03 April 2012

Return to the Alte Pinakothek

When I travel against the Earth’s rotation, the loss of a day throws me off. Where did April 1st go? What happened to all the April Fools’ jokes? The day never seemed to happen at all. I got on a plane on the evening of March 31st in Los Angeles, landed in Munich several hours later, went to bed, and woke up on April 2nd.

I’ll get the day back, of course. But I’m unsure if getting extra time on April 14th is an accomplishment. Unless it’s your birthday on April 14th, what’s special about it?

Anyway, now it’s April 3rd (or it is in Germany as I write this) and I’m coming to the end of my second full day in Europe. Yesterday was primarily family time, as an adjustment day, I’m fine with it. When I’m in Europe I feel the constant urge to be out taking in the enormous mounds of history available, and wasting any of it hanging around someone’s house can get painful. Today I took in my cultural fill with the Alte Pinakothek, Munich’s most famous art museum.

Fall of the Damned, Rubens
I’ve visited the Alte Pinakothek before, but any museum with this many riches benefits from repeat visits. This time, I approached the museum from the opposite end from where I first entered, beginning with the newer artwork (late-18th century) and working back to my original anchor painting, a 15th-century Hieronymous Bosch fragment. The newest paintings in the museum’s collection come from France and Spain. The long center stretch contains the Flemish and Dutch works, which constitute the finest of the museum’s holdings. The two great artists who have the best representation are Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn. The Rubens collection is the largest in the world. King Ludwig I originally commissioned the creation of the museum specifically to house Rubens’s The Last Judgment, an enormous canvas that Ludwig probably couldn’t find room for in any of his palaces. (It’s 20 feet high, 15 feet wide. Yeah, you try to find a place to hang that.) In fact, The Last Judgment is the only painting in the Alte Pinakothek that still hangs in its original space. The other paintings have shifted around; most moved after World War II, when the museum suffered heavy bombing that destroyed most of the original interior. The paintings were in storage, thankfully (that art-thieving bastard Herman Göring probably had them stashed in a bunker somewhere, so the disgusting pig did some inadvertent good there), but the museum required extensive restoration before it reopened in the 1950s. The famous interior, which guided the construction of so many other museums across the continent in the 19th century, is lost. But The Last Judgment still hangs in the same central position in a high-ceilinged room that can fit it.

Rubens’s best paintings in the museum lean toward the gruesome. His painting of The Massacre of the Innocents (1637) has heaps a dead babies scattered around it, but does show the mothers trying to rip the skin off the faces of the soldiers busy jabbing spears through infants. The Fall of the Damned (1620) has a plethora of terrific serpentine monsters chewing on chubby sinners.

In my earlier post about the Alte Pinakothek, I discussed my favorite painting in the collection: “The Battle of Issus” by Albrecht Altdorfer. It astonished me once again when I saw it up close; the detail that Altdorfer put into the cavalry in the foreground, and how it merges into a cosmic view of the landscape beyond is remarkable not only for the 15th century, but for our own time.

Holy Family, Rembrandt
My second favorite work in the museum is the Rembrandt oil painting Holy Family, completed in 1634. Now there are approximately 5 x 108 “Madonna and Child” paintings in the Alte Pinakothek. The same applies to any museum of Rennaissance artwork. Only grisly crucifixion images can compete for wall space. And although there are many remarkable “Madonna and Child (with Joseph, Space Permitting)” paintings, I quickly get tired of their grandiose imaginings, where the stable turns into a towering medieval castle, and armies of angels wings overheard, and the infant looks days away from a mid-life crisis. Yes, the style of the times. I understand that. But that’s what makes Rembrandt achievement in this painting so astonishing. He broke with tradition and painted a trio of Mary, Joseph, and Child as if they were real people—poor people. No castles, no angles, no kings carrying caskets of gold. Only a dark room, with carpenter’s tools on the wall, and a loving man and woman leaning over their baby. The emotion that Rembrandt conveys in this image is breathtaking: I can feel an artist remaking the world with his paintbrush. And, as always, Rembrandt makes light do amazing things. On another painting in the same room, part in his “Passion” series, the ethereal way he created faces almost lost in shadow astonished me; they seem detailed, yet they’re almost nothing more than a light smudge across the canvas.

Charles V, Titian
The artist left behind only explanation of his goal in art: “The greatest and most natural movement.” However you interpret that, I think it applies perfectly to Holy Family. The work expresses both the “great” and the “natural.” Previous artist made Madonna and Child “great.” Rembrandt found a way to make it “natural” as well.

My personal favorite Rembrandt painting is Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, but that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which bizarrely feels farther away from me than Munich. It’s an image that appeared in many of my history books in high school in the chapters about Greek philosophers.

Speaking of high school textbook pictures: Titian’s 1548 portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that hangs in the Alte Pinakothek is perhaps the single most frequent image I’ve seen from books on Early Modern European history. It’s a perfect royal portrait, too. Charles V appears regal, but also human—his unfortunate enlarged jaw from his Habsburg heritage barely disguised under his beard. He appears important but also relaxed. You can tell from the painting that the emperor was not a person that anyone would soon forget meeting, even as ill and impaired as he was at the time he sat for Titian’s paintbrush (Charles suffered from gout that almost crippled him in late life).

By the way, what is it with gout and European royalty? Every ill monarch in history was afflicted by this acute inflammatory arthritis. Apparently, it comes from dietary problems: eating too much red meat. As only royalty could afford to eat large quantities of red meat during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Era, it makes sense it would attach itself to royalty. Everyone else had to settle for malnutrition and pneumonia.

Also: Albrecht Dürer … what is the deal with your self-portrait (Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar, 1500) that makes you look like Jesus? That’s extremely strange. I’m not complaining—this is a masterful work—but I’m curious. It has to be intentional. (The lazy-resort Wikipedia answer: “It is likely that Dürer portrayed himself in this way through a combination of arrogance and a desire by a young and ambitious artist to acknowledge his talent ad God-given.” So he knew how important he was to the Northern Renaissance at age 28. Okay, he’s allowed to paint himself as Jesus.)

Tomorrow, I plan to return to a museum that I moved through far too fast the last time: the Deutches Museum, a massive depository of science and industry. If it’s been invented, it’s in there. Even Bob Hope, who was made of plastic and adhesives and programmed with the same ten jokes.