Behind the Decadence, There’s Dust, and Other News


On the Shelf

Gustav Wunderwald, Brücke über die Ackerstraße, 1927. Image via Public Domain Review.


  • We associate Weimar Berlin with Dionysian excess, unfettered lust, and quality drugs, all of which put it at the top of the list of places I’d like to time travel to. But even at its most liberated, city life can’t be all orgies and amphetamines. Someone has to take the garbage out. The painter Gustav Wunderwald, who roamed the streets of Berlin in the 1920s, had a soft spot for its less frenetic corners. His work, with its parade of smokestacks and tenements, has garnered more attention in recent years for its depiction of the city’s sooty splendor. Mark Hobbs writes, “Wunderwald’s oeuvre consists chiefly of landscapes, many of which depict Berlin and its surroundings. The gray streets of the city’s working-class areas, to the north of the city center, are just as often depicted as the cleaner, airier streets of the city’s affluent west end. Rural landscapes also figure, including views of Berlin’s lakes and the countryside around the Havel River. Despite the variety of scenes, it is for his depictions of Berlin’s working-class areas that Wunderwald is best known … Amidst the tenement blocks, factories, smokestacks, and advertising hoardings, Wunderwald found no shortage of subjects to paint. In a letter to a friend, written in the winter of 1926, he wrote: ‘Sometimes I stagger back as if drunk from my wandering through Berlin; there are so many impressions that I have no idea which way to go.’ ”
  • Jim Guida is reading the novels of José Maria de Eça de Queirós, whom you may have heard of from Lorin Stein in our staff picks. Eça, a nineteenth-century Portuguese writer, depicts his nation’s wealthiest milieu with care, acuity, and more than a little cynicism. Guida writes, “What does Eça’s Portugal feel like? It is dominated by hot sunny days, white trousers, dust, theater tickets and evening strolls in Sintra, roses in buttonholes and glimpses of gowned women getting in and out of coaches, gorgeous landscapes and trees and flowers, hale farmers and country maids, long conversations, cats and singing birds and orchards, pumpkins drying on a station roof, baked sweet rice, and cheese pastries. Furthermore plenty of cognac, white wine, iced champagne, rolled cigarettes, and good cigars. Late in The Maias, a dish of cold pineapple served with Madeira and orange juice gets sustained attention. In another novel, someone says, ‘It’s an absolute disgrace, you know. I’ve never once eaten a decent melon here.’ ”

  • Scandal has stalked Park Geun-hye, the erstwhile South Korean president. Her fall, as Michelle Cho writes, is emblematic of a deeper corruption in Korean society, one that’s begun to express itself in the country’s films: “Since Park Geun-hye’s convincing election in 2013, the majority of big- and medium-budget productions in Korean cinema have been noir or action thrillers. Many explore endemic corruption in Korean society, and particularly collusion between the police, politicians, and organized crime. In films like New WorldInside MenVeteranAsura: City of Madness, Master, and The King, all domestic box-office successes produced during Park’s presidency, the characters are drunk on power … In all of them, South Korea’s postwar economic boom has a dark side. In New World and so many other recent hits, characters find themselves in moral peril by overvaluing surfaces and semblance—above all the surfaces of new real-estate construction … The primary drama, throughout, is not whether or not crime will be punished or characters will reform themselves. It is, rather, how individuals suffer in a double bind, where unveiling the true coordinates of power leads to catastrophic instability. Social order relies on dissimulation.”
  • Ian Ground wonders why people are so dumb about the intelligence of other animals: “We have in effect been Darwinists about the animal kingdom but Creationists about the human head. This outcome has many causes, including a long and cross-cultural history of deep-seated attitudes towards our place in nature, cross-cut by our pathological denial of our exploitation of other animals … We are smart enough to learn how smart animals are. But you wouldn’t think so from looking at our history of trying … We systematically underestimate animal complexity. Primates are an obvious central example, and attention is also given to the more recent stars of animal studies, especially corvids and parrots. But there are plenty of less familiar examples: from zebra fish and moray eels to the stupendous intelligence of the honey badger.”