Old Masters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2447

At the time of his death, Thomas Bernhard’s worldwide reputation placed him among Austria’s foremost playwrights and novelists, but his relationship with his own country was a stormy and ambivalent one. His writing won him many awards in his native country, which he never thought of leaving, but his will stipulated that his plays not be produced or his novels reissued in Austria for the duration of copyright. In much of his work, he subjects his native land to abuse so relentlessly vituperative that it becomes impossible to know how seriously he meant it, and Old Masters is no exception. In this satire, written four years before his death, Bernhard takes up his cudgel and pummels once more his favorite targets.

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His characters vent their contempt for their native land’s anti-intellectual and provincial meanness, its avarice and intolerance, its Catholic legacy and disavowed Nazi past. Nothing can satisfy them, not schools or the schoolchildren destroyed by them, not experts or laymen, not high art or trashy kitsch. They vent their spleen freely on teachers and doctors, democracy and hypocritical politicians, received opinions and metaphysics, innocent childhood and feeble old age, public bathrooms and Austrian hygiene, even Gustav Mahler and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Bernhard wants to rouse his readers from complacency and make them better than they are. His fiction attacks the received ideas that stifle thinking, including his own, and he hopes to shock his readers into a reexamination of their own beliefs. This is moralistic and demanding literature, yet when all is said and done, Old Masters reveals a surprisingly compassionate core.

What little action there is takes place in the Art History Museum in Vienna. For more than half the novel, Atzbacher stands observing his old friend and mentor Reger, seated in front of Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man (which is reproduced on the cover). For thirty years, Reger has occupied the same settee, three mornings a week, but never two days in a row, and the devoted museum guard Irrsigler has always kept the seat available. The ideas that come to Reger there are processed into music criticism for his column, written in the afternoons once he has moved on to his table at the Ambassador cafe.

Atzbacher, who regularly meets his friend in the museum, arrives early this day, wondering why they are meeting when they met just the day before. Looking on from the next room, he recalls Reger’s earlier diatribes (as well as his own miserable childhood) and ponders the mystery of his summons, a break from habit that startles him enough to create a bit of mystery.

Before readers discover the reason for the meeting, a tour group goes through the museum, Reger leaves his seat and returns, Irrsigler buys Reger a newspaper, Atzbacher punctually joins his friend on the settee to hear further abuse of Austria, and finally the two men depart from the museum. This meager action and lack of plot are enough for Bernhard to delve into serious themes and touch on strong emotions.

Atzbacher, from whose point of view the action unfolds, is a witness figure, common in Bernhard’s fiction. A man younger than Reger, he is a loner and a perfectionist who is never satisfied enough with his writing to publish any. Reger likes him because he is punctual, well-mannered, and attentive, and he looks to Reger as a father figure. In general, he serves less as a character than as a necessary audience, registering the older man’s views with little comment. Nor is the loyal Irrsigler more than a comic figure who loves the monotony of his job and his guard uniform that has solved his clothing problem.

Only Reger stands out as a character of any depth. Little physical description is given other than his age, eighty-two, and the mention of a black hat and walking stick, but his voice dominates the novel. After a life devoted to ideas, he has an opinion on everything; it is invariably negative, and he is never hesitant to express it at great length.

At first, he seems to be only a bitter curmudgeon and unbearable egotist, using people for the attention they provide. Over the course of the novel, during which he hardly takes a breath between diatribes, he becomes more sympathetic as the causes for his pain and depression emerge. Interspersed in his love-hate ravings about Austria and art are accounts of a sister lost to an early death and a wife lost to institutional negligence. His monologues are so full of contradiction and unhappiness that finally nothing is certain except that Reger is less a monster than a tortured soul.

Like Atzbacher, the proud Reger realized early in life that Austrian society and the Catholic church kill everything natural in people. Unable either to conform or to rebel outright, Reger could only “sneak off” into the art, but he soon lost all illusions about its purpose and value. He rejected the perfectionism that has paralyzed Atzbacher, who at least has the honesty to admit that although he can never achieve the goal, he will not compromise it with imperfect work. On the other hand, Reger discovered that the old masters, the famous artists whose paintings hang around him in the museum, were not at all honest. In fact, they were “enthusiasts for lies” who sold themselves to state and church.

For Reger, as for Bernhard’s protagonists in general, the central fact of existence is the inevitability of death and the certainty of oblivion awaiting all works of humanity. The truly human is flawed and fragmented, but the old masters, corrupted by the patronage of state and church, obscure this reality behind images of ideal beauty. Their art promises transcendence, escape from humanity’s hopeless situation through either beauty or religion. This is a delusion and a mockery, and in Reger’s eyes, these so-called masterpieces hardly differ from kitsch, trashy art that panders to a taste for cheap sentimentality and easy diversion. Even the highest art presents a falsified model of the world that passes for truth only because people have stopped examining it critically.

One of Reger’s longer anecdotes concerns an Englishman who has a perfect copy of the White-Bearded Man and wonders which version is the authentic one. The question of authenticity can only be irrelevant or pernicious because the true worth of any painting, original or not, arises from the access it provides to human experience. Furthermore, a perfect copy, exact in every detail, can only be made of something imperfect and so is far less a forgery than the original, which fails to copy nature accurately.

It is not art per se that Reger attacks but the system that turns works into commodities to be used to marshal and deceive public opinion. This perversion of purpose reached its highest expression in Austria during World War II under the Nazis, whose brutal idealization of so-called Aryan culture allowed Austrians to blind themselves to the crimes committed against the Jews and others. In all Bernhard’s work, the legacy of those crimes lives on as a cancer eating away at society.

In Bernhard’s fiction, no Austrian can really escape a Nazi (or Catholic) past, but the honest ones can resist conformity and order by embracing individuality and chaos. Society promulgates the idea of progress, of humankind’s evolution toward perfection, to control its citizens and rein in unwanted behavior. In the arts, false standards, reinforced by institutions such as the Nazi Party and even the Art History Museum, serve mainly to prevent artists such as Atzbacher from opposing the interests of the state. Furthermore, such standards isolate and separate people by denying the true, if ugly, basis of human existence.

To counter all of this, Reger must assert and define his identity, even if only through bursts of invective and self-hatred. These expressions of anger and pain, though often mistaken or exaggerated, reveal far more about the human condition than does the work of the old masters. Reger is more admirable than is Atzbacher, whose obsession with perfection makes it impossible for him to depict life, much less live his own.

This is not to say that Reger is likable, but he tries to be honest, the main standard by which people and art should be judged. Unfortunately, his honesty long ago soured his appreciation of everything. A self-styled critical artist, his basic philosophy is that “The human mind is a human mind only when it searches for the mistakes of humanity.” He cannot help seeing the flaws in the old masters’ work any more than he can stay away from the museum. Reger does not object to the flaws so much as to society’s effort to blind itself to them with an unquestioning reverence for old masters (whether artists or Nazis, priests or parents), but finally all art becomes trivial and ridiculous. There is bitter comedy in the failure of the old masters to live up to their fraudulent perfection, but “In the end we no longer take any pleasure in art, any more than in life…as progressively we have lost our naïveté and with it our stupidity.”

Losing that “stupidity” hurts because it is so necessary to happy existence. When Reger first saw through the pretensions of the old masters years before, he despaired of art and almost of life. Then he met, in front of the White-Bearded Man, the woman he was to marry. She did not like the painting, for reasons never given, in keeping with the book’s teasing ambiguity. When Reger talks about his wife, who is never named, it is difficult not to imagine him as a proud, self-absorbed tyrant, trying to reshape her in his own intellectual image and making her accompany him to the museum every day. He is redeemed by his overwhelming grief when she dies, revealing the depth of his love and the extent of his humanity.

Some of this emotion is channeled into anger at the bureaucratic bungling and negligence that led to her death and literally stripped him of his better half, a role often taken by women in Bernhard’s fiction. More shattering, however, is the anger he feels after investing so much of himself in her; his guilt for having taken her for granted and then outliving her only increases his despair at being abandoned.

Reger, who had put all of his hope in his wife—“the whole of art or whatever, is nothing compared to that one beloved person”—is devastated when love proves to be as disappointing as art. Anxious to follow his wife into death, Reger sinks into a terrible depression only to find that his will to live is greater than his despair. This is the paradox that the novel finds at the heart of existence: Survival is as inexplicable and elemental as death. Reger rages against the world and people, yet he cannot leave either, any more than he can stop coming to visit the old masters, whose works provide some power to console him after his wife’s death. Reger is stuck in this web of contradictions and paradoxes that gives life its mystery and this novel both its comedy and its hope.

Reger says, “Anything that is said sooner or later turns out to be nonsense, but if we utter it convincingly, with the most incredible vehemence we can muster, then it is no crime.” Even though everything is flawed nonsense, it reveals the basic helplessness of humans that both embarrasses and inspires Reger. Reger (and probably Bernhard) cannot help turning to art for solace: It may be delusion, but it is heartening to know humans persist in their effort to impose meaningful form on chaotic existence despite the repeated fakes and failures of the old masters. Although all the paintings in the museum are flawed, Reger continues to sit in front of the White-Bearded Man without ever explaining its flaw or its appeal. The two are too closely intertwined to distinguish.

Although dealing with serious themes, the novel, far from somber in tone, is one of Bernhard’s most accessible. Some of his techniques may appear daunting at first, such as the lack of paragraph breaks and his heavy reliance on rigid framing devices—Atzbacher looking at Reger looking at the Tintoretto, for example, or Atzbacher recalling Reger’s account of what the Englishman said to Reger years before about one copy of the White-Bearded Man in front of another. The subtitle, however, is accurate—this is a comedy. At the deepest level, the comedy derives from human idiocy in the face of death, but everything Reger says about the bleakness of existence and the faults of his compatriots is taken to the extreme. As Reger himself admits, anything examined too closely and at too great a length becomes ludicrous, so the more he rants, the more darkly humorous his exaggerations become.

As the abuse mounts, Bernhard’s style becomes so obsessively repetitive that it casts a nearly hypnotic spell on the reader. Almost every page provides a taste of Bernhard’s lyrical play of ideas and phrases in compulsive variation, perhaps a reflection of his early musical training. In some passages, his anger becomes so convoluted, especially in attacks on Austria’s cultural heroes, that all pretext of rational argument is dropped. He takes off in dizzying flights of personal abuse. Bernhard’s genius lies in his ability to make all of this humorous while revealing the pain and vulnerability that underlie it. It is his sensitivity and sympathy that are the most surprising, in light of his unsparing depiction of human foibles. Reger says at one point that he has sat before the White-Bearded Man all these years only for the lighting and ideal temperature. The book suggests that the underlying appeal of the painting is its straightforward depiction of a man.

At the book’s end, it turns out that all Reger wanted was to ask Atzbacher to ac- company him to a play, despite their professed contempt for the theater. This resolution, unexpected after all the misanthropic ranting that comes before, makes its simple but poignant point: Despite everything, people are not alone. Written in memory of an older woman who was Bernhard’s lifelong mentor and friend, Old Masters provides fitting tribute to her as well as to the power of friendship to lighten the painful burden of human existence.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXVII, November 1, 1992, p. 115.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, September 27, 1990, p. 40.

The Observer. July 16, 1989, p. 43.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, October 19, 1992, p. 72.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 15, 1991, p. 20.

Old Masters

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

There is so little plot in this short novel that the reader may not realize how much the book contains till it is set aside. The narrator, Atzbacher, stands in a museum watching Reger, an bitter old musicologist, who is seated in front of Tintoretto’s WHITE-BEARDED MAN (reproduced on the front cover). The museum guard Irrsigler comes and goes, a tour group passes through, and Atzbacher sits down next to Reger, who finally asks him to go to the theater. This minimum action serves as a frame for Atzbacher’s reflections and Reger’s diatribes on his past and the many evils of Austrian society and culture. We learn about personal tragedies, but the book is predominantly a meditation on art — and its abuse.

Reger attacks every aspect of the anti-intellectual meanness of his Austrian compatriots, but he professes no love for art either (while returning regularly to the museum). The old masters, the famous artists whose paintings hang around him, were corrupted by the state to serve its purposes instead of faithfully depicting the central fact of man’s existence, namely death. The reality of death is denied by both kitsch, trashy art pandering to cheap sentimentality, and the old masters, who lied in the service of state and church bent on total social control. Honest people like Reger can only protest bitterly and then fall back on simple human friendship.

Though dealing with serious themes, the novel, far from somber in tone, is one of Bernhard’s most accessible. Some of his techniques may appear daunting at first, such as the lack of paragraph breaks and his heavy reliance on rigid framing devices, but the subtitle is accurate; this is a comedy. At the deepest level, the comedy derives from human idiocy in the face of death, but everything Reger says about the bleakness of existence and the faults of his compatriots is taken to the satirical extreme. The more Reger rants, the more darkly humorous his exaggerations become.

The novel’s low-key resolution, with its reaffirmation of human companionship, is simple but surprisingly hopeful after the much-deserved fulminations that precede it.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXVII, November 1, 1992, p. 115.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, September 27, 1990, p. 40.

The Observer. July 16, 1989, p. 43.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, October 19, 1992, p. 72.

The Times Literary Supplement. February 15, 1991, p. 20.

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