Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Munich Rocks!

Nothing is ever quite what you expect.

I went to Munich to go to the opera to hear my friend Erika's Salome at the Bavarian State Opera. I did a bit of research so I would know what to see. Everything was a great surprise.

First off, the Munich Salome. It was originally conceived and directed by William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist, The French Connection, The Boys in the the Band, etc.) The production is handsome indeed, always visually interesting, and the concept of Salome different from Bologna (which I caught twice two weeks ago). In Bologna Erika channeled an obsessed twelve-year old; Salome as Lolita. In Munich Salome was more womanly, Salome as Marilyn, and Erika's performance was intense, passionate, and gorgeously sung.

Munich is a beautiful city, the capital of kingdom ruled by the same family for a millenium (1180-1918). After World War I it was briefly governed by the Communists and they were in turn driven out the the Nazis. Munich was Hitler's home base. The first concentration camp, Dachau, is a suburb. Munich was reduced to rubble at the end of World War 2, and they had to choose between bull-dozing and starting from scratch, or resurrecting the old city (as much as could be resurrected). They chose the latter.

This makes Munich a city of contrasts. Old buildings that survived and older buildings that were rebuilt in a modernized period style, stand side-by-side with modern buildings, from mid-century modern to post-modern. This cocktail works. What characterizes the look of the city over all is the palette of pastel colors and the elaborate stucco work. Munich is heavily rococo, inside and out; much of it is frosted with intricate stucco work, like the work of dizzy bees, dense and opulent.

It is deeply traditional, and even the modern here is Bavarian and has a tailored look, tailored both in itself and in relation to city. It was cold and snowy when I was there, so I could not enjoy the vast parks and riverbanks and cafes on the squares. I spent a lot of time inside the churches and palaces and museums.

Natives refer proudly to the Italianate tastes of the Wittelsbachs, from the late Renaissance forward. The Theatine Church was built in the late 17th C. by an Italian architect who based its design of the Church of San Andrea del Valle in Rome. It was completed sixty years later by Francois de Cuvilles, who iced the interior with a dense white frosting of rococo stucco-work. The yellow exterior is characteristic, and is echoed throughout the city. It is an imperial pastel, also seen at Schonbrunn and throughout Vienna. The Bavarian yellow is a marriage of Italian sensibility and Hapsburg imperial style.

There is little medieval work left; this is Rococo heaven. Most of the business streets in the center have a pleasantly 19th century feel, with touches of Belle Epoque and art deco. The pastels and the stucco curlicues (usually in a complementary pastel) are ubiquitous.

Four art museuems covering the renaissance to the present day are clustered together. The Alte Pinakothek covers the renaissance, baroque and classical, with an impressive selections of Rubens. I was particularly blown away by an Andrea del Sarto, which, although hanging in a room with masterpieces by Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Rafaello, Leonardo and Perugino, was a standout! These paintings are in luminous condition.

It was interesting to see a Rafaello and a Leondardo hanging side by side. The Leonard is small, intricate, architectural. Leonardo's monumental intellect is too great for painting. The Rafaello, in contrast, is open and simple, fresh, straightforwardly appealing to our emotions through our senses. A wonderful Lippi annunciation rises in verticals linked by background arches. The thrust is upward; at the center a stalk of lilies like a shepherd's staff meets the dove that ties it all together like the bow on a gift package.

The Botticelli is daring because the body of the dead Christ is that of an Adonis (not unlike the "Barberini" Faun at the Glyptothek). The scene is a pieta and he lies across Mary's lap. There is no blood to be seen outside the thin surgical incisions in his feet and side. It is the perfect body of a muscular young athlete in his prime.

The Van Goghs at the Neue Pinakotek were an especial treat. One forgets how moving Van Gogh's work is. They have nowhere near the sheer volume of Van Gogh's as Amsterdam, but of the three they have I had never seen two before (everyone has seen the sunflowers!). They are not so much painted as sculpted in paint, their impact is immediate and visceral. Viewed to the accompanying babble of school children sprawled on the floor with drawing pads and colors, I was moved to tears.

I lunched twice at the cafe at the Brandhorst Museum. It was inviting, cleanly modern, with fresh flowers on the tables and a short but intriguing menu. Specifically, I saw that they were featuring a cheeseburger. A good cheeseburger is impossible to find in Italy; so I thought I would give it a try. Good choice! It was delicious, and the "country potatoes" were a dream, crisp and seasoned outside, steamy soft inside. I told the waitress that the hamburger was sensational and she said their Chef was originally from Mexico (that explained the omelet with chorizo I had the next day) via Paris; he ground the meat himself. The omelet was thin and delicate, a sour cream type cheese, carmelized onions and bits of chorizo inside, drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction.

The Brandhorst is the Munich equivalent of the Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana in Venice: up to the minute art. The Pinakothek der Modern had some beautiful Dan Flavin rooms, and I was fascinated by the Joseph Beuys collection; it was the first time I really got him. The pieces were beautifully, thoughtfully, understandingly displayed, releasing the particular Beuys magic. It was also a pleasure to see a lot of Max Beckmann. He recorded his life and his dreams; the paintings are simultaneously mundane and fantastic.

The Brandhorst, previously a private collection, is centered on a large room with twelve canvases entitled "Lepanto" painted by Cy Twombly for the 2001 Biennale in Venice. The canvases depict the Battle of Lepanto, an important short term victory for the Venetian Republic that did not stem the tide of history which was running against her. The paintings are vivid and read like a movie, the cannon explosions bursting like fireworks and the boats surging across the sea. I understood Twombly's brilliance for the first time; until Lepanto I had viewed him as a one-trick pony with a little bit of Emperor's New Clothes thrown in. I joyfully admitted I was wrong. All the Twomblys in the collection are brilliant.

Hell, Munich is brilliant.