Friday, June 10, 2005


We spent Sunday in Colmar, a small city in upper Alsace that grew around the medieval wine trade. It’s history resembles Strasbourg’s: a powerful medieval center with strong artisan and art traditions; significantly changed by the Reformation, although no denomination gained the upper hand; remade by the French to represent aristocratic power and Catholicism. In the nineteenth century Colmar became a departmental capital, but it did not grow like Strasbourg, and consequentially it remained small. It owes much of its current shape to French efforts to turn it into an administrative center for upper Alsace and to undermine the influence of the local merchants. Our visit was dominated by two things: the Unterlinden Museum and the sculptures of August Bartholdi.

It was another overcast day, and we started out late. We arrived in Colmar around 12.30. I hadn’t been there in several years, so I was not quite certain how to find the center of town. We wander for a little while until we came upon Parc du Champs du Mars. It has two Bartholdi statues: Rapp at the northern end, and Bruat to the south (this one had been destroyed by the Nazis, of course, and rebuilt by the town thereafter; we would see later that it was no nearly as magnificent as Bartholdi’s original).

After helping a few Japanese tourists to find their way around, I took K to what, in my opinion, is the coolest building in town: Maison des Têtes – the House of Heads. It is an early 17th century house with lost of different faces all up and down the front. It was built by the city’s mayor; it is now a restaurant.

K was less impressed by the Collégiale Saint-Martin, a Gothic church that has been used as a cathedral since the revolution. We spent only a brief period inside – it is poorly lit from both artificial and natural light, and we could not completely appreciate it.

Finally I took K to the Unterlinden Museum. The building itself had been a Dominican convent. The cloister in the center is a tranquil garden whereat people sit for hours listening to birds. The museum itself was established in the late 19th century by locals who wanted to preserve the local history of the decorative arts. It houses a number of Medieval Rhenish masterpieces, especially works by Isseman, Schöngauer and Grünewald. The Issenheim Altar by Grünewald is clearly the center of the collection. The panel of the Temptation of Saint Antony is gruesome and powerful (I wish I had taken a photo of it). However, I loved the collection of engravings from Schöngauer, which were themselves evocative and detailed.

The upper level houses early modern and modern works. Perhaps most interesting was a large work by Jules Theophile Schuler, “La Char de la Mort (The Chariot of Death)”. It depicts the revolution pulled by skeletal horses. I am tempted to call it a royalist work, but I will reserve judgement for now.

Sidenote: the other day I was looking over documents concerning museums at the archives. I came across an article in a German newspaper from the 1930s: the author was upset by the possession of the Grünewald altar by the French. He claimed that “The great German artist that is Gruenewald is lost in a museum of an emptied province, among the souvenirs of war”:
Finally, here in the great room appears in all his glory this great German artist. The spirit and the tumult blaze through the tableaus that express death and resurrection with power. And the spleandor of the colors [that are] the equal of the greatest Dutch and Italian painters. No! Its place is not here, in this provincial prison! This room is empty when it should be full of reverie. I saw no more than two visitors ... No, its place is not here: it belongs to us, we who understand it and admire it.

After Unterlinden, we went to the Musée Bartholdi. August Bartholdi was born in Colmar. Many of his works, including statues of French heroes and the Statue of Liberty, expressed his protest against German rule in Alsace. I had skipped this museum the first time I visited Colmar. I regret doing so. This museum was fantastic. It held numerous models and studies that he made for his monumental works. Among the more obvious works, there was a series on artisans, the remains of the Brualt fountain, and paintings that he made in California. One room served as a museum for the local Jewish community. I was particularly drawn to a study of Lafayette with Washington, one of a number of works that Bartholdi made of Lafayette. I bought a book detailing the planning and construction of the monument at the Basel train station: a memorial to the help given to Strasbourg during the siege of 1870.

We wandered through the rest of Colmar. The town, by this time, had been overrun by tourists (like us), but everyone was in good spirits. I bought some flavored merengues for K and me. We encountered several more works by Bartholdi throughout the town, although these were of local historical figures. One seemed to be pregnant with meaning: the mayor who resisted the forces of the Bishop of Strasbourg in the 12th century (opposition to all sorts of centralization and hegemony?). Finally I showed K “Little Venice”, the part of town near the wider part of the river.

We stopped at a brasserie for beer and (of course) Flammkuchen.
though a small vilage/town to much to be seen on a short daytrip let alone food to choose from
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