The downside of a last minute flight (and a cheap one, no less) is the possibility of an awkward layover. In my case, instead of running to catch a connection, I found myself with 9 hours to spare in Munich. Before meeting up with my friend Groble (fellow Obie, who I hadn’t seen since the before times), I made the mistake of wandering through Munich in the heat of the day. (Note: I’ve only ever been to Munich in the summer and yet am surprised each and every time about how hot it is.) And so I headed somewhere with air-conditioning and a lack of people.
The Glyptothek is notably austere, with brick and stone walls which complement the sculptures, almost all of which are notably white, without an ounce of color left on them at all. Once there were 19th Century frescoes as commissioned by Ludwig I, but they didn’t survive the Second World War (and indeed, the museum was originally built with marble before it was bombed). Likewise there were once objects from the Near East, but they were moved into the Egyptian Museum across the square.
The experience is dramatic, as the sculptures are elevated out of their context into a fantasy of antiquity. The erotic Barberini Faun sits in a spotlight when one enters, but there is almost nothing around. The tightening of the muscles, the ecstasy of the body is a pose, frozen, without any implication of movement. The sculptures from the Temple of Aegina are raised up off the ground, but they are still too close to the human eye. It’s impossible to take them in all at once, except from a side angle. If you face the front, one is confronted by a certain lack of refinement that is a matter of warped perspective. A more distant proximity would allow the eye to see all the figures at once as the neck strains to point the face upwards. Walk further, and there is the room of Alexander the Great surrounded by the busts of Plato, Aristotle and the Homer, presented as prophets attending the arrival of Hellenic and Classical cultures’ culmination.
History books remind me over and over that sculptors were not artists, but rather artisans, and that sculptures were functional objects. It’s fitting then that the sculptures continue to serve a purpose in a curatorial model, albeit it to whitewash the past. The museum’s present tabula rasa is likely preferable to previous curatorial models. There are no active comparisons between the Greeks and ordinary everyday Aryans as there were in the Third Reich, nor active comparisons between the athletes of the present and the past. One could argue that the current pretense of presenting an historical overview is relatively benign (after all, the bar is low). But I’m struck by the contrast with the archaeological collections I saw just days before in Greece, which focused primarily on objects from Macedonia. Visceral poses, a panoply of color and a shitload of gold are what characterize the Macedonian visual landscape, as well as the collection of objects from the East (with which to adorn their own houses, temples and public spaces, regardless of their original context, naturally). The closer one gets to the sites of provenance of an artifact, the more one’s preconceptions of its past are naturally challenged.
Further north, the Alte Pinakothek possesses an enormous collection of Old German Masters. If you’re a Grünewald or Cranach fan, it’s a point of pilgrimage as one can get to see pieces like the Saint Erasmus and Saint Maurice. I can’t get over that you can see Erasmus’ entrails wrapped around the wooden instrument in his right arm, a teaser as to his martyrdom in which he was disemboweled. The racial differential between the two figures is also striking (as Maurice is black, being the leader of a Theban Legion under Emperor Diocletian) and offers a window into the history of a black diaspora in Europe which predates modern colonialism. Of course, once upon time, the painting was considered too controversial and removed from display under the Third Reich (though interestingly, without any public comment) as Grünewald had amassed a cult following as a national symbol from since the era of the Franco-Prussian War. (For instance, upon the capture of Alsace, the Isenheim Altarpiece was promptly removed from Colmar and taken to Munich for renovation and installation. It was there that that wounded soldiers would come not just to witness the famously disfigured body of Christ, but in fact venerate the painting, with priests holding masses in front of it.)
The faces of figures in many of the Old German Masters are not particularly artful, as more attention is paid to the symbols in the painting, the musculature of an arm or a leg, and color used to create stark contrasts of light and shade. In Hans Baldung’s Nativity, the round plain faces of Mary and Joseph are contrasted by dramatic gazes of the cow and the ass. At the bottom of the scene, white light emerges from the manger casting shadows around crèche. The full moon offers no light at all, and but is the same shade of crystal white as the baby’s luminescence and that of the angel in the background, illuminating a heard of sheep with their shepherd.
A nice layover, yes, though too short. There was an extension, but only due to a flight cancellation necessitating stop overnight at a Marriott near the train station. It gave me some time to do some reading on some fairly interesting sites: