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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY EIGHTY TWO Lunch with Hieronymus Bosch

Cycling round Munich last night, I rather felt that my pedals were turning more slowly than they were 81 days ago. But slow is not necessarily bad. One of the most mesmeric films I have seen is a twelve hour drift across the Bering Strait. Chamisso's Shadow slowly pans across people, history and Inuit culture in the magnificent natural environment. Ulrike Ottinger, the filmmaker, was inspired by the Tagebuch/diary of Adelbert von Chamisso, a former Prussian soldier turned botanist, who set off in 1815 to sail round the world with a Russian scientific expedition.

Ulrike Ottinger (c)wikicommons

On the expedition, Chamisso reported on the Hawaiian language and discovered a range of new plant species, including the California Poppy in San Francisco Bay; he became curator of Berlin's botanical gardens on his return. Ulrike Ottinger took her cue from the Bering Sea portion of his Tagebuch – but named her film after Chamisso's 1814 children's novella, Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte (Peter Schlemihl's Wondrous History) in which Peter sells his shadow to the devil for a 'bottomless wallet', only to discover that society shuns a man without a shadow. The devil offers to swap his shadow for his soul – but instead Peter throws away the wallet and sets off in search of the natural world wearing his seven-league boots.

Ulrike Ottinger was born south of Munich, on the far side of Lake Constance. She started out as an etcher, studying with Johnny Friedlaender, a remarkable artist who had survived two years in a concentration camp.

Johnny Friedlaender The Hours (colour etching and aquatint) (c)

She turned to film in the mid-1960s and, as the New York Times reported, by the 1980s heyday of the New German Cinema she 'constituted a one-woman avant-garde opposition to the sulky male melodramas of Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog, her films being long, discursive and wildly inventive'.

Memories of the omnipresent icebergs in Chamisso's Shadow set us off this morning in quest of the Munich photographer Olaf Otto Becker who spent thirteen years from 1999-2012 hiking over and sailing round Greenland and Iceland with his large-format (8x10) camera. His beautiful images are published in Broken Line and Nordic Light – A Journey Through Time, though they show best, like most photographers' work, as prints.

(c)Olaf Otto Becker

We didn't get to meet Becker, but a recent Huxley-Parlour interview with him suggests he shares the iron discipline that has made Arnold Schwarzenegger a success:

When I’m out with my boat in the Arctic, I usually take pictures from 11 o’clock in the evening until 6 o’clock the next morning.

When I am travelling, I explore the area all day from the first ray of sunshine to the last daylight.

My pictures are mostly created while travelling in the landscape by boat, car, bicycle or by foot. The slower I move, the more accurate the observation of the surroundings.

[What books are you reading now?] John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley - in Search of America; Ilija Trojanow The Collector of Worlds; and Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life - a New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems.

The photographers Becker admires are Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Alec Soth, Paul Graham, Chris Killip, Emmet Gowin, Bruce Davidson, An-My Le, and Evangelia Kranioti. And he also likes David Hockney and Gerhard Richter, though the artist with whom he would most want to have lunch is Hieronymus Bosch.

Given that Becker's images are of the natural world, Hockney and Richter are understandable – vide Hockney's recent venture into trees and Richter's own photographic trip to Greenland in 1972 (which he later painted as his four Seascapes, harking back to the romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich).

Bosch is harder to fathom. The elements that he takes from the natural world are realistic – but they form part of carefully, and fantastically, composed meditations on Heaven and Hell. Becker's latest works have documented vanishing rain forests and the dissolving tundra of Siberia, so perhaps he sees Bosch's tales of eternal damnation as our due fate.

Hieronymus Bosch Last Judgement (in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Bosch draws his name, of course from 's-Hertogenbosch, or Den Bosch (as even the Dutch know it) where he was born and lived. So when they have lunch, I hope Becker mentions one of the minor wonders of the world that Bosch, having died in 1516, would have missed by four and a half centuries – the Bolwoningen.


Piet Blom's Kubuswoningen in Rotterdam are well known, but the Bolwoningen are scarcely known even in Den Bosch itself. I asked the hotel clerk for directions and though she had lived in the town all her life, she had not heard of them. But once seen, never forgotten.


These 'ball houses' were built, appropriately, in 1984. The construction was futuristic: each 'ball' consists of two fibreglass and reinforced concrete hemispheres glued together on site. They were designed not by an architect, but by an artist and sculptor - Dries Kreijkamp. He made them virtually indestructible and they need no maintenance. On the 'housing estate' there are 50 of these spheres and they fulfil their original purpose – social housing.

I have a feeling, though, that at some point the houses were inhabited by detectorists because the residents petitioned to have a shed each. So Dries Kreijkamp came up with a sort-of complementary futuristic design: to my eye, they still look like sheds.


Trailer for Ulrike Ottinger's film Chamisso's Shadow -

The Libri Vox recording (2 hours 30 minutes) of The Wonderful History of Peter Schlemihl -

Olaf Otto Becker in Iceland -

Hieronymus Bosch documentary, with Brian Sewell -

The interior of a ball house -

Theme Song from The Detectorists -

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