There is no better way to spend the little spare time I have than to visit a good, European museum on a scorching afternoon. Vienna reached thirty-five degrees celsius today, and the dim, air-conditioned halls of the Kunsthistorisches Museum were particularly welcoming.
I can’t visit museums like normal people. I can enjoy a small exhibit, or take in a few paintings over the course of an hour, but racing through the Louvre in four hours is nerve shattering: I absorb nothing, as if I were listening to five symphonies played at high volume, sped up, simultaneously.
The best exhibit I have ever seen involved only one painting, Manet’s ‘The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian’ at the National Gallery in London. The exhibit toured the development of Manet’s work, moving through sketches and historical documentation he used as signposts in a long journey to the final, massive painting, that served as an indictment of the colonial French betrayal of its lackeys in occupied Mexico. A little under two hours for the understanding of a single work is about the right balance of attention and painterly effort.
So I was happy to see the Kunsthistorisches Museum had an exhibit on Cranach the Elder, Holbein and Duerer. German portraiture went through a remarkable metamorphosis in just a few generations from the late fifteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. Humanist ideals, and the growth of printing and sketching brought an amazing, revolutionary naturalism to the depiction of the human face.
Unfortunately, as with so many good things in the past 200 years, Belgium reared its muddled head and ruined everything, like the alcoholic uncle who shows up uninvited to Christmas dinner. I won’t go into the full list, but if Belgium were solely responsible for the squalid last years of Baudelaire, and his miserable death, the scramble for Africa and its eventual rape and colonization, or the paintings of James Ensor, it should be sufficient to trigger a UN sanction restricting Belgian artistic and political activity for generations.
This time, it was the proud son of Belgium, Jan Faber, who spoiled the party. Squished between two Holbein works was a blue scribble, executed in ball-point pen, called ‘De Lijmstokman’. I won’t even bother to translate, because it doesn’t matter. I thought a student from the local academy had snuck in, and managed to hang his painting while the docents were snoozing. And this wasn’t a singular occurrence. Faber’s scratches had been systematically wedged in between monumental German renaissance works by some anxious curator, fresh out of the local art history department, keen to mix a little ‘edginess’ into an otherwise academic mix of world-transforming portraiture. Fine, it was a bit of a nuisance, but no more disruptive than someone farting loudly between the first and second courses of an otherwise delicious dinner.
That’s when I stumbled on Faber’s ‘tapestries’. Faber thought it would be worthwhile to take a ball-point pen, and a 12-metre by 8-metre piece of nylon (labeled ‘artificial silk’ in the museum placard) and cover the entire thing in blue doodles. I wondered briefly how many pens had been sacrificed. Perhaps the massive curtain represented the depths of his despair at being born Belgian. I checked his biography and found that he had once covered an entire building in ball-point scribble, a phenomenon he labeled ‘Bic-art’. I wouldn’t call this art so much as compulsion.
Again, absolutely none of this would have mattered, except that Faber’s tapestries (yes, he felt compelled to execute more than one of the massive, nylon scrawls) were hung from floor to ceiling, one metre in front of walls covered in renaissance German and Flemish masterpieces. Large signs warned the visitor in five languages ‘Do Not Touch!’ in case he were tempted to brush aside Belgium’s shame to gain a view of the epic transformation of European art in the sixteenth century.
Throughout the entire exhibit, Faber kept springing up like an annoying child screaming ‘Hey, dad, look at me!’ and I wondered if the EU couldn’t put his whole country up for adoption. Or, at the very least, no dessert for a week.