Thursday, March 25, 2010

Civilisation

The train came thundering through the Brenner pass as a weak sun rose under low cloud, and there was Austria all around us. Italy and its discontents were already a fading memory as we descended the mountain, through little towns, two of which were named, strangely, 'Mutters' and 'Natters'. Already the concept of civilisation had taken a curious turn, with each village obviously vying for 'Tidy Town of the World' status. It became rapidly obvious that in these rural villages, anal retention was not so much a psychiatric obsession as it was a religion. 

Each little neat-as-a-pin farmhouse had a woodpile. And oh, what a majestic piece of architecture it was. Each stick of wood had been lopped to within a tolerance of half a millimetre for length, and split at a perfect one hundred and twenty degrees, then stacked with a precision that defied imagination, and common-sense, for that matter. For fuck's sake, they were just going to burn the stuff, after all. Everything was clean, there was literally not a skerrick of rubbish - not a bottle-top, not a plastic bag, not even a cigarette butt to be seen. Coming from Italy, this was some contrast, and it induced in me a worrying mixture of deep aesthetic gratitude and a rising panic that I'd suddenly been transported to some Midwich-like otherworld. I fully expected to see Nicole Kidman look-alikes with Mary Tyler Moore hairstyles and cotton pinafores carrying trays of pastries to each others' houses. It was all magnificently surreal.

Even the natural landscape looked like it had been manicuring itself for centuries. Perfect stands of conifers gave way to fields of mown meadow; snow around the conical summits of mountains glimmered with a praeternatural light; bubbling and hissing streams of pure water cut lyrical swathes through a countryside that was familiar with every shade of meaning of the word 'green'. Verily, this was an elysian dream.

Gradually, I regained the use of plain English as we descended into Innsbruck, then headed on through pretty valleys until we passed, unnoticeably, into Germany, where we finally arrived at the busy terminus in Munich.

We were having a week off, just hanging out at Narelle's apartment and taking in the sights and sounds of Munich and its environs. I was dead keen to do some serious, Australian investigation into the entire range of Bavarian liquid refreshments, and I must say that I did a pretty good job of exhausting the possibilities - so much so that by the end of the week I had become, I think, the premier ameliorator of the global financial crisis, Munich chapter. The Titanium Princess, of course, continued to be unamused by our rapidly deteriorating bag of shekels, and informed me so as I lurched blearily back into the apartment each night after another days' sociological endeavours.

'I hope your liver explodes, you idiot,' she would lovingly coo, as I ripped the top off a nightcap of a particularly dark and handsome variety of the local wheat beer. One doesn't have to actually eat anything whilst sojourning in Bavaria, I found out, as the entire gamut of food groups seems to be contained within each bottle or stein of Weizen, Bock, Doppelbock (and boy, can a bloke get misty-eyed on that little product!) or even Helles.

And it's a good thing, too, because what the Bavarians actually eat can inspire nightmares just by looking at it, so what kind of nocturnal torment a bloke would endure if he accidently swallowed some of it, Christ only knows. Dear reader, have you ever even looked at a plate of udder tripe? I rest my case.

On the fourth day in Munich, I decided to ease up on the old body, which had started to disintegrate under the onslaught, and spend the day being cultured. The girls had bravely decided to visit Dachau and its horrors, whereas I was intent on walking my way through the Alte Pinakothek, Munich's illustrious museum of art.

The Alte is one of three museums of art (the other two being the Neue, and the Moderne), and contains one of the best collections of Mediaeval and Renaissance art in the world. I walked towards it via the Konigsplatz, the seat of Nazi power during the '30s, wondering how the girls were faring, and thinking about the dissonance between the grand opulence of the Reich's houses of power and the charnel houses they were walking through only a few miles to the north.

The Alte is a magnificent building, constructed in 1836, and an exemplar for modern galleries all over the world. It was rebuilt in the 1950s, along with eighty percent of the rest of Munich, all bombed to rubble. For the princely sum of one Euro I gained entry through vast timber doors, and began a day of saying "Ooh" and "Ahh", and "Fuck me dead!" about every ten seconds.

The museum is home to the old masters - German, Flemish, Italian, French and Spanish masterpieces assail the viewer at every turn. I was captivated, more than anything, by the iconography of the early Germans and Flemish. The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Hans Holbein caught my eye. Here is poor old Sebastian, strung up to a tree, with various archers taking cross-bow pot shots at him from point-blank range. He's beginning to resemble a porcupine, and is decidedly green around the gills, as you would expect. One of the archers is on one knee, casually slipping another bolt in his bow. The whole affair is being conducted in a no-nonsense style as if whacking arrows into a martyr's body is just another day's work for the executioners. It's a tantalising painting - and gruesome in its mundanity.

Lucas Cranarch, with whom I was unfamiliar before this visit, was a wonderful painter of the sixteenth century. His Adam und Eva is a colossal piss-take on the whole Garden of Eden thing, if you ask me - complete with a serpent with a smile like a used-car salesman. Lions and deer gambol peacefully around the tree, and Adam and his missus, rather than eat a fairly delicious-looking apple, look like they're about to drop acid for the first time.

I was still chuckling when I walked through a doorway into the hall of Reubens, and had to gently lower myself to the ground before I passed out in delirium. Here was a cornucopia of delight, bliss, fear, and horror; a compendium of every extremity of human emotion. Lined against each other on the walls were paintings of sheer intensity, colour, vibrancy, and masterly technique. I was winded, I was fucked.

To give just one example, let me quote verbatim from the notes I wrote on that day as I stood before Der Bethlehemitische Kindermord, a painting describing the Herodic infanticide:

The Roman soldiers murdering babies. On the right, a woman is biting the arm of a soldier whose bloody dagger is poised over her back. Their faces ooze brutality. Another woman scratches at the face of a soldier, who is holding a baby being stabbed through the heart. The angels watch from above and throw flowers!! A woman, right, clutches a dagger above her infant, as if she is resigned to ending its life as humanely as possible. Blood is dripping from her hand.  Throughout, human flesh is being sliced to the bone. I wonder what Reubens was thinking? Is it a moral lesson, or is it journalism?

As I walked back to the apartment, I wondered whether the T.P.'s excursion had not, perhaps, been so dissimilar to mine. All that horror, centuries piled upon centuries of it.

I opened the door. Chris and Narelle were sitting on the lounge, and both of them were crying.

6 comments:

Timbo said...

Very moving Laurie.

Richard Pourau said...

Loved it! Yet another beautiful piece.

phil said...

We like looking at the European cycling on SBS because every village or town looks like a (relatively vast) model train set.

智琳 said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

russian-t-shirts said...

good job

ecelliam said...

I could not stop reading this, you are a gifted writer.
The way you discrbe those paintings, is unreal.
my respact goes for you Sir.

Thank you