Holding Albrecht

by Brooks Riley


Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I”

For years I lived in the Kunstareal, an area of Munich surrounded by museums, great museums, the kind that people travel thousands of miles to visit—the Lenbachgalerie with its Blue Rider painters, the Alte Pinakothek with its Dürers, Brueghels, Rubens, the Neue Pinakothek with its 19th century European painters—to name just a few. I lived less than 5 minutes away from 10 museums and could explore the history of art from Greek and Roman times to the present day, as easily as I could pop around to the corner store.

When I first moved to the neighborhood I thought, ‘ How convenient, I can go anytime.’ ‘Anytime’ came to mean ‘almost never’. I suffered from the museum variation of the Parkinson principle: If work fills the amount of time allotted to it, then exploring the riches at my doorstep would take more than a decade.

It’s not that I had never been to any of these museums: On visits to Munich in my teens and twenties, I had gone to the Alte Pinakothek several times, long before I lived around the corner. I knew my favorite painter could be found there. I knew how emotional I could get, standing in front of the self-portrait from 1500, convinced that Dürer had painted it for me and me alone. He was looking at me, wasn’t he? Such narcissism thrives in the solitary contemplation of a painting, but the fear that I might be wrong wasn’t what kept me away. And my avoidance was never a case of ‘been there, done that’ but more of ‘want to, will do. . . whenever’.

It turns out that during all those years I stayed away, one of my favorite Dürer works, the Paumgartner Alterpiece triptych, was also absent, the victim of a sulfuric acid attack in 1988 by a deranged pensioner. Restoring the painting took 21 years. Had I known, how I would have missed the antithetical Paumgartner brothers who frame the central panel: the older, frumpy Stephan as an ineffectual St. George (the dragon at his feet looks still alive), the younger cocky Lukas as St. Eustace, upstaging his brother in both regalia and attitude. This gentle dose of Cain and Abel exposes an intriguing aspect of Dürer’s work, which is full of asides and painterly winks, among them, surely, the perspective oddities of the triptych’s central panel.

Dürer, Kandinsky, Friedrich, Schinkel and Co. were my neighbors all those years, waiting for me to drop by on my way to buy milk. They cried out to me in the night, “When are you coming to visit us?” The more they nagged, the more I resisted and the guiltier I felt, as though they were parents awaiting a long overdue visit from an only child.

Years went by. One summer day, ‘whenever’ became ‘now’—for no reason in particular. The one neighborhood museum I didn’t know at all was the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, one of the best print collections in Germany. It was 3 minutes away and as I hurried across the Königsplatz, a long dormant suspense took hold of me. I entered the building and approached its central atrium, where a strange sight awaited me: The atrium was filled with Greek and Roman statuary haphazardly crammed into the open space. I later learned they were warehoused there from the neighboring Glyptothek, one of the two museums for Greek and Roman art.

Where were the prints, the engravings, the etchings?

Moving around the atrium I peered down long corridors hoping to find whatever current exhibit might be running that month. I saw only closed doors and not a living soul. Minutes went by as I waited for someone—anyone—to appear from somewhere in the building. Eventually a man did walk by. When I asked how to find the exhibits, I was told that the collection rarely mounts exhibits. How then does someone see the collection? I was directed to one of the many closed doors along a vast corridor to the right of the entrance.

The door looked just like all the other closed doors in the building. It opened into a room that looked more like a public library than a museum–rows of long white tables with chairs on each side, and a large window running the length of the room on one side. A middle-aged man in his shirtsleeves sat at one of the tables reading a newspaper. When I entered, he stood up, came over and asked if he could help me.

Here goes: “I’d like to see some of the collection.”

“What would you like to see?”

“Dürer?” It sounded like a plea.

I was certain that Dürer would be off-limits for someone with no academic credentials or pre-arranged appointment. I was wrong. The man led me over to a desk and asked me to write my name and address in a logbook. Then he handed me a pair of white cotton gloves.

“We’ll start with the engravings. Have a seat. I’ll be right back.”

Moments later he returned with an enormous box which held ca. 10 Dürer engravings. It was the first of 10 such boxes. Then he left me alone. No other visitors were in the room that day. As I picked up the first of the engravings, the thrill was immediate: It was just Dürer and me, for as long as I wanted. No jockeying for position with other museum-goers to get a quick peek at something hanging on a wall. No. This was another kind of experience, so intimate that it brought tears to my eyes. I was holding a Dürer engraving with both hands, as near to it as I could get. When I held it up to my face, I could have sworn I smelled the ink and the musty aroma of an ancient Werkstatt. Over the next few hours, I poured over the engravings–slowly, reverentially, voraciously. I spent nearly an hour with Melencolia I, delighting in its humor, identifying with its paradoxes, loving its skewed geometry, becoming the perplexed Melencolia herself, with that ‘where did I go wrong’ look on her face.

Years earlier, a few blocks away, I had fallen in love with Dürer at first sight. This was different, close and personal, absorbing his intentions by osmosis as the centuries between us peeled away–holding Albrecht now on a first-name basis.

By the time I left that day, I had gone through three of the boxes. Two days later, I returned and went through three more boxes.

As I was leaving, the man told me that boxes 7-10 were mediocre copies, not worth the trouble.

“Next time you come, we’ll start on the woodcuts.”

“Yes, please,” I answered, and thought ” . . . whenever.”

Joy is a meal best served in small courses.

* * *

Brooks Riley, director, producer, film critic, editor and screenwriter, is a former Senior Editor of Film Comment magazine and former film critic for WNYC-TV. She has written for The New YorkTimes, The Village Voice, The Boston Phoenix, Opera News and The Washington Post. She also worked for Jean‐Luc Godard as producer at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios. She was Executive Producer on a number of films, including Mee-Shee the Water Giant, Puckoon, and Führer Ex. She has directed 10 opera productions for TV and DVD, including Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung from the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar and the Israeli Opera Festival’s Aida in Masada.