Writers on Artists: Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters by Ed Winstead

The use and abuse of art in an imperfect world.

Part of the Eye for an Eye series.

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David Teniers the Younger, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels, circa 1651, oil on canvas, 48.4 × 64.1 inches. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria.

Thomas Bernhard might be the perfect novelist for our moment, if anybody seemed to read him. He was a tremendous Austrian blowhard, and wrote in an almost unwavering register of outrage; a torrent of extraordinary, melodious bile. His novels, for which he is best known outside of Germanic environs, are composed primarily of monologues, and those monologues primarily of invective—against Austria, against all the many regions of Austria with their individual notes of disappointment, against Russian tourists, against public bathrooms, against certain types of clothes, against Heidegger, against the weather in Salzburg, against the Catholic Church, and on and on forever. And yet they are, in their shape and their peculiar, mellifluous rendering, unmistakably beautiful, as tends to be the case with honest reckonings of human failure.

The thing about Bernhard is that he loved music, and while chronic lung problems barred him from a life on stage, it found an outlet instead in his writing. (That an operatic reworking of his novel The Loser, composed and directed by David Lang at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2016, was a brilliant success seemed almost preordained.) It is manifest in his long, winding trains of thought, which barrel over and through themselves, repeating, elaborating, stressing, confounding, resolving. One way or another, he was going to perform. As Bernhard himself put it in a 1986 interview with a professor named Werner Wögerbauer, to whom Bernhard was studiously unpleasant throughout (They met one morning at the Café Bräunerhof in Vienna. Bernhard, furiously flipping through a huge pile of newspapers, began the interview: “So, I’ll just keep reading the paper—you don’t mind, do you?” In relative terms, however, this wasn’t so bad—he once insisted TV crew interview him in the stands at a bullfight in Madrid. They had to pay 30,000 Austrian Schillings, about $4,500 today, for rights to film in the arena, though Bernhard did buy them all cognacs afterwards), “If someone is a great pianist then you can clear out the room where he’s sitting with the piano, fill it with dust, and then start throwing buckets of water at him, but he’ll stay put and keep on playing. Even if the house falls down around him, he’ll carry on playing. And with writing it’s the same thing.”

The idea that an artist needs to create, as a distinctive feature of their particular way of being, gets trotted out a lot, though it often seems to spring less from conviction than a sense of duty to the ideal, or an impulse to justify a massive waste of time. While fairly romantic, and so very out of keeping, in Bernhard’s case, with expectations, it’s evident in his work that he meant it, and for good reason.

Bernhard was born in 1931, not in Austria but the Netherlands, where his mother Herta had gone to escape the shame of a pregnancy out of wedlock. His father, Alois Zuckerstätter, never wanted anything to do with him. After moving to Berlin and refusing for years to acknowledge that Thomas was his son, Zuckerstätter was forced to take a blood test in 1939; then, in 1940, he stuck his head in an oven. After shuffling Thomas around to various homes for illegitimate children, Herta considered giving him up for adoption, but ultimately left him in the care of her parents.

Herta’s father, Johannes Freumbichler, was a radical, a novelist and poet of minor esteem, and he delighted the young Bernhard with conversations about art and nature. His time there was the happiest of his childhood, but when Thomas was five Herta married and moved the family to Germany. He never fit in with the new family, was bullied by his classmates, and forced to join the Hitler Youth, which he hated so vocally that he was shipped off to a home for problem cases. Eventually, when he was about fifteen, Bernhard quit school and got a job at a grocery store. It was then, finally left to his own devices, that he began taking opera lessons. But he was hospitalized in 1949 with the first of his many lung infections, which put an end to singing. As it happened, his beloved grandfather was in the same hospital, dying. He left Bernhard his typewriter.

Bernhard’s vignette about artistic necessity, recorded by the poor, tormented, phonologically-ideal-for-this-purpose Dr. Wögerbauer, is not meant to imply, I think, that a true artist will go on making art whatever horrible circumstances befall them—that art will, by its very nature, win out in the face of adversity. I read it to mean that the more horrible the circumstances, the more an artist needs to go on making art. It’s art as a coping mechanism, a distraction, an escape, even a lie.

Toward the end of his career (Bernhard died in 1989, after struggling mightily with his lungs in the last years of his life, at the age of 58) he wrote a trio of novels explicitly concerned with the arts: The Loser, on music; Woodcutters, on the theater; and Old Masters, on painting. The last of these, Old Masters, was published in the spring of 1985. He wrote it shortly after the death of his oldest and closest companion, Hedwig Stavianicek, a wealthy, twice-widowed chocolate heiress 36 years his senior, who had been his friend and patron since they met in a hospital in 1950. Old Masters is Bernhard at his most tender, and at his most incisive. I don’t think it’s his best novel (Correction, or maybe The Loser), but it is my favorite.

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If you were to distill Bernhard’s many protestations, the whole fifteen novels’ worth, to say nothing of the poetry, plays, and memoirs, into a single, abiding outrage, it might be this: That the state, the church, the public project of history, even art, stand between us and the vile, essential, truth—that there is no transcendence, no redemption. Bernhard is a comic writer, but comic in the darkest sense (not that he isn’t also funny). We strive against death, we struggle, we fight, dissemble, beg, gnash our teeth, and then… the punchline. Old Masters follows the same trajectory. A single 156-page paragraph, it is Bernhard’s triumphant assault on a cultural cornerstone of his reviled Austria: the Hapsburg’s art collection. Its force was evident in the reaction of the Austrian minister of culture, who went on national television and suggested Bernhard was insane.

As is usually the case in Bernhard’s mature work, there is almost no narration in Old Masters. It is instead a recollection of several conversations between Reger, a music critic in his 80s, and Atzbacher, a young philosopher whose own voice disappears into Reger’s. These were then transcribed from Atzbacher’s perspective by an unnamed third party. It takes place in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, in the Bordone Room, where Reger has gone every other morning for 36 years to sit in front of Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. This particular day, however, is an off day, so the curious Atzbacher gets there half an hour early to observe Reger from a distance. For the first half of the novel, Atzbacher watches, recalling their conversation in the Bordone Room the day before. Then he meets Reger, they talk, and Reger says that he’s asked Atzbacher there to invite him to a play that night. The end.

It’s revealed over the course of these conversations that Reger has worked his way steadily through the museum’s collections, through all the old masters gathered there, seeking out, and finding, the fatal flaws in each. It’s all “Catholic state art,” Reger says. “Artists are the worst liars, even worse than the politicians,” he says. “We hoard the great minds and the old masters and we believe that at the crucial moment of survival we can use them for our purposes, which turns out to be a fatal mistake,” he says. “Art altogether is nothing but a survival skill… an attempt to cope with this world and its revolting aspects, which, as we know, is invariably possible only by resorting to lies and falsehoods, to hypocrisy and self-deception, there is nothing else in them if we disregard their often inspired artistry,” he says. Also, he says, Goya (though the Kunsthistorisches Museum doesn’t have a Goya—which Reger is also mad about) couldn’t paint a hand. “The so-called old masters only ever served the state or the Church, which comes to the same thing,” Reger says. “There is no perfect picture, and there is no perfect book and there is no perfect piece of music,” Reger says. But then he says, “The White-Bearded Man has stood up to my intellect and to my feelings for over thirty years.” 

At no point in the novel does Bernhard describe the painting itself. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s pretty much what you’d imagine. The man looks a little sad, a little tired. He faces left but his head is turned to look out at the viewer, and has an expression like he’s at once surprised and apathetic you are there. His face and left hand shine a bit under a light, which doesn’t push far enough to separate the rest of him from the deep black shadow behind. Here is Reger, whom Atzbacher, peeking in from the room next door, views from the same angle. Here is Bernhard in twilight, an old master himself, fading and alone. For all its virtues, the White-Bearded Man has never attracted all that much attention, and is now primarily associated with the novel. But of course it doesn’t really have much to do with that particular painting at all. The bench in front of it is where Reger met his wife, who died nine years before the novel takes place.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum was finished in 1891 for the express purpose of having somewhere to put the Hapsburgs’ art collection. So studious was their collecting that they had to go and invent art catalogs for it. The Theatrum Pictorium was put together at the request of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, a prolific collector of Italian and Dutch masters, over the course of the 1660s—I can only assume so he’d stop forgetting what he had already bought. It contains etchings of 243 of the Archduke’s Italian paintings, copied from smaller copies of the paintings that were themselves done by David Teniers the Younger. Among them is the White-Bearded Man. It also appears in three of the many paintings Teniers did of the Archduke, resplendent amongst his holdings. In two of those, painted in 1651, the Archduke is showing off for some visitors, and the White-Bearded Man hangs just over his shoulder, at eye level, in the lowest of five rows that rise through the middle of the cavernous room. In the third such painting, though, which Teniers did after the Archduke had decamped with his collection to Vienna, it’s up by the ceiling. And, because the painting itself was gone and Teniers was copying from the etchings, it’s backwards, which I think is very funny.

The climax of Old Masters, if you could call it that, comes when Atzbacher recalls a conversation with Reger not long after her death. She had been walking with him near the Kunsthistorisches Museum and, the museum having neglected to salt the sidewalks, slipped on some ice and fell. The Catholic hospital where she was taken then botched a surgery, and she died. Reger was completely incapacitated as a result. He remained confined to his apartment, unable even to eat, until “Suddenly I gave my tears free rein. … I sat there, giving my tears free rein and I went and wept and wept and wept.” It is the first time he expresses any emotion but rage or incredulity, or offers much beyond contempt. “We believe we can be alone, we believe we can be left on our own, we persuade ourselves that we can manage on our own … but this is a chimera. Without people we have not the slightest hope of survival,” Reger says. “No matter how many great minds and old masters we have taken on as companions, they do not replace a human being.” So Reger’s project becomes the replacement, through his studious fault-finding, of the “old masters” with people—flawed, deceitful, misleading people, and in that regard just like anybody else. Bernhard himself, of course, included.

The play that Reger invites Atzbacher to is The Broken Jug, a comedy by Heinrich von Kleist. A year after its first performance, in 1809, Kleist met Henriette Vogel, with whom he quickly forged a profound kinship. Vogel, however, was dying of uterine cancer. In 1811 the pair went out to the banks of the Wannsee, a lake on the outskirts of Berlin, and committed suicide together. Bernhard survived Hedwig Stavianicek, and if he had any doubts about carrying on after his old friend had died, this would seem to seal it: The performance that night, Atzbacher reports to close the novel, was awful. We carry on, imperfect.

Ed Winstead is a senior editor at Guernica. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Oxford AmericanBOMBInterviewLiterary Hub, and elsewhere.

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