Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Munich 8.6.1998: Marble Fauns and Marching Salvia

Stories Harry told us: he and Maria were at a concert, and saw a man Harry thought was beautiful. Harry and Maria talk a secret baby language, adding syllables to words. Harry told Maria he fancied the man, in their secret tongue. A man ahead of them turned around and said in the same language, “Watch out: I can understand you.”

Another: (a joke) Paul VI, who is supposed by many Europeans to have been gay, went to a jewelry shop after being named pope. Holding out his finger with the purple ring, he asked, “Do you have earrings to match it?” (I think this kind of humor must appeal to a German sensibility more than an Anglo one.)

Another joke: a man has an accident and the hospital puts him into a full-body cast, except for his penis. Three male nurses are assigned to care for him. The oldest goes in to adjust tubes, etc., and comes out to tell the others, “That guy has a tattoo on his penis. It says, ‘Am’.” The second oldest says, “This I have to see,” and goes in. He comes back and says, “You’re wrong. The tattoo says, ‘Adam’.” The third nurse, a very handsome young man, goes in. In a minute he comes out and says, “You’re both wrong. The tattoo says, ‘Amsterdam’.”

Writing this now in the car en route to Regensburg, having just left Munich. The weather has turned blessedly cooler, and as we head north, seems to be about to clear.

Yesterday morning a quick tour of Lenbach House, whose Kandinsky collection bowled us over. Didn’t know about it. We went there primarily to see more Spitzweg, but what they had was rather disappointing. I do like the subtle irony with which he sends up late 19th-century bourgeois pomposity.

The Kandinsky collection consisted of large paintings on canvas (including a series of improvisations where he seemed to be experimenting with use of free form to evoke certain subjects), small paintings on glass, even statuary (including a beautiful little carved Madonna and child, brightly painted, like the Alpine ones we’ve seen).

I liked, too, the framing of some of the smaller Kandinskys, with gilded frames painted naively in flower and symbol designs echoing the colors of the painting itself.

A Klee collection, but not particularly impressive, as my taste for Klee has changed.

One painting—August Macke’s “Türkischen Café II”—particularly struck me. What I realized as I looked at it is how artists teach us to see the world. After such a painting, no one who has seen it and visits Turkey will see Turkey in quite the same way, just as one sees the French countryside differently after Monet, van Gogh, Cézanne, etc.

People think, naively, that the world’s just there, to be recorded by an artist or writer. But seeing itself is an act of interpretation . . . .

Which makes me wonder: if I wrote about my sense that fascism will recur at a global level, and will brutally target gays again, would I—by the very fact that I bespeak this rise of hate—in part make it possible? Is it better not to speak certain possibilities, lest they be spoken into existence by our words?

After Lenbach House, an hour or so sitting outside it, while Steve and I journaled and wrote post cards.

We then went to the Glyptothek to see the magnificent Berberini faun. Though I know little about Greco-Roman sculpture, I was surprised at how profoundly it—and other sculptures—moved me. This . . . light . . . from times we would be tempted to call primitive, were we speaking of the Celts and German tribes of the same period, shining so bright in classical Greece and Rome and down through the ages of Western history.

I know all the reasons we should now question the exclusive claims of this cultural heritage to dominance: its patriarchy and subordination of women; its blithe acceptance of slavery; its martial character; above all, our growing awareness that every culture has something of value to contribute to world civilization. But still: this light, the sheer humanity of this way of seeing the world, reflected in the care with which the artists depicted the human form. Death-intoxicated and body-denying Christianity would be much the poorer, without this basis.

From the Glyptothek to Nymphenburg, where Steve and I walked in the park behind the palace as a storm blew up. Pleasant: formal allées with red salvia in strict straight rows along them, fountains, a canal, and those immaculate, groomed woods Germans like to seek wildness in.

As the storm came, people scurried to cars and shelters while a loud young American on a bike shouted (to whom?), “Come on, you guys. Hurry up!”

Steve and I waited out the storm (which really never came) in the car, and then met B., Maria, and C. for coffee at the Palm House café behind the castle. Kaffee trinken: the way Germans talk of having coffee makes it formal, a ritual, something importand—echoes of its 18th-century arrival in Europe.

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