First published in 1985, Thomas Bernhard’s penultimate novel is a bitter indictment of what is widely considered ‘great’ European culture, particularly his native Austria’s relationship with it. It is set on a single day at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, where academic Atzbacher first recalls conversations with 82-year-old Times music writer Reger, who has sat for several hours on the same bench before Tintoretto’s White Bearded Man almost every day for thirty years, and then discusses the death of Reger’s wife.
With an epigram from Kierkegaard (‘The punishment matches the guilt: to be deprived of all appetite for life, to be brought to the highest degree if weariness of life’), Old Masters is deeply misanthropic but it is far from humourless. Subtitled ‘A Comedy’, it stands out within Penguin’s Central European Classics series, being the only one from a nation that never came under Soviet control: Bernhard targets the Habsburg Empire’s deeply conservative heritage, and the ‘Catholic National Socialist’ education system that upholds it, part of a line barely broken by the Anschluß, the collapse of the Third Reich and the establishment of the neutral Second Austrian Republic.
Vienna prides itself on its nineteenth century music, art and writing, and the values embodied within them. Reger systematically demolishes these, firstly by asserting that ‘perfect art is intolerable’ as it renders any further creativity stagnant – thus it is necessary to find faults with the most exalted works (‘even Mozart’ whose compositions were famously frictionless). Aware that having been placed within the museum, these old masters have been divorced from their original contexts, Reger then considers the impurity of their commissions: ‘All these painters were nothing but utterly mendacious state artists pampering to the vanity of their clients, not even Rembrandt is an exception’.
Albrecht Dürer is described as ‘that dreadful proto-Nazi’ who ‘put nature on his canvas and killed it’: Reger’s recollections are full of assaults on Germanic cultural icons. Bernhard’s novel is didactic, with many points italicised for emphasis and heavy repetition of key ideas. This is often humorous, with Reger’s loathing of art historians and curators serving as a comic motif, before page after page is devoted to Reger’s hatred of celebrated Austrian writer, poet and painter Adalbert Stifter, and then Heidegger, whom he despises even more. Then, Reger reveals that he is related to both, and his contempt for the pillars of Austrian culture and his self-loathing become inextricable.
‘Vienna is quite superficially famous for its opera, but in fact it is feared and detested for its scandalous lavatories’ says Reger in one of Old Masters’ most noted, and notorious observations. Increasingly, Bernhard looks behind Austria’s grand appearances, and the cultural concerns of its intellectuals, gradually showing how the apparently joyless Reger has been affected by his wife’s death – he suggests that examining anything too closely will destroy it, telling the reader (and reviewer) to ‘beware of penetrating into a work of art’ for ‘you will ruin each and every one for yourself, even those you love most’.
Bernhard’s view of culture remains pessimistic throughout: Old Masters suggests the question of whether or not there is too much great art (Stendhal, writing 150 years earlier, noted that the succession of Renaissance works in the Louvre made him dizzy) or none, as everything is flawed, but ultimately decides that it does not need to be answered. The crux is that ‘great’ art fails us when we most need it: Shakespeare, Goethe and Michelangelo are too distant to alleviate our worst points of human despair, as Reger finds out when grieving for his wife, whose death he blames on the failings of the state which has devoted so much time and money to the preservation of its culture.
There is very little action in Old Masters, with virtually all of its revelations told rather than shown – Bernhard relies on the sheer force of Reger’s voice to keep his readers engaged. With its weariness about the ‘surfeit of art’, it feels akin to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, where Antoine Roquentin feels overwhelmed in part by the prevalence of physical objects, and Elias Canetti’s Auto da fé, in which Peter Kien, a philologist and private library owner who is destroyed after marrying his ignorant housekeeper, who tricks him out of his home.
It is strange, however, that amidst Reger’s disdain for Austria’s cultural tradition, the Modernists are completely absent: Robert Musil and Franz Kafka, the German Expressionist painters and playwrights, the Dadaists and the Vienna Actionists, all reacting strongly against the staid heritage that Reger loathes, never feature in his consciousness as an alternative. This is despite his nod to Walter Benjamin, that astute critic of the modern period, noting that mechanical reproduction has allowed mankind to put music everywhere, diluting its power as an emotive force.
Thomas Bernhard died four years after the publication of Old Masters. In his will, he forbade any further publication or performance of his works in Austria, a decision that troubled the nation’s intelligentsia more than the scathing attacks on its culture here and in Extinction, his final novel. It is no surprise that Bernhard’s novels were more popular outside his homeland than within it, given the vigour with which they targeted its key institutions and individuals, but by implication, Old Masters powerfully unmasks the proud cultural heritage of any Western European nation that became involved in the atrocities of the twentieth century.