Monday, July 04, 2005

The Blitzkrieg

One man, one country, one three day weekend, one Eurorail pass. Lot's can happen. Here's what did:

With a pace that recalls a fine German film I saw recently, I made a brief visit to Nuremburg's Lorenzkirche. Why? Because there you can find a church that is bursting with sculpture, altarpieces and woodcarvings in every available corner that is... wait for it... Protestant. Nuremburg was one of the first cities in Germany to go Prot, but the city avoided iconoclastic excess with Luther's advice to basically "Remove the idols from your hearts and leave the art alone."

Before leaving I made a quick stop to a museum that must have known I was in a hurry because all their best stuff was conveniently packaged in one hall. Though it gets a bad rap, I kinda like Cranch's didactic Protestant Art. But still, no one can touch Albrect Durer, the greatest German artist who lived in this city for 20 years, and dreamed of the Protestant Renaissance that never quite got off the ground.

The moral of the city: Protestants can do art. The other moral is, collaborate with maniacs and the international community will hang you, aber das ist eine anderes geschichte (that's another story).


Then it was off to Munchen, which I got to just in time to see one of the finer museums I've been to, the Altepinakothek. Advice: Audioguides are almost always worth it. A full Rembrandt cycle (Incarnation through Ascension), Durer's four Apostles that beautifully sums up the Christian life, and some of the best Rubens I've ever seen. Say what you will about fleshy, Counter-Reformation Rubens... but his studio churned out art with a visual jolts (keep in mind it's 15 feet high) that even Hollywood has yet to catch up to. It was also nice to have looked at this famous painting when being the same age as the artist when it was painted.

Then the a swift swig of Bavarian Baroque, visiting as I did every Church I could in the Munich area. Fraumunster was tastefully rebuilt with walls as whitewashed as an Amsterdam Church... but Catholic. Very interesting. The Rococo make me a little queezy... and glad to be Protestant. Then a quick stop (outside only) to the palace of the Weisenbachs (Germany's kings before all that democracy stuff happened). Ahh... Monarchy. You know it wasn't all bad.

One cannot go to Munich and not to the Hofbrauhaus. I considered just stopping by to look, but it drew me back for a meal. Quite an evening. Who couldn't love German Biergarten food (and the price)? After this touristificated but still fun event, I was left with the "sobering" thought that the Hofbrauhaus was where Hitler made one of his first public speeches.

That night I slept in a place that felt like it was taken out of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Gentrified, yuppie filled Muncih has no cheap places to sleep... except The Tent, which is basically, one big... uh.. tent. With bunk beds. Trippy.

At 5AM I was off to Fussen, an utterly necessary move if you ever make it there in summer - you must go early. Neuschwanstein Castle was, how can I put this without exaggerating... hmmm... Okay, here we go: The most beautiful place I've ever been to. There. Six brief reflections:
1. This place is not kitsch, it's serious Art History and the quintessential expression of the Romantic Age.
2. Still, the boyhood vibe in the palace reminds us that Ludwig II would have done well to have gotten married... even better if he had gotten married to Austria's favorite fairy tale mystery royalty Sissi.
3. Even so, it's not all bad that Ludwig channelled his libidinal energy into architecture.
4. The Romanticism that Neuschwanstein encapsulates is no stretch for us to understand, because it's in our blood... thanks to Disney.
5. And though our inner-Marxist may make haste to dismiss this all as royal over-indulgence... keep in mind the building of this castle employed entire towns for two decades, not to mention a century (so far) of tourism based jobs.
6. Maybe history has perfectly evolved: Monarchy to build stuff like this, then democracy so we plebes could tour them.
There was much more I would have liked to see in the Munich area, like the Neue Pinakotech, but their website tour made me feel better. On a more sober note I would have liked to have gone to Dachau, but even without going one can almost feel the guilt in this country (it is mandatory for every German student to visit a concentration camp). I may be grasping for straws here, but despite all the theodicy problems the holocaust reinvigorates, at least we can all be thankful that Dachau is not STILL the concentration camp command center that it once was. Had Hitler got the bomb first, it might have been only the beginning of worldwide extermination. Really.

I slept back in Mannheim Saturday night, and then it was off to Koln. The Cathedral was impressive, keeping in mind that it can be considered as much a testimony to the glory of Germany as of God. For centuries it stood unfinished, until fueled by Prussian patriotism (and taxes) it was rushed to completion in the nineteenth century neo-Gothic fever. It houses the relics of the magi. I dig relics. If you buy the resurrection of the body (by far the harder sell), it's not too much of a stretch.

Cologne is also Germany's big convention town, and I was glad to realize that the day I was there was Cologne's Pride-Fest (glad because otherwise scores of dressed to the hilt tranvestites in the train station on a Sunday afternoon would have been normal). So I made my way through throngs of the liberated to... how can I put this without exaggerating... hmmm... Okay, here we go: The best small art exhibit I've ever been to. It pays to be in a town that is about to host World Youth Day (the exhibit at WYD Toronto was excellent as well). Say what you will about the Vatican, no one can dispute their ability to get a hold of great art. For an overview click the "Ansichten Christi" window (with Thomas' finger) on this site and pick English. It was strange to realize that several of the paintings I had recently seen at other exhibits in Europe. Art follows me.

Barnett Newman's Midnight Blue (1970) in the same room as early Christian sarcophogi (with only symbolic representations of Christ) in order to to explore the undepictable nature of God - brilliant!

Finally was a trip to Aachen. Why Aachen? Because it's where Charlemagne was crowned in 800 and was once the capitol of Europe. I got to the Treasury past closing (with a little German begging) and saw some great relics including Christ's robes' drawstring (okay maybe relics went a bit far). But best of all... the Cathedral. Which due to its age had a Byzanztine inspired core dome complete with mosaics, a Gothic addition with stain glass windows almost as good as Saint Chappelle, a whitewashed Baroque sacrament Chapel, and in the church next to it there were some great late nineteenth/early twentieth century painitings as well as some ultra-modern stain glass windows. What am I going all around Europe for? All of Art History can be found in Aachen. It also has that more laid back Euro-vibe I enjoyed in Haarlem. Open air ballroom dancing packed with locals (who were quite good) says it all.

By the way, I hope saying this isn't the equivalent of praying on the street corner, but it's nice to not only visit this famous churches, but to actually pray and worship in them. After all, I think that's what they're for.