Today I came down (for the first time in my life, so far as I remember) to the Danube, which is Europe’s longest river apart from the Volga in Russia, and historically was, along with the Rhine, the northern continental frontier of the Roman Empire. I expect to be with the Danube on and off for the next ten days, until it turns south in Hungary towards the Balkans and the Black Sea, and I continue to the east.
I encountered it at a place called Linz, another quietly prosperous, medium-sized, onion-steepled city. Adolf Hitler grew up here, though to give it its due, so did Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher of language so highly rated by his peers that one of them referred to him as “God”.
I went to the Lentos art gallery, also highly rated for its modern collection. This was a disappointment, although its premise was interesting: 11 rooms, each one dedicated to a decade since 1900, with the odd wild card from a different era thrown in. The earlier decades were more interesting, mostly because they featured things like painterly technique over clever, obscure or clever/obscure ideas. There was a resurgence, quite textural, in the 1970s and 1980s, though, before an even greater relapse in the 1990s and 2000s. In the last room the wild card was a Romantic painting of a moonlit gorge from 1825, and for evocation and atmospheric depth it won hands down over anything around it.
The other exhibition was Jack Freak by Gilbert and George, a blaring display of gargantuan exhibitionism based around the Union Jack; mostly self-promotion (the artists and their London milieu) and not much substance. Apart from a few mildly funny comments, like a picture of a stone-carved Christ bearing his cross in agony captioned “Carry On” (though upon reflection even this is sniggeringly trivializing of a significant depiction of human experience) it was pretty much summed up for me by the name of the first piece inside the door: Jack Shit. Symptomatic of the self-(ir)reverential blatancy of much 21st century British culture: plenty to shout about, but not much to say.
I travelled on through a country of rolling, wooded hills, interspersed with fields of grass, wheat and maize planted around sturdy farmhouses, through tiny halts where simple churches stood on hilltops, and finally down by the rolling green Danube, amid poplars and more onion-steepled churches. So I came to a little place called Melk, which is completely dominated by a massive church on a bluff overlooking the Danube:
There were large groups of old folk visiting here; I call them old folk, though I don’t suppose they were that much older than me. Whatever its physical aspects (and of course those cannot be discounted) it seems to me that the process of aging is more dangerously a mental one: travel in packs with others of like age and culture, listen to what you are told, all take photos from the same angles. I’ve no doubt that there are types of people who act like this throughout their lives, but it does seem to be particularly prevalent among the elderly. I wonder if it is a developmental function of age, or a financial thing?
The complex was another baroque one, built around 300 years ago. It had a beautiful library, with a globe from those days:
Europe is in the middle, and you can see Arabia to the right.
There was a baroque ceiling too, with some people colourfully levitating:
I don’t normally go for the baroque, since it seems to take itself terribly seriously (and for other reasons I explained in Innsbruck), but in this case it was so incredibly over-the-top that the effect actually worked, all that shimmering gold blasting consciousness through the realms of mere cupidity and on into elevation of spirit:
The dome was enhanced by having hundreds of delicate flowers descending from it on long threads:
Another one of those ceilings:
An ornate pulpit:
And then there was this altar:
Below the standard camp baroque painting of Jesus baptising John the Baptist, you’ll see that there is a long box lying on the altar table. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that this box contains a skeleton, supposedly of a saint. It was given to the church by the Empress Maria Theresa. The problem was, though, that nobody knew who this saint was or where he was from, or even his name – so they decided to affectionately call him Friedrich. I find it very hard sometimes to get into the baroque mind…
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