'So. What do you want for your birthday?'
It is his annual query, and I had been anticipating it.
I don’t need any more stuff. Other than a really, really good jar of face cream, there was nothing material to ask for.
‘I want to go to the Alte Pinakothek. Can we spend the day in Munich?’
The Alte Pinakothek is one of Europe’s most important art galleries. As an earnest and astonishingly naïve university student of art history, I had spent the day there nearly 40 years ago. Like so much of that period of my life, much of the experience is lost to memory, existing as only brief flashes of pale spectres in a dark void. I recall, though, standing in front of the iconic self portrait of Albrecht Dürer, full of awe not just at the work but at the incredible reality that I, the unformed and ill-informed product of the California wastelands, should be standing before it. It was standing in the precinct of God.
Yesterday I stood again before the dark panel, staring into the artist’s representation of his intense gaze as he seemed to stare back at me. I felt kinship with the man, or rather with the nearly Christ-like self image the man, dead now for nearly five centuries, had left for me to regard.
He seemed to me, yesterday, like so many writers and artists, to be driven by the desire – the need – to be seen. Not merely seen as another person but seen in his uniqueness and illuminated by his particular passion and talent. Indeed, he represents himself in the attitude of so many depictions of Christ, as though making a direct comparison. One may be forgiven the impression that in doing so, he celebrates his own individuality and vision as standing apart, Christ-like in his solitude and in his gift. This apparent self-confidence, amounting perhaps to arrogance, stayed with me as I moved from painting to painting.
It has always been my inclination to devote the first hours in a collection of European masters to the galleries containing early art from the northern countries. I fly first to the early Flemish masters. The whimsy with which they compensated with the lack of perspective or anatomical mastery has always enchanted me. In bringing to life the metaphysical world of angels and demons, in opening a window onto heaven and hell, medieval artists created fantastical worlds where angels with bright coloured wings kneel at the feet of ethereal faced women. Tiny angels, incorporeal, peer over the edges of clouds. Through open windows and doors, the artists reveal scenes of everyday life or airy trees and jagged mountain landscapes. These details capture my imagination, transporting me as surely as a story into these distant worlds.
As usual yesterday, Himself followed patiently as I led through the galleries of my first choice. Ultimately, though, I heard his wish to leave these and move to works of more sophisticated representation. I let go my fascination with 14th century German and Flemish works and crossed into the brighter light of Italy. There were some of my favourites of early Renaissance: Botticelli, Fra Lippo Lippi, Fra Angelico and – how wonderful to stumble on these! – several small panels by Giotto. These artists too have held me through their childlike delicacy. But yesterday I felt more strongly than before the pull of some of the later masters. It’s not that I had not seen the mastery of Leonardo or the beauty of Raphael, but I had resisted being drawn into their more substantial worlds. Something has shifted in me – I can’t now name it – and I began to let go some of my supercilious refusal to admit their tremendous talents.
This was even more true as we moved through the galleries into the Baroque period. Rubens can overwhelm, and the extent of the Rubens collection in the Alte Pinakothek overwhelms exponentially. On approach, I want to fight off his enormous canvases with their profusion of writhing human flesh, shimmering pink and white. Like the gemlike works of the early Flemish masters, there is much detail to be taken in, but it is on such a monumental scale! The bodies are so dimensional, thrusting dynamically off the surface of the canvas, that one feels the need to shield one’s integrity. However, exhausted with standing, I sat in the Rubens gallery and tried to see in these works what I could allow. They are masterful.
More pleasing to my sensibilities were Van Dyke’s paintings. I had admired his work before, but yesterday their beauty felt fresh and captivating. His portraits are searching, life like and exquisite; the drama in his Susana and the Elders startling and moving.
I moved between the large galleries where the Rubens, Van Dykes, Titians, Tintorettos and other monumental works hang and the smaller ‘cabinets’ where I found works on a more intimate scale, landscapes, genre paintings of peasant life, and still lifes. These too I have always loved, especially the Dutch still lifes of the 16th and 17th centuries. Like jewels, they shimmer with light, the artists displaying virtuosity as they lovingly capturing minute details.
But sitting in the gallery where the important works hang, the imposing monumental history paintings and portraits, I reflected on the relative importance of these vis a vis the still lifes. In the long tradition of European art, history painting – those depicting classical and religious subjects – and patrician portraiture outrank by orders of magnitude the importance given to the luscious artistry of still lifes. No matter how beautifully rendered, still lifes were of scant artistic importance because their subjects were nothing substantial. They depicted merely the ephemeral of daily existence, sometimes with a single message underlined: Life is transient.
Which thoughts reminded me of this blog and why I write. And of the fact that today is my 59th birthday.
These posts arose from letters written to keep alive friendships with those who are far away. Despite the need or drive I have to write, I have little or nothing of importance to say. I haven’t developed a narrative that would sustain short stories or a novel. Without even the mastery of the Dutch still-life painters, I can only try to capture the poignancy or wonder or adventure or, perhaps, the beauty of life as I experience it. From whence comes the drive to write about it, I’m not sure. Like Dürer, Van Dyke, Rembrandt, and the many, many other artists who left behind self portraits, perhaps I have the passion to be seen for who I am or who I think I am.
Turning 59 is possibly more traumatic than turning 60, which at least offers the distraction of one of those milestone celebrations. Reaching the end of a decade of life seems like closing the book on something rather than the beginning of a new decade. The day I turned 49, I turned the fear inward and drank myself stupid by 4:30 pm. This year, I’m spending the day writing this post.
I have little to show for 59 years: no children, no published work, no memorable achievement of any sort. Nor do I have many years left to make any mark. Most likely, like the vast multitude of those who came before and who will come after, I’ll disappear into indistinguishable oblivion, my existence a mere ripple in time’s ether. In the face of that truth, however, I can’t help but believe it continues to be important to keep trying to capture in words, no matter how ineffectual, how it feels to be alive. To give up would be for me the worst kind of betrayal.