry! Maybe one about gallery installations that are art in themselves (fire hydrants for example). Yes or no, thanks for reading this one.


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Posted by on May 22, 2018 in Uncategorized


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Sittin’ here wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes?*

Winter, or at least autumn, looms heavily in the air in the small town in New Zealand I make my home. The colder seasons here are never so severe as in the northern hemisphere, but also lack the fun and distinction of snowy climes.

The development of the device known as a heat pump has changed how people in New Zealand keep warm over the cooler months, but some, including your unworthy correspondent, go for the freestanding woodburner. New Zealand has a lot of trees, many of them not really useful as much other than firewood. That’s how I do it – indeed, that’s how I am doing it right at this very moment!

For a good fire, a match. And for a match, a box of the buggers.  And for the boxes. . .

While in Jonkoping in Sweden last year, I visited the local match museum. It may be the only one in the world. Sweden once dominated the match industry globally, and the museum, located in a factory that itself dominated the Swedish industry, is an eye-opener about the history of this useful invention. For many years production of “safety” matches was terribly unsafe – the chemicals involved meant children were used because they would never get old enough to be anything else.

Talk about yuck!

Eventually some of these problems were solved, and Swedish matches, organised and spun into an empire by the remarkable “Match King” Ivar Kreuger, pretty much took over the world. Kreuger fell to earth and either killed himself or was murdered in Paris in the early 1930s.

Meanwhile, someone was keeping an eye on those matchboxes and the museum in Jonkoping has a glittering array. They invite photos.

Though New Zealand also has a lot of trees, and though many of them would also be suitable for match-making, Sweden was in there. . .as this photo of a “Maori chief” shows.


All the way on the other side of the world. . .Samoa too! And some French Polynesian beauty. . .



Africa. . .


Here is a trio of young English speakers, presumably.


Did you say “elephants”? You did, didn’t you?


More. . .


A peacock struts:


A kookaburra might these days take exception to this box:


Herons are happy. . .so elegant!


The devil:



Women. . .


and children. . .


This next one did give me a pause. . .imagine reaching for a match 60 times and seeing this. . .or even more, if you bought a carton of them. . .takes all kinds I guess.


Here is a provocative sculpture from the museum. It seems to say something about our inability to live within the nature we are a part of. We burn it – and ourselves.


Outside the front door is a wee place to sit. . .not bad.


There you go. While I’ve got you, Jonkoping is pronounced something like Yonshuping. Swedish people have their own way of doing things. Don’t we all?

Jonkoping is also the home of the well-known brand Husqvarna, whose sewing machine empire is now offloaded to a licensee, but was the replacement for a firearms business. Husqvarna still makes stuff in Jonkoping such as chainsaws, weedeaters and motor mowers – including especially robotic mowers. These and more feature in a museum in the conurbation. I’m not going to bore you with it – today. Another time, maybe.

Thanks for taking a look at this one. Enjoy your day.


*No. Blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson had it all over me in so many ways – that he could even ask that question among them.







Posted by on May 1, 2018 in Uncategorized


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There is a point to it

Dear reader – hello. It occurred to me that you might labour under the delusion that I spend far too much of my time haunting public toilets, and that this is an unhealthy preoccupation.

Fear not. I also spend a lot of time in cemeteries.

Cemeteries have a way of getting under your skin. . .of teaching how we look after, or don’t look after, those who came before us. I was astonished to discover this last trip to Europe, that in Germany, unless a grave is special for some reason, that local authorities in some places leave them for 20 years, and then, unless something is paid for their upkeep, disappeared. How the remains beneath are dealt with, is unclear. If you think there is a life after death, and that this is somehow retained in the bones of the departed, what do you think they think, to see the marker of their time up above calmly removed and tossed aside? I shudder to run down this line of thought.

There is more of course. There always is. Some cemeteries have a wonderful aroma of decay, just as they should. They give off a bouquet of passage, of “this is all part of the grand scheme of things”, and it is not at all a measure of forgetfulness, but of respect of how life is, and how death too. Another time, when it seems appropriate, I’ll do a post with some photos “cemeteries and graves of the world”!

In Gotha, in the German state of Thuringia, I chanced on an isolated grave built by its occupant, one Hans Adam von Studnitz. He put it in his backyard awaiting the time he would need it. Studnitz – go on, google him, you know you want to – never married, had no children, but had friends I guess, and was the director of the theatre in the nearby castle/palace. Studnitz died in another place in 1778 but his body was brought back to Gotha and interred in his remarkable tomb.

Here it is!



And here, the casket behind the iron bars, skew whiff as per your unworthy correspondent:



Until Studnitz hit on his inspired idea, pyramids were not the done thing when it came to graves in Europe. They were common enough as we all know in ancient Egypt, but a backyard in Gotha? Studnitz was well ahead of his time, and no one thought to repeat the feat for another generation. It is still far from popular.

Studnitz’ marvel was neglected until early this century when it was restored and is in a quiet street near a high school. It is no longer a backyard but a wee park, and students congregate by it during breaks and before and after the school day to smoke and play around.  If you want to shoo them away, just turn up with a camera. . .

Gotha is a significant city in European history, even in world history. It is the home turf of the royal family that now occupies the British throne, and several others. The Brits changed their name to Windsor during the first World War to make their sympathies clear.

It is also the burial place – somewhere else in the town – of the founder of the Masonic-affiliated fraternity Illuminati, and we all know what symbol they used to show they were in touch with the throbs and gestures of secret universal urges. Go on, google them too and see what turns up!

Yet more! Gotha is the place where a supposedly Marxist political party hammered out a programme during Marx’s life. Marx wasn’t impressed and wrote a critique that was published after his death a decade or so later.  You, dear reader, can easily find this then-private despair on the part of Marx using the wonders of the search engine: Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme. It’s waiting for you.

I chanced on the Studnitz pyramid while searching for the hall where the programme was negotiated. It is still there, but shows the moribund state of the impulses that for so long sustained it.


On a weekday – closed. The fellow in the photo was smoking and waiting for someone as he had something to pass on.

Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, who spent time as a child elsewhere in Thuringia, wasn’t impressed by the whole socialist project as it had degenerated to his day:

…I always thought socialism was a temporary nervous disorder that was basically harmless but in reality it’s a deadly disease. I mean the socialism that prevails today….a spurious socialism that relies on shameless pretence. Today we don’t have socialism anywhere in the world, only the mendacious, simulated variety…today’s socialists are not real socialists but devious dissemblers. This [20th] century has succeeded in dragging the honoured name of socialism in the dirt to such an extent that you want to throw up. The inventors of socialism, who actually believed in it and thought they’d established it for all times, would turn in their graves if they could see what their unspeakable successors have made of it…

Where was I? Oh, pyramids! The last word in this line must be reserved for American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who was not at all impressed by the Egyptian versions. This from Walden, the masterwork of the supposed nature-loving pacifist:

“As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.”

Thanks for reading.





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Posted by on March 20, 2018 in Uncategorized


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For twenty years or so I have taken photographs of public toilets,usually urinals. Their attraction, if that is the right expression, is their variety – today, and over time. For a biological function that doesn’t actually change all that much, there is a wealth of means to provide an – ahem! – functional service. Dear reader, you would be very surprised. Honest.

Last year in Groningen in the Netherlands I ran into what has been described as the most beautiful toilet in the world. The walls are of milk glass decorated with a photo gallery of a man and woman in “Carnival” costume enacting what the photographer called “the battle of the sexes” as part of a theme of “Birth of a star”. This is described as “fun”, and it is clear the pair are play-acting by the way they prance to the lens.

Sadly for me I guess I don’t see this as fun really. Reading the explanatory material, the pistol the man points at the woman is apparently a toy:


But does the viewer know this? I’ve got bad vision, but that’s not entirely an explanation. Elsewhere, the woman gets her licks in with a boxing glove and a rolling pin. Here is the boxing glove:


That makes it OK, then. And this?


Or this?


Here is the “star” being born:


Dear reader: it is true I am a definite non-entity, and it is true, too, that I have written my share of erotica, and possibly your share too, even if you are viewed collectively, but this loo art just looks to me to be misogynistic, and validating violence, and the final view above has to me the suggestion of something other than a star.

This toilet has been in place for more than 20 years, and does not seem to have evoked any disquiet, or not any that I have been able to find. “It’s fun.”. “It’s beautiful”! Even, “the most beautiful toilet in the world”!!!!

As Lisbet Salander says to the man she’s got hooked up to a power cable in The Millennium Triology, “My bad.” I must be reading too much into this. My sensitive soul is too easily bruised.

Or maybe not.

It not only doesn’t bother me that in France an elaborate and intrinsically violent form of dance known as Apache dancing** is a popular club attraction, or that Rainer Fassbinder’s last film, Querelle***, involved a depiction of this art form with murder as the outcome, but I think those arts show or imply the reality of domestic and other violence. This toilet by contrast triviliases it and it is not going to stop bothering me.

Here is a toilet I think is genuinely beautiful. It is in Scotland, in the village of Rothsay on the Isle of Bute:


Here is a quirky statement from Wellington, New Zealand. A few hundred metres from the capital buidings, it has been displaced by the not especially excellent Supreme Court building. Just love the full stop!


Another nostalgia trip, from Glasgow:


I would go on, but it would dilute the point. Toilets are worth having a look at, but all really isn’t fair in love and war.

Thanks for reading and looking.


*A “piss-take” is “Commonwealth” (including British) usage, and will be found in serious newspapers as well as in common crudity. It has a variety of meanings. Consult Wikipedia and decide which is intended here.

** Nothing to do with Apache “Indians”. Check Wiki.

***Based on a novel by Jean Genet, it is a weird film. The staginess of the action does not at all diminish or trivialise the subject. The colour palette is amazing.






Posted by on February 21, 2018 in Uncategorized


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Irony in the sole

aa1Sometime on my travels I realised, with a bit of a start and a bit of shame in that it took me so long, that the ironwork in the streets where I walked was worth looking at, and hence recording. Much of it was a form of local self-promotion, using city icons or logos to show off the charms of the locality. Other bits were just interesting, nice designs and possibly nicely placed in a framework of cobblestones or mosaic tiles. Sometimes they were crowded with weeds. . .So I started taking photos of them, and at the end of my 2017 northern European journey had several hundred. The best ones, discounting the photography, are dotted around this post.

The towns and cities whose ironwork I photographed include Malmo and Stockholm in Sweden, Kristianstad, Aalborg and Aarhus in Denmark, Bremerhaven, Hamburg, Berlin, Munster, Detmold, Gotha, Erfurt, Jena, Leipzig, Dresden and Meissen in Germany, and (I think) Prague in the Czech Republic.

Why do they do it? What is in it really for the town or city, or the designer, or the worker who sets them in stones or in a larger framework? The lowest motive I can figure is to discourage theft, but there is also – and I sooooooo want this to be true – satisfaction.
The one on the left is from Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city.  The central design is featured in a range of covers.



Last year the city was a European Capital of Culture along with Paphos in Cyprus, and it went all out. Along the shore new paving got a fine drain. Here are three images, each a bit larger to show the detail.




It just looks like an ashtray.













It isn’t one really. Nor is it a planter. It definitely breaks up what would be a boring feature footpath.









Here is another Aarhus round cover, much different from most:



Even the most pedestrian – sorry! – shape can be turned into something imaginative.


On the left is a grate for an air vent in Dresden.








And another grate for a drain.  Simple, yet elegant, no?









An arrangement of covers with a drain in a courtyard of an arts institute in Dresden. Rust was a feature here, unlike elsewhere.












A fire hose connection.








Trapdoor. . .nice!



Outside the Dresden opera house, a prosaic rectangle encased in a fine mossaic design.






Cut and place.


Just grate!



There is probably a totally functional reason why the inset in this square a shaped like a tear, or perhaps an alien. . .you may find out, but I suspect I shall never know. It’s just beautiful to me.






A mysterious design, hieroglyphic-like.












If you’ve had enough of these, here is a nice range of city logo covers:



































































That’s enough, you say? OK. There probably is too much of a good thing when it comes to street metalwork, though I am not really sure about that. If you don’t like it, as Dionne Warwick famously sang, perhaps with this in mind, “Walk on by,” but remembering, with Robert Johnson, that there are “stones in [your] pathway”.

Once I got started on this, I discovered that British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is also interested in what backward people call manholes. He allows this is “odd”. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s odd. Eccentric – fine. Jeremy, you may not believe this but you and I, geographically and otherwise poles apart, share an eccentricity! Electric rust forever!

There is more! As John Major supposedly exclaimed, “Oh yes!”

While these cast iron creations are interesting and often elegant, the Japanese have leapfrogged their European counterparts. For example:


Ironworkers of Europe! You have worlds to conquer!

Thanks for looking and reading:


*This is a pun on the title of a novel by Jean-Paul Sartre, Iron in the soul. If Jean-Paul’s soul is out there somewhere – I have my doubts – J-P, I’m thinking of you!


Posted by on February 3, 2018 in Uncategorized


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Have Merzy*

Kurt Schwitters popped into my life in Newcastle, England in 1999. I was cruising the streets looking for excitement and drifted in to a university art gallery where a Schwitters retrospective  was on. Seeing as I was and am totally knowledgeable about art in every respect, from every culture in every period in every form and by every worthwhile artist, for some reason I had never heard of him.

The exhibition was pretty strange.

Schwitters was truly different, and it’s not just me saying so. He never fit anywhere enough to be in a “school”, though he is sometimes pegged as a “Dadaist”. Other times he is a “constructivist”. But what he really was, was Kurt Schwitters. From Hannover in central Germany, he studied in Dresden for five years alongside Otto Dix and George Grosz but seemed unaware of their work or their “school”, Die Brucke. **

Later, he was involved, kind of, with the post-WWI art movement known as Dada. Some Dada members apparently didn’t take to him because he was too talented basically, and insisted on drawing things, and painting them, even rather well. But he had their idea of poking a very sharp stick up the nose of “philistine” art standards and modes, and had friendly relations with some of the leading Dadaists. He toured with a few, Wiki says, giving performances of an ill-defined nature.

He could paint. He could sculpt. He made a large number of collages, a technique he apparently claimed, resentfully, to have discovered. He was a typographer. He wrote. He dreamed up an “ur-language” he reckoned contained the basic sounds of all languages, and recorded the sounds. At the show in Newcastle, they played these and ever since I have (more than) occasionally made stupid noises, remembering Schwitters’ ur-gent vocals .

There was a CD on sale and I wish I’d bought it. “Gawk! Skirk! Dweeeb!”

I think Schwitters’ tongue was never far from his cheek. He was engaged with life in all its aspects and humour could colour anything at all.

The organising focus of the Newcastle show is on permanent display there, and it is what grabbed me about him. Much of that show was composed of portraits and landscapes from a time in the English Lake District when he was down on his luck, slapping paint onto canvas willy-nilly to make a few bob, and are not exactly terrific. But in a corner of the gallery is a wall – yes, an entire wall – from a stone shed, or barn, from the Lake District, near Ambleside.  Schwitters settled there after WWII, after being released from internment as an enemy alien and living in London. He’d taken off from Germany in 1937 after some friends had been arrested and he had been invited to an interview with the Gestapo.  His art was condemned as “degenerate”, figuring in the (actually quite popular) toured degenerate art exhibition organised by Josef Goebbels.

By that time a big deal for him was installation art. He’d made an installation in a room in his family’s house in Hannover that spread and threatened to take over the entire building.


It was called “The Cathedral of Erotic Misery.”  The erotic was a theme of Schwitters, and the “merzbau” wall, though it is not visible in the photo below, is no exception: suggestive elements abound. Sadly, the Hannover installation was bombed during the war.  In Scandinavia, he made one in a corner of a barn that has also not survived, and in Ambleside, aided by a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship, he did it again. When the wall in England began to crumble, it was transferred to the gallery in Newcastle.

Well, I was gobsmacked by this wall. It was eerie. A lot of it was made from rubbish Schwitters picked up as he walked to the shed and back from his flat in Ambleside.  . . taken and plastered in among other bric a brac. He didn’t finish it before he died in 1948, the day after he was granted British citizenship.

I had never seen anything like it.


Schwitters life after 1937 was hard, and in 1948 he was virtually unknown. Now he is represented in every major gallery in Germany I have visited, there have been “merzbarn festivals” in England, and a space he transformed in Norway has been rescued and shifted to a museum.

He was a one-off, genuinely unique and everything I have seen by him is a reproof to those (like me) who are often too shy to be themselves, to try. . .to go on learning how to be.

Schwitters was endlessly creative. He made thousands of collages, and they are far from bad. In internment on the Isle of Man in Britain, unable to find the right material for plaster, he used porridge. A friend said it stank terribly, went green with mould and who knows what bacteria. . .but there is was, a work of smelly art.

American artist Robert Rauschenberg said that when he saw an exhibition in New York in 1959, he’d “felt like he did it all for me”. Schwitters can grab you, just like that.

The “merzbau” as the wall was called is now recognised as “installation art”. This is something important these days in the art world, and like Schwitters’ work is often conceptual before it is actual. In Schwitters case, we know that he had the talent to draw or paint or sculpt; for many of today’s installation artists, that is not so obvious. For example, in Scotland while I was living there a decade or so ago, an artist filled an empty room with ping pong balls.

Cool! For me, this is at once silly and liberating. If someone can fill a room with ping pong balls and call it art, and even make a few bob from it, who am I?*** Nobody, sure. But also I am the one who will make a sculpture out of dead hoovers, that’s who! Is the cheque in the mail?

Where was I? Ah. Kurt Schwitters. The fellow got so much under my skin that my second novel, Evilheart, has a character named Schwitters, supposedly distantly related to to Kurt. . .now, fifteen or so years later, is another chance to pay a bit of homage. . .

Gotheborg in Sweden has a wonderful art gallery with a hall devoted to self-portraits, and yes, there is one by Schwitters:


The gallery has a notice wisely suggesting that artists may not have painted themselves as they really looked, and this one, like so much of what Schwitters was about, is hard to tell.

Here is one photo of the man:


In life he was said to be a positive person, friendly and engaging, and the photo suggests it is so. “Erotic” this and that maybe but hey. . .nice. Middle class even! Here is another photo:


Now, that looks more like “my” man, my Kurt – still friendly, still engaging, but mischievous,  a bit eccentric.  Like your unworthy correspondent.

Kurt Schwitters is a challenge to each of us, even if you had never heard of him until you read this post, dear reader, and even, if like myself, your talent is questionable at best. He is no longer forgotten – you can read more about his life in wikipedia, and search google images for a huge number of his works.


*The third post springing from my euro-trip in summer 2017. Schwitters coined the title “Merz” for his work, which is pronounced in English as “Mers”, since in German “z” is said “s” and “s” is said “z”. He took this from the name of a bank that is still around, Commerzbank, after finding a torn bit of newspaper with “merz” on it. I think he was making a sly statement, funny but serious, as with so much of his output. “Have Mercy” is a song by Don Covay that was recorded by the Rolling Stones. Jimi Hendrix was a sideman on the original recording.

**Otto Dix was also a remarkable painter, whose wartime experiences led to some very upsetting work, especially a huge triptych on war now in Dresden’s Albertinum “Neue Meister” gallery.  Grosz was also a left-wing surrealist. Google images will show.

***Those who follow the British Turner Prize will know many similar examples.


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Posted by on January 20, 2018 in Uncategorized


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Ovartaci *

Louis Marcussen was born in a small town in Jutland, Denmark in 1894, the son of a dyer. Something was not right with the family – of 10 children, several were blind and half died early in life. Louis survived, trained as a painter and decorator, and after taking Spanish lessons, embarked for a great adventure in Argentina at the age of 29.

Whatever happened in Argentina, it wasn’t good.  Later Louis said the suffering he endured there had a positive value as it “toughened” him for what was to come. He stayed several years before returning home, working his way as a stoker on a coal-burning freighter.  Back with the family, he was apparently difficult, and after he pointed a defective rifle at his blind brother Knud, the family contacted health officials, and one day, while he was wallpapering a room, he was jumped and hauled off to a mental hospital in the Aarhus suburb of Risskov.

He died there, 56 years later.

Aarhus – Denmark’s second largest city, with around a quarter million souls – has what is claimed to be one of four women’s museums in the world, and I encountered Louis’ work there – a pipe, apparently made of the foil from a toothpaste tube.


But Louis was not known as Louis Marcussen. He was Ovartaci, and he was no longer a man, but a woman.

The next day I trooped up to Risskov to encounter more work at a museum named after Ovartaci in the place she lived for half a century.**

It is hard to know what to make of this extraordinary life.  Despite a wealth of detail provided by various psychiatric professionals and art critics, Ovartaci remains an enigma to me, and possibly everyone who runs into her.

Dear reader – you can choose between the idea that Louis Marcussen believed in reincarnation and that in all his previous lives he had been a woman, that a terrible mistake had been made, that he wished to have corrected, or you can take the “analysts'”  idea that he regarded his lust for women as “dirty” and that to deal with this lust he needed to have what is now known as “gender reassignment”. Whatever, he convinced the authorities to castrate him, but when this didn’t meet his needs or expectations, and he could not persuade his minders to help, he cut off his penis. After a failed attempt using a razor blade, he succeeded with a chisel in the asylum’s carpentry workshop. Eventually authorities allowed “reassignment”, a vagina created when he was around 60, and Ovartaci died the woman she (according to me as well as to her) knew she had always been:


Here is a chart of “available” genders from the Aarhus women’s museum:


Which one, or ones, was Ovartaci?

Ovartaci’s life as a psychiatric patient is as puzzling as anything else about her. It is hard not to be suspicious of psychiatric professionals who overpowered someone while papering a room for the crime of brandishing a rifle that wouldn’t shoot, and kept that person incarcerated for more than half a century. The available details about Louis’ and Ovartaci’s behaviour are too sketchy to be really sure of the actual justification for keeping her locked up.  Yet Ovartaci spent many of those years as a sort of special case, less locked up than might be assumed, able to leave the facility and wander about the city.  Her keepers seemed well-disposed towards her, taking her to their homes and bringing their children to meet her in the hospital. Eventually she was allowed to buy a bicycle and travel further afield.

Ovartaci was also encouraged in art, producing at least 800 works ranging from pipes to dolls and other sculptures to paintings. Around 1960, a psychiatrist arriving at the Risskov facility recognised Ovartaci’s talent as genius, and not only encouraged it, but recorded long conversations eventually edited and published.

It is true too that by being a patient Ovartaci never needed to worry about food and lodging. If much of her work was made using whatever was to hand, she was also able to sell it, and to buy paints and other materials, and was able to decorate much of the hospital as well as her own room. She was able to study and learned Chinese and much else.

But is “not as bad as it might have been” good? Underneath all the positives there is something about Ovartaci’s life that makes me angry, and ashamed.

Before Ovartaci’s death in 1986, exhibitions outside the hospital featured her work, and after it, art as therapy led to the naming of the exhibition hall for patients’ work the Ovartaci Museum. However Ovartaci may have thought about that, I am not sure how I feel about it. Here is a painting by a later patient:

art brut

This too makes me angry and ashamed.

Here are some paintings by Ovartaci:





Ovartaci said, “I served my apprenticeship here in Aarhus.. .the orders we received were, that nature puts no colours wrongly side by side. The essential thing is to pick this up and learn from nature, as it does not put wrong colours together. That is what humans can do, these baroque and often so frightening, terrifying paintngs; they are not found in nature.”

Ovartaci made dolls that some critics say were not meant as “art objects” but as friends.*** She made them in various sizes and smaller ones went with her when she left the hospital; she could take them on her bike. She gave them names and talked with them.

While restoring one of the larger versions, a curator discovered that the head came apart. Inside was a sheaf of poems written in Spanish. Here is an English translation of one, published as “poems o the future”:

Life on Earth
Is suffering
Filled with false hope,
And bitter experiences.
The disgraceful birth
Is to blame for our fate.
And helplessness,
Dreadful fear of the moist poison.
Of illness,
Of malicious men,
War, earthquake, lightning, revolution,
Starvation and destitution.
Of witches, illusionists
And fascists.
Of the result
Of our decisions,
And it hurts to be separated
When in love,
And it hurts to be coupled with something
Ugly and disgusting
Of the deceased
And of ignorance.
Of the life
To come.


*The second post from my summer 2017 European adventure. Thanks for reading.

**Ovartaci was at the Risskov facility for 45 years; s/he spent a further 11 at another.

***Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka also made a doll of a girlfriend – Anna Mahler,  ex-wife of Gustav Mahler and Walter Gropius – who dumped him. Kokoschka took the doll to dinners and parties and talked to it as if it was Anna. Eventually he destroyed it.



Posted by on January 15, 2018 in Uncategorized


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