Although I usually write about art exhibits in New York City during the month my article appears, this year I haven’t been able to visit a museum here in time to meet my deadline, so I’m writing about my visits to European art museums, cathedrals, and palaces this summer.
I began in Berlin, a city I’ve visited many times and one whose numerous museums possess some of the world’s greatest works of art—particularly the Pergamon Museum, which contains parts of the original gates of Babylon and an entire Hellenistic altar inside its cavernous halls.
Berlin’s Jewish Museum, which was designed by Daniel Libeskind and which opened in 2001, is one of the largest Jewish museums in Europe and should not be missed for its impassioned and innovative architecture. But it was a special exhibition called Bedrich Fritta, Drawings From the Theresienstadt Ghetto, which is up until September 29, that moved me beyond words on this visit.
Fritta, a graphic artist who trained in Paris and lived from 1906 to 1944, when he was murdered in a concentration camp, produced more than 100 large ink drawings and sketches between 1942 and 1944, a period during he was forced to live with his wife and small son in this so-called model ghetto. Most artists detained in Theresienstadt had to produce propaganda material to reinforce the illusion that Jews were treated well in Germany during the Third Reich. However, Fritta managed to make numerous secret drawings that captured the hardships and hypocrisy of life in the ghetto. The drawings, which were hidden in a wall for many years, are now in his son’s collection, which he loaned to the Jewish Museum for this show.
I was astonished by the vividness and power of Fritta’s work. By turns sarcastic, humorous, and devastating, his drawings approached the quality of Goya and Daumier. One called Leben Eines Prominentien depicted the “upstairs” Jews living in bourgeois ease, with a Picasso nude on the wall, while masses of other, less privileged Jews were jammed together below. All, of course, were destined to perish.
In Budapest, I had the good fortune to see an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts featuring the Viennese Expressionist Egon Schiele (1890-1920) that was on loan from Cologne’s Leopold Museum. Comprehensive, erotic, and disturbing, it was an interesting counterpoint to the Fritta show. Budapest itself is worth seeing just for its magnificence. I loved it—and the visit also gave me a chance to reunite with one of my former students, Erno Kallai (B.M. ’10, M.M. ’12, violin), whom some of you may know and who comes from Budapest
Part of my trip was spent in Vienna. Its famous Kunsthistorisches Museum was maddeningly enormous, but the Gemäldegalerie (Painting Gallery) has some of my favorite paintings in the world. Among them are the largest collection in the world of paintings by the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The whole trip would have been worth it just to see Bruegel’s encyclopedic commentary on the ironies of the world. In The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, a fat Lutheran wielding a pig on a spit duels with an emaciated figure using a paddle with two fish as a weapon. The Tower of Babel (origin of the term “babble”) depicts the Bible story of people all speaking different languages and not being able to communicate to finish building a tower. In The Procession to Calvary, Jesus is lost among the hundreds of oblivious soldiers and citizens scurrying around to view the excitement of crucifixions. And the famous Peasant Wedding shows a plump, unattractive bride surrounded by greedy servants who are only interested in the puddings being served at the festivities.
The Secession building in Vienna, which was completed in 1898, contains Klimt’s famous 1902 Beethoven frieze, which he painted to complement this gold-domed but otherwise simple building that avant-garde Viennese artists constructed as part of their rebellion against what they considered to be the rigidity and stuffiness of the Association of Austrian Artists. Klimt’s wildly ecstatic and mystical work reflects the love he and his peers had for Beethoven. It culminates with the “Ode to Joy” panel and the “Kiss,” a subject that he repeated numerous times and for which he has become very famous.
In Melk, Austria, and Würzberg, Germany, I finally saw artworks I’d taught for many years but only seen in slides and photos. The imposing Baroque Melk Abbey, designed by Jakob Prandtauer and built between 1702 and 1736, overlooks the Danube. Both the exterior with its exotic towers and the elaborately frescoed interior are among the most splendid of Baroque jewels.
The Würzberg Residence, the Prince-Bishop’s palace, outshone all the other ones I’ve seen. The combination of the beautiful Balthasar Neumann architecture and the trompe l’oeil Tiepolo fresco Apollo and the Continents is simply dazzling. One of the world’s largest ceiling frescoes, it shows the four continents all paying homage to the Prince-Bishop, while flora, fauna, and gold, silver, and multicolored decorations appear to be tumbling from the clouds.
Würzberg’s Mainfrankische Museum had a huge collection of sculptures by Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531). He made some of the most moving and detailed wood and stone madonnas, saints, and holy figures ever. They are justly famous.
Again, there was much too much to see in one visit, but standouts for me were the huge and brutal but dramatic and colorful Juno and Argus (Rubens, 1610), in which Juno plucks out Argus’s eyes and places them on the peacock’s tail; Van Dyck’s seduction scene Jupiter and Antiope (1600); and Jacob Jordaens’s Prometheus (1640), in which the title character stretches across the canvas while his liver is eaten by a vulture. None of them sounds very delightful—and that sort of scene is usually not to my taste—but the paintings are so extravagant and over-the-top that I couldn’t take my eyes away from them.
At the Wallraf-Richartz, I also discovered the work of two artists whose work was new to me. One was Martin Brandenburg (1870-1919), a painter from Stuttgart. His 1899 pastel of Orpheus plaintively playing his lyre in his attempt to retrieve Eurydice won me over with its combination of bold abstract design at the top of the painting and the dreamy, poetic depiction of the scene. Orpheus, who represents the eternal spirit of music and art, is one of my heroes.
Another of my favorite characters is Mélisande, whose doomed love affair with Pelléas has captivated composers including Debussy, Fauré, and Schoenberg. The 1895 painting of her at the Ludwig Museum was by Marianne Stokes (1855-1927). In this Pre-Raphaelite-esque work, we see clearly the mysterious figure who has lost her crown and who will soon meet the men who will change her life—and cause her doom.
It has been a marvelous, enlightening, and educational summer.