Altenburg and Buchberg: art at opposite ends

16 May

After a bit of a tiff with the German landlord of our Hungarian rental, we left Somogyszentpal a few days early, and through the kindness of our friends Nora and Wolfgang, returned to Gars to regroup. We are so happy we did, for the weekend offered us artistic and intellectual treats in abundance. That old chestnut, “a study in contrasts”, at least artistically, certainly applies to our experiences back in the Austrian countryside.

Our friends had mentioned to us before that they would like us to visit their friends in the castle-town around the corner who had an extraordinary art collection, but the couple were away when we were first in Gars. This time they were able to arrange for a visit.

And so we travelled to Schloss Buchberg, literally the next bridge over across the Kamp River from Nora’s house.  The owners Dieter and Gertraud Bogner have lived here since the 1960s–or, rather, have been in possession the castle since then. It is one of those historic properties that dot the Austrian countryside, with origins back to the 12th century.  After centuries of renovations, additions, different owners and finally bankruptcy, the castle came to Herr Bogner’s father, not entirely derelict, but having lost many of its original elements. Since the 1980s, the Bogners have turned the castle into a working space for artists they invite to create site-specific works and Conceptual art.

Frau Bogner came to greet us in her gardening clothes, and could not have been a more charming and enthusiastic host. When she learned that I had written my dissertation on Anton Romako, we shared all kinds of memories of Viennese art historians we have known. She led us through the castle grounds, beginning with their most important piece, the Star of David Pavilion by the American artist Dan Graham. We then were led through the Schloss’s inner courtyards, also filled with conceptual pieces (including a sound sculpture by the Austrian Bernhard Leitner), and into the many rooms of the Schloss, where artworks were integrated into the most astonishing spaces, in rooms dating from the Renaissance to the 19th century. I must admit that I was more interested in the unbelievable collection of gorgeous Kacheloefen–ceramic ovens–in each room than I was in the perceptually nuanced efforts of the artists. But I am so impressed by the Bogners’ sensitivity to preserving historic property while allowing artists the freedom to explore and create within these spaces. Documentation is also a large part of their ambitions, and a whole room is devoted to archiving the artists’ plans, models, and proposals.  An exhilirating and stimulating day! Thank you, Wolfgang and Nora for introducing us to these extraordinary people!

After that splendid Saturday, we decided to revisit Stift Altenburg on Sunday.  When we last went, only the Church was open, and the day was freezing; this Sunday, everything was open to the public, and the sun was shining brightly.  We were able to wander through the sumptuously painted rooms  and gorgeous grounds all by ourselves.

Sumptuous is hardly an adequate word for the phantasmagoria of color and narrative effusiveness created here! Most of the elaborate scheme was initiated in the 1730s by the Abbey’s visionary abbot Placidus Much, and the project seems to have been his own quite grandiose idea. He employed the best Austrian painter of the time, Paul Troger, to complete not only the iconographically elaborate Church decorations, incorporating stories from Revelations (that’s how the dragon got there!) and the Old Testament that were meant to demonstrate Good triumphing over Evil, but also the ceiling of the Library, and the even more ambitious fresco cycle over the Grand Staircase.

But the most extraordinary aspect of the Abbot’s vision, to my mind, was the painting of the crypt–that part of the abbey where the monks and abbots were to be buried.

Unlike most funereal settings, and especially in a place as spiritual as an abbey, where such spaces are meant to be solemn and subdued, this crypt is bursting with busy color and boisterous vitality.  This is apparently exactly the style that Abbot Much wanted. Troger does include some figures of Death in the form of skeletons shooting arrows and hovering over rich ladies, but the mood of the room is positively lighthearted.

Curators in the Abbey have arranged an entertaining and illuminating exhibition outlining Much’s enlightened aims in creating such complex iconography. They have produced games to explain the mythological references in the paintings, as well as participatory labels that invite the viewer to contribute questions and opinions about the images being viewed. In the Library space, which is no longer much of a functional library, they ask viewers to fill out forms giving the title of the books that have most influenced them and leaving the forms on a library shelf, to see if the Library might acquire them for the Abbey’s collection.

This kind of didactic information was particularly helpful in deciphering the meaning of Much’s pivotal scheme, the design for the paintings of the Grand Staircase.

Abbot Much would be pleased by their efforts, since he said that without an understanding of what the figures were meant to represent, the paintings would be nothing but decoration. Here he directed Troger to depict the theme of Faith and Wisdom creating Truth. Faith and Wisdom are shown holding hands in harmony, surrounded by depictions of the arts and sciences, as well as Love (shown as a mother with children). Finally, Truth is represented as a half-naked woman holding the sun. Pretty risque for a monastery, don’t you think?  At the time, it must have been astonishing, bristling with meaning in debates in the Church about the place of knowledge and religion in people’s lives.

Finally, the Abbey has fine gardens, from little contemplative spots to grand representations of the World’s religions. After concentrating on deciphering the complexities of 18th-century theological iconographies, it was a relief to step into nature again, just as it was after struggling with Conceptual artists’ ideas at Schloss Buchberg. A thoroughly enlightening and enjoyable weekend!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: