Posts Tagged ‘Rubens’

A short visit to Vienna

As regular readers of this blog may have noticed – and I flatter myself there are a few regular readers – I haven’t been around much lately: I’ve been enjoying a few days in Vienna. And no – I won’t put up my holiday snaps: they aren’t, frankly, very good, and if you really want a flavor of what Vienna looks like, a quick browse through Google Images will give you a far better impression than any snaps taken with my cheap digital camera.

Oh, very well then – I admit it: I forgot to pack my camera. But really, there’s no harm done. Enjoyment of a place is by no means enhanced merely by pointing a camera and snapping. Indeed, one may argue – as I certainly did, very vehemently, when my wife reprimanded for not having packed the camera – that enjoyment of a moment is intensified rather than otherwise by our awareness of its transience; and that, as Louis MacNeice put it,

We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold

Not even, MacNeice may have added, with a cheap digital camera.

In many ways, Vienna is an endless celebration of kitsch. One knew that right away as the plane landed at Vienna Airport with the Blue Danube waltz piping out to the passengers. It’s all Viennese waltzes and Viennese whirls, chocolate cakes and apple strudels. And, like any major European city, tacky souvenir shops.

I have a fascination with tackiness: I love browsing through cheap and tasteless souvenirs. The souvenir shops in Vienna are dominated by Mozart: Mozart coffee mugs, Mozart fridge magnets, Mozart mouse-mats, Mozart t-shirts, Mozart ties and scarves – anything at all you may care to imagine, but with a picture of Mozart on it. Why this unremitting focus on Mozart I wonder? After all, Beethoven was equally a resident of Vienna, and was no lesser a composer. There are also Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, and many, many others. Had any of these other composers been immortalised in tacky souvenirs, I would have been tempted: if I had seen, say, a Gustav Mahler coffee mug, or an Alban Berg baseball cap, I’d have had my wallet out right away. But these, I admit, I viewed and passed on.

Of course, I had to make a pilgrimage to the Big Ferris Wheel at the Prater. I may not look or sound like Orson Welles, but I’ve seen The Third Man so many times over the years that I know Harry Lime’s dialogue by heart. I was going to recite the Cuckoo Clock speech at the foot of the big wheel, but at the last moment, decided I’d look something of a fool if I did, and chickened out. Perhaps I should have gone ahead with it: a few minutes of looking a fool is, after all, a fair price to pay for having been Harry Lime – if only for just those few minutes.

And then, there was the Wiener Staatsoper, where I had cheapish seats for Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. I was never was much of a ballet fan, to be honest, but I do love Tchaikovsky’s score, and, as far as I was concerned, hearing this music played so beautifully was worth the admission price on its own. So the restricted view didn’t really bother me much. However, when I stood up (I was at the back of a box with no-one behind me), I did get a pretty good view of them all prancing round to the music. And pretty damn good they were too.

And then, the art galleries. Vienna’s most famous artist, Gustav KlimtI have never really liked: I have no idea how to define “kitsch” or “schmaltz”, but whatever they mean, that’s what I see in Klimt. And seeing his works face to face did not, I’m afraid, change my perception. Egon Schiele I found far more interesting. But – cultural conservative that I no doubt am – the greatest pleasure was a whole day spent at the Kunsthistorischesmuseum, which has one of the most wonderful collections of any gallery –  Bruegel, Dürer, Holbein, Titian, Velazquez, etc. etc. And three splendid late Rembrandt self-portraits. And Vermeer’s extraordinary The Art of Painting. And some paintings by Caravaggio – most notably the Madonna of the Rosary – that fair took my breath away: I had seen this in reproduction before, but nothing quite prepares you for the experience of seeing this monumental work in the flesh, as it were.

Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

Madonna of the Rosary by Caravaggio, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

And speaking of flesh, there was Rubens. Lots and lots of Rubens. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – he who is tired of large naked ladies in fur wraps is tired of life itself.

So I’ll leave you with one of the old boy’s most seductive works. (And hopefully, I’ll be back soon to writing about books.)

"The Fur Wrap" by Rubens, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

“The Fur Wrap” by Rubens, courtesy of Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Vienna

The finest decade: 1601-1610

Looking through the history of Western culture, has there ever, I wonder, been a decade quite as rich in achievement as the first ten years of the 17th century?

Shakespeare was, in this decade, at his very peak. Exact dating is difficult, but it appears that by 1601, the start of the decade, Shakespeare already had behind him Hamlet and Twelfth Night. What followed was every bit as remarkable – Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. In comparison with works of such order, even plays such as Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida or Coriolanus – works that would be considered towering works of genius from any other writer – are often, in this context, regarded as “relatively minor”. By the time the decade ended, Shakespeare was engaged on his final trio of dramatic masterpieces – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. And amongst all this was the publication in 1609 of one hundred and fifty four sonnets – works that ensured that even if Shakespeare had never written a single play, we’d still be thinking of him as our greatest writer.

And also in this decade, over in Spain, Cervantes published the first of the two parts that make up Don Quixote, and began work on the second. If, as is said – I can’t remember by whom: indeed, I think I just made it up – that the four principal pillars of Western literature are Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes, it is surely remarkable that two of them were at their peak at the same time.

And let us not forget the King James Bible. It was published in 1611 – this year is the four hundredth anniversary of that momentous event – but much of the work on it would, I imagine, have been done in this decade. (And yes, I know, much of it is a rehash of Tyndale’s Bible, but still…)

In addition, Ben Jonson wrote in this decade some of his finest work – most notably, The Alchemist and Volpone. And towards the end of the decade, John Donne started work on his Holy Sonnets. (While his other poems are often hard to date, it is most likely that many of them were the products of these years.)

There was other fine writing as well – the Jacobean era was, after all, the most glorious period of English drama; and inSpain, there was the prolific Lope de Vega. It is an indication of the sheer stature of Shakespeare and Cervantes that literature even of this quality seems to be in their shadow.

Rubens: Descent from the Cross (Antwerp Cathedral)

Other areas of the arts were flourishing as well. The young Rubens was already well-established, and in the final years of this decade, was engaged on those two massive works now in Antwerp Cathedral – The Raising of the Cross, and the almost unbearably moving Descent from the Cross, in which the body of Christ seems to be falling and soaring at the same time. Meanwhile, inSpain, El Greco was putting on to canvas his very personal and idiosyncratic mystical visions. Equally idiosyncratic and personal were the late paintings of Caravaggio: having killed a man in 1606, Caravaggio spent the last few years of his brief life on the run, and found himself in Naples, Sicily, Malta, unable to settle anywhere for long. Before his untimely and mysterious death, his strange and violent death-haunted imagination put on canvas some of the most intensely tragic and powerful of visions.

Meanwhile, if we turn to music, Monteverdi composed Orfeo, among the earliest and greatest of all operas, and, in 1610, the monumental Vespers. In England,  William Byrd was composing at the height of his powers: his two books of Gradualia were published within these years.

Science was not left behind in this either. Just before the start of this decade, in 1610, William Gilbert published his astonishing discovery that the earth itself was a huge magnet; and the decade ended with Galileo observing with his new-fangled telescope the moons of Jupiter, and the phases of Venus. In between, Johannes Kepler formulated and published his ground-breaking Laws of Planetary Motion.

It seems unimaginable that all this could happen within the space of just a few years. Suddenly, the world seemed to cast off its old clothes, and enter a new phase. Was there something in the air? One tries to find connections between all these achievements, even though one knows that such connections are, at best, fanciful. Shakespeare and Jonson knew each other, and, one imagines, they would have known the other dramatists and poets in London at the time; but mostly, all these great men of genius were working independently. But fanciful or not, it’s hard not to see some of Shakespeare’s tragic spirit in those late paintings of Caravaggio. And, although the sun-baked plains of La Mancha are as far as can be imagined from the deep claustrophobic gloom of Glamis Castle, one can imagine Don Quixote agreeing with Macbeth that “Nothing is but what is not”.

At much the same time as Shakespeare was writing King Lear, El Greco was

El Greco: View of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum New York)

painting Toledo during an apocalyptic storm. (Dating of this painting varies: some date it to the late 1590s rather than to the 1600s, but let’s not allow such little details to get in the way!) Storms of such elemental violence could, no doubt, occur inEngland as well: every time I read those storm scenes of Shakespeare’s play, I find it difficult to banish from my mind El Greco’s tempestuous vision.

And then I look at Carvaggio’s painting of the boy David holding Goliath’s head. The living David seems rather bland – a smug, self-satisfied lad, lacking much in the way of character. All the character is in Goliath’s head, which, though severed, seems

Caravaggio: David with the head of Goliath (Galleria Borghese, Rome)

still a living, sentient being. This decapitated head is Caravaggio’s self-portrait: here, he pictures himself conquered by a mere boy. (“To the boy Caesar send this grizzled head…”) And, though defeated, though decapitated, I can almost hear Caravaggio agreeing with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, that “’tis paltry to be Caesar”.

But of course, this is all mere fancy. The air of that decade was nothing special: it wasn’t so different from the air we breathe now. But when I think back on what was achieved in those few years, and I cannot help but be struck with wonder. It’s almost as if all the finest aspects of human genius were concentrated into that brief space of time.