Hypokulturemia in the Hypo-Kulturstiftung

November 18, 2011
Leonhard Beck, Portrait of a Young Man with a Hat, ca. 1512/13
Leonhard Beck, Portrait of a Young Man with a Hat, ca. 1512/13

In Munich last week I began to feel I was suffering from Stendhal Syndrome. It’s been twenty years since I was in this city, but I had vivid memories of those two great museums, the Alte Pinakothek and Neue Pinakothek. Now those galleries have been joined by the Pinakothek der Moderne and the Brandhorst Museum, creating an imposing continuum of art that stretches from the Middle Ages to the present day. It all unfolds in four massive buildings barely two minutes walk from each other. Oh yes, and there’s also the Deutsches Museum, the Lenbachhaus, and about fifty other attractions – everything from the BMW Museum to the Potato Museum – easily reachable on a public transport system that would make Sydney commuters gasp in envy.

The Wikipedia entry for Stendhal Syndrome also calls it: “hypokulturemia”, an even more expressive term that sounds like a condition in which one’s blood is being diluted by an excess of art. Having just come from Vienna, where the entire city feels like a museum, I was wishing I had a week rather than a mere three days to spread out these intensive art appreciation sessions.

But who has spare time any more? In cities such as Berlin, Munich and Vienna, the major museums are clustered together in such a way that the visitor could go around every major attraction in a single day – if you were only interested in crossing them off your list.

I’ve got a terrible feeling this is exactly the way many tourists approach museums: with a sense of duty but no real interest. The audio-tour will effectively do your thinking for you, pointing out the most important works in each room.

At least the German and Austrian museums are not prone to the excessive labels that turn people into readers instead of viewers. The usual breakdown seems to be two minutes’ reading to ten seconds looking. But the act of looking intensively at works of art can be an exhausting pleasure. One stands in front of a work absorbing it greedily, feeling there is always some detail that requires further scrutiny. The great fantasy is that one has uncovered some insight that has eluded every expert. It may happen hundreds of times a day, who knows? But it’s extremely unlikely.

In many contemporary art museums, and here the contemporary galleries of the Art Gallery of NSW provide an object lesson, a verbose, pretentious label tells you the ‘correct’ way to appreciate every piece. Left to one’s own devices there would be very little appreciation going on. Even then, the curators presume on the credulous nature of their audience. Personally, I feel that works of art need to be approached skeptically, not with religious veneration. The good works will quickly identify themselves.

In Munich I felt I understood something about those early metaphysical paintings of De Chirico, who studied in the city, from 1906-09. The architecture and public spaces of Munich are echoed in those urban scenes that seem not-quite-Italian, monumental but vacant. Although one has to wander those streets on a holiday to ever find them less than bustling.

De Chirico, The Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

De Chirico, The Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, 1914

The Tourist Office arranged for me to have a behind–the-scenes tour of the Bayerische Staatsoper, one of the most acclaimed and successful opera houses in Europe. It was a fascinating experience, but had a strange consequence. After standing on stage during the day, looking at the dirty, shabby sets and furnishings of a much-beloved production of Der Rosenkavalier, dating from the early 70s, I found the pleasure of the performance was diminished. I kept thinking of the drabness of the sets, even though this was completely invisible from the stalls.

While I’m giving acknowledgements, I have to thank them for putting me up at the Hotel Königshof, which could not have been more central. This is one of those hotels that has seen better days, but clings to shards of its former glory, including an acclaimed restaurant which I didn’t visit. Across the road, the same group has the Hotel Anna, a contemporary boutique lodging for those with more cutting-edge tastes. This contrast between old and new is very typical of Munich.

Perhaps the real highlight of the visit was one really remarkable show: Dürer, Cranach, Holbein: The Discovery of Man: the German Portrait in the 1500s. It was held at a private venue – the Kunsthalle of der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, run by a bank. The show had previously been at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Such a collaboration between public and private enterprises is virtually unknown in Australia. Neither is it easy to imagine one of our local banks creating a museum-style gallery that could host high quality exhibitions. It’s not as if they couldn’t afford it. A small percentage of the CEO’s pay packet would cover the set-up costs.

I was able to spend a good three hours in the German portrait show from 5-8pm one evening, when there were hardly any other visitors. The obvious contrast was with Berlin, where Faces of the Renaissance at the Bode Museum was packed solid with visitors from morning till evening. After much discussion about a way to see the Berlin show without the crowds, I gave up. It’s true that the Bavarians are more laid back than their northern counterparts, but whether it be due to a smaller crush of tourists or a lack of advertising, I was thankful for the chance to see the German portraits in such a comfortable manner.

In a show of extraordinary works one piece stays in my mind: Hans Mielich’s portrait of Wilhelm IV, Duke of Bavaria on his deathbed (1550). What is so startling is that Wilhelm is already dead: sallow, hollow-cheeked, one eye closed. It’s an unbelievably candid, realistic image for a court artist who may have been watching his meal ticket disappearing. It is the antithesis of the conventional idea that a portrait should be a flattering likeness. The early German portraitists were so far from being flatterers that they often painted their sitters with cross-eyes and other defects that were undoubtedly true to life.

It will be a great day when Australia gets to see exhibitions like this. We may never want to look at another Archibald Prize.