Some time ago I was recommended Bernhard’s book and only recently got around to reading it. I’m currently working through Musil’s wonderful novel, and his quote seemed to be appropriate.
“The just-buried century in Austria could not be said to have covered itself with glory during its second half. It had been clever in technology, business, and science, but beyond these focal points of its energy it was stagnant and treacherous as swamp. It had painted like the Old Masters, written like Goethe and Schiller, and built its houses in the style of the Gothic and the Renaissance.”
Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities.
“The old masters, as they have now been called for centuries, only stand up to superficial viewing; if we view them thoroughly they gradually become diminished, and when we have studied them really and truly, and that means as thoroughly as possible for as long as possible, they dissolve, they crumble for us, leaving only a flat taste.”
Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters.
Reger is an old man who met his wife in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and now that she has died he goes there frequently. Bernhard’s novel opens with a meeting between Reger and his friend, an independent academic called Atzbacher, in the Bordone Room in the museum. Nearly every day Reger sits on a settee in this room protected from intrusions by a guard called Irrsigler, who in fact was instrumental in bringing Reger and his wife together. For over thirty years Reger has sat in this room in front of a painting by Tintoretto called the White Bearded Man. Through the voice of Aztbacher we learn the thoughts of the cantankerous Reger who rails against his native Austria, the art in its museums, music, philosophy- everything.
For Reger paintings disappoint; they can offer neither hope nor instruction; they are damned as abject failures. Through Aztbacher we learn that Reger toured the museums of Europe looking at the masterpieces of museums like the Prado, but eventually Reger lost faith in art’s capacity to console. Paintings offer no answers; they are not mirrors in which Reger can glimpse aspects of himself. Even Rembrandt’s self-portraits do not serve as a metaphor for self-scrutiny brought on by the aging process. Neither are paintings windows that offer views onto the streets of Vienna, or the cultural landscape that Reger inhabits. Paintings are black holes that have swallowed up the old man’s hopes, dreams and beliefs about the capability of art to save humans from the miseries of the world. Art has so failed Reger that it is an expression of that suffering, and to look upon it is to subject oneself to an unendurable pain. Perhaps it is therefore significant that the only painter that this museum philosopher can bear is Goya, who is not represented in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, another source of Reger’s anger. Goya is one of the most agonising artists, and perhaps Reger senses here a kindred spirit.
From this novel we learn next to nothing about the slow effect of Tintoretto’s painting on its loyal spectator. But it’s not as if Reger comes to the museum to examine the art like a connoisseur or art historian. For him, art historians, museum guides, and all their associated learning is of no value whatsoever. Art historians in Vienna are merely servants of the state who inculcate their dogma into the minds of the museum’s visitors. Reger hates the Kunsthistorisches museum which he sees as symbol of the authoritarian state, and as for all those painters such as Velasquez, Rembrandt and Dürer, they are merely “mendacious state artists pampering to the vanity of the clients,”and in the case of Dürer nothing but a “pre-Nazi” artist. So Reger’s rant continues, a mantra of discontent which has an incantatory effect on the reader. Parts of it are highly amusing, like his tirade against art historians which had me in stitches- but it does get exhausting towards the end.
The waters of art history lap around the feet of Reger as he sits Canute-like on his museum throne, and though the waves may cover him temporarily, he is as immovable as a rock. That is until he arrives one day to find a man from England on his settee, an interloper who seems determined to spend some hours looking at the Tintoretto. We learn that he has an exact replica of the White Bearded Man on the wall of his house in Wales. Though Bernhard doesn’t say too much about connoisseurship here, throughout the novel we learn what Reger thinks of experts and public alike who come to the museum for different reasons.
“The layman in matters of art goes to a museum and makes it nauseous for himself through excess, Reger said. But of course no advice is possible where visiting a museum is concerned. The expert goes to a museum in order to view at most one picture, Reger said, one statue, one object, Reger said, he goes to the museum to look at, to study, one Veronese, one Velasquez. But these art experts are all utterly distasteful to me, Reger said, they make a bee-line for a single work of art and examine it in their shameless unscrupulous way and walk out of the museum again. I hate these people, Reger said. On the other hand my stomach also turns when I see the layman in the museum, the way he devours everything uncritically, maybe the whole of occidental painting in one morning, as we can witness here day after day.”
It seems what he have here is nihilism in the museum: our protagonist seems to believe in nothing anymore; neither art experts or the public are welcome in Reger’s museum. Obviously that’s a view is alien to this reader who believes not only in universal admission, but that visual art has the power to hasten hope, soothe pain and stimulate the senses and the mind.
This was my first Bernhard book, and though I found Reger’s splenetic monologue overpowering at times, there are some interesting ideas about looking at art. Wether earnest or jesting, Bernhard’s point about superficially looking at art chimes in with the discussions on this blog about modes of engagement with paintings in museums. Not that Reger should worry too much about the tendency of picture experts to look thoroughly. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to do that in museums; the culture of distraction has seeped through the museum walls, and art historians face many challenges from chattering mobile phones to paranoid custodians if they are to penetrate into the work of art, the very process that Reger abhors.
It’s interesting that this new genre of fiction, novels about people looking at art, or novels in which the theme of looking at paintings is of major importance, has appeared. There was Sebald’s wonderful dissection of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp in The Rings of Saturn; and a book has just come out involving a scrutiny of Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross in the Prado. This kind of introspective fiction is no substitute for looking at the works of art themselves- but it should be welcomed because it does offer ideas on the art of looking. No bad thing.