by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Of Chamber Pots and Potatoes

By Roderick Conway Morris
MUNICH 6 June 1997
Kartoffelmuseum, Munich
Marilyn Monroe in promotional shot for Idaho potato growers



Free admission for 'over-99-year-olds accompanied by their parents' and, indeed, anybody, so long as they view the museum 'from the outside,' are two of the distinctive attractions of the Valentin Museum, which occupies the Isartor, a medieval gateway to the city. It is dedicated to the life and times of Karl Valentin (1882-1948), Munich's zaniest music-hall artist, stand-up comic and author of several hundred plays, films and sketches.

For those who don't qualify for the uniquely generous concessions offered by the Musaeum (whose adjusted spelling wickedly mimics the pronunciation of the kind of hopeless ignoramus who wouldn't be seen dead in one), the entrance charge of 299 pfennigs ($1.75) seems a not unreasonable price to see Valentin's only painting, an entirely black canvas, 'Chimney Sweep by Night,' to make the acquaintance of Professor Fluidum, inventor of a weed-killer so potent it made 'even the shovel bloom,' and to encounter a host of other manifestations of Valentin's fruitfully deranged imagination.

The cafe, 87 spiraling steps up on the top floor, is a popular rendezvous, with a table reserved for 'old fogies,' the trombone with which Valentin caused untold distress to himself and his listeners, and dozens of objects evoking this life-enhancing anarchic figure.

In a city that takes its cultural life seriously and has excellent museums on just about every subject from Egyptian art to Electricity, the Valentin Musaeum might seem an eccentric anomaly, but turns out to be the tip of an iceberg of oddball museum culture. A stone's throwaway from the Isartor, at 41 Westenrieder Strasse, is ZAM, the Zentrum fuer Aussergewoehnliche Museen (The Center for Unusual Museums), the creation of Manfred Klauda, the doyen of Munich's alternative museum curators.

'I wanted to paint when I was a young man and even had some exhibitions, but this was just after the last war. My parents had no sympathy with my artistic ambitions and told me to study something to make a proper living,' said Klauda, who reluctantly became a lawyer, but at 60 retains an irrepressible air of good humor, energy and curiosity. While plugging away at his unchosen profession Klauda continued to haunt museums, galleries and auction rooms, and it began to strike him that a number of interesting but peculiar areas of cultural history were passed over in standard institutions.

'Then I happened to go to an auction and found a small collection of chamber pots for sale. I was amazed not only how nice these potties were, but how clearly they represented progressive changes in artistic and decorative styles,' he said. Klauda now has more than 8,000 chamber pots, of which 2,000 are on show at ZAM. The collection stretches from Roman times to some remarkable Art Nouveau productions of the turn of the century, after which the utensil began to disappear.

The refinement of many of the pieces, made by the most celebrated makers of ceramics and porcelain, and some bearing the coats of arms of aristocratic and royal families, is extraordinary - the point being, as Klauda said, that 'the highest-quality products were still made by the best artists and craftsmen available, regardless of the fact that, in this case, they were making chamber pots.'

There is also a whole section devoted to the 'bourdaloue'. These gravyboat-shaped objects, nowadays often mistaken for antique tableware, were named after a French Jesuit preacher, Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704), whose, fashionable but interminable sermons led aristocratic female fans to bring with them discreet vessels to relieve themselves if the need arose. Bourdaloues also proved generally convenient for ladies wearing the cumbersome full-dress of the period, and for those traveling by coach. The principal manufacturers in China, Japan and Europe produced them for a mainly upper-class clientele, and Klauda's collection contains monogrammed ones made for Marie-Antoinette and her sister Marie Christine, and toy ones for dolls.

Since launching the center Klauda has received both loans and donations and has acquired objects that enabled him to hold a series oftemporary shows on specific themes and to create more permanent sections in the museum. A recent temporary exhibition covered the evolution of the Christmas tree - originally often hung from the ceiling like a chandelier - and new longerterm rooms reveal the mysterious history of Easter bunnies and Easter eggs (traced back to their origins as fertility symbols in ancient religions) and a marvelous collection of children's pedal cars, a pint-sized museum of the development of the automobile, with, some obviously expensive pedal-driven models of classic makes from Bugattis to Buicks. (Klauda once pedaled one of these robust, child-proof vehicles from Munich to Dresden).

The pedal cars and Easter bunnies at ZAM are particularly popular with children, as is another museum not far away at 53 Neuhauser Strasse, the Jagd und Fischereimuseum (Museum of Hunting and Fishing). It is housed in a magnificent former Augustinian church and, apart from paintings and antique firearms, it has an enormous collection of stuffed animals.

Among the prize exhibits are Wolpertingers: mythical, rabbitlike creatures with claws like birds and wings, which mischievous taxidermists concocted to fool gullible folk. A number of examples are shown in their woodland habitat, with a deadpan map of their distribution in remote parts of southern Germany.

A recent newcomer to the ranks of Munich's seemingly off-the-wall, but informative collections, is Das Kartoffelmuseum (Potato Museum), at 2 Grafinger Strasse (near the Ostbahnhof). This provides an absorbing history of the' 'true gold of the Incas,' illustrated with contemporary paintings, drawings, engravings, prints and other exhibits, from the tuber's origins in the Andes (where the Incas not only worshipped but perfected a method of freeze-drying the vegetable), to its arrival in Europe as a purely decorative plant, then delicacy for the rich, and later staple for the poor and source of alcohol, paper, soap and cosmetics. Among the curiosities on show is a promotional pin-up, put out by the Idaho-potato growers, of Marilyn Monroe in a fetchingly figure-hugging, made-to-measure potato sack.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024