12th February 2009 is the 20th anniversary of the death of the novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard's last novel was Alte Meister or in English Old Master. It was first published in 1988 under the Suhrkamp imprint. As regular readers of these posts will be aware, Poet-in-residence attended the 11th December 2008 launch of a new paperback edition of Alte Meister in Vienna and purchased a copy of the book which Thomas Bernhard's brother Peter Fabian was good enough to sign.
The tale revolves around a painting by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594) which hangs in the Vienna Kunsthistoriches Museum. The main character, Reger, a man of routine, visits the museum's Bordone Saal to gaze at the White-bearded Man (c-1570), for an hour or two every other day. And so, having read Thomas Bernhard's book, Poet-in-Residence, took himself this very morning to the Bordone Saal to see the White-bearded Man's portrait for himself. But the White-beared Man wasn't there. He was now next door in Saal III, they said. But he wasn't there either. He was in Bilbao's Guggenheim. But he'll be back in Saal III in February, they said.
In the space on the wall normally occupied by the White-bearded man there was hung a grey-bearded man. His portrait was also painted by Jacopo Tintoretto but unlike the White-bearded Man this grey-bearded man had a name and an address. He was Senator Marco Grimani from Venezia. He wore his official dress, a red velvet gown trimmed with ermine. His left shoulder was to the viewer and the index finger of his left hand was touching the sleeve's furry white border near the right wrist. His head was turned half-left to look directly at the viewer standing square to the painting. His bushy-browed brown eyes hinted at a high degree of intelligence and his long nose and large left ear endowed him with an air of sympathetic authority. On his left cheekbone there was a suspicious dark patch like an old bruise which faded towards his left eye. His forehead was lightly wrinkled and his fine grey hair, thin at the temples, was brushed straight back. The grey beard, not overlong, had been brushed downwards and was rather ragged at the end; that is to say it was not of the neat and severe cut favoured by many officials.
The information card under the portrait stated the obvious. It's words were to the effect that details of the face were precisely observed and the official robe had been painted in a rapid manner with some highlights.
And so, back to the Bordone Saal where two paintings by Paris Bordone (1500-1571) were to be found. In the large painting Allegory the War God Mars has been stung by Cupid's arrow and has fallen in love with Venus. In fact there are two images of Venus in the picture. On the right she is dressed in green and is picking herbs for a love potion. Next to her is Cupid who is trying to recover his bow and arrow which Mars has stolen from him and is holding aloft. On the left of the picture is another image of Venus. She is leaning back against Mars' shield, axe and helmet. Her clothing is dishevelled, exposing her breasts and left thigh. Mars' only remaining weapon is his loosely girdled sword, the golden handle of which is pointing erotically in the direction of his prize, the Venus lying against his discarded weapons.
The second Bordone is a portrait of the same red-haired model who plays Venus. It is titled The Girl in the Green Coat. Once again her breasts are fully exposed. She holds her coat tightly against her stomach. In fact it may not be her coat, for it looks too large for her. Her flimsy blue dress is bound with a transparent ribbon of pink material which may or may not be undone. The coat appears to be concealing something heavy which she supports with her right hand.
Poet-in-Residence did not come away from the Kunsthistorisches empty handed. He invested €1.00 in a postcard picture of the White-bearded Man which will have to do until the White-bearded Man returns from Bilbao. Part 2 of this post will then follow.